Vincent van Gogh, acclaimed as one of the greatest artists of all time, created 900 paintings.
He sold exactly one during his lifetime.
His most famous painting, Starry Night, was created in a mental institution.
At one point, he tried to kill himself by eating paint.
In Lust for Life, Irving Stone brilliantly paints the portrait of this tortured soul.
Starving artist? Check.
Passionate artist? Double check.
Misunderstood artist? Triple check.
Tempestuous artist? Quadruple check. (In his time, one art critic proclaimed him to be a lunatic.)
Before dedicating himself to art and falling into spells of debauchery and madness, Vincent tried the decent life of becoming a minister of the cloth, but his empathy for the poor led him to live among peasants, renounce earthly possessions and start his own unapproved congregation, which got him thrown out by the church.
Obviously, since the book is based upon the life of a man who lived in the 19th century, Stone had to imagine dialogue that would convey this uncompromising personality, as when Vincent upbraids his employer in an art gallery:
"How can a man spend his only life selling very bad pictures to very stupid people?" - Van Gogh, 'Lust for Life'Click to tweet
But in writing his novel, Stone had an enormous resource to draw upon. Vincent wrote more than 800 letters, most of them to his dear brother Theo, an art dealer (what irony) who saved every letter. Stone was even fortunate enough to interview Dr. Gachet, a friend of Vincent's. One hundred years after Vincent's death, his portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million.
Another portrait of a physician friend, Dr. Rey, was so unliked that the doctor's mother used it to patch a chicken coop. Today, the painting resides in Moscow's Pushkin museum, valued at $50 million.
Of course, Vincent's fame also rests on being the artist who cut off his own ear. Or, as some aver, fellow painter Paul Gauguin sliced off just the earlobe with a fencing sword during one of their frequent arguments. In either case, Vincent gave it to a prostitute.
As for Vincent's attempts to find love within approved society, they were continually spurned. At one point, he confronted the father of his first cousin, placing his own hand in the flame of a lantern and demanding to see her for as long he could hold it there.
Despair, degradation, rejection, lapses in and out of madness. None of it stopped Van Gogh from perfecting his art while throwing himself into human relationships with all the passion he put into his canvases.
Van Gogh essentially was a human supernova, flaring hot as he burned for love, friendship and recognition until extinguishing himself at age 37.
In short, he had a lust for life. Perfect name for this book.
BONUS: Vincent’s own words from letters to his brother:
“I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”
* * *
“What am I in the eyes of most people–a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then—even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody has in his heart.”
* * *
“It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill—it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.”