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Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist

Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist

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by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan

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Vincent van Gogh–one of the 19th century’s most brilliant artists–will forever be remembered as the Dutchman who cut off his ear. But this incident only underscores the passion that consumed him–a passion that, when he took up painting at age 27, infused his work. Whether painting a portrait, a landscape, or a still life, Van Gogh sought to


Vincent van Gogh–one of the 19th century’s most brilliant artists–will forever be remembered as the Dutchman who cut off his ear. But this incident only underscores the passion that consumed him–a passion that, when he took up painting at age 27, infused his work. Whether painting a portrait, a landscape, or a still life, Van Gogh sought to capture the vibrant spirit of his subject. It didn’t matter that others found his work too unconventional. Van Gogh persevered. And as he moved from the cold climate of Holland to balmy southern France, he pioneered a new technique and style.
In a career spanning only a decade, Van Gogh painted many great works, yet fame eluded him. This lack of recognition increased his self-doubts and bitter disappointments. Today, however, Van Gogh stands as a giant among artists.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With their characteristic meticulous research in evidence, the co-authors trace the life of the artist from his birth in the Netherlands to his final days in Auvers, putting forth a few factors that could have led to his suicide. A 16-page inset features photographs of van Gogh and reproductions of several of his most famous works. Ages 10-up. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
The portrait of the artist best known in many circles as the one who cut off his ear to give to a lady is well-crafted with an in-depth look at the famous artist by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Johnson. The conversational style of the text draws readers into the world of Vincent Van Gogh from the beginning of his life as an inquisitive child with a mild interest in drawing to his culmination as a genius in the field. The family photos and reprints of famous paintings accompany the book in the middle. Although it is sometimes a disappointment to not have photos and artwork accompany the text, in this book, the reader will still be amazed at the photographs of Vincent as a child in contrast to his self-portraits as an adult. The realistic colors of selected pieces of Van Gogh's work are well-chosen, as reference to each piece has skillfully been woven throughout the text. Readers of all ages will continue to be intrigued by Vincent's relationships to people and nature. His close connection with his brother Theo, spanning nearly 600 letters of correspondence is second only to Van Gogh's dedication to painting in nature all day long in order to capture the high yellows and blues to perfection. Additionally, children and adults will continue to wonder at Van Gogh's tenacity and persistence in learning the craft of sketching, then painting, and subsequently personalizing his canvas with layers of paint with a perfected linear pointillism technique. The awesome Arle period in which Van Gogh completed two hundred paintings and over one hundred drawings and watercolors will inspire all as the book points out that the work was finished in merely four hundred forty-four days. The amazing trials andevolving brilliance of Vincent Van Gogh become even more incredible as the book ends with Vincent's death at the early age of only thirty-seven. And, although nearly penniless, Van Gogh had the foresight to store his many works and even suggest to his brother that perhaps the Sunflower picture might add joy to the lives of working people if reproduced on cardstock. In fact, many popular reproductions of his works in the world today, having made Van Gogh's wish come true. As found in the closing chapter of the book, "He had foreseen that after his death his paintings would find an admiring audience." 2001, Delacorte Press, 144 pages, Harty
Winner of the Robert F. Silbert Award, as well as several others, this book depicts the painter from the time of his birth until his quiet yet dramatic death. Because of the salvation of more than 600 letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, historians are blessed with a wealth of personal insight into the scattered events and non-events that made up Vincent's tumultuous and lonely life. Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, authors of several books on art, beautifully and accurately weave these events into a useful and easy-to-read biography for YAs. Each chapter, laid out in chronological order, begins with a dated quote from one of the letters written by Vincent to Theo. Maps, color copies of Vincent's work, a biographical timeline, a glossary of artists and artists' terms, note citations, a listing of museums carrying Vincent's work, and a detailed index provide credibility and facilitate reader immersion into this painter's life. After just a few pages, readers will quickly emphasize with and want to learn more about the tormented but talented painter who felt that he was "not an adventurer by choice as by fate and feeling nowhere so much myself a stranger as in my family and country." KLIATT Codes: J—Recommended for junior high school students. 2001, Random House, Dell Yearling, 132p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. index.,
— Jennifer Banas
Children's Literature
Vincent van Gogh, second born child, was named after his parents' stillborn first son. Perhaps, the authors speculate, this affected his lifelong yearning for love and understanding. In this highly engaging biography, readers will quickly be drawn into the artist's quixotic life and empathize with his moods and neediness. Sent away to school at age eleven, Vincent felt lonely, yet he learned four languages and received several years of valuable experience as an art gallery apprentice in The Hague. Rejected by his first love at age twenty, he became a religious zealot and began a course of study that he grew to hate. By age 26 and living on charity, he was rescued by his beloved younger brother Theo, who supported him throughout his life and to whom he wrote more than 600 letters. Their powerful bond is palpable in this book. Today, those letters are part of van Gogh's legacy, along with the vibrant, powerful paintings that he alone foresaw would eventually find an audience. Unfortunately, success did not come until after his tragic death. Each chapter is based on a new period in van Gogh's life and each opens with an excerpt from one of his letters. The authors balance happy moments in his life and his passionately humanitarian character against his demons and repugnant personal ways. In spite of his maniacal spells, self-deprecation and probable epileptic attacks, van Gogh created an astonishing body of work in his ten-year artistic journey. The book is a good introduction to the art itself, for example, van Gogh's motivation for depicting the life of laborers in his famous "Potato Eaters," or the special significance to him of the color Yellow and of achieving the "high yellow note."Nineteen glossy reproductions of his works are included, along with a biographical timeline, a list of museums with his works, a glossary of artists and terms, chapter notes, a bibliography and an index. A wonderful resource for researchers, artists and art aficionados and an enjoyable read for all. 2001, Delacorte/Random House Children's Books, $22.95. Ages 13 up. Reviewer: Elaine Wick
School Library Journal
Gr 5 Up-This compelling book begins with van Gogh's boyhood and traces the various career paths (art dealer, missionary) he pursued before dedicating himself to painting. The authors draw on the artist's voluminous correspondence with his brother Theo to elicit his thoughts and feelings, providing glimpses inside the head of this most unusual person. The use of his own phrases enlivens the text: "The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, the more I become an artist, creator-." His passionate dedication to his work-living on nothing but coffee and bread for days, sacrificing his physical and mental health for the sake of art-was extraordinary. Largely unappreciated in his own lifetime, he was certain of the value and importance of his work, yet still a bit apprehensive of even the slight bit of success that came near the end of his life. The infamous incident with the ear is included as part of an overall portrait, and varying theories as to his so-called madness (a rare form of epilepsy, psychological traumas from childhood) are presented. In addition to a few black-and-white family photographs, the volume has an eight-page insert of fine-quality, full-color reproductions of the artist's works. This outstanding, well-researched biography is fascinating reading.-Robin L. Gibson, Perry County District Library, New Lexington, OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In this fine introduction to the life of van Gogh, Greenberg and Jordan (Frank O. Gehry: Inside Out, 2000, etc.) make excellent use of the artist's letters to infuse the biography with his voice. After a brief prologue about a key moment in his work, the biography follows van Gogh's life chronologically (with the dates covered given as part of each chapter title), followed by a relevant quote from a letter. Many chapters end on notes of anticipation, sometimes almost cliffhangers, leading the reader eagerly into the next phase of the painter's life. Information about van Gogh's personality, moods, and relationships is interwoven with descriptions of his progress in art to form a seamless whole. Two drawings and 17 color reproductions of his paintings from different periods illustrate the changes in his style as described in the text. The authors attain their goal stated in the introduction of getting "beyond the myth without losing touch with the power of its appeal." They clarify the widely-known story about van Gogh cutting off his ear, all the while conveying the artist as a sympathetic man who suffered greatly but also recognized and took joy in his own talent. The biography focuses on van Gogh's life rather than on a critical look at his work; those hoping for commentary on specific paintings will have to look elsewhere. But the reader who wants insight into the life of this remarkable painter will find it in this lively, beautifully written biography. (Biography. 11-14)
From the Publisher
"This outstanding, well-researched biography is fascinating reading." —School Library Journal, Starred

