Lust for Life is the classic fictional re-telling of the incredible life of Vincent Van Gogh. “Vincent is not dead. He will never die. His love, his genius, the great beauty he has created will go on forever, enriching the world… He was a colossus… a great painter… a great philosopher… a martyr to his love of art. “ Walking down the streets of Paris the young Vincent Van Gogh didn’t feel like he belonged. Battling poverty, repeated heartbreak and familial obligation, Van Gogh was a man plagued by his own creative urge but with no outlet to express it. Until the day he picked up a paintbrush. Written with raw insight and emotion, follow the artist through his tormented life, struggling against critical discouragement and mental turmoil and bare witness to his creative journey from a struggling artist to one of the world’s most celebrated artists.
Aptly titled “Lust for Life,” the book covers the short painting career of Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh, who became an artist after failed stints as a teacher and minister. He was 27-years-old. Stone’s principal references were the hundreds of letters exchanged between Vincent and his chief patron, his brother Theo. Luckily, these correspondences survive.
Initially, the artist’s somber palette: dark earth tones, lots of browns, mimicked the other Dutch painters. But at the encouragement of his brother, Vincent moved to Paris and discovered the brighter hues being used by the Impressionist artists. Van Gogh’s palette and subject matter brightened as well, but it wasn’t until he moved to sunny Arles, to paint the bright fields of the countryside that the struggling painter hit his creative stride. He also embraced the color most associated with his work: yellow.
“As the summer advanced, everything became burnt up. He saw about him nothing but old gold, bronze and copper, covered by a greenish azure sky of blanched heat. There was sulphur yellow on everything the sunlight hit. His canvases were masses of bright burning yellow. He knew that yellow had not been used in European painting since the Renaissance, but that did not deter him. The pigment yellow oozed out of the tubes onto his canvas, and there it stayed. His pictures were sun steeped, sun burnt, tanned with the burning sun and swept with air,” Irving Stone writes.
Most of van Gogh’s best-known works were produced during his time in the French countryside. He produced masterpiece after masterpiece as Stone writes:
“Every morning Vincent arose before dawn, dressed, and tramped several kilometers down the river or into the country to find a spot that stirred him. Every night he returned with his finished canvas, finished because there was nothing more he could do with it. Directly after supper he went to bed.
“He became a blind painting machine, dashing off one sizzling canvas after another without even knowing what he did. The orchards of the country were in bloom. He developed a wild passion to paint them all. He no longer thought about his painting. He just painted. All his eight years of intense labour were at last expressing themselves in a great burst of triumphal energy. Sometimes, when he began working at the first crack of dawn, the canvas would be completed by noon. He would tramp back to town, drink a cup of coffee and trudge out again in another direction with a new canvas.
“He did not know whether his painting was good or bad. He did not care. He was drunk with colour.”
Vincent’s frenzy certainly must have led to creative exhaustion. Although van Gogh only painted for ten years before committing suicide in 1890, he managed to create an enormous body of work, more than 2,000 pieces, including 900 paintings and roughly 1,100 drawings and sketches.
An oeuvre that is today worth billions of dollars, while he died more or less penniless with only his brother Theo to mourn his passing.
Stone’s novel is a good initial peak into the artist’s remarkable struggles.
The song ‘Vincent’ by Don Mclean ally summarises the book.