The short and tragic life of Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) forms the basis of one of the most pervasive myths in the history of art. The story of the impoverished artist who lives in obscurity is an archetypal one. What magnifies its power—and poignancy —is that the artist’s genius is “discovered” by society only after his untimely death. That this was the actual tale of Vincent van Gogh should not stop us from being leery of the haze such a story can generate. And in the case of van Gogh, the haze is dense. He was, after all, a character of uncommon intensity: not simply destitute and gifted, but psychologically troubled. Add to this mix self-mutilation, illness, suicide, and a revolutionary artistic moment and one has the makings of a saga that not only Hollywood can appreciate, but the rest of us as well.

Van Gogh was a character of uncommon intensity: not simply destitute and...

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