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Vincent and Theo
The Van Gogh Brothers
By Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2017 Deborah Heiligman
All rights reserved.
TWO BROTHERS, ONE APARTMENT, PARIS, 1887
There was a time when I loved Vincent very much, and he was my best friend, but that's over now.
— Theo van Gogh to his sister Willemien, March 14, 1887
Theo's brother Vincent has been living with him for just over a year, and Theo cannot take it anymore.
It is "almost intolerable for me at home," he writes to their sister Wil in March 1887. Even though Theo has moved them to a larger apartment, this one still feels too small to hold Vincent's outsized personality and Theo's desperate need for quiet. He's dying to tell Vincent to move out, but he knows if he does, Vincent will just be more determined to stay.
Dogged. Contrary. Stubborn. Vincent.
Theo van Gogh is the manager of Goupil & Cie, a successful art gallery on the fashionable Boulevard Montmartre in Paris. Theo is good at his job, but it's terrifically frustrating for him right now. The owners of the gallery want him to sell paintings in the traditional style because they're popular and bring in money. Though Theo certainly needs to make money — he has to support himself and Vincent and help their mother — he wants to sell art that is truly exciting to him, paintings by the Impressionists and their crowd, friends of his and Vincent's: Émile Bernard, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Soon, maybe even paintings by Vincent himself.
But these modern painters don't bring in enough money, so it's a constant battle with his bosses. Theo has persuaded them to let him set up a little display of Impressionists on the entresol. The entresol is not the ground floor, and it's not the first floor. It's the floor in between. It's as if the paintings are there, but not quite yet, a glimpse into the future. It's a start. But he spends his days working hard and comes back to the apartment at 54 Rue Lepic exasperated and exhausted. What he needs at home is rest and peace, but instead he gets VINCENT.
Theo loves his brother's brilliant mind, his gregariousness, even his fiery temperament. Vincent can be a good antidote to Theo's own inwardness and tendency to melancholy.
But after so many months of the cold Parisian winter spent indoors with Vincent, Theo is a wreck both mentally and physically. A few months back, in December, he was actually paralyzed — he couldn't move at all for a few days. Although Theo knows he can't blame his bad health on his brother, to get better he needs a break from Vincent's gusts, his squalls, his constant talking and lecturing.
And, to make matters worse, lately Vincent has been furious at him. "He loses no opportunity to let me see that he despises me and I inspire aversion in him," Theo tells Wil.
A portrait done of the brothers at this time would be sizzling with streaks of red-orange paint.
* * *
WHEN VINCENT AND THEO were young, growing up in the village of Zundert in the Netherlands, their father, a pastor, had written a special prayer. All the Van Gogh children had to memorize it and recite it when they left home: "O Lord, join us intimately to one another and let our love for Thee make that bond ever stronger."
Theo has valiantly been living up to that prayer. He's been Vincent's best friend for most of the last fifteen years, ever since they made a pledge to each other on a walk. And through many ups and downs and storms, for the past seven years, Theo has been giving Vincent money for paint, pencils and pens, ink, canvases, paper, clothing, food, and, until he moved in, rent.
On March 30 Vincent turns thirty-four; on May 1 Theo will be thirty. They've made it this far in their journey together — how can Theo kick him out now?
* * *
VINCENT AND THEO VAN GOGH look a lot alike: They both have red hair, though Vincent's is redder, Theo's more reddish blond. Vincent has freckles; Theo does not. They are both medium height — around five feet seven — but Vincent is broader, bigger; Theo slighter, thinner. They have pale blue eyes that sometimes darken to greenish blue. They are definitely brothers.
But they couldn't give more different impressions.
Vincent in his workman's clothes spends his days painting, outside if it's not too cold, or inside the apartment. He is covered with Parisian soot and grime, overlaid with splatters and spatters of paint: ochre, brick red, orange, lemon chrome, cobalt blue, green, black, zinc white.
He doesn't bathe often, which is typical for a nineteenth-century man, but it's even less often than he should. He stinks — of body odor, dirt, food, paint, turpentine, wine, and tobacco. He usually has a pipe in his mouth, though he has very few teeth left, and those that are left are rotten.
