Vincent and Theo: THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS
Godwin Books/Henry Holt & Co., April 2017
Ages 14 and up
9780805093391, $19.99 hardcover
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Read about my research for the book.
About the Book
The world would not have Vincent van Gogh’s art without his brother Theo.
Vincent: passionate, determined, yet desperately lost on his life’s journey. Theo, his younger brother: steady, constant, dependable, yet lonely.
The brothers’ friendship was stormy, passionate enduring, essential, a work of art in itself.
Theo was Vincent’s champion, Vincent Theo’s inspiration.
For the past five years I immersed myself in the lives of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. Drawing mostly on the 658 letters from Vincent to Theo, and the 40 we have of Theo’s to Vincent, this book tells the story of two dramatic lives intertwined.
I hope you enjoy walking alongside Vincent and Theo on their journey of love, loss, and towering achievement.
News & Nice Notices
Vincent and Theo was Book of the Week at Cooperative Children’s Book Center.
Bookish says Vincent and Theo is one of Spring 2017’s Best Young Adult Books!
PW Picks: Publishers Weekly Books of the Week, April 17, 2017.
PW Daily: Publishers Weekly Review of the Day, April 19, 2017.
Articles & Interviews
Happy National Siblings Day! In which I write about the van Gogh brothers, my siblings, my sons, and my fake twin.
Omnivoracious interview: Deborah Heiligman on Vincent & Theo.”
Listen to a Meet-the-Author Book Reading on teachingbooks.net.
Read School Library Journal’s article: Vincent and Theo: A Conversation with Deborah Heiligman
Reading Rants likes Vincent and Theo. Thank you! (I’m so glad Jennifer noticed the parcel metaphor!)
Listen to “Creativity: Life From the Inside Out“, a WHYY program featuring Deborah and others exploring the role of psychology in creativity through the lives of artists.
From Publishers Weekly: Vincent and Theo: A Q&A with Deborah Heiligman
“Central to understanding the artist Vincent van Gogh was his relationship with his younger brother Theo, recorded for posterity in the nearly 700 surviving letters they wrote to each other. Here, Heiligman delivers an exquisitely told, heartfelt portrayal of that deep emotional and intellectual bond. It was an attachment solidified in the brothers’ youth and, at times, a volatile one, given the artist’s passionate, often obsessive connection to his work and his financial insecurity. Despite Vincent’s fluctuating moods and fragile mental health, Theo’s support and love never flagged, even when his other responsibilities and personal health issues intervened. The author frames their lives in “galleries,” from their childhoods to their early deaths, delicately detailing their work, frustrations, successes, differences, and difficulties. Interspersed are croquis—impressionistic sketches of events and family members, friends, lovers, and fellow artists. Despite knowing how this story ends, readers will be deeply moved by Heiligman’s portrayal of the brothers’ poignant relationship, experiencing with them its highs and lows. Reproductions of van Gogh’s sepia ink drawings open the sections, and a color insert of reproductions is included. An extensive bibliography and source notes conclude this well-documented title. Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s compelling Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist takes a more straightforward approach to the artist’s life and features quality reproductions. VERDICT A breathtaking achievement that will leave teens eager to learn more. Libraries would be wise to purchase a volume of the brothers’ letters along with this book.”—School Library Journal, starred review
“As teenagers, the Van Gogh brothers, Vincent and Theo, pledged to “be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.” In this intensive exploration of their turbulent lives, Heiligman (Charles and Emma) focuses on their complex relationship and anchoring mutual bond. Writing in present tense, she follows them from their childhood closeness as two of six children of a Protestant pastor in the heavily Catholic Dutch village of Zundert into their contrasting adulthoods in France: painter Vincent’s life was precarious and erratic, while art dealer Theo’s was more stable and decorous, if often lonely. Heiligman tells the brothers’ story in short chapters, sometimes just scenes, and occasionally offers what she calls “croquis” (sketches) to give a better sense of “someone whose whole being cannot be captured on paper in one steady view. Like Theo.” She also recounts, in exhaustive detail, Vincent’s frequent cycles of descent into mental illness and subsequent rebounds, as well as the way the brothers alternately clashed with and clung to each other. Extensive back matter includes a character list, timeline, bibliography, endnotes, and author’s note. Ages 14–up.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Vincent van Gogh is perhaps one of the best-known artists today, but it’s likely he wouldn’t be nearly as famous had it not been for his brother Theo, an art dealer who supported his troubled brother and championed his paintings until his own untimely death, only months after Vincent’s. While each brother had a pivotal career in his own right, Heiligman (Charles and Emma, 2009) plumbs their correspondence, both to each other and beyond, and zeroes in on their relationship, which was fraught with a brotherly combination of competition, frustration, and, ultimately, adoration. Structured as a sort of gallery of key moments in the brothers’ lives, the book covers their childhood and the influence of their tight-knit family; Vincent’s peripatetic, sometimes scandalous pursuit of a vocation; Theo’s dogged commitment to not only his own career but cultivating Vincent’s; and their ultimate demises, both of which are heartbreaking, in their own ways. In fittingly painterly language, Heiligman offers vivid descriptions of Vincent’s artwork and life, which grow more detailed and colorful as Vincent’s own artistic style becomes richer and more refined, particularly during the intense, almost manic flurry of work he produced in his last few years. This illuminating glimpse into the van Goghs’ turbulent life and historical period will add compelling depth to readers’ understanding of the iconic painter. Art-loving teens will be captivated.”—Booklist, starred review
