Lust for Life (1934) by Irving Stone: A Novel of Vincent van Gogh

A Brief Summary and Review

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Irving Stone’s Lust for Life (1934) is a biographical novelization of the life of Vincent van Gogh. The novel is based on the many letters (approximately 700) written between Vincent van Gogh and his younger brother, Theo. Stone takes author’s creative license and invents dialogue, situations, etc. but many of the characters, places, and events are based on events which really happened and which were described in the brothers’ letters.

The novel spans approximately ten years, from the time van Gogh leaves home to become a missionary, to his death in Auvers-sur-Oise. Stone appropriately captures van Gogh’s temperament, as well as his passion for art, though never quite having been accepted as an artist in his lifetime, by critics or peers.

The novel is written so fluidly and vividly, that many modern readers may feel as if they are watching a film. The characters – many of them historically familiar- come to life in interesting ways. They are distinguishable from one another and are eerily true to historical impression. The fact that the work was constructed around actual biographical letters certainly helps in crafting a believable, if mostly imagined, story.

It would have been simple to present this work in epistolary form, but the beauty and connection between the reader and the historical characters is greatly enhanced by being presented in the biographical novel form.

Not only is the novel entertaining and beautifully written, but it is pleasantly informative regarding the life and works of artists such as Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Pissarro, Seurat, and Degas. It is surprising to realize just how much one learns because the “art history lesson,” so to speak, never overwhelms the story elements.

Nevertheless, the reader will learn about Seurat’s scientific/intellectual approach; Gauguin’s love of color; and Rousseau’s imagination, among other things.

The minor characters, too, such as the miners, the weavers, the peasants, and van Gogh’s many “women” are also well-crafted, – something particularly endearing about this novel, considering van Gogh himself spent his greatest energies on representing the beauty of “real” people, and not the typical interpretations of the beautiful. This is one of many ways in which Stone paid homage to the work and character of van Gogh.

Some of the issues left unresolved include the reasons for van Gogh’s madness, his bizarre and unsatisfactory relationships with women, and the fact that he seemed to have no real friends. There seems to be an element of van Gogh’s personality that might just be too complicated to imagine. Many people are said to be frightened by him, for instance, but other than a general sense of van Gogh’s mad nature, it is not entirely clear why he was so off-putting.

Upon reflection and review, it is no great stretch to argue that Lust for Life is a brilliant novel. It is well-written, and Stone makes a genuine attempt to be accurate with the topic's history and the historical figures represented.

Stone does a masterful and delicate job of re-telling the life story of one of history’s greatest and most well-known artists. Exploration of elements such as his infamous alcoholism and “smoker’s cough” were left out (there is plenty of drinking – but a “problem” is not necessarily implied) which, perhaps, Stone did not find necessary to the plot; but this might somewhat detract from the underlying problems (e.g. could being drunk have been a contributing factor when van Gogh cut off his own ear?).

Still, the language, the relevance, the relationships, the characterization and emotion are all masterfully woven. Stone makes an effort to present his characters in the manner which van Gogh would paint his own models and landscapes, an ingenious and difficult task to accomplish. As an example of biographical fiction, this is one not to be missed.