And yet Vincent looks healthy: he's robust, sturdy, and vehemently alive. Passion pours from him, as if the world he's trying to capture is inside him, bursting to come out.
Theo is tidy, well dressed in a suit, looking very much the proper Parisian businessman. His features are finer, more refined. He would be handsome if he weren't so sick: he's thin and pale; he looks as though the life is being sucked out of him. He feels that way, too.
* * *
IN MANY WAYS, Vincent's move to Paris has been good for both brothers. Thanks to Theo's influence, to the artists he's met, and to his own tenacious work, Vincent's paintings are better than ever: they are imbued with color and light and Vincent's own particular style.
And Vincent has given Theo more of a life. He'd been lonely in Paris, so lonely, and now, even though he doesn't have a wife and family, Theo at least has a circle of friends through Vincent. For that he is grateful. So even though he's desperate, Theo doesn't kick out his brother. Yet.
In April, Theo acknowledges to another sister, Lies, that he's been ill, "particularly in my spirit, and have had a great struggle with myself." If he were well, he could deal with Vincent.
In fact both brothers do better with sun and warm air and hours spent outside. The Parisian days are getting longer — by minutes, anyway. If only spring would arrive! But there's still too much gloom outside and in.
Gloom and fire.
It's as if there are two Vincents, Theo has told Wil. He knows both sides of his brother very well. Sometimes Vincent is ebulliently happy and kind, sometimes furiously angry and difficult. He has a huge heart, but he's stubborn and argumentative.
Vincent argues not only with Theo, and with himself, but also with friends and people he admires. One cold and fiery night in the near future, Vincent will fight with another roommate. And that argument will end in blood.
TWO BROTHERS, A HOSPITAL BED
It is a year and a half later, the end of December 1888. Vincent is no longer in Paris; he is in Arles, a town in the South of France, living with a painter friend.
Theo is in Paris, happier than he's ever been.
The brothers are separated by almost five hundred miles.
The day before Christmas, Theo receives a telegram.
Vincent is gravely wounded.
Theo goes to his brother at once, on the night train from Paris to Arles. The journey takes sixteen hours. When Theo arrives at his brother's hospital bed, Vincent is barely conscious. He's got a bandage wound around his head to stop blood seeping from a severed ear.
The brothers talk as Vincent drifts in and out of consciousness. He is sometimes delirious. It is not certain he will live.
Theo is bereft. He lays his head next to his brother's on the pillow.
Vincent feels Theo next to him. Almost drained of life, he is transported back to their childhood in the Netherlands, to their small town, to a time he remembers as simple and pure and beautiful, a time when the two brothers shared an attic room, a life, a future.
He whispers into Theo's ear, "Just like in Zundert."
Vincent and Theo's family began with death.
There was an older brother.
Their mother, Anna van Gogh-Carbentus, gave birth to her first child on March 30, 1852. The baby was stillborn. Levenloos, the Dutch word for "lifeless," is written on the registry in the Zundert town hall. Next to this the father signed his own name: Theodorus van Gogh. There is no name recorded for the baby.
But they had given him a name: Vincent, after his father's father, and they buried him in the cemetery next to the church where Theodorus was the pastor. He was the first stillborn baby to be buried in that cemetery.
Anna and Dorus lived in the parsonage right next to the church and cemetery, and there, in their bedroom, exactly one year later on March 30, 1853, at eleven in the morning, Anna gave birth to another baby boy, this one alive and healthy.
They named him Vincent, too. The eldest son, named after his father's father, like his dead brother. His middle name was Willem, after his mother's father. Theodorus registered this baby, too, in the Zundert town hall. The serial number happened to be twenty-nine, just as his dead brother's had been the year before. But this time there was a name filled in: Vincent Willem van Gogh.
And, unlike his dead brother, Vincent Willem van Gogh was baptized, three and a half weeks later, on April 24. Although according to the Christian faith this ceremony gave him a clean slate, he did not have a blank canvas on which to paint his life. The first Vincent was always there, in the family history and on the gravestone in the churchyard right next door:
VINCENT VAN GOGH 1852
Suffer The Little Children to come unto Me, for such is the Kingdom of God.
