Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On This Day...

On 29 July 1890, not long after midnight, Vincent van Gogh breathed his last in an attic room of the Auberge Ravoux at Auvers-sur-Oise, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen. His brother, Theo van Gogh, was with him.

Rest in peace and sunlight, mon ami.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Keeping Up Appearances

I am happy to announce my first appearance/book-signing: Saturday 24 October at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, to be held at my lovely waterfront campus, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. I'll be giving a 30-40 minute illustrated talk on "Writing Van Gogh's World" and signing books (available for purchase at the venue). I've asked if I can speak in my teaching classroom for maximum comfort and convenience! The Festival of Reading is in its seventeenth year and is the largest such event in the Tampa Bay area. Each festival features an array of Florida and national authors, a special series of kids activities (including a storytime with local celebrities), and in general is a fantastic event to promote reading and literacy. The final schedule and lineup are not yet posted on the Festival of Reading website, but some of the author bios are (including mine), and more information will appear as the day draws close.

Especially for USFSP students, I'll be giving a talk on "Why (and How) I Became a Historical Novelist" on Tuesday November 4th as part of the Faculty In Residence lecture series. I'll sign books if students bring 'em, and I'll be giving away a copy as a door prize.

I've been invited to another Florida book fair in spring 2010, but since it's not a signed-sealed-delivered deal yet, I'd better not say which. I'll be part of a panel on debut novelists.

Luckily for me speaking in public and giving lectures is my job ... and more than that, my passion!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Elusive Vincent

The Clever Pup -- who commented on my last blogpost, thus inspiring me to go immediately to her blog -- has a good post about this alleged photograph of Vincent van Gogh. I ran across the claim myself a while ago, and for the record, I don't think it's him (neither does The Clever Pup). The person in the photograph is too old, for starters (Vincent was only 33 in 1886, the date claimed for the photograph); two, Vincent didn't like photographs in general, he didn't like his own appearance, and I can't see him posing for a professional photograph; and three, as The Clever Pup points out, Saint Hyacinthe, the home of the photographer, is in Canada. Vincent never went to Canada. For most of 1886, from March onward, he was in Paris living with Theo.

The only confirmed photograph of Vincent as an adult -- there are two of him as a teenager -- shows him from the back, sitting on the banks of the Seine at Asnières with Émile Bernard.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Summer of Love

The summer of 1888, spent in Arles, was one of the most productive times of Vincent's career -- and one of the times when he was most happy. Harvest time in June resulted in a bevy of paintings and drawings, and even when the harvest was done, Vincent roamed the countryside around Arles looking for new subjects under the sun. He loved summer "like a cicada," he told his brother Theo, and the locals must have wondered at the foreign redhead painting for hours in the heat. It was the colors of the Provençal summer that inspired him: the rich golds and greens, bright flowers in a rainbow of's no wonder that the Arles paintings today tend to be the most popular among art lovers.

In July 1888, Vincent tried painting a new subject, one that he would intermittently return to for the rest of his time in Arles. The painting shown here depicts a corner of the public garden in the Place Lamartine, the square near the railway station where Vincent lived. (In July he was still living above the Café de la Gare, although already using the lower rooms of the Yellow House for studio space.) Scholars have even identified *which* corner: on this map, look for the sliver of park just north of where it says "Roubine du Roi canal." The entire square lay outside the medieval city walls and was part of the town's expansion around mid-century; according to Arles city records, the garden was planted in 1873. Vincent describes this painting to his sister: "I have also got a garden without flowers, that is to say a lawn, newly mown, bright green with the gray hay spread in long streaks. A weeping ash and a number of cedars and cypresses, the cedars yellowish and spherical in form, the cypresses rising high into the air, blue-green. At the back, oleander and a patch of green-blue sky. The blue shadows of the shrubs on the grass." (W5)

Vincent did another series of four paintings of the garden in the autumn, and a number of drawings spread over the time until he left Arles in May. He came to call this place "a poet's garden," associating it with the poetry of Petrarch and poetry. Is it a coincidence that just on the other side of the canal and the city wall lay the brothel district, the place Vincent called "la rue des bonnes petites femmes," the street of the good little women? Rachel's brothel, for instance, was located at the north end of the Rue du Bout d'Arles (marked on the map). Did Vincent somehow associate this lush garden with the women he met in the brothels? One can only speculate.

