Saturday, July 13, 2019

Book Review: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman (audio)

I took a fair amount of Art History in high school and college, and my mother and two sisters all majored or have graduate degrees in it, so I thought I knew about Vincent Van Gogh. He's not an obscure or unusual artist, and he has a memorable life story. So I wasn't sure what I'd get from this book--maybe just fleshing out what I knew.

Turns out, a lot of what I thought I knew was inaccurate. Van Gogh did not just sell one painting in his life, to his brother. He sold at least a half dozen paintings. And none of them to Theo exactly--Theo was an art dealer. Theo sold most of the paintings for Vincent. So that's wrong.

And their back story is even more interesting than I'd known. Their father was a minister and while he set them up in their careers (Vincent was also supposed to work as an art dealer), he didn't anticipate that the moral high ground he'd raised them with would result in both brothers, in their twenties, having long-standing relationships with prostitutes. I don't mean they were frequenters of multiple prostitutes. I mean they each met a young woman, fell in love, and thought they could "save her." They lived with these women, and Vincent even helped raise his girlfriend's child. Neither relationship worked out in the long run though.

Theo moved to Paris first and what I found utterly fascinating was how he was writing to Vincent, in words, what the Impressionists' paintings looked like, trying to convince him to use a lighter palette with more color, and so Vincent's very different post-Impressionistic style was largely a result of him trying to be more like the Impressionists, who he'd never seen. (He did later but his style was pretty well set by that point.) Then Vincent started having mental health issues. He seems pretty bipolar but it's hard to diagnose these things after the fact from afar. In Paris he became roommates with Paul Gauguin, and apparently there's an interesting alternate theory about him cutting off his ear, which sounded pretty plausible to me (Gauguin had a bad temper and was a master fencer and brought his swords to their apartment, hmm....) Theo finally married a woman he'd loved for many years who had initially spurned him but unfortunately, his past caught up with him, and he soon fell ill and died. I had hoped, knowing that Vincent died young, that Theo would live a long life promoting his brother's art, alas.

This book really brought this artist and his brother to life. I think the only reasons it's classified as young adult is the length, and the prostitutes. But heck, I think not only can more mature younger kids read it, but adults can most certainly get a lot out of it. I sure did!

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I listened to this eaudiobook via Overdrive/Libby through my local library. The print book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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