There is a lot of family togetherness these days. For most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to spend more time with family and those in our innermost circle than we may have ever spent with them before.
We may be getting to know each other better than ever — for good or for ill.
With this as our collective background, now may be the perfect time to read Deborah Heiligman’s “Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers.” Drawing on the extensive volume of personal letters that survive, Heiligman illustrates the complicated and often tumultuous family relationships of one of the most well-known painters of all time, Vincent Van Gogh.
As the title suggests, the strongest relationship of Vincent’s life was with his brother, Theo. Although Vincent was the older brother, early in their adult years, Vincent came to rely heavily on Theo, both emotionally and financially. Using Vincent’s own words to Theo and other family members, Heiligman shows us Vincent’s struggle to find a vocation — starting with his first job at an art dealer’s firm, which was arranged by an uncle. From there, Vincent dove headlong into various religious pursuits before lurching toward teaching then finally deciding that his interest in creating art might be his life’s passion if developed by work and study.
Theo started, as did Vincent, with family connections in the same art firm. Theo built this into a successful career, and he supported Vincent (and other family members) financially, encouraging Vincent to follow and develop his artistic skills. Both brothers hoped that someday Theo might be able to sell Vincent’s work.
Throughout the book, Heiligman illustrates how intertwined Vincent’s path to becoming a brilliant artist was with his struggle with mental and physical health. The brothers were confidants and partners through their entire lives, and Vincent’s struggles were felt deeply by Theo and the reverse was also true. Vincent was not an easy man, and he did not lead an easy life. Theo proved to be his ballast and anchor through it all. As Heiligman says, without Theo, there would have been no Vincent.
“Vincent and Theo” was first published in 2017 as a young adult biography and was given starred reviews by all the major book reviewers and showered with honors and awards. That same year, a stunningly beautiful film, “Loving Vincent,” was also released. The movie is touted by its publishers as “the world’s first fully oil painted feature film.” This film, which is done completely in the style of Vincent Van Gogh’s post-impressionistic style, looks at the year following Vincent and Theo’s tragic deaths, and it is a wonderful companion to reading Heiligman’s book.
Both the book and the audiobook, which is excellently read by Phil Fox for Dreamscape Media, are available to Champaign and Urbana library card holders through the Libby and Hoopla apps. The movie, “Loving Vincent,” as well as a movie about the making of the film (“Loving Vincent: The Impossible Dream”) are available to library card holders through Kanopy and Hoopla.