Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Vincent and Theo

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman (2017)

Vincent Van Gogh has always been a dramatic figure - known for his mental illness, the cutting off of his own ear, his suicide. And of course, his art. But lesser known is his brother, Theo, who was his best friend throughout his life, supported his art, and without whom Vincent would probably not ever have become an artist in the first place.

Heiligman's book focuses on this relationship, using the brothers' many letters as her primary source for the story. Although it's written for teens, she doesn't gloss over some of the more sordid details, such as visits to prostitutes, or Theo's syphilis. I appreciated this as an adult, but also as someone who doesn't think we should omit important details because we think young people can't handle them. I did notice her use of some words I certainly wouldn't have recognized as a teenager, like "crepuscular" and "bivouac," but that's what dictionaries (and the internet) are for, I guess.

The relationship between the two brothers was touching, but also genuine in its imperfection. Sometimes they were very close, sometimes estranged. But they always remained important in each other's lives. When Theo married, he explained to his wife Jo that Vincent would be central to their lives, and indeed he was. Although not an artist himself, Theo worked in the art world and devoted part of his income to supporting Vincent so he could be free to create art.

It doesn't sound as though Vincent would really have been able to support himself anyhow, what with his wild mood swings and erratic behavior. He spent some time in asylums, and there were other times he probably should have been in a more controlled environment under a doctor's care. It was quite an anguished life. Interestingly, his father wanted him to go to a psychiatric hospital in Geel, Belgium, "known for the good care and supervised freedom given to its patients." Recently, that village has been getting lots of attention for its tradition of homing mentally ill patients with residents, which it's been doing for centuries. Even when his mental health was fairly stable, he was still eccentric. He sometimes took extremely long walks - miles upon miles - which honestly sounded kind of amazing. I walk a lot, and this kind of extreme walking is kind of fascinating.

The truth about certain events isn't fully known, and Heiligman is up front about this. The incident in which Vincent lost an ear, for instance. He claims he did it himself, but there is doubt and suspicion that he may have been covering for someone. Same as with the gunshot injury that he eventually died of. He says he shot himself, but the location of the wound isn't typical of a suicide and there was speculation he may have been accidentally shot by kids and covered up because he didn't want them to get in trouble.

I should also mention there was lovely art throughout the book, including a section of many of Van Gogh's paintings. One in particular, of a windmill, is not well known but Heiligman realized it was the site of a pivotal point in Vincent and Theo's relationship, and it became the central idea of the book. The painting, called The Laakmolen near the Hague, is a watercolor that happens to be for sale right now. (In case you were looking for an extra special gift for that special someone this year.)

I'm so glad we picked this for my book group. I was never especially interested in Van Gogh's art until I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam several years ago. Considering how short his art career, he was quite prolific and the museum include many of his most famous pieces, as well as pieces by artists he was influenced by, such as Jean-Francois Millet. I gleaned some basic information about Van Gogh's life from the informational plaques at the museum, but it's great to finally read a full accounting of his life. It seemed both thorough and easy to read. I recommend it if you're interested in Van Gogh in particular, or interesting lives in general.

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