Saturday, June 28, 2008

Meet "My" Vincent

"One and the same person may furnish motifs for very divergent portraits." -Vincent to his sister Wil, June 1888

Dealing with a historical character in a fictional way--whether in writing, film, or other medium--presents a big challenge. How to stay true to that person, how to give that person a believable voice. Van Gogh makes for a particular challenge: he's famous, but most famous for certain things (cutting off part of his ear). How to introduce this 'famous' person in a new way? I did not want to succumb to cliché, and I did not want his illness to be the center of the story, even though by necessity it's a large part of it. Lonely, tormented, grouchy, crazy Vincent--that's been done before. I wanted to share with readers--just like I try to share with my students in class--the Vincent I've gotten to know, who may be lonely, may be ill, but just like anybody, has other sides too.

Above my desk I have prints of two of Vincent's self-portraits, and each pertains to the Vincent I wanted to write about in "The Sunflowers." One dates from Feb 1888, just before he left Paris for Arles, one of two that presents him as a working artist. The popular image may be a crazy Vincent slapping paint on canvas in fits of delirium, but the truth couldn't be further from that. He was a diligent, dedicated artist, mostly self-taught, who never stopped trying new things, even to the end. He had a tremendous knowledge of art history and drew on those influences (Rembrandt and Japanese prints were favorites), and again contrary to myth, engaged frequently with other artists of his generation and counted them as friends (Toulouse-Lautrec, Bernard, Pissarro, Gauguin to name a few). Vincent's innovations in art have often been overshadowed by his illness--indeed, some of his innovations *explained by* his illness, when they should be attributed to his talent and willingness to take risks. "Starry Night" doesn't look the way it does because he was "crazy." It looks the way it does because of him *as artist.*

The other dates from autumn 1886, about 5 or 6 months after Vincent arrived in Paris, when he's still using a darker Dutch color palette. This is my favorite of the self-portraits: there's something about the eyes, an expressiveness, even a vulnerability, that draws me in. (Hence my disappointment when it was not on view at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag...) That's another point I wanted to explore: too often the illness obscures the man in the popular imagination of van Gogh. He has fallen into cliché. But people might be surprised to find the Vincent revealed in his letters: the one who proclaims, when madly in love with a woman, "I feel energy, new wholesome energy in me, as anyone experiences who truly loves." The one who writes to Theo how he's made a "nest" for Sien Hoornik, his live-in partner, "so that she can feel I have thought of her when she comes into a house with flowers in front of the window where she will sit." By the time Vincent went to Arles, he'd more or less given up on the idea of love, but when he was younger, his romantic dreams are strong. And it's not just about love: Vincent has this reputation of being surly, but he was optimistic more than pessimistic, even about his illness, and he possessed a idealistic view of the world. Even at his most melancholy in his letters, he looks for things to bolster him, his art if nothing else. There were periods in his life where he was quite happy, Feb-Nov 1888 being one of them, when he began to feel settled in Arles and ever more confident in his work. I didn't want a gloomy Vincent stalking the pages of my story when he was not perpetually gloomy, and I didn't want to focus on the dark and dreary. I wanted some sunshine in the story too -- not for nothing did Vincent paint those explosively sunshiny Sunflowers in August 1888. Sunflowers have the lovely quality of turning to follow the sun (the Greeks had a myth about that, which I'll share sometime), even when it is cloudy. So did Vincent.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


The Hague-period van Gogh drawing I posted about a little while ago sold yesterday at Sotheby's Amsterdam for 108,750 Euros (that's hammer price plus the buyer's premium). The estimate was 50,000-80,000 Euros.


