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Monday, May 22, 2017

Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

Don standing looking at a van Gogh painting of a peasant, 1888, Simon Norton Museum, Pasadena, CA.
This is what I knew about Vincent van Gogh before reading Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman: He was Dutch; he was mentally ill; he was friends with Gauguin, another artist; he cut off his ear; and he died young from suicide. I also knew that I liked his paintings, especially "Starry, Starry Night." I thought I knew that he was considered to be one of the Impressionistic artists, but apparently that label isn't quite right.

After reading the excellent book Vincent and Theo: The van Gogh Brothers I know a whole lot more about this remarkable artist and I also know who made his art possible: his brother, Theo. Without Theo it is unlikely that Vincent would have ever become an artist or his art would have never been known by the world.
Mulberry Tree, 1889, Vincent van Gogh, Simon Norton Museum

The brothers were born into a large Dutch family. The father was a Protestant minister in a predominantly Catholic country. Vincent was named for a brother who died a stillborn and was buried in the churchyard not far from their home. Theo was four or five years younger than Vincent and they had several sisters. Vincent was always moody and liked to take long walks in nature. He didn't like school and so at a relatively young age he went to work for a friend of an uncle who owned an art gallery. Vincent was a terrible employee, finally getting fired. He tried a variety of other things to support himself but none of them "took": teaching, preaching, salesman. Though he would get grandiose ideas they usually came to nothing. But coming from a close-knit family, Vincent was always acutely aware of the many ways he disappointed his family, especially his parents.

Once when Vincent was nineteen or twenty Theo came to visit him and the two brothers took a long walk which ended at a mill (windmill). The brothers pledged to support one another for life. This walk and pledge seemed to be a life-altering one for both of them. From that time forward, Theo and Vincent did indeed seem bound together, for good or for bad, until their deaths.
Roses, van Gogh, 1890, MET

After Theo left school, he too went to work in the art business but unlike his brother, Theo was a good salesman and employee. This was very lucky because without the money that Theo was able to send to Vincent, he would not have been able to survive. At some point it was Theo who encouraged Vincent to abandon his life as a derelict preacher and to begin drawing and eventually painting. Vincent, who had little formal art training, would copy out pictures from books that Theo sent him, or would draw or paint from live models, if he could afford them. He would send his work to Theo for critiques and worked hard to improve. Theo told his brother about the new art, Impressionism, and encouraged Vincent to add more color to his paintings. By 1884/85 Vincent had made to switch and was using more and more paint and bright, happy colors. His brother got very excited about Vincent's art and would submit pieces at exhibitions in Paris, and, if his boss allowed, in the studio where he worked. A few pieces sold and Vincent was starting to get some recognition in the art world.

By this time, however, Vincent's mental health was getting very tenuous. He would have good weeks and then completely fall apart. For a while a fellow artist Paul Gauguin lived with Vincent in the South of France and their relationship wasn't very healthy. It was while Gauguin was with him that Vincent cut off his ear (or was it Gauguin who cut it off?) Theo's letters and money kept Vincent anchored for a while longer but eventually Vincent had to go live in an asylum where he was allowed to paint and draw on good days. Unfortunately, Theo's health had also taken a turn for the worst. Soon after Theo got married to Jo he began coughing and feeling run-down. He continued working, he had to to support everyone, but it drained him. Both men, now in their thirties, were not long for this world. Vincent died of a gunshot wound to the gut (self-inflicted?) at age 37 and Theo died from the symptoms of tertiary syphilis six months after his beloved brother died. It was Jo, Theo's wife, who doggedly brought Vincent's art to the world and ultimately made a fortune for herself. She also was the one who published the letters from Vincent to his brother, which formed the basis of this book.
Cypress tree, van Gogh, 1889, MET

The author, Deborah Heiligman, talks about the research she did to prepare herself for writing this biography. It is worth a look, especially if you are curious about the tremendous amount of work that goes into the research for a book like this. Check it out here.

Vincent and Theo has earned six coveted starred reviews from the likes of School Library Journal, Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, etc. It will certainly be a book to watch come award season in the fall and winter. It is being marketed to teens, age fourteen and up. Weighing in at over 450 pages, it is bit longer than the average teen would like, so I doubt it will ever be 'popular' with teens. But the writing is certainly accessible and interesting. So when the right reader comes along it will be ready and waiting.

btw- In case you are wondering, Vincent's art is considered to be post-impressionism. It seems like it is splitting hairs but the post impressionists weren't as concerned about light as their predecessors.

I listened to the audiobook of Vincent and Theo from Dreamscape and narrated by Phil Fox.  Fox is a British actor but he does an excellent job with the accents, making it seem like he is Dutch himself. He pronounced Theo's name 'Tayo" and Jo's name as 'Yo'.  I enjoyed listening to it and would recommend this format, but do get a copy of the print edition of the book because the center sections contains copies of several prints of Vincent's work which Heiligman describes or references in the book.

All of the photos of van Gogh's work I took at either the Simon Norton museum in Pasadena or the Metropolitan museum in New York. What a thrill to stand in front of the work of Vincent van Gogh.


  1. Excellent review. This sounds fascinating. Definitely looking forward to trying it.

  2. Great review! I really liked the author's previous book, Charles and Emma, which was a great read. Like the Van Gogh brothers, I didn't know much about Charles Darwin either. I'm looking forward to picking this one up and even mentioning it to my art teachers.

    1. I read Charles and Emma and learned a lot, too. You will enjoy this one.

  3. I had read about Vincent and Paul getting into a fight, and Paul possibly slicing off Vincent's ear. I wish we knew the true story. Interesting and sad lives these people led.

  4. I thought this was a "heavy" adult book, but a YA version sounds like a great idea as Van Gogh is one of my favorites.


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