Safer: He was a wanderer, a kind of constant pilgrim. And a failure at virtually everything he did.
Safer: Failed as a preacher, failed as a son.
Smith: He couldn't find a niche anywhere. Even when he was working for an evangelical church, they found his behavior too weird. And so they just kicked him out.
From childhood, he was haunted by inner demons. Argumentative. Given to strange outbursts. A social misfit.
Smith: He basically is a man who lived to be 37 years old and never really had a friend.
Safer: He was a loner who needed company.
Smith: Desperately. That's exactly right.
Which is why he relished painting portraits. Though many were afraid of him and refused to pose, others agreed.
A shepherd in Provence. Eugen Boch, a poet. Joseph Roulin, a mailman. A fellow patient at the insane asylum. Monsieur Trabuc, the head attendant there.
Naifeh: Of all of his subjects, portraits were definitely his favorite. The reason was really less artistic than it was emotional. And that was out of his loneliness, one of his few ways to connect with people was to paint somebody.
[Smith: There are 150,000 of these cards...]
From their offices in Aiken, South Carolina, Smith and Naifeh used a small army of researchers, translators and computer experts to collect every known fact about the artist. They discovered a remarkable mind. An insatiable reader: Shakespeare, Zola, Dickens, Walt Whitman.
[Smith: This is a letter to his sister Wil that he wrote in 1888...]
An incurable letter writer, who, for all his madness, was fluent in Dutch, French, German and English. In addition to Vincent's letters, the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam gave the authors access to a trove of family correspondence never before published. Anguished letters about Vincent, the stranger in their midst.
Naifeh: Some people will be surprised at just how alienated he was from his family. And even Theo kept a certain distance from him.
It fell on Theo van Gogh - who looked remarkably like his older brother - to support Vincent financially, to be the peacemaker when the grown child, at odds with a hostile world, kept turning up on the family doorstep. Vincent first took up painting at Theo's suggestion, but concentrated on bleak, chilly scenes: winter at the family parsonage. Haggard peasants in abject poverty.
Smith: Vincent used to literally bring the paintings into the family dining room and set them in a chair so that the peasants could attend the family dinner. And that was enormously offensive to the, you know, the family thought he was crazy, literally.
He was, in short, an embarrassment to his father, the austere parson van Gogh, the man of god Vincent had once tried to become.
Safer: Throughout the rest of his life he felt guilt, or somehow responsibility for his father's death. How come?