An expert’s guide to Vincent van Gogh: five must-read books on the Dutch artist

All you ever needed to know about the artist, from the story of the ear incident to the definitive biography and best picture book—selected by van gogh specialist martin bailey.

Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait as a Painter (1888) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait as a Painter (1888) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

best biography van gogh

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“Van Gogh’s letters are by far the most interesting of any artist”

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It can be hard to know where to begin when reading up on an artist as famous and revered as Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), especially with so many myths surrounding his relatively short life and career. “There have probably been more books published on Van Gogh than any other modern painter, except for Picasso,” says Martin Bailey, a leading Van Gogh expert and senior correspondent for The Art Newspaper . “But of course, Picasso’s artistic career spanned over 70 years, while Van Gogh’s was only a decade.”

Bailey has written a series of books on Van Gogh including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh's Masterpiece (2013) and  Living with Vincent van Gogh: The Homes & Landscapes that Shaped the Artist (2019). He has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and National Gallery of Scotland, and was the co-curator of Tate Britain’s 2019 show Van Gogh and Britain . His weekly blog Adventures with Van Gogh is published every Friday.

Below, Bailey has selected five books that he recommends to anyone wanting to learn all about Vincent van Gogh.

best biography van gogh

Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated

Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated edition (2009) edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker

“Van Gogh’s letters are by far the most interesting of any artist. This six-volume set with 2,164 pages and 4,300 illustrations includes the texts of 927 letters, accompanied by detailed annotations. The publication resulted from a 15-year research project by Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. It is currently out of print, but let’s hope that Thames & Hudson reprints this superlative edition. For those wanting something more manageable, a new abridged version has just been published, Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters . And the full letters are also online , with a user-friendly search facility (this is great for research, but for those wanting to read and savour the letters in sequence, books are better).”

best biography van gogh

Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Paintings

Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Paintings (2020) by Ingo Walther and Rainer Metzger

“For the art, the place to go is Taschen’s massive compilation of the paintings, with 871 illustrations (nearly all in colour). But it is best for the images, rather than the text. With 752 pages, it is great value for money, but even cheaper is an earlier edition published as a smaller-format paperback. Sadly, the scholarly, illustrated catalogues raisonnés on Van Gogh by Jacob-Baart de la Faille (1928, 1938, 1970) and Jan Hulsker (1977, 1996) are now dated.”

best biography van gogh

Van Gogh: The Life (2011)

Van Gogh: The Life (2011) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

“Another doorstopper, at 953 pages, it is the definitive biography. Two American writers have dug deep, providing a highly detailed and stimulating account of the artist’s entire life (with 28,000 footnotes available online). I add a personal proviso: I disagree with their appendix that argues that Van Gogh was shot by a local teenager, in my view it was suicide that ended his life.”

best biography van gogh

On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and his Illness

On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and his Illness (2016) by Nienke Bakker, Louis van Tilborgh and Laura Prins

“Much of the most interesting and innovative writing on Van Gogh now appears in exhibition catalogues. This one responds to the universal fascination with the artist’s astonishing personal story, including the ear incident and his early death. A lot of sensationalist material has been written on both issues, but four years ago the Van Gogh Museum set out to examine Van Gogh’s health in a serious, yet accessible exhibition.”

best biography van gogh

Van Gogh & Japan

Van Gogh & Japan (2018) by Louis van Tilborgh, Nienke Bakker, Cornelia Homburg, Tsukasa Kōdera and Chris Uhlenbeck

“Another exhibition catalogue from the Van Gogh Museum. This visually stunning show and book examine the impact of Japanese prints on Van Gogh’s work. We are now so accustomed to seeing images of global art, but to 19th century European eyes Japan represented an exotic tradition that proved highly stimulating for the avant-garde. The Japanese, in turn, became great lovers of Van Gogh as early as the 1920s. It is an exhilarating experience to look at Japan through Van Gogh’s eyes. Fresh research on this topic adds another dimension to the artist's story.”

And c oming soon…

“An English edition is due next year of Hans Luijten’s magnificent biography of Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Vincent’s sister-in-law. The book breaks new ground in explaining her role in the development of the artist’s rise to fame.”

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5 Books About Van Gogh You Have to Read

Errika Gerakiti 21 May 2020 min Read

best biography van gogh

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

Vincent van Gogh is one of those artists whose reputation precedes them. The tormented child of the art, the cursed artist, the madman, the genius, the weird, or the eccentric are only a few of the labels that describe him. Today, Van Gogh is one of the most famous and most loved painters worldwide. His impact on art is huge. Here, we suggest five books about Van Gogh. These are great reads if you are interested in learning about the personal life of the artist, but also how he viewed his life and his artistic evolution.

1. The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles

From October to December 1888, Van Gogh and Gauguin lived under the same roof in Arles, a French suburb. They had an exceptionally creative time together. They gave each other feedback and made some of their most distinguished works. However, Van Gogh bent under the pressure of cohabitation, and the crisis of his mental illness became very severe. He fought with Gauguin which is how he came to mutilating himself.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow House (The Street), September 1888, Credits: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

The author of this book is Martin Gayford, who is a known art critic. One might expect that he would use stilted language, but that is not the case. The Yellow House is pure literature. It gets inside Van Gogh’s psyche and makes you understand all about his state of mind. If you read this book, you will either fall in love with Van Gogh, or you will want to hug him and tell him that he’s not alone. In our opinion, it is one of the best books about Van Gogh.

You can check this book here .

Cover of the current edition of the book. Books about Van Gogh

2. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

What is a better way to learn about Van Gogh than reading his personal letters? This next book that we recommend is a selection of them. The letters narrate his personal story and artistic evolution. You will read about his relationship with religion, his unsuccessful effort to find love, and how he coped with the attacks of his mental illness. Aside from the popular belief that Van Gogh was a madman, this book proves he had great emotional and spiritual depth.

Also, the Penguin Classics’ edition links the letters to biographical details and gives insights to the events of his life. It is a very interesting book drawing in every art historian and everyone who loves Van Gogh.

Cover of the current edition. Books about Van Gogh

3. Van Gogh: Complete Works

Taschen is famous for its artistic series, and this book is a great addition. It is a catalog of Van Gogh’s 871 paintings , all in color! It also provides a detailed monograph on his life. In addition, it shows how the artist was so much more than his depression and anxiety and how he struggled for recognition.

You can check this catalogue here .

Cover of the current edition. Books about Van Gogh

Barbara Stok created a graphic novel that narrates Van Gogh’s life in Arles. The illustrations are beautiful and vivid; however, the art is sometimes shocking when depicting his mental illness. Nevertheless, it is moving and will bring you to tears.

You can check this graphic novel here .

Cover of the graphic novel.

5. Van Gogh: The Life

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith cooperated closely with the Van Gogh Museum for this book. Van Gogh: The Life brings to light previously unknown information about the artist’s life, his relationship with his brother Theo, and the mysterious circumstances under which he committed suicide. In addition, the book is a New York Times bestseller and nominated one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and the BookReporter.

Cover of the current edition.

In May, we collaborate with the Van Gogh Museum! Don’t forget to scroll our DailyArt App and see the featured pieces!

10 Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portraits You Need to Know
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the Van Gogh Museum

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best biography van gogh

Errika Gerakiti

Errika has a master's degree in Modern and Contemporary History and dreams of becoming a curator. She writes articles about modern and contemporary art, fashion, and cinema. In her free time, she sculpts and paints miniatures and reads books.


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Chicago Public Library

Top Picks: Van Gogh Books

best biography van gogh

Van Gogh is so beloved that tickets to many dates of Immersive Van Gogh Chicago , a multimedia exhibit, have already sold out.  

Want to learn more about the man who painted Sunflowers, Starry Night, and The Bedroom--or simply take in the beauty of his art? These books are a few of my favorites.  

Although he began painting relatively late and died of probable suicide at 37, Van Gogh had a tremendous work ethic and left behind 871 paintings. You can see them all in Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings , which takes you from his early, dark paintings of laborers to his colorful experiments in pointillism through his stark, foreboding wheat fields. There’s so much more to Van Gogh than the hits. Personal favorites include The Sower and The Poet's Garden . (The Poet's Garden is one of nine Van Gogh paintings owned by the Art Institute .)                       

While nothing compares to seeing Van Goghs in person, browsing Vincent Van Gogh: A Rizzoli Quadrifolio comes close. In addition to full-page paintings, it features sixteen poster-size pages so vivid you can practically smell the paint! Especially haunting is Portrait of the Artist, with its dizzying swirls of blue.  

Van Gogh’s struggles, his determination to paint in spite of rejection, his lack of critical and financial success, and his often debilitating mental illness are painstakingly documented in Vincent Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. This 900+ page biography is an excellent choice for completists, although its depiction of the artist is somewhat unsympathetic. 

A more likeable, often endearing Van Gogh emerges in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh . Earnest, passionate, often frustrated and, no doubt, frustrating, Van Gogh was also eloquent: “It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things.” 

For an explosion of beauty in a deceptively small package, check out Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye or, as I like to call it, The Portable Van Gogh. It features striking reproductions, the essentials of his biography, anecdotes from his contemporaries, letters, and historic photographs, including the artist as a dour thirteen-year-old.

For children’s titles about Van Gogh, check out Evelyn's blog post Peeking into Van Gogh's Bedroom . 

What’s your favorite Van Gogh? Tell us in the comments!

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best biography van gogh

5 Books About Vincent Van Gogh for His 165th Birthday

Born March 30th, 1853 in Zundert, The Netherlands, Vincent Van Gogh took his first breath in the wake of an impossible legacy, lived a tortured life, and died before he had an opportunity to see the world acknowledge his genius. For all of that, his 37 years have proven a gift to humanity and, in acknowledgment of his 165th birthday, I wanted to share his life, work, and words with all of you, with these books about Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh: The Life  by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White-Smith

Now considered the definitive biography of Van Gogh, written in partnership with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Naifeh and White-Smith had access to materials no previous biographer had the opportunity to study. They have made the larger-than-life Vincent human and accessible without diminishing the historical and artistic presence of Van Gogh one whit.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers  by Deborah Heiligman

While I’ve understood the  concept of “creative non-fiction” intellectually for some time, I’ll admit I never quite understood how it could be successfully executed until reading Heiligman’s lovely, if tragic, biography of the Van Gogh brothers. Based on the letters between Vincent and Theo, Heiligman creates vignettes carefully grounded in the words of the men themselves while allowing for a certain amount of closely researched narrative. The effect is the literary equivalent to one of the moving photographs from Harry Potter and just as magical. Geared toward young adults, it’s an excellent introduction to the artists and his family while also being thoroughly engaging for adults with foreknowledge of the subject.

Vincent  by Barbara Stok

Though presented in graphic novel format, this account of Van Gogh’s time in Provence is frank and intense, covering subjects ranging from the artist’s battles with mental illness to his sometimes painfully obsessive relationships (both romantic and sexual), to his tumultuous interactions with fellow artists such as Paul Gaugin. Simple, gorgeous, and sometimes visually shocking, this is an affecting portrayal of Van Gogh that touched and surprised me, as well as, at one point, bringing me to tears. Proceed carefully if you’re particularly sensitive to color shifts and visual portrayal of mental illness.

Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters  by H. Anna Suh

As she did with Da Vinci, Suh has chronologically matched Van Gogh’s paintings with snippets of his letters, allowing insight into what Vincent was thinking and feeling, and what was occurring in his life, as he created his works. The text and art are printed side by side, allowing the reader/viewer to experience them simultaneously, giving her the sensation of standing beside Vincent, or perhaps Theo, listening as the artist or his best beloved family member lectures on the genesis of each work. The book is oversized, which presents more detail in each of the lovely reproductions and a more intense viewing experience.

Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings  by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger

Few artists are as honest about their growing pains as Van Gogh was. He struggled to find his style and palette, craving recognition while, at the same time, expressing openly how much he still had to learn and how hard he worked to create. While some of his self-deprecation was certainly due to depression and anxiety, there is so much more to Vincent than his mental illness, as there is to all creators who wrestle with altered neurochemistry and circumstance, and paging through his work, through his progression, not only gives insight into the man himself, but hope to creators of all sorts.

So, happy birthday, Vincent. Though you’ll never know how much your work has meant to us, we will continue to celebrate it, and you.

[Ed. Note: The post has been fixed to reflect that it’s Van Gogh’s 165th birthday]

best biography van gogh

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10 Best Novels About Vincent Van Gogh

Novels About Vincent Van Gogh

I love reading novels about Vincent Van Gogh because he is my favourite painter of all time. I love impressionism the most; it gives me great pleasure looking at impressionist paintings, and I have a good collection of Van Gogh paintings at my house (replicas, of course!). But, Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t just a great painter; he was a great man as well. His short life is extraordinary, and his death is still a curiosity among many. So reading novels about Vincent Van Gogh is always a pleasure.

Novels About Vincent Van Gogh

On this list of novels about Vincent Van Gogh there are only ten books because although there are loads of non-fciton books about him, there aren’t much novels about Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve read many of them and I must say they all made me love Vincent Van Gogh a lot more. I hope you’ll find a book to your liking and explore more about Vincent Van Gogh. If you like reading about art in general, you may like this as well: Books About Art & Artists . Enjoy!

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew - Susan Fletcher

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

A much-loved book among novels about vincent Van Gogh. Provence, May 1889. The hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole is home to the mentally ill. An old monastery, it sits at the foot of Les Alpilles mountains amongst wheat fields, herbs and olive groves. For years, the fragile have come here and lived quietly, found rest behind the shutters and high, sun-baked walls.