Since I started blogging in November, I've been surprised how easy it is to make new friends in cyberspace -- folks that share one's interests and passions. Today I'd like to give a shout-out to Julianne Douglas at Writing the Renaissance and Catherine Delors at Versailles and More for their kind announcements of the publication of The Sunflowers. Both are historical fiction writers: Julianne's writings and blog are steeped in the French Renaissance, and Catherine is the author of recently published Mistress of the Revolution. Catherine's blog just won a Blog Award of Excellence: congratulations!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Some Very Novel News

I am thrilled to announce that my novel inspired by the art and life of Vincent van Gogh, The Sunflowers, will be published with Avon A--the trade-paperback imprint of Avon/HarperCollins--in Fall 2009. (Yaaaaaaaay!)

The Sunflowers is the story of Rachel, the prostitute in Arles famous to history as the girl to whom Vincent gave a rather grisly gift the evening of 23 December 1888. Sources tell us little about her: who was she? How did Vincent know her? Was he only her customer, or was there something else? The story begins with their meeting in July 1888 and continues until August 1890, covering the last two years of Vincent's life and the period when he created some of his greatest paintings. I started writing it in June 2006, after a trip to Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise, first as a bit of a lark...then I got serious! This is my first fiction publication, as up until now I've been solely a writer of things academic and scholarly.

Without turning this into an acceptance speech--I'll save that for the acknowledgment page!--I would like to thank my family and friends who have supported me on my journey and helped me find my voice; my agent, Barbara Braun, for finding my story a home; and the folks at Avon for giving it one. I am enormously excited, and I look forward to sharing the journey toward publication with readers of this blog. I'll be creating an author website in the months to come, so stay tuned!

[I should have illustrated this post with "Sunflowers," I suppose, but instead I chose "Oleanders" of August 1888, which shows not only Vincent's optimism and joyful spirit at that point in his life, but also his love of books. It's in the Met.]

Friday, June 20, 2008

Stormy Weather (Part Two)

As promised, a second storm-themed painting from Vincent's oeuvre, this one from the end of his career, indeed, the end of his life. "Wheatfield under Thunderclouds," also known as "Wheatfield under Clouded Sky" (among other titles), was likely painted between July 6 and July 10, 1890, only a few weeks before Vincent's death in Auvers-sur-Oise. You can see the difference in color scheme between this painting and "View of the Sea at Scheveningen" that I posted earlier in the week, the latter influenced by the Hague School and Vincent's exposure to Dutch art generally, this painting showing the vibrant colors Vincent adopted later in his career (and for which he's most famous). "Wheatfield under Thunderclouds" shows a tendency toward abstraction, too, and makes admirable use of the so-called "double-square" (50 x 100 cm) format, which Vincent used for the first time while in Auvers. This is by no means VIncent's first use of the wheatfield motif: wheatfields and activities associated with wheatfields (sowing, reaping) attracted him from the very beginning of his artistic career and followed him to the very end. For Vincent, the wheatfields were a metaphor for the cycles of life and death, and the motif exemplifies the latent spirituality present in many (if not most) of van Gogh's paintings.

If you visit Auvers-sur-Oise today (I didn't forget I was going to do some Auvers-themed posts too), you can wander the wheatfields Vincent painted, although it's impossible to pinpoint the spot in this exact painting. Up on the plateau above the town, the fields stretch for miles under the sky, and it's easy to feel the sense of infinity Vincent tried to capture in this picture. The painting itself is in the Van Gogh Museum, and although one can say this about every van Gogh painting, the textures and colors are so much more vibrant in person than they are in a photograph.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Speaking of Scheveningen