Unless one is writing fiction. In which case, you can make it so!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Real Van Gogh

There's been talk for a while now about a 2010 Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London -- and this week they made the formal announcement. "The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters" will run from 23 January to 18 April 2010 and is being described as the largest van Gogh show in Britain since 1968. A selection of 35 original letter manuscripts, lent by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, will be featured along with 65 paintings and 30 drawings from not only the VGM's collection but others in Europe and the United States. This seems to be a different exhibition than the VGM's "Van Gogh's Letters: The Artist Speaks," appearing in Amsterdam this fall, although both shows are intended to celebrate the VGM's long-awaited new edition of Vincent's correspondence.

The new exhibition is discussed online in articles in the Telegraph, the Guardian, and

Friday, July 10, 2009

Here Comes the Chimaera

Visitors to the Museo Archeologico in Florence -- in my opinion one of the most overlooked and underrated museums in Europe -- will for the next six months miss one of its treasures: the spectacular Chimaera of Arezzo, an Etruscan sculpture from around the early 4th century B.C. The Chimaera is off to the Getty Villa in Malibu for a chimaera-themed exhibition from 16 July through 8 February, starring among other artistic representations of the ancient monster and its conqueror, the Greek hero Bellerophon. The "Chimaera of Arezzo" show is the first in a series of planned collaborations between the Getty and the Museo Archeologico di Firenze; it's no secret (I don't think) that the Chimaera and other long-term loans are part of the deal worked out between the Getty and the Italian government, when the museum agreed to return close to forty ancient objects on suspicion that they were looted.

I have a mental list of the top ten artworks I would happily install in my home if given the opportunity, and the Chimaera of Arezzo is one of 'em. He is a beautiful thing. Photographs do not capture his elegant lines or the luster of his bronze surface, the ferocity of his snarl, the arrested power of his pose. Unfortunately his installation in the Museo Archeologico is less than flattering; at least in 2004, he was perched on a pedestal seemingly stuck in the center of a corridor, no real room to step back and admire him as he deserves. I hope while he is in Malibu his owners are making him a new home.

In antiquity the Chimaera was a dedication to the Etruscan equivalent of Zeus, placed in a sanctuary. We know this from the inscription on his right foreleg: TINSCVIL, or gift to Tinia. He was discovered in Arezzo in the mid-16th century, and when word of his beauty reached Florence, none other than Cosimo de'Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, made it his business to acquire the statue. But at first everyone thought the Chimaera was a lion -- his snaky tail was missing when first discovered. Renaissance-era artist and historian Giorgio Vasari tells us that fragments of the tail were later recovered and the Chimaera's true identity revealed; however, the tail itself was not restored until the 18th century. Earlier restorations done soon after the Chimaera first came to Florence are said to have been done by renowned sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, including perhaps part of the left foreleg.

Some scholars wonder if the Chimaera was originally part of a group sculpture which included Bellerophon vanquishing the beast -- he would therefore be snarling at a specific figure and aiming to pounce. But I don't think the Chimaera needs another figure. Certainly in antiquity everyone would know the myth, and without a second statue, the viewer him/herself "becomes" Bellerophon and faces the monster. To me that is the emotional impact of encountering this statue, having it threaten YOU.

Admission to the Getty Villa (not be confused with the Getty Center in Los Angeles) is free but requires an advance, timed ticket. See the Getty website for more information about the Chimaera of Arezzo exhibition and how to visit.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth!

Let's celebrate Independence Day with one of the most iconic of all American artworks: "The Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull. There are actually two versions of this painting: a 12x18 foot version (pictured--click image to enlarge) in the Rotunda of the US Capitol in Washington, and a smaller version that hangs in the Yale University Art Gallery along with other paintings and drawings bequeathed to the university by Trumbull. Even in its day, this was a celebrated picture, its popularity spread through engravings done by artist Asher Durand in cooperation with Trumbull.

John Trumbull is an interesting figure. He was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a witness to the Battle of Bunker Hill, and after the war he traveled to England to further his artistic education with painter Benjamin West. (In those days, England was still the place for American artists to study.) The initial "Declaration of Independence" painting (the Yale version) was begun with none other than Thomas Jefferson as a historical consultant and with many of the figures posed from life. The fame of the painting led to the commission of the larger version for the Capitol in 1816. Trumbull painted many other scenes associated with the Revolutionary War, including images of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and portraits of notable political figures, among them George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

The truly amazing part? Trumbull lost the use of one eye in an accident when he was a child, and so painted his pictures half-blind. But he did not let this hinder his drive to create and desire to celebrate the new United States. His achievements are a lesson for us all.

Happy Fourth!