Tales of the new arrival – his savagery, his paintings, his copper-red hair – are quick to find the warden’s wife. From her small white cottage, Jeanne Trabuc watches him – how he sets his easel amongst the trees, the irises and the fields of wheat, and paints in the heat of the day.

Jeanne knows the rules; she knows not to approach the patients at Saint-Paul. But this man – paint-smelling, dirty, troubled and intense – is, she thinks, worth talking to. So ignoring her husband’s wishes, the dangers and despite the word  mad , Jeanne climbs over the hospital wall. She will find that the painter will change all their lives.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a beautiful novel about the repercussions of longing, of loneliness and of passion for life. But it’s also about love – and how it alters over time. A gem among novels about vincent Van Gogh.

The Season of Migration - Nellie Hermann

The Season of Migration – Nellie Hermann

Though Vincent van Gogh is one of the most popular painters of all time, we know very little about a ten-month period in the painter’s youth when he and his brother, Theo, broke off all contact. In  The Season of Migration , Nellie Hermann conjures this period in a profoundly imaginative, original, and heartbreaking vision of Van Gogh’s early years, before he became the artist we know today among novels about Vincent Van Gogh.

In December 1878, Vincent van Gogh arrives in the coal-mining village of Petit Wasmes in the Borinage region of Belgium, a blasted and hopeless landscape of hovels and slag heaps and mining machinery. Not yet the artist he is destined to become, Vincent arrives as an ersatz preacher, barely sanctioned by church authorities but ordained in his own mind and heart by a desperate and mistaken spiritual vocation. But what Vincent experiences in the Borinage will change him. Coming to preach a useless gospel he thought he knew and believed, he learns about love, suffering, and beauty, ultimately coming to see the world anew and finding the divine not in religion but in our fallen human world.

In startlingly beautiful and powerful language, Hermann transforms our understanding of Van Gogh and the redemptive power of art among novels about Vincent Van Gogh.

Sunflowers - Sheramy Bundrick

Sunflowers – Sheramy Bundrick

A love story among novels about Vincent Van Gogh. A young prostitute seeking temporary refuge from the brothel, Rachel awakens in a beautiful garden in Arles to discover she is being sketched by a red-haired man in a yellow straw hat. This is no ordinary artist but the eccentric painter Vincent van Gogh—and their meeting marks the beginning of a remarkable relationship. He arrives at their first assignation at No. 1, Rue du Bout d’Arles, with a bouquet of wildflowers and a request to paint her—and before long, a deep, intense attachment grows between Rachel and the gifted, tormented soul.

But the sanctuary Rachel seeks from her own troubled past cannot be found here, for demons war within Vincent’s heart and mind. And one shocking act will expose the harsh, inescapable truth about the artist she has grown to love more than life.

Leaving Van Gogh - Carol Wallace

Leaving Van Gogh – Carol Wallace

In this riveting novel, Carol Wallace brilliantly navigates the mysteries surrounding the master artist’s death, relying on meticulous research to paint an indelible portrait of Van Gogh’s final days—and the friendship that may or may not have destroyed him. Telling Van Gogh’s story from an utterly new perspective—that of his personal physician, Dr. Gachet, specialist in mental illness and great lover of the arts—Wallace allows us to view the legendary painter as we’ve never seen him before.  In our narrator’s eyes, Van Gogh is an irresistible puzzle, a man whose mind, plagued by demons, poses the most potentially rewarding challenge of Gachet’s career. One of my faves among novels about Vincent Van Gogh.

Finding Vincent - Les Furnanz

Finding Vincent – Les Furnanz

Vincent van Gogh committed suicide in 1890, and his brother, Theo, died soon thereafter. His widow, Johanna, was left with many paintings and the desire for Vincent’s recognition. In this historical novel, Johanna hires Armand Roulin, painted by Vincent in Arles, to research the artists and villages of France where Vincent lived. Along the way he becomes attracted to a young woman in Auvers, also painted by Vincent. Join Armand as he travels in the steps of Vincent and meets Dr. Gachet, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissaro, and other renown artists who worked with Vincent. This novella is a great follow-on to Irving Stone’s classic, “Lust for Life” among novels about Vincent Van Gogh.

The Last Van Gogh - Alyson Richman

The Last Van Gogh – Alyson Richman

Summer, 1890. Van Gogh arrives at Auvers-sur-Oise, a bucolic French village that lures city artists to the country. It is here that twenty-year-old Maurguerite Gachet has grown up, attending to her father and brother ever since her mother’s death. And it is here that Vincent Van Gogh will spend his last summer, under the care of Doctor Gachet – homeopathic doctor, dilettante painter, and collector.

