Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Art History Reading Challenge!

The blogosphere is rife these days with 'reading challenges,' wherein bloggers commit themselves to tackling X number of books in a certain amount of time with a certain theme. The Art History Reading Challenge began in 2009 but is continuing for 2010: you can find information about it here at the Challenge blog. To participate, simply subscribe to the blog and provide a link to your own blog. Then choose a level of participation (3, 6, 9, or 12 fiction or nonfiction books about art to read) and have fun!

I've never participated in an online reading challenge before, and I admit it's kind of cheating for me to do this one. After all, it's my job to read nonfiction art history books! But my personal challenge is to remember to blog about some of them, 'cause I usually forget. I'm very excited that the subgenre of art historical fiction will be busy in 2010 and plan to make that a continued focus too. This new year we can look forward to Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves, Kathryn Wagner's Dancing for Degas, Stephanie Cowell's Claude and Camille [about Monet], and Susan Vreeland's Mr Tiffany and Clara. (If anyone knows of others, post a comment here.)

My first Challenge-oriented review will come this weekend: the promised yet delayed review of Ilaria Dagnini Brey's "The Venus Fixers." Happy Art History Reading!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mining for Clues...

I was all set to blog today about the superb book "The Venus Fixers," until I read this article in today's Times Online: a teaser piece about a forthcoming article in January's Art Newspaper by art critic and van Gogh enthusiast Martin Bailey. In 2005, a superbly researched article by Bailey in Apollo magazine argued that van Gogh may have learned about his brother Theo's engagement the morning of 23 December 1888 and that this news may have been the 'final straw' that led to Vincent's breakdown and self-mutilation that night. (I was so convinced by his theory that I used it in "Sunflowers." Merci, Mr. Bailey!) Bailey's forthcoming article produces additional evidence to support this theory, via a new reading of the one of the first paintings Vincent produced after leaving the hospital early in the new year. "Still Life with Onions" (click image to enlarge) from January 1889 has been seen as a "demonstration piece" (in the words of Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers, in their "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South" exhibition catalogue, p. 168) to prove Vincent's continued ability to paint and as a form of self-portrait, much like van Gogh had done in his famous Chair painting not long before. On the table we see onions (which Vincent in fact added in the background of his Chair painting), Vincent's pipe and tobacco pouch (also in the Chair painting), a lit candle (which appears in the Gauguin's Chair picture), a book about health, an empty bottle of wine, and a letter. (This painting makes a cameo appearance in "Sunflowers," by the way.)

Bailey's new article, of which the Times piece gives only a taste, evidently focuses on the letter depicted in the painting. The envelope is addressed to Vincent and must be from Theo. Bailey demonstrates that the "67" you see on the envelope indicates a post office in the Place des Abbesses, not far from where Theo lived. (Readers of "Sunflowers" know that by coincidence Rachel gains a connection to someplace in the Place des Abbesses late in the book. I can't help but giggle.) He also learned through his research that the special New Year's Day postmark seen on the envelope was placed on Paris mail from mid-December onward. Bailey argues that this letter in the painting is the very one Vincent received the morning of 23 December containing the news of Theo's marriage.

The Times article states, "It is known from a letter he [Vincent] wrote to Theo at the end of January 1889 that he had received what he called 'the much-needed money' on December 23." I scratched my head at this at first, because I didn't remember that detail from Bailey's 2005 article--because it's not there. Up until now, there's been no proof Vincent received a letter that day. That part of Bailey's original theory had to remain speculative. So I ran to my Brand New Shiny Set of Van Gogh Letters (I still need to do a proper review of this masterpiece set of books), and by golly, there IS a new piece of evidence, in the new translation of the letter Vincent sent Theo on 17 January 1889. A crucial difference in the new translation of one sentence in this letter versus the old translation we've all seen in English up until now. Clearly the Times article is leaving out this neato tidbit so as not to steal the fun from the Art Newspaper article, so I'm not going to give the game away either. But heehee hoho, Bailey's theory from 2005 seems poised to be right. Bravo!

I wait with eagerness for the full article...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to the readers of Van Gogh's Chair!

Van Gogh never painted any pictures of baby Jesus, so to mark the holiday I've chosen my hands-down-favorite Renaissance Madonna & Child image, the gorgeous "Madonna of the Magnificat" by Sandro Botticelli (1480-81, click to enlarge, image from the Web Gallery of Art). Here Mary is Queen of Heaven, quill in hand, writing the verses of the passage of the Gospel of Luke known as the Magnificat. Mary as writer, I love it!

This painting resides today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, in the Botticelli room together with the more famous "Birth of Venus" and "Primavera" (among others). I first visited the Uffizi in 1996, and I remember being pulled up short by the "Madonna of the Magnificat" while beelining toward "Birth of Venus." Nobody, but nobody, paints angels like Botticelli in my opinion, and Mary's face is the ultimate in beautiful serenity. Naturally I bought a postcard in the Uffizi giftshop to remember the afternoon, and Mary the authoress watches over me from the bulletin board in my university office.

Happy Holidays to all & many blessings for 2010!

ps. Speaking of Botticelli...I've just finished reading Ilaria Dagnini Brey's nonfiction "The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II." Fantastico! Review to come after Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This Day in History...

On 23 December 1888 at 11:30 pm, Vincent van Gogh walked into the brothel at no. 1, Rue du Bout d'Arles in the town of Arles, asked for the prostitute named Rachel and handed her a piece of his ear, wrapped in newspaper. (Click here for a post about our sources for the incident and here for a post about my visit to the Rue du Bout d'Arles in 2007.) Against all odds and expectations, Vincent recovered from his injury and the accompanying psychotic episode, returning to his yellow house in the Place Lamartine just after the new year. The self-portrait pictured here (click to enlarge) was one of the first paintings he made after leaving the Arles hospital. He does not hide what he has done; the bandage is there for all to see. To me this painting is an affirmation -- I am still here, the man in the picture seems to say. I can still paint.

The "ear incident," of course, appears in my novel "Sunflowers." It had to -- Rachel is my narrator. But it proved to be one of the most difficult scenes to write, for two reasons. First, readers' expectations. Most people reading the book know that it's coming. I build up to it for a few chapters; the tension escalates, Vincent becomes more and more unsettled at events in his life. The scene needed to live up to what readers would expect -- it needed to be dramatic, it needed to be a true turning point in the story and in Rachel's character development. But -- the second reason it was difficult -- it had to be told in a convincing way. Think about it: he gave her his EAR. How do you write that in a way that's not too gory or worse, too campy? Tell it badly, and the reader's going to snicker: popular culture makes enough jokes about Vincent's severed ear. The scene underwent a few drafts before I reached a tone and narrative I was happy with. I aimed for spare prose, using as few words as possible, and I decided to use the fact that readers already know what's in that package. How? Read the book and find out! :-)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Parlez-vous provençal?

Readers of “Sunflowers” will notice the occasional word/phrase in French sprinkled in for flavor, but also the occasional word/phrase in Provençal — a separate language that today is spoken by a minority but in van Gogh’s time was experiencing a virtual renaissance. Provençal is a dialect of the language termed Occitan by modern linguists and known in French as la langue d’oc. Gascon and Auvergnat are likewise dialects of Occitan, but there are many others throughout southern France, as well as parts of northern Italy, Monaco, and Spain. Historically there were two major languages in France: the langue d’oc (spoken in the south) and the langue d’oïl (spoken in the north). Both are Romance languages rooted in Latin and the Roman occupation of Gaul. In the sixteenth century, the Edict of Villers-Cotterets decreed that the Northern langue d’oïl should be used for all administration; modern French thus derives from one of the oïl dialects. In fact, the closest linguistic cousin of the southern Occitan language is not modern French, but Catalan! The Provençal dialect of Occitan is native to southeastern France, and within it are variant sub-dialects. Two of these are the Rodanenc or Rhodanien sub-dialect, found around the Rhône River in cities such as Nîmes, Arles, and Avignon; and the Maritim or Centrau sub-dialect, found in the area of Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence.

In van Gogh’s time, the Provençal language was gaining increased attention thanks to the efforts of writer Frédéric Mistral and the Félibrige movement he founded in 1854. The Félibriges sought to revive Provençal literature and culture after decades — even centuries — of oppression by the French government. During and after the French Revolution in particular, Occitan and its dialects were forbidden in all official capacities. Young boys and girls (like Rachel) growing up in Provence in the nineteenth century would have learned only French in school, although they most likely spoke Provençal at home. Mistral aimed to counteract these developments, as he and other authors published books and poems in Provençal and worked to revive traditional customs and dress. Under the direction of the Félibriges, new dictionaries and grammars of the Provençal language were created. In Arles, Mistral founded the Museon Arlaten — which still exists today as a celebration of traditional Provençal culture — and a statue of him stands prominently in the city.

