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Vincent van Gogh:
Portrait of an Artist (Book Review)

by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
144 pages with 19 color reproductions
© 2001 Delacorte Press,
an imprint of Random House Children's Books
ISBN: 0-385-32806-0
hardcover; $14.95

As the light faded, he studied the canvas. His eyes, though bloodshot and tired, did not deceive. A masterpiece, at last! A painting his brother Theo would be proud to show in Paris! After years of struggle he had captured what he called "the high yellow note," vivid color and emotion in perfect harmony.

from the Prologue, Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist

Released for younger readers, Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist has much to recommend it: well-researched text, good narrative pacing, numerous reference sections, and 19 full-color reproductions. The sympathetic narrative is easy to follow. Its thoughtful presentation conveys many of the struggles, within and without, the artist faced.

The Prologue quickly engages the reader, recreating the experience of Vincent at the height of his powers: his before-dawn departure to the fields, evading the censure of the locals, to whom he was an oddity; his day of painting in the hot sun, as strenuous as any laborer; his exhausted satisfaction with the work, the 'high yellow note' achieved in his painting Harvest of Le Crau (Arles, 1888). From there the biography continues to hit on all cylinders, presenting an interesting and sympathetic view into Vincent's life. His forays into the ministry; his turbulent relationships with the loves of his life; his equally turbulent relationships with other artists, especially the pathos of his hopes for establishing a colorist's school with Gauguin; the patient support of his parents, and his beloved brother Theo: all leap from the page in simple, straightforward writing. The book's ability to present factual data with imagination and emotion is one of its high points, encouraging a certain understanding and empathy for Vincent despite his undeniable storminess.

A quote from one of Vincent's letters opens each chapter, illuminating the mood (and, hopefully, interesting the reader in the amazing body of correspondence between Vincent and his brother), and nearly every point in the text is supported by the letters or other biographical material. As the 'story' unfolds, Van Gogh is brought into relief as a man of contradictions: a passion for learning, and obstinate bull-headedness; a man with dedication and definite goals as an artist, yet whose style found little popular sympathy at the time; longing for a family of his own, yet unable to long find relief from isolation. Vincent's disappointment in finding companionship (other than his understanding brother, Theo) is brought up as a recurring theme, and one of the most poignant chapters describes Vincent's endeavors to set up a painter's partnership with Gauguin, including his devoted preparation:

Vincent's House in Arles, the "Yellow House"
1888. Oil on canvas. 28-3/8 x 36 in.
Van Gogh Museum (Vincent Van Gogh Foundation),

His pride in the yellow house led him to spend his whole allowance fixing it up for his friend. he rushed to finish paintings, "living on twenty-three cups of coffee, with bread that I still have to pay for." He had gas lines run downstairs to light the main room so that they could work in the evenings. Frantic to impress Gauguin, he had "no time to think or feel; I just go on painting like a steam engine."

from Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist

The narrative is well-paced, and the conclusion of each chapter leaves one eager to read on. A Postscript presents a brief overview of events following Vincent's death, including the part played by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Theo's wife, who despite well-meant advice ("Jo's brother suggested she throw [Vincent's] paintings out and get on with her life.") dedicated herself to an active presentation of Vincent's works which eventually brought him, posthumously, to fame. The Postscript then brings up the popularity of van Gogh and some of the modern-day auction prices of his work. Such a link highlights both the distance from, and the connection with, Vincent's own time of the late 1800's.

In addition to the text, Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist is substantially supported as a reference. On the visual side, nineteen full-color reproductions of Vincent's works (two shown here) are included, high-quality, vibrant color plates on high-gloss paper -- a welcome visual reference, enabling one to connect the image with the title and time of creation and other details presented in the text (the circumstances under which the work was painted, Vincent's mood at the time, or his intent as an artist, for example). Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), done after the abrupt and devastating departure of Gauguin, is an appropriate choice of cover as representative of the empathetic mood of the book, and is also brought in for comment in the text:

Back at the yellow house, he painted yet another self-portrait -- a forlorn, resigned figure standing in his studio, a Japanese print in the background. With the familiar fur cap covering the top of his bandaged ear, Vincent stares out into space. "What happened?" he seems to ask.

from Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist

In addition to the lavish color plates, other references abound. A basic map of the areas in which Vincent lived and worked allows one to get a feel for his geography. A biographical time line, from Vincent's birth to Theo's death, encapsulates the events at a glance. Also included are a list of museum locations where one can view Vincent's paintings (including, of course, the Art Institute of Chicago); a glossary of artists and terms mentioned in the text; chapter-by-chapter notes, detailing the sources of material in each chapter; a bibliography; and an index. This wealth of reference makes the book an especially good starting point for someone new to van Gogh.

Harvest at Le Crau
Arles, 1888. Oil on canvas. 28-3/4 x 36-1/4 in.
Van Gogh Museum (Vincent Van Gogh Foundation),

With its value as a reference and its agreeable writing, this is an excellent book to give as a gift, for a young person (the book is recommended for ages 10 and up), and for anyone fond of van Gogh: the level of writing supports the interest of readers of all ages. In addition to its factual content, young (or not so young) artists and their parents may find a certain personal heart in Vincent's story. He racketed from job to job, from calling to calling, before coming to painting at the late age of 27; his parents gamely helped their son, though they did not understand him. By the end of the narrative one feels for Vincent, for his passion for art, his passionate desire to succeed, and the slowly growing weight of feeling misunderstood. Ultimately, he was to become famous, a household name; but in his own lifetime, despite his own inner recognition of his talent, he was an outsider, a reject, "the pastor's odd son." Any artist may well empathize.

"Most people only know three more-or-less true details about him," says the book's publisher. "He painted sunflowers, he went mad, and he cut off his ear." Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist goes beyond the popular trivia, delivering not only facts, but an opportunity to understand the turbulence and passion of van Gogh's life. A useful reference, an engaging read, Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist is well worth one's time.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. Unless otherwise identified, all quotes are from the book itself. Random House Children's Books can be visited on the Web at http://www.randomhouse.com/kids. The Art Institute of Chicago (http://www.artic.edu) is among the museums with paintings by Vincent van Gogh in their holdings.

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