"Readers will see not just the man but also the paintings anew." —The Bulletin, Starred

"An exceptional biography that reveals the humanity behind the myth." —Booklist, Starred

"The reader who wants insight into the life of this remarkable painter will find it in this lively, beautifully written biography." —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.54(h) x 0.72(d)
Age Range:
10 Years

Read an Excerpt

A Brabant Boy


I have nature and art and poetry. If that is not enough what is?

--Letter to Theo, January 1874

ON MARCH 30, 1853, the handsome, soberly dressed Reverend Theodorus van Gogh entered the ancient town hall of Groot-Zundert, in the Brabant, a province of the Netherlands. He opened the birth register to number twenty-nine, where exactly one year earlier he sadly had written "Vincent Willem van Gogh, stillborn." Beside the inscription he wrote again "Vincent Willem van Gogh," the name of his new, healthy son, who was sleeping soundly next to his mother in the tiny parsonage across the square. The baby's arrival was an answered prayer for the still-grieving family.

The first Vincent lay buried in a tiny grave by the door of the church where Pastor van Gogh preached. The Vincent who lived grew to be a sturdy redheaded boy. Every Sunday on his way to church, young Vincent would pass the headstone carved with the name he shared. Did he feel as if his dead brother were the rightful Vincent, the one who would remain perfect in his parents' hearts, and that he was merely an unsatisfactory replacement? That might have been one of the reasons he spent so much of his life feeling like a lonely outsider, as if he didn't fit anywhere in the world.

