From childhood on, Vincent van Gogh was repeatedly described as “strange.” Though he learned to draw early—instructed by his mother, as were his five siblings—he wasn’t a prodigy in anything but loneliness and alienation. In their thorough, moving Van Gogh: The Life (Random House, $40), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pollock biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith present afresh the tormented history of one of modern art’s most distinctive and beloved painters. But during his life van Gogh was estranged from his family (including, for long stretches, his famous correspondent, brother Theo); failed at school; at his uncle’s art shops in The Hague, Paris, and London; at teaching and preaching, and, seemingly, at life itself. He came to art only in his late twenties, devoting the last decade of his life to it. Everything he’d attempted before that informed his work, however, and the authors skillfully reveal the deep roots of such quintessential van Gogh images as the sower, the starry night, and the solitary walker.
Stieglitz’s most famous relationship was with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. My Faraway One (Yale Univ., $39.95), edited by Sarah Greenough, lets the pair tell their own story—or at least the first part of it, reproducing examples of their correspondence from 1915 to 1933 (Stieglitz died in 1946). Presenting some 650 out of 5,000 extant letters, this collection documents a life-long attachment that began as a mutual appreciation for each other’s work, grew into a love affair, a marriage, a divorce, and a rekindling of affection. It gives fascinating insight into the lives of two of the 20thcentury’s most creative people.