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Van Gogh’s Ghost

A 21st Century Search for the Legacy of a Great Artist

by Ray Argyle

(A Work in Progress)

As familiar to the public as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh remains as mysterious in death as he was in life. For all the books that have been written and the films that have been made about van Gogh, his spectre still lingers, not as a threat but as an enigma.

In Van Gogh’s Ghost, Ray Argyle and Deborah Windsor take readers on their search for the 21st century legacy of this most creative and controversial figure of early modern art. Setting out to travel the path that Vincent van Gogh trod on his way to artistic immortality, they follow his life’s journey from his birth in Zundert, Holland on March 30, 1853. It is a short but tortuous trail that runs from the sombre flatlands of his home country through Belgium and England, to Paris and sun-drenched Arles in the south of France. It ends in the cheap inn of a river village close to Paris where he dies, likely by his own hand, on July 29, 1890.

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They share their excitement – and Deborah Windsor’s stunning pictures of the luminous sites in Provence where van Gogh produced his greatest works – as they stand on the soil where he set up his easel and drink of the lavender-scented air he inhaled. Somewhere along the trail of his life, they are convinced they will find evidence of a living legacy to connect the 21st century with the past – the ghost of Vincent van Gogh.

In this new appreciation of a great painter, Ray Argyle has written a book that is part travelog, part art history, part memoir. He argues that Vincent van Gogh’s undoubted mental instability has become his most noted characteristic, yet is perhaps the least significant aspect of his make-up. Depicted in literature and film as a demented, driven creature of legend, Argyle sees van Gogh as both wildly impractical and at times a coolly calculated opportunist. Van Gogh’s letters, of which nearly a thousand survive, reveal him as an accomplished writer. One who could have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, van Gogh’s great grandnephew, Willem, tells the author.

Is it possible, or fair, Argyle asks, to separate the artist from the man? As an artist, Vincent van Gogh was no primitif, but a craftsman who experimented with the most complex elements of painting – brushwork, composition, color, and form. His use of vivid colors applied with animated, almost anguished brushstrokes led to paintings the like of which the world had not seen before. As a man, he was irreverent, independent, and irascible in his words and in his actions. Was he also, Argyle wonders, an insufferable oaf, sponging off his brother, abusing his parents, and insulting his peers?

In Van Gogh’s Ghost, Ray Argyle and Deborah Windsor take readers on a pilgrimage that is both a study in artistic immortality and an absorbing travel adventure. On successive days, they dodge black bulls in the Camargue and then grieve with the French over a suicidal airplane crash a few miles from where they have been enjoying the delights of a perched village.

The author of The Paris Game, the compelling story of how Charles de Gaulle saved France in war and civil turmoil, Ray Argyle has now dissected the life of the man who towered over French post-Impressionism, told from the unique vantage of years of travel to the many places where Vincent van Gogh left his indelible marks on history.

Image: Self-Portrait (for Paul Gauguin), Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, September, 1888. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.

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