Despite his dramatic beginning, Vincent had an ordinary childhood, giving no hint of the painter he would become. The small parsonage, with an upstairs just two windows wide under a slanting roof, quickly grew crowded. By the time he was six he had two sisters, Anna and Elizabeth, and one brother, Theo, whose gentle nature made him their mother's favorite. The youngest van Goghs, Wilhelmien (called Wil) and Cornelius, were born after Vincent went away to school.

Their mother, Anna Carbentus van Gogh, herself one of eight, came from an artistic background. Her father had been a bookbinder to the royal family. A gifted amateur artist who filled notebooks with drawings of plants and flowers, she thought Vincent had a pleasant talent that might be useful someday. She didn't suspect he would develop into a great artist. In fact she recalled only that he once modeled an elephant out of clay but smashed it when she and his father praised it more than he thought they should. For the same reason he tore up a drawing of a cat climbing a tree. It wasn't his artistic ability but his obstinate personality that left the biggest impression on his mother. That willful stubbornness turned up again and again as he grew older.

With a big family and a little house, the children spent a lot of time out of doors. The freckled, red-haired Vincent, solitary by nature, often wandered by himself in the fields and heaths that surrounded the parsonage. He became familiar with the seasons of planting and harvest and with the hardworking local farm families whose labors connected them to the soil. The strong feeling he developed for the rural landscape of Brabant and the lives of its peasants would be one of the major influences in his life.

Mostly he did what boys like to do. He collected bugs and birds' nests. He teased his sisters. He built sand castles in the garden with Theo. Sometimes he invented games for all of them to play. After one exciting day his brothers and sisters thanked Vincent by staging a ceremony, and, with mock formality, presented him with a rosebush from their father's garden.

Theodorus, Vincent's father, a pastor from a long line of pastors, was one of eleven children. His family had been members of the bourgeois for generations, with middle-class connections all over the Netherlands. People in Groot-Zundert called Mr. van Gogh the "Handsome Pastor" for his good looks but found his long sermons boring. The province of Brabant, where the village was located, was a farming district populated mainly by Catholics. The pastor's Dutch Reformed congregation had only 120 members, and as a result, he didn't make much money. Family finances were tight. Vincent attended the village school until his parents, worried that the peasant children were making their son rough, hired a governess to teach the children at home.

When Vincent was only eleven, his parents sent him away to Mr. Provily's school in the nearby town of Zevenbergen. Waving goodbye on the steps of the school, he watched his mother and father's little yellow carriage drive down the road until it disappeared. The gray autumn sky matched his mood. His parents noticed how sad he looked. A few weeks later, as Vincent stood in the corner of the playground, someone told him he had a visitor. His father had come back to check on him. Overcome with emotion, Vincent fell on his father's neck, but still he had to remain in school. Though he would visit and even live at home in the years to follow, it was the beginning of what he felt to be a life of exile.

Vincent's schoolmasters didn't consider him an outstanding student. He was intelligent but no scholar. Still, after two years at Mr. Provily's, Vincent moved up. His parents valued education, and they sent their eldest son to an impressive new school in the nearby town of Tilburg--King Willem II State Secondary School.

The school had nine teachers for only thirty-six pupils, so Vincent's days were busy. He took a long list of courses: Dutch, German, French, English, arithmetic, history, geography, geometry, botany, zoology, gymnastics, calligraphy, linear drawing, and freehand drawing. The drawing classes were considered part of a well-rounded gentleman's education, not preparation for a career. He ended his first term well enough to be one of five boys in his class of ten who were promoted. However, in March of the following year, the family took him out of school, probably for financial reasons. He left with a passion for novels and poetry and a working knowledge of four languages. In that era many children finished school at fifteen and apprenticed in a trade, but Vincent sat at home for more than a year before the family reached a decision about his future.

Three of his father's five brothers--Uncle Vincent (whose nickname was Cent), Uncle Cor, and Uncle Heim--owned flourishing art galleries, the charismatic Uncle Cent being the most successful of the three. The French firm of Goupil et Cie, with headquarters in Paris and branches in London, Brussels, and The Hague, had purchased his gallery and made him a partner. Cent, now semiretired for health reasons, maintained an interest in the firm. Married but with no children of his own, he took an active role in the lives of his young nephews and nieces. So Vincent, his namesake, was offered an opportunity to learn the art business.

In July 1869 Vincent began his apprenticeship in The Hague, an elegant and historic town that was the center of the Netherlands government. The Goupil gallery branch there looked like an upper-class drawing room, not a commercial establishment. Doorways between the rooms were draped with swags of heavy fabric trimmed with fringe. Oriental rugs covered the floors. On the brocaded walls, gold-framed pictures hung all the way to the ceiling. Customers at Goupil could see for themselves how the paintings would look in their own richly decorated houses.

Meet the Author

Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan are the authors of several acclaimed books about art, including Frank O. Gehry: Outside In and Chuck Close Up Close, as well as three companion books, The Painter’s Eye, The Sculptor’s Eye, and The American Eye.

From the Hardcover edition.

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