Since I brought up Scheveningen in my earlier post, here's a travel-tip for anyone who might visit The Hague: last summer, in a daytrip to the city, I visited the Panorama Mesdag between visits to the Mauritshuis (where lives the girl with the pearl earring) and the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (the city's modern art museum). The Panorama Mesdag is one of about thirty 19th-century 360-degree cylindrical paintings surviving today (another of the 30 is in my growing-up-town, Atlanta=the Cyclorama), this one done in 1881 by the Hague School artist, Hendrik Willem Mesdag. The painting had just been completed when Vincent moved to The Hague, and he admired it so much he mentioned it in a letter to Theo. Restored not long ago to its former glory, the Panorama Mesdag is a treat for the eyes: the subject is the fishing-village of Scheveningen as it looked in 1881, and the perspective is such that you'd swear you could walk right into the painting. The panorama is housed in a cylindrical room: you climb some stairs into it, and it's as if you're under a wooden beach-shelter, looking around you at the village and the sea. To add to the realism, the floor in front of the painting is covered with sand, etc. and the painting itself is slightly tilted. You can spot the Panorama Mesdag in Robert Altman's film "Vincent and Theo"; Altman filmed a scene with Vincent, Sien Hoornik, and Sien's daughter there.

Vincent's early style, as seen in "View of the Sea at Scheveningen," was very influenced by Mesdag and the other artists of the Hague School. While in The Hague, you can see examples of Hague School paintings at the Museum Mesdag (operated by the Van Gogh Museum, unfortunately I did not make it here) and also at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. The Gemeentemuseum also has a few van Goghs, but don't count on them being on display. I searched for them all over the building and was so disappointed not to find them (including my very favorite of the selfportraits) that I had to console myself with gooey chocolate cake at the Gemeentemuseum's excellent cafe.

Stormy Weather (Part One)

The rainy season in Florida has begun. It's amazing: the faucet gets turned off around October/November, we get minimal rain for months, then creak! The faucet gets turned back on in early summer, and every day somebody's dodging popup thunderstorms. The sea-winds decide who gets them, and if it's you, get ready for a soaking and a spectacular sound-and-light show. Not for nothing is Tampa Bay called the Lightning Capital of the World.

In honor of rainy season, I thought I'd post a couple of Vincent's storm-themed paintings, one from the beginning of his career, one from the end. Today's piece is "View of the Sea at Scheveningen" from August 1882, not long after Vincent ventured from only drawing into painting with oils. It's a small canvas (34 x 51 cm), one he intended as practice, not to be shared outside his studio. In fact, he left it behind, along with others, after leaving his parents' home in Nuenen in 1885. It made its way to the art market after his death, and eventually, to the Van Gogh Museum. (But see below...)

Vincent wrote to Theo about this and another seascape: "...I've gone out to Scheveningen several times to have a look at it [the 'angry storm' system attacking the Netherlands]. And brought back two little seascapes. There's quite a bit of sand in one already; as for the other, I had to scrape it off completely twice beause of the amount of sand that had gotten into it--it was really storming and the sea had almost reached the dunes. The wind was blowing so hard I could barely stand or see through the whirling sand." Typical Vincent, to brave the elements for a painting. (He would later put up with mistral in Provence best as he could.) When the Van Gogh Museum curators x-rayed "View of the Sea," they found sand imbedded in the surface layer of paint, testimony to Vincent's description of his experience.

I’d tell you to look for this painting at the Van Gogh Museum, but you can’t—it was stolen in December 2002 and has yet to be recovered. In early 2003, the museum was offering a substantial reward for information leading to the safe recovery of this painting and the other stolen in the same theft (“Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen”), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the offer was still good. Give ‘em a call if you see it.

For more on this painting, see the excellent catalogue, "Vincent van Gogh Paintings, Volume I: Dutch Period, 1881-1885, Van Gogh Museum," eds. Louis van Tilborgh and Marije Vellekoop (VGM, 1999), cat. 2, pp. 36-42.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day!

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there, especially my own Dad and my brother-in-law, Adam, "da-da" to my precious nephew Anthony.

In honor of Father's Day and Anthony's newfound walking accomplishments, here is Vincent's painting "First Steps," done in January 1890 while Vincent was staying in the asylum at Saint-Rémy and just before his own nephew was born. But it's not van Gogh's original composition: he created this painting based on a photograph of Jean-François Millet's earlier painting, "First Steps," which Theo had sent him back in October. Vincent was a great admirer of Millet's work, and not having models to work from in the hospital, creating paintings after prints was a way for him to still explore the human figure. He compared himself to a musician, adding his own interpretation to works 'composed' by artists before him. Because the prints he worked from were in black-and-white, his interpretations were all about the color. The original squared-off photograph of "First Steps" that belonged to Vincent is today in the Van Gogh Museum; the painting is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Memento Mori or Just a Joke?

David Sedaris's new book features a cover image that most people wouldn't immediately recognize as a van Gogh: "Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette," undated but attributed to Vincent's stay in Antwerp in the winter of 1885-86. Sedaris became fascinated with the image--more accurately, a postcard of the image--during a trip to Amsterdam (the painting is in the Van Gogh Museum and is fairly small at 32 x 24.5 cm).

"Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette" is a perfect example of the pitfalls of art historical analysis. Vincent doesn't mention it in his letters, so we have nothing from his own voice to help us interpret the painting. It's virtually unique in his oeuvre, with only two other paintings and one drawing using skulls as a motif (from the same period). What was he trying to say? There have been many interpretations, many stemming from hindsight of Vincent's troubled later life or from awareness of his difficult circumstances at the time (while in Antwerp he was experiencing poor health). It's definitely not an anti-smoking message, for Vincent was an avid smoker until the day he died (although he preferred his pipe over cigarettes). Was Vincent influenced by 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings, in which skulls serve as a "memento mori," a reminder of mortality? Was Vincent commenting on the fragility of life and the passage of time?

The Van Gogh Museum curators present what I think is the most convincing interpretation: it's just a joke. The choice of a skeleton was likely inspired by Vincent's classes at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts; skeletons were used to teach students about anatomy and give them drawing practice. But Vincent was hardly a dutiful student: both his letters and anecdotes from others record that he sparred with his drawing and painting teachers and was scornful of conservative academic practice. His time at the Academy lasted only weeks; he felt he was learning nothing and later proclaimed academic training "damned boring." Taken from that perspective, "Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette" could be read as a thumbing-of-the-nose at "the establishment."

The van Gogh of myth is a serious, troubled soul. But the "real" Vincent had a sense of humor that you can find if you look closely: sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes playful, sometimes wicked. "Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette" seems to be an example of the latter.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Little Teaser

Today's online New York Times provides a teaser-article about the upcoming MOMA/VGM exhibition "Colors of the Night." Curator Joachim Pissarro says the show includes about 40 works: paintings, drawings, letters, and books van Gogh owned that illustrate his fascination with the theme of "night." The article mentions a few of the paintings which will be shown--"Starry Night," of course, plus Yale's "Night Café," "The Potato Eaters" from the VGM (what a coup!), "Gauguin's Chair" and the "Sower" also from the VGM, "Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon" from the Kröller-Müller Museum, and--be still my beating heart, for I love love LOVE this painting and never tire of seeing it--"Starry Night over the Rhône" from the Musée d'Orsay. We can add to this teaser-list some paintings listed on the Kröller-Müller Museum website as going out on loan for the show: the Dutch-period "Woman with a Broom" and "Head of a Woman," "Lane of Poplars at Sunset," and their summer 1888 "Sower." The KMM's gorgeous "Country Road in Provence by Night" is, alas, only going to the Van Gogh Museum version of the exhibition. I guess the KMM's famous "Café Terrace at Night" is not in the show, which seems a striking omission to me. Oh well, I rode a bike through a national park to see that painting last year!

"Colors of the Night" opens in New York on September 21st and runs through January 5th before heading to Amsterdam. I'm so there.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Blog Makeover

I must be in a procrastinating mood to spend time figuring out how to insert a picture in the header and then pick one out. But voilà! Instant makeover!

