Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

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Henry Holt and Co. 2017

Vincent loves capturing the turbulence of a storm. ‘There’s something infinite about painting,’ he tells his brother. ‘I can’t quite explain--but especially for expressing a mood, it’s a joy.’”

“Starry starry night

Flaming flo’rs that brightly blaze

Swirling clouds in violet haze

Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue.

Colors changing hue

Morning fields of amber grain

Weathered faces lined in pain

Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.

Now I understand what you tried to say to me

And how you suffered for your sanity

And how you tried to set them free.

They did not listen

They did not know how

Perhaps they’ll listen now.”

--Don McLean, “Vincent” (1971)

I’m long familiar with Vincent Van Gogh’s more famous paintings, and I’ve wandered around the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I recall that something bad happened with one of his ears. And I once saw Don McLean perform “Vincent” in concert. So this book about Vincent and Theo Van Gogh caught my eye.

I love reading nonfiction, but lacking  a keen interest in painters, dead or alive, I needed some motivation for delving into 400+ pages about this particular one. By the time I’d read this description on page 5, I was hooked on the story:

Vincent and Theo Van Gogh look a lot alike: They both have red hair, though Vincent’s is redder, Theo’s more reddish blond. Vincent has freckles; Theo does not. They are both medium height--around five feet seven--but Vincent is broader, bigger; Theo slighter, thinner. They have pale blue eyes that sometimes darken to greenish blue. They are definitely brothers.

But they couldn’t give more different impressions.

Vincent in his workman’s clothes spends his day painting, outside if it’s not too cold, or inside the apartment. He is covered with Parisian soot and grime, overlaid with splatters and splatters of paint: ochre, brick red, orange, lemon chrome, cobalt blue, green, black, zinc white.

He doesn’t bathe often, which is typical for a nineteenth-century man, but it’s even less often than he should. He stinks--of body odor, dirt, food, paint, turpentine, wine, and tobacco. He usually has a pipe in his mouth, though he has very few teeth left, and those that are left are rotten.

And yet Vincent looks healthy: he’s robust, sturdy, and vehemently alive. Passion pours from him, as if the world he’s trying to capture is inside him, bursting to come out.

Theo is tidy, well dressed in a suit, looking very much the proper Parisian businessman. His features are finer, more refined. He would be handsome if he weren’t so sick: he’s thin and pale; he looks as though the life is being sucked out of him. He feels that way, too.”

VINCENT AND THEO is a dramatic, amazing, and well-told true story. Author Deborah Heiligman presents it in short chapters, 121 in all. The chapters are grouped into a series of fourteen “galleries.” Reading the chapters, one after another after another, is reminiscent of moving through a maze of rooms, reading the captions of works in an exhibit. In place of paintings, readers encounter haunting, exceptionally visual descriptions of incidents in Vincent’s and Theo’s lives, including many that inspired Vincent’s paintings. The events depicted in the story and the style in which it is written are both compelling.

There’s a richness to VINCENT AND THEO that results from the author’s use of primary source materials--letters written by Vincent and Theo..  The story is framed by the relationship between the brothers that was cemented in a pact between them on the cusp of adulthood:

“They will always walk together. They will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life, and meaning in art. Together they will achieve lives filled with a purpose. And they will, when needed, carry each other’s parcels.”

One thing that is quite interesting is that Vincent Van Gogh, who was born into a family with extensive art world connections, did not initially exhibit a particular aptitude for making art.

I think back to childhood friends who excelled in drawing and painting. Grown up, they weren’t necessarily able to make a living with their art except, perhaps, as teachers. But if anyone was going to make it, it would have likely been them. I imagine artists to be like jocks: they show promise and they compete in high school and then in college. Through a combination of talent and motivation, the handful who will move on to engage professionally reveal themselves..

In contrast, we see Vincent in his mid-twenties, struggling to perfect the essentials of drawing and perspective, a man who doesn’t sound as if he’s as gifted as some of the budding artists I knew as a teenager. But Vincent sees things differently. Once he hones his skills, can express on paper and canvas what he sees in his head, and becomes exposed to the work of the Impressionists, he’s on his way to immortality.

It’s difficult not to see this tale as a tragedy. There are near-constant struggles faced by the brothers. Vincent had so little time between perfecting his techniques and dying in his thirty-seventh year. Theo barely survives Vincent, succumbing at thirty four.

VINCENT AND THEO provides vivid images of western Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In addition to extensive, well organized front and back matter, the book contains eight glossy pages that show  eleven of Vincent’s works.

This is a truly notable piece of YA nonfiction.

464 pages   978-0-8050-9339-1   Ages 14 and up

Recommended by;  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

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