Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Favorite Self-Portrait

This week in the van Gogh seminar I'm teaching, one of our topics was the self-portraiture Vincent created while living in Paris from March 1886-February 1888. Although he'd been an artist for five years by that point, only then did he experiment with this genre. Twenty-eight self-portraits he made during that time! And each one is different: we see Vincent the city-dweller in stylish hat and fine suit, Vincent the working man in craftsman's jacket and yellow straw hat, Vincent the artist with easel and palette. The series reminds us of the malleability of self-portraits; they are constructs, not necessarily attempts to represent the person as they actually are. In van Gogh's case, we have no photographs of him as an adult (except for one, where he's shown seated from the back) to make a comparison.

I asked the students to write their weekly response paper about the vagaries of self-portraiture and to pick their favorite. It's only fair that I reveal my favorite, too, so here it is: a version that belongs today to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. Painted earlier in the sequence rather than later, this portrait maintains the neutral palette of Vincent's Dutch days and possesses a more naturalistic style than some of the others that reveal strong pointillist and other avant-garde influences. It's one of the least innovative and experimental in the series.

So why do I like it? The eyes. In all his self-portraits, Vincent gives the eyes special expressiveness, and here I see (emphasis on *I* see, since others may see something different) a wistfulness behind the gaze. For all the tidiness of the suit he wears and the well-trimmed beard, there's an almost lost feeling, as if the sitter doesn't feel entirely at home in his clothes and his surroundings. At the point when Vincent painted this picture, he was still finding his way in Paris, in a sense seeking his true identity as an artist. Some of that seeking to me lies behind those eyes. When I was writing "Sunflowers," I kept a decent-sized reproduction of this picture (from an old calendar) close by, because the Vincent of my story is a seeker too. When I traveled to The Hague in 2007, I went to the Gemeentemuseum specifically to see it in person...but alas! It was not on view that day. I had to content myself with a bookmark from the gift-shop and a consolation slice of gooey cake from the cafe.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Goodreads Giveaway!

Avon Books/HarperCollins has five copies of "Sunflowers" up for grabs in a giveaway! The contest opened for entries this morning and will remain open through November 30th. Click here for more details and to enter.

Van Gogh the Writer

Buzz is starting to build about the publication next month of the new English translation of van Gogh's correspondence, the first comprehensive English translation since 1958 and the product of 15 years' work by the curators of the Van Gogh Museum. Today's Financial Times features a review of the six-volume edition, while the The Sunday Timesincludes a chatty review/commentary by Waldemar Januszcak, himself no stranger to things van Gogh. So far only the British press is jumping on this particular bandwagon, which is not surprising, given that the Royal Academy will be presenting a major exhibition on the theme of van Gogh's letters in spring 2010. Nearer in time will be the opening of the Van Gogh Museum's own exhibition on the letters, which takes place on 9 October. I expect van Gogh coverage will be steadily increasing in the next few weeks as the new edition of the letters gets more exposure. (Which as far as I'm concerned is awesome yet coincidental timing, but that's another story!)

Initial remarks about the new edition suggest that those looking for Big Revelations and Big Scandals in the inclusion of previously-omitted passages from van Gogh's letters are going to be disappointed. I admit, I would have loooooved the new research to have uncovered Dramatic Information about the prostitute Rachel, but I never really expected that! Rather, the new edition of the letters confirms what the Van Gogh Museum curators and other mythbusters (including me, in my small way) have been saying for years: that the solitary mad genius of van Gogh-ian mythology is not the Real Vincent. Disciplined, hard-working, well-read, knew-exactly-what-he-was-doing Vincent, that's the real Vincent. It's the Vincent I've come to know, and I'm looking forward to the six volumes showing up on my doorstep in a few weeks so that I can get to know him even better. I'll be posting my own review of the new edition once I've thoroughly checked it out.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My New Cyber-Home

Fewer than four weeks until the debut of Sunflowers! Hard to believe the big day is almost here. Everyone is invited to visit my new website at, where I have posted information about the book, links for purchasing (naturally), tips for book clubs, and information about upcoming events. I will be updating the website regularly, and I will also continue posting on this blog. Expect chatty posts about people, places & paintings related to the book leading up to and after the release on October 13th!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Vincent Travels to Taipei

This week the National Museum of History in Taipei (Taiwan) announced a new van Gogh exhibition to be held from 11 December 2009 through 28 March 2010. The show will include 77 drawings and 21 paintings, many loaned from the collection of the Kroller-Müller Museum. Given the record-breaking attendance at, well, every van Gogh exhibition, I don't doubt for a second this will be another blockbuster.

A New Semester

The fall semester has just begun, hence the lack of posts the last few weeks as I got things underway with my teaching and various administrative this-and-thats. This semester, in addition to my usual Ancient-Medieval art history survey, I am teaching an upper-level seminar devoted entirely to Vincent. I have fifteen undergrads (a mix of studio art and art history students, mostly, with a psych major and anthro major for good measure) and four art history graduate students, and so far we are having a great time reading Vincent's letters and examining the phases of his artistic career. Last week we discussed his time in The Hague and focused in particular on his relationship with Sien Hoornik and his drawings of her and her family. This Wednesday we'll be in Nuenen and discussing "The Potato Eaters" in depth. Our reading list is a nifty (if I do say so myself) mix of primary sources (mostly letters), general-audience readings (eg excerpts from exhibition catalogues), and hard-core scholarly articles. The last three weeks we'll be exploring Vincent in popular culture (films, novels, children's books, advertising), but my "Sunflowers" is conspicuously absent from the syllabus. I didn't want to put students in the awkward position of critiquing their professor!

Yesterday three of the seminar students (plus one brought a friend) joined me to see "Van Gogh: Brush with Genius" at the Museum of Science of Industry in Tampa before this Imax film leaves the city on Monday. (Most of the others had to work, alas.) I saw the film back in March, as I reported here, but it was wonderful to see it again, this time with company. It's such a visual feast, and the extremely magnified details of the paintings show the texture and impasto in a way my classroom slides just cannot.

On this viewing, I found myself particularly drawn to the footage of Auvers-sur-Oise. I've now had three visits to the village, the most recent this May, and each time I find it a special and almost magical place. The film spends far more time in Auvers than in Arles and Saint-Rémy, and beautifully captures its tranquillity and serene landscape. If I ever had a financial windfall, I'd happily buy a little summer cottage there! Apparently the Swissborn filmmaker, Peter Knapp, has his own home in Auvers, which probably explains why it is given such a loving portrayal.

Seeing the movie again was an inspiring way to kick off the new semester. Between the classes, the admin work, and "Sunflowers" making its debut in October, it's going to be a very busy one!