Van Gogh was fluent in French but knew no Provençal upon arriving in Arles. He claimed in his letters to Theo that his deficiency in the language caused problems and that many Arlesiens could not understand him. He was aware of the Félibrige movement, however, and mentioned it in his letters, while in January 1889, he attended a performance of a traditional Provençal pastorale (Nativity play) in the native language. It is unclear whether Vincent learned any spoken Provençal during his two years in the south of France, although it’s likely he picked up a few words and phrases given his flair for languages. He did very much admire the traditional Arlésienne dress promoted by Mistral and his colleagues...more on the the lovely Arlésiennes another day!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Flaming Soul

The first ever Van Gogh exhibition organized by a Mandarin-speaking country opened yesterday at the National Museum of History in Taipei, Taiwan. "Van Gogh: The Flaming Soul" features 77 drawings and 21 paintings, most from the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, a few from the POLA Museum of Art in Japan. The show is organized chronologically to give museumgoers a sense of Vincent's stylistic development over his ten-year career as an artist. The exhibition will be on display until 28 March 2010, and as always, is sure to break some attendance records.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fun at the Library

This Saturday, December 12th, at 2pm I will be speaking at the Safety Harbor Public Library in lovely Safety Harbor, FL. I'll be presenting about "Sunflowers" (with pictures!) and signing books afterwards. The library will have books for sale at the event.

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

G'day, Vincent

While the Musée d'Orsay in Paris undergoes renovation, its caretakers are sending some of its masterpieces on the road: a great way to share beautiful art with audiences around the world while raising needed revenue for the museum. Tomorrow an important show of 112 Post-Impressionist paintings from the Orsay opens in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, where it will remain until 5 April 2010. Artists featured in the exhibition include Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Seurat...and of course Vincent. Once more the Orsay has sent van Gogh's "Starry Night over the Rhône" (Sept 1888) out on loan -- that painting never stays in Paris for long, it seems -- and it is joined by the Orsay version "Vincent's Bedroom at Arles," painted in September 1889 while Vincent was in residence at the asylum of Saint-Rémy. Readers of "Sunflowers" know that "Starry Night over the Rhône" is one of my absolute favorites, so much so that I gave its creation a whole chapter. Here's hoping that Vincent's Australian fans enjoy the exhibition...and here's guessing the show will break Australian museum attendance records!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Voted Most Popular for 2009...

Each year -- a company specializing in oil-painted knockoffs of art historical masterpieces -- releases its Top Ten list of paintings sold. Last year, Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" was #1. But this year, VIncent's "Starry Night" reclaims the top spot, with "Café Terrace in the Place du Forum" at #2. Klimt drops to #3, while the rest of the list includes works by Monet ("The Poppy Field at Argenteuil" is #4), Renoir ("Luncheon of the Boating Party" = #5), Picasso, O'Keeffe, and Kandinsky.

David Sasson, CEO of, comments that "Van Gogh consistently remains the most popular artist in the world, his total sales numbers have left everyone else behind." Ah, the irony...not just because of the large sales figures, but because, as I've said before, Vincent did not consider "Starry Night" an important work at all in his own oeuvre. Sasson adds, "In the business world especially, where image is everything, many companies strive to keep up with the latest interior décor trends to maintain a modern appeal that will impress customers and clients." What would Vincent think about that, I wonder, or how would any of these painters feel about their work being essentially mass-produced as "authentic hand painted canvas art"? (You can, by the way, choose from a copious list of van Gogh works beyond "Starry Night" and "Café Terrace.")

Read the full article about the Top Ten here. In 2009, sold approximately 45,000 paintings.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vincent the Blogger

The Van Gogh Museum once again shows their keen interest in twenty-first century technology/media by introducing a blog authored by...Vincent. At Van Gogh's Blog, VGM folks provide an excerpt from one of Vincent's letters accompanying a certain date. The most recent entry, from November 28th, gives a portion of one of Vincent's Antwerp letters...from 28 November 1885. A fun and creative way to introduce online audiences to the new translation of Vincent's letters.

While you're there, don't forget to download the IPhone App of van Gogh's letters...too bad I neither own an IPhone nor have the first notion how to work one...