It's almost as if there were two portraits, side by side, two Vincent van Goghs. One stayed a newborn, frozen in time, while the other grew from a baby to a toddler to a freckled, redheaded little boy.
But there was just one Vincent — the eldest living son, upon whom, traditionally, parents placed their hopes. The first baby Vincent is a pentimento, a ghostly image under the second Vincent's portrait, the picture of a child who might have been.
When an artist paints over an image, the first painting is often gone forever, never to reappear. But the portrait of the first Vincent will become more and more visible as the living Vincent grows up.
After Vincent came five more babies, all born healthy and at home: Anna (1855); Theodorus, called Theo (1857); Elisabeth, called Lies (1859); Willemien, called Wil (1862); and fourteen years after Vincent, the youngest, Cornelis, called Cor (1867).
The house at 26 Markt was tiny, and with each new baby, more crowded. But Anna and Dorus didn't mind; they wanted their family to be close now, and forever.
The closer they were, the easier it was to preserve their own values. The Van Gogh home and church community was a small island of Protestantism in the much larger Catholic community of Zundert, and all North Brabant, the province in the southern Netherlands where they lived. Reverend Van Gogh and Anna felt strongly about bringing up their children with a sense of duty, charity, and morality. They were determined to insulate them from what they thought of as the rougher and wilder Catholic community. Dorus wrote the family prayer to embody their values and hopes for their children: that they should be joined intimately to each other and that their love of God would make the familial bond strong, always.
Anna and Dorus van Gogh placed as much importance on this world as the next and valued hard work. They wanted to bring up their sons to be self-sufficient. And they raised all their children not only to help those in need but also to revere culture, society, reputation, and all the niceties that came with it.
They felt strongly that their children should be well educated in both the arts and the sciences; they saw God as a father who educated people through people. So although they wanted Vincent, Anna, Theo, and the younger siblings to adhere to their values, they did not want to close them off from the world. To encourage them all to learn about other cultures and to develop their talents, Anna and Dorus had magazines and newspapers delivered to the house.
The Van Goghs' parsonage was fancier and more decorated than most other village houses. They had fine furniture, and Anna filled their home with flower cuttings from the garden and nearby fields. Since Anna was an excellent artist, and specialized, like a lot of women of the time, in painting flowers and plants, she hung her own beautiful botanical watercolors on the walls. She also crocheted and embroidered, and her handiwork was on display around the house.
Dorus reserved the biggest room in the front on the first floor for his duties as the pastor. That's where he held meetings, Bible study, coffee hour after church on Sundays, and catechisms when the church was too cold in the winter. The front room had its own fireplace, floors made of pine instead of the usual tile, and wallpaper.
Aside from the public part of the house, the only other luxury was the privy in a shed attached to the house; the Van Goghs didn't have to walk outside to use the bathroom. The rest of 26 Markt was a simple and cozy home for Vincent and his sisters and brothers. Lying wounded and sick in that hospital bed in Arles years later, Vincent could see the parsonage vividly, the details of his childhood home indelibly etched in his mind's eye, a particularly rendered painting, staying the same always.
"I again saw each room in the house at Zundert," he wrote to Theo, "each path, each plant in the garden, the views round about, the fields, the neighbours, the cemetery, the church, our kitchen garden behind — right up to the magpies' nest in a tall acacia in the cemetery."
The front part of the house was at least 225 years old when Dorus moved in. (He wasn't yet married when he became Zundert's pastor.) Other parts of the house were old, too, but had been added later as needed. It was narrow — the first floor of the house was only as wide as two windows and a door. Dorus and Anna slept in the middle room on the first floor. From there you could go down to the basement or up to the second floor. The second floor, essentially an attic, was even narrower than the first, the house tapering under a slanted roof. It was in a room under the eaves that Vincent slept, and Theo, too, when he was old enough, the two brothers in a bed under the eaves, their heads together.
Eventually all the children slept on the second floor, and a maid, and later a governess, Dorus and Anna putting up walls to divide already small rooms into smaller ones. Pa wrote his sermons in another room under the eaves, a room filled with books and prints that Vincent would always remember.
* * *
IN THE MORