Cover image for The glory of Van Gogh : an anthropology of admiration
The glory of Van Gogh : an anthropology of admiration
Heinich, Nathalie.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Gloire de Van Gogh. English
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1997.

Physical Description:
xiv, 218 pages ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1520 Lexile.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
N6953.G63 H4513 1996 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The image of the great artist as a suffering visionary is a recent invention, observes sociologist Nathalie Heinich--an invention rooted in the "canonization" of Vincent van Gogh as a cultural hero for the twentieth century. Heinich explores how and why the impoverished and mentally tormented van Gogh came to be glorified shortly after his suicide at the age of 37. Did the secular art world need a rebel-saint of its own? In considering this possibility, the author explores the history of efforts to celebrate van Gogh, whether in biographies or on T-shirts, showing how the details of his life have been constructed according to the pattern of a Christian saint's rise to recognition. These biographical details circulated first as anecdotes, then as historical truths, and finally became legendary motifs defining individual greatness.

At the time of van Gogh's death, early modernists hailed the work of this self-taught painter as that of a reforming prophet. Public interest stirred when the unique and tragic aspects of the artist's personal life came to light. In these stories, the figure of Van Gogh oscillated between godlike asceticism (he lived on very little, did not get married, did not eat much, and devoted his life to his work) and demonic frenzy (he drank, he went to brothels, and offered a piece of his own flesh, his severed ear, to a prostitute). His legend became one of victim and sacrificer, of an accursed artist who gave the world great paintings but paid the heavy price of society's ignorance.

Heinich organizes her book around the stages that characterize the life of a saint-deviation, renewal, reconciliation, and pilgrimage, the latter culminating in visits to van Gogh's burial site and the competition to buy his paintings or "relics." Heinich explores the economics of the art market and the themes that make up the van Gogh myth, such as the personalization of artistic grandeur, the celebration of the interiority of the creator, and the glorification of abnormality. By examining the mythology that helps drive artistic investment, she forces us to reconsider the nature of admiration and particularly the notion that obscurity during an artist's lifetime is a guarantee of true genius.

Author Notes

Nathalie Heinich is a sociologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

The work of sociologist Heinich (Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique, Paris) has already been lauded as "an excellent contribution to the sociology of culture" and a "model of creative research." Indeed, Heinich admits to abandoning the strictures of art historical, sociological, and anthropological research methodologies in order to understand how and why society transforms certain tragic personae into cultural icons. The author has chosen Van Gogh as her model of one such tragic hero who felt his work was unappreciated, who suffered physically and emotionally for his art, and who ultimately took his own life. But Heinich could have applied her approach to any number of cultural icons. Ultimately, her analysis is thought-provoking, well organized, and carefully documented with expansive research notes. Unfortunately, the vocabulary and dense prose put this book well beyond the comprehension of the average reader. Recommended for scholarly collections.‘P. Steven Thomas, Illinois State Univ., Normal (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Heinich, a sociologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, provides an "exercise" in contorted theoretical ruminations by disguising well-established ideas (see Carol Zemel, The Formation of a Legend: Van Gogh Criticism, 1890-1920, CH, Jun'81) with complicated language to mimic "originality." New terms are "invented": "the Motif of Incomprehension" (the public's lack of understanding during his lifetime) and "the van Gogh Effect" (the tendency of an artist to become popular posthumously)--neither unique to this artist. While the author's goal of aligning van Gogh's life with stages typical of sainthood (deviation, renewal, reconciliation, and pilgrimage) seems challenging, Heinich's consistent misrepresentation of art-historical fact becomes debilitating. Most important, the book is called an "appreciation" text; the title serves to attract the less-educated reader, who will be lost in jargon. There is nothing new for art historians, who will find Heinich's free adaptation and omission of archival fact maddening. (From thousands of pages of published letters, she finds a few tidbits that, when ripped from their context, fit her "sainthood" construct). This book's audience is restricted to sociologists who practice theoretical puffery. E. K. Menon Mankato State University

Table of Contents

1 From Silence to Hermeneutics: The Posthumous Making of van Gogh's Oeuvrep. 3
2 The Golden Legend: From Biography to Hagiographyp. 35
3 Van Gogh versus Vincent: The Antinomies of Heroismp. 61
4 Madness and Sacrifice: The Ambivalence of Singularityp. 76
5 Money As a Medium of Atonement: Purchasing and Redeemingp. 99
6 The Gaze As a Medium of Atonement: Visiting van Gogh's Worksp. 113
7 Presence As a Medium of Atonement: The Procession to van Gogh's Bodyp. 123
Conclusion: The van Gogh Effectp. 140
App. A. Van Gogh and Art Criticism in France, 1888-1901p. 153
App. B. Chronologyp. 169
Notesp. 171
Index of Namesp. 213