There were actually two Van Gogh children named Vincent, but the first was stillborn — and given a burial not usually afforded in earlier times. Van Gogh was born a year to the date later in 1853 to parents Theodorus (Dorus) and Anna van Gogh, who went on to have five more children.
Growing up, Van Gogh was closest to brother Theodorus (Theo). His letters to Theo reveal much of what Van Gogh biographers know of the man and artist known to most for painting “The Starry Night,” cutting off a portion of his own ear after years spent in and out of hospitals and asylums, and dying from a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound.
I say “supposedly” because Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Pulitzer Prize winning authors of “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” postulate in their latest book that Van Gogh died at another’s hand. Their “Van Gogh: The Life,” which is dedicated to their mothers and “all the artists of The Juilliard School,” was published just last year.
It’ll hold special interest for parents and teachers who plan to explore a “Van Gogh Alive” exhibit opening Monday, Feb. 13, at the Arizona Science Center. The multi-sensory exhibit, created by Grande Exhibitions in Australia, uses light, sound, movement and color — and runs through June 17.
The book is a scholarly but accessible work that breaks Van Gogh’s life into three periods — the early years (1853-1880), the Dutch years (1880-1886) and the French years (1886-1890). Chapter titles signal some of the book’s strongest themes — “A Strange Boy,” “God and Money,” “Orphan Man,” “A Grain of Madness,” “The Poet’s Garden” and “Two Roads.”
“Van Gogh: The Life” includes dozens of illustrations and color plates. My favorites show Van Gogh at age 13 and age 18. We forget too often that famous artists were once children and teens, and Van Gogh’s story makes an especially compelling case for the balance of nature with nurture in human and artistic development.
Family life in Van Gogh’s day was dramatically different in many ways from our own, though remarkably similar in others. Family meals were a must, and reading was a daily occurrence for those fortunate enough to count themselves among the literate.
Seems Van Gogh took an early interest in both poetry and fairy tales — especially the works of Hans Christian Andersen. One favorite, Andersen’s “The Story of Mother,” is a dark tale — not surprising when you consider Van Gogh’s conflicted feelings for the mother he was both supremely attached to but unable to please.
Van Gogh fared no better with his father, a Reverend disappointed by his son’s troubles with staying in school and making a decent living.
I wondered, while reading “Van Gogh: A Life,” how many family conflicts resulted from perceived differences between parent and child — and how many from unrecognized similarities.
The book explores both its subject and the surrounding society, and reveals much about parenting a child in Europe during Victorian times. Their parenting instruction materials were quite different than our own.
Calvinist principles, for Protestant families like the Van Goghs, weren’t applied with today’s finesse. Patriarchal families began exploring more democratic models after the French Revolution inspired folks to think in less hierarchical ways.
Still, it’s the little boy named Vincent that I returned to again and again while reading “Van Gogh: The Life.” It’s easy to picture the young Van Gogh reading and writing with great fervor, taking long nature walks alone or with brother Theo, learning to draw and paint from his mother, collecting things like bird eggs and wildflowers.
Note: Click here to explore the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam
Coming up: There’s a rap for that!