“As she did in Charles and Emma (2009), her biography of the Darwins, Heiligman renders a nuanced portrait of the complex, devoted, and enduring relationship between the Van Gogh brothers. Though Vincent and Theo unmistakably looked like brothers, they could not have been more opposite in habits and temperament; still, they pledged to each other as teenagers “to keep the bond between them strong and intimate.” Heiligman explains: “They will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art….And they will, when needed, carry each other’s parcels.” She reveals their unfailing devotion to this pledge by drawing on the hundreds of letters they exchanged in their tragically short lifetimes, quoting extensively and adeptly integrating them into the narrative. She frames the story of their relationship as a series of gallery exhibits (introducing each with a black-and-white reproduction of a representative piece) and varies her writing style to reflect Vincent’s work in different media such as sketching, drawing, and painting. Some depictions are vivid and richly textured, like Vincent’s oil paintings, while others are lean and sharp, like his sketches and drawings. Her exegesis of a lesser-known painting, The Laakmolen near The Hague (The Windmill) , which she sees as essential to understanding the brothers’ relationship, features typically painstaking description and analysis. It and several others are reproduced in a full-color insert (not seen for review). A remarkably insightful, profoundly moving story of fraternal interdependence and unconditional love.” (timeline, author’s note, biography, source notes, index) (Biography. 14-18)—Kirkus, starred review
"“Heiligman (Charles and Emma) again examines the impact of a family member on her main subject, this time unpacking the friendship between artist Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. After vividly setting the stage with brief sections that introduce Vincent and Theo near the end of their lives, Heiligman takes readers back to their beginnings. We learn of other siblings and of supportive parents; we gain a sense of their childhoods in their father’s parsonage. Structured as a walk through an art museum, the book proceeds through the years, each section a gallery: “Gallery Two: Dangers (1873–1875)”; “Gallery Three: Missteps, Stumbles (1875 1879).” We see Vincent moving restlessly from one job to another, at times acting and dressing oddly, walking huge distances when short on funds, coping with unrequited love, and slowly embracing the life of an artist. We see Theo, the art dealer, struggling with his own trials, consistently supporting Vincent throughout his life. Heiligman mostly employs a present-tense, purposely staccato narration that effectively heightens the brothers’ emotional intensity, their sufferings and pleasures (physical, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual), and, most of all, Vincent’s wild and original art. The layout, which incorporates sketches, subheads, and a generous use of white space, is a calming counterpoint to the turbulent narrative. Documenting the author’s research involving visits to sites, along with academic and primary sources, the extensive back matter includes a list of significant people, a timeline, a bibliography, thorough citations, and an author’s note. The result is a unique and riveting exploration of art, artists, and brotherly love."—Horn Book, starred review
"Sunflowers. Stars. A severed ear. Teen readers can be expected to reach for this title armed with basic information about Vincent Van Gogh’s life, but those who have read material focused solely on the painter will view him in a new light as Heiligman reintroduces him in relation to his younger brother, Theo. Having pledged their mutual bond as young men on the brink of adulthood, each was the other’s support, challenge, critic, sounding board, annoyance, nag, and unwavering source of unconditional love. Vincent, suffering flare-ups of mental illness, depended on financial support from Theo, who truly believed in Vincent’s artistic talent and was willing to patiently nurture it into fruition. A gallery manager for dealers in traditional art, Theo guided his brother toward embracing Impressionist approaches toward color and light well before Vincent had opportunity to view them first hand. As each struggled with career, unrequited loves, well-meaning family interference, and recurrent illnesses, each could rely on the other to “carry his parcel,” and when they died less than a year apart—still in their thirties—it would have been difficult to fathom how either could have gone on without the other. Heiligman’s sensitive intertwining of the brother’s stories takes nothing away from the passionate tale of Vincent, the starving, suffering, mad genius artist. Readers, however, may unexpectedly find themselves in empathy with reliable Theo—emotionally guarded, frustrated at work, late in finding true love, quiet patron of loudly lauded Impressionists, husband and father who died miserably and alone. Notes, timeline, index, bibliography are appended for students conducting research, but this title is a treasure for readers who want to immerse in a roiling domestic drama and who don’t back away from a good cry."&mdashThe Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, starred review
"This exquisite, remarkable book told in the present tense positions readers as intimate observers of Vincent and Theo’s lives. Two portraits emerge in rich detail: a deep-thinking, gifted artist who was a troubled, gentle, compassionate man; and an insightful critic who recognized his brother’s brilliant mind and work, devoting incredible energy and resources to nurturing and supporting him. Uplifting, poignant, and tragic by turns, the brothers’ lives, so very human, unfold in a work of exceptional literary nonfiction weaving scholarly research (further detailed in ample end matter) into a vivid, immersive accounting."—Cooperative Children’s Book Center
"Passion, intimacy and family love propel this masterful, suitably impressionistic portrait of the relationship of artist Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. Heiligman takes readers deep into the teen confusions, romantic skirmishes and intellectual, creative and spiritual rigour both brothers put into making and understanding art, and into their lifelong care for one another. Instead of a conventional narrative, Heiligman offers a series of “galleries,” each with its verbal sketches, drawings and paintings, focusing on events or periods in the brothers’ lives. The result draws us right in — Vincent’s lacklustre stint as an artseller; Theo’s affair with a single mother; a moment the two quaff glasses of milk in the shadow of a windmill, pledging to be companions in the quest for meaning in life and art — all spring to vivid clarity under Heiligman’s “brush.” Her thorough familiarity with the brothers’ copious correspondence; sensitivity and originality in reading it, and alertness to the imaginative afterlife of seemingly simple exchanges make this revelatory, compulsive reading. Highly recommended."—Deirdre Baker, Toronto Star