The header picture is a detail from Vincent's May 1888 "View of Arles with Irises" (I've cut the irises, which are at the bottom of the original painting). The view is from a field in the south of town; the towers of the church of Saint-Trophime are visible in the skyline. Vincent, in writing about this painting to Theo, said: "A little town surrounded by fields all covered with yellow and purple flowers, exactly--can't you see it?--like a Japanese dream" (LT487). He loved this painting enough to write about it to his friend Émile Bernard too, saying, "What a subject, eh! That sea of yellow with a band of violet irises, and in the background that coquettish little town of the pretty women!" (B5).

This painting today is in the Van Gogh Museum--the family never parted with it. It was out on loan last year when I went to Amsterdam, and I was delighted to find it in the "Van Gogh and Expressionism" exhibition in New York later in the summer. It's one of my favorites for its colors and composition.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Up for Auction: Newly Rediscovered van Gogh

Curators at the Van Gogh Museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum recently determined this drawing, "Old Man and Woman," to be a long-lost van Gogh original, dating from November-December 1882 during Vincent's time in The Hague. The man in the drawing is actually one who posed for van Gogh on a number of occasions, an inhabitant of a local old-folks home. The drawing was acquired by Helene Kröller-Müller in 1913 from the gallery Frederick Muller & Cie in Amsterdam--the drawing is mentioned in a catalogue from the gallery's sale--and then was given as a wedding gift to a friend in 1914 (the friend's nephew is the current owner). The drawing more or less dropped off the radar and was not included in subsequent catalogues raisonnés of van Gogh's work. This exciting discovery is detailed in the February 2008 issue of Burlington Magazine in an article by the VGM's drawings curator, Marije Vellekoop. You can also read about it at the Van Gogh Museum website and at the online archive, Van Gogh Gallery. Most people who claim to have a long-lost van Gogh are sadly mistaken; this drawing's owner happened to be right. As the Van Gogh Museum website notes, this is only the eighth time since 1970 that a drawing has been added to the van Gogh corpus.

The drawing's owner has now consigned it to Sotheby's Amsterdam, where it will be up for auction on June 25th. The estimate is 50,000-80,000 Euros.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Vincent's Weavers

Julianne over at Writing the Renaissance has posted some interesting things lately about Lyon and the silk industry, so I thought I'd chime in today about van Gogh's artistic interest in professional weavers. While living in Nuenen with his parents, during a six or seven-month period (January-July 1884) Vincent made about thirty drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings of local weavers. These compositions allowed him to work on his perspective technique while exploring his interest in "peasant" subjects. As art historians have noted, however, these works present a contradiction: they possess a certain "utopian" viewpoint (Carol Zemel's word), an idealized view of peasant life, but at the same time an awareness that these men lived difficult lives in an era of increasing modernization. Van Gogh claimed to identify with these working-class artisans, but, ironically, his brother Theo gave him far more money than a Nuenen weaver would see per month. Vincent hoped his weaver pictures would find an audience among Theo's urban-bourgeois clients, but to his great aggravation, Theo thought them unmarketable.

The drawing seen here (Van Gogh Museum) dates from Jan-Feb 1884 and is one of the earliest in the series. The inclusion of a baby at right is interesting. The possible influence of George Eliot's "Silas Marner"--a book Vincent greatly admired--has been noted. But one cannot ignore the fact that only a few months before, Vincent had left his makeshift family, Sien Hoornik and her children, behind in The Hague. In his letters to Theo while living with Sien, Vincent rhapsodizes about having Sien's baby son in the house and describes how the boy toddled around his studio. Is the baby in the drawing a partial-memory of how Sien's son kept Vincent company?

