Comparing Lives

Issues of Balance in Biographical Writing

in French Politics, Culture & Society
Author: Belinda Thomson
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This article praises the methodology used by Debora Silverman in her book Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, in particular her exhaustive exploration of the two artists' religious and cultural formation, seeing this as a long-overdue reinstatement of the value of what are inescapably and quite properly biographical concerns. Silverman's book demonstrates that, taken over the long term, such considerations, far from being extraneous to and distractions from the works of art, offer valuable new ways of explaining them. The author considers the usefulness of applying a similar model to a different artistic pairing, the relationship between Gauguin and his first mentor and teacher, Camille Pissarro, and sees good reason to suppose it would yield similarly illuminating results. Considering the issue of comparative studies more generally, however, the author perceives certain dangers in allowing their built-in imperatives and momentum to skew the researcher's findings. She illustrates this point with two examples of ambiguous documents that point up the potential for over-eager biographers to find significance in every chance piece of data and to force connections for the sake of the overall pattern.

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