Friday, March 9, 2012

Visiting Van Gogh

Remember van Gogh’s painting of the almond blossoms that I posted last week (and that appears again here at the left)?  To my surprise, it appeared on the back cover of a book that I had ordered from Amazon and that arrived this week.

The book is Theo: The Other Van Gogh by Marie-Angelique Ozanne and Frederique de Jode.  It is about Vincent’s brother Theo without whom, it is unlikely that there would be all those hundreds of van Gogh paintings.  That a painting by Vincent should appear on the cover of a book about his brother Theo isn’t necessarily surprising.  But this did surprise me because this one is far from being one of Vincent’s most famous paintings and I had just posted it on my blog.  It would have been more likely that they would have used one of the more emblematic paintings: Irises or Sunflowers, a self-portrait, or a starry night.  So finding this painting on the back when I turned the book over was a pleasant surprise and an interesting coincidence.

Van Gogh didn’t used to be my favorite painter.  If I had to choose one, it would have been Rembrandt.  What happened to change this is that about three years ago I saw the tail end of the movie Lust for Life on TV.  I had never seen it before but remembered my mother liking it, so when I saw it listed I tuned in.  It didn’t make me a van Gogh fan, but it sparked my interest in him, in part because not long before, I had visited Arles for a few days.

My previous visit to Arles and the little bit of story I saw on the television drew me in and I started reading about Vincent.  When I started to read about him and looked at the paintings that I found on the internet, I saw that I had been inspired to photograph many of the same images that he had painted.  But I didn’t know that at the time.  Then again, Arles is a small town.

I started reading through his letters to his brother Theo that I found on a wonderful site on the net.  A new book of his letters had just been published, but it was multiple volumes, beautiful illustrated with his paintings, and I couldn’t afford it.  So instead I found The Vincent van Gogh Gallery, looked at drawings and paintings, and read letters for free.  They have all the letters.  The more I read, the more van Gogh became a real person rather than a media myth.  And the more real he became, the more I liked him… and his paintings.

Since then I’ve been on a mini van Gogh quest.  If you would like to learn more about this highly intelligent, troubled, polyglot, genius, here is my reading list.  Some of the books were better than others.  They included (I read them in this order):

The Yellow House by Martin Gayford.  This is a non-fictional account of the few weeks that Gauguin spent with Vincent in Arles.  I thought it was well done and very interesting.

Sunflowers by Sheremy Bundrick.  I found this a poor attempt at historical fiction at the expense of Vincent.  In this absurd, concocted tale, Vincent is in love with the prostitute to whom he (in real life) presented with the piece of his mutilated ear.

Vincent and Theo Van Gogh by Jan Hulsker.  Hulsker is one of the leading experts on Van Gogh.  This biography explains the lives of the two brothers and provides many illustrations and parts of their correspondence.  Unfortunately it is out of print but I managed to find a relative inexpensive used copy that my (then) stepson Manuel Serge was kind enough to schlep to Spain when he came for vacation.  As I recall, the book weighs something like five pounds!  If you want to read it, look for it in your library or for a used copy.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh edited by Mark Roskill.  There are hundreds of van Gogh letters.  Roskill provides enough to give you a sense of Vincent’s life and his character.  He also says, in the introduction to my edition, that he made some revisions to the edition “as a record of my feelings towards this great artist and intensely lovable man.”  These are my sentiments too.

Lust for Life by Irving Stone.  Having seen the last bit of the movie, I thought it was time to read the book.  The story is good because Vincent’s life is a compelling story.  But I thought the writing was poor.

Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace.  This is the fictional story of the last few weeks of Vincent’s life, as imagined by Carol Wallace and told in the voice of Dr. Gachet.  Dr. Gachet was the doctor who took charge of Vincent’s care in Auvers-sur-Oise   , where Vincent went to stay after leaving the asylum in St. Remy.  It is fiction.  Although I liked it (all but the ending) when I read it, after reading the Naifeh biography later (see below) I was incensed that someone could write a novel of historical fiction and stray so far from the known facts.  I do not recommend the book and am getting rid of my copy. (If I burned books I would burn this one.  But I don’t, which makes it difficult to know what to do with it.  Pass it on to someone who will likely be misled? Or keep the public safe from it by keeping it on my own shelf?  Right now it sits on the back seat of my car where it can do no harm.)

Van Gogh: The Life by Stephen Naifeh and Geoffrey W. Smith.  This well-researched and detailed biography is an excellent source if you want to know about Van Gogh the brilliant and troubled painter and Van Gogh the brilliant and troubled man. 

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Cynthia Saltzman.  This non-fiction book is said to be well-researched and yet I found several errors in the early parts concerning Van Gogh.  I assume the rest of the story, which is really a kind of biography of the painting – who painted it, who owned it, what the world and the art world as like during the years of its existence and its travels – is correct.  I found it an extremely interesting history.

I’m looking forward to reading the new arrival, Theo: The Other van Gogh.  When you read about Vincent, Theo is always there, in the foreground or the background.  I’m very eager to learn more about this very important figure in Vincent’s life.


  1. Molt interessant tota la informació que subministres sobre Vincent. Gràcies Dvora!
    (disculpa que no hagi utilitzat l'anglès, aquest cop) :)

  2. Gracies Trini. Tu no has de utillizar l'angles. Jo sovint escric en angles en el teu posts a Facebook. Estic molt contenta que llegeixes el meu blog i que fas comments (que no es fa casi ningu!