The Nuenen weavers partially inspired Vincent to adopt a new technique in his explorations of color. While living in Paris with Theo in 1886-88 (and possibly earlier), Vincent used balls of wool yarn to test color combinations. A lacquered teabox filled with yarn-balls, left behind in Paris when Vincent went to Arles, today is in the Van Gogh Museum (although seldom put on display). Some of the yarn-balls are wound with complementary colors, others with closely related tones that mirror some of Vincent's paintings of that period. Even when Vincent stopped painting and drawing the weavers in July 1884, their practices stayed with him.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Van Gogh in Basel

The world's largest contemporary art fair, Art Basel, opened Wednesday, and already there's buzz. A Lucien Freud painting sold to an anonymous buyer for $12 million, reports, and none other than Brad Pitt was spotted at the fair's preview. (Brad Pitt is a huge fan of art and architecture, as I enjoy telling my students. I have a slide of him and Angelina at Fallingwater in my modern architecture survey lecture.) Zurich-based dealers Bischofberger are offering a spring 1887 van Gogh, "Vue de Paris prise de la chambre de Vincent, rue Lepic" (pictured), and according to the story, a reserve has already been placed on it. This oil-on-cardboard painting shows the view from Vincent and Theo's apartment on 54, rue Lepic in Montmartre; note the towers of Notre-Dame in the distance. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has an oil-on-canvas version of the same view. In both, you can see the influence of painter Paul Signac, with whom Vincent spent a great deal of time in Paris. Vincent is flirting with pointillism again!

I've never had occasion to go to Art Basel, but I've been to Basel itself, when I was chasing Greek pots during my dissertation research. The old town is quite lovely, and there are a number of museums. The Antikenmuseum has a crackerjack antiquities collection and is worth a visit. The Kunstmuseum, which features post-antique art, also has a fantastic collection. They own a few van Goghs and a few others are on long-term loan, including the Auvers canvas "Daubigny's Garden." Among their own van Goghs is "Marguerite Gachet at the Piano," which was sold to the Kunstmuseum by Marguerite and her brother Paul in 1934 (not the first van Gogh sold from the Gachet collection, but the first sold to a museum).

The Kunstmuseum Basel is hosting a major exhibition of van Gogh landscapes from 26 April through 27 September 2009. Check out their website at

Monday, June 2, 2008

Rest In Peace, Monsieur Laurent

The world has lost a great fashion icon: Yves Saint Laurent, who died Sunday at the age of 71.

Art inspired YSL on many occasions, as in his famous Mondrian-themed cocktail dress (pictured), and, in his 1988-89 collection, embroidered pieces harkening to van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and "Irises" (no doubt inspired by the headline-making 1987 auctions of those two paintings).

By pure coincidence, the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal is hosting a 40-year retrospective exhibition of YSL's career from May 29 through September 28th. Read about the show here.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Starry Night in New Haven

Visitors to MOMA this summer will be searching in vain for van Gogh's "Starry Night" -- it's traveling to New Haven. In a fantastic artistic coup, the Yale University Art Gallery will showcase "Starry Night" and "Cypresses" (which belongs to the Met) in a "Visions of Saint-Rémy" mini-exhibition from June 15th through September 7th. TIckets are free but timed in order to give viewers an optimal viewing experience; you can get yours online at New Haven is an easy train ride from New York City and makes for a pleasant daytrip. The YUAG is a gem among university museums (don't forget to visit the ancient art collection!), and the very enjoyable Yale Center for British Art is across the street. And of course, the Yale campus itself is worth a stroll. If you go, I recommend the Atticus bookstore and cafe near the YUAG on Chapel Street for lunch.

It might seem odd that MOMA would part with "Starry Night" for the summer, especially when it'll be going to Amsterdam next spring for the "Colors of the Night" exhibition. I have a hunch it has something to do with YUAG's ownership of "Night Café," which surely will be a centerpiece of the "Colors of the Night" show at both its NYC and Amsterdam venues. "Night Café" is one of YUAG's treasures--it's one of two van Goghs they own--and in agreeing to part with it for several months, they must have worked out a swap. Similarly, I'd bet that some of the Yale Center for British Art's nice collection of Turners are heading to the Met for the Turner retrospective this summer, hence the visit to YUAG of the Met's "Cypresses." Nice wheelin' and dealin' there, YUAG!