In these last days of his life, Van Gogh will create over 70 paintings, two of them portraits of Marguerite Gachet. But little does he know that, while capturing Marguerite and her garden on canvas, he will also capture her heart. Both a love story and historical novel,  The Last Van Gogh  recreates the final months of Vincent’s life – and the tragic relationship between a young girl brimming with hope and an artist teetering on despair. An evocative one among novels about Vincent Van Gogh.

Lust For Life - Irving Stone

Lust For Life – Irving Stone

“Vincent is not dead. He will never die. His love, his genius, the great beauty he has created will go on forever, enriching the world… He was a colossus… a great painter… a great philosopher… a martyr to his love of art. “

One of the most popular novels about Vincent Van Gogh. Walking down the streets of Paris the young Vincent Van Gogh didn’t feel like he belonged. Battling poverty, repeated heartbreak and familial obligation, Van Gogh was a man plagued by his own creative urge but with no outlet to express it. Until the day he picked up a paintbrush.

Written with raw insight and emotion, follow the artist through his tormented life, struggling against critical discouragement and mental turmoil and bare witness to his creative journey from a struggling artist to one of the world’s most celebrated artists. My favourite one among novels about Vincent Van Gogh.

In the Full Light of the Sun - Clare Clark

In the Full Light of the Sun – Clare Clark

Hedonistic and politically turbulent, Berlin in the 1920s is a city of seedy night clubs and sumptuous art galleries. It is home to millionaires and mobs storming bakeries for rationed bread. These disparate Berlins collide when Emmeline, a young art student; Julius, an art expert; and a mysterious dealer named Rachmann all find themselves caught up in the astonishing discovery of thirty-two previously unknown paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

In the Full Light of the Sun  explores the trio’s complex relationships and motivations, their hopes, their vanities, and their self-delusions—for the paintings are fakes and they are in their own ways complicit. Theirs is a cautionary tale about of the aspirations of the new Germany and a generation determined to put the humiliations of the past behind them. An interesting one among novels about Vincent Van Gogh.

Vincent - Barbara Stok

Vincent – Barbara Stok

The turbulent life of Vincent van Gogh is a constant source of inspiration and intrigue for artists and art lovers. In this beautiful graphic biography, artist and writer Barbara Stok documents the brief and intense period of creativity Van Gogh spent in Arles, Provence. Away from Paris, Van Gogh falls in love with the landscape and light of the south of France. He dreams of setting up an artists’ studio in Arles – somewhere for him and his friends to paint together.

But attacks of mental illness leave the painter confused and disorientated. When his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin refuses to reside permanently at the Yellow House, Van Gogh cuts off part of his ear. The most notorious event of art history has happened – and Van Gogh’s dreams are left in tatters. However, throughout this period of intense emotion and hardship, Vincent’s brother Theo stands by him, offering constant and unconditional support. Stok has succeeded in breathing new life into one of the most fascinating episodes of art history. A beautiful graphic novel among novels about Vincent Van Gogh.

Vincent Van Gogh - Jennifer Veall

Vincent Van Gogh – Jennifer Veall

A children’s book among novels about Vincent Van Gogh. Vincent van Gogh was born in the Netherlands and today is one of the world’s best-loved painters. But during his lifetime, Van Gogh struggled to find fame and fortune through his art, making very little money from his paintings, which now sell for millions of dollars.

This book tells the story of Van Gogh’s life through his own artworks, and shows how he came to create some of the most famous paintings in the world, including the  Sunflowers  and  Starry Night . Learn about the importance of brotherly love, his struggle to find the right path and the lasting impact he had on the history of art in this book that brings his work to life.  A Van Gogh masterpiece is featured on every spread. This art story also includes a closer look at 10 of Van Gogh’s masterpieces at the back.

Check out my other lists about books!

Are there any novels about Vincent Van Gogh you’d like to add to this list? Would you please share in the comments section below?

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Van Gogh: The Life

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976 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 2011

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  1. An expert's guide to Vincent van Gogh: the five best books on the

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  4. 5 Books About Vincent Van Gogh for His 165th Birthday

    Now considered the definitive biography of Van Gogh, written in partnership with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Naifeh and White-Smith

  5. What book is the best biography of Vincent Van Gogh?

    The very, very best is Van Gogh himself, in his collected letters. I have a three-volume set published by Abbeville Press, but I think there are smaller edited

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    In the end Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith is an absolutely extraordinary and astonishing book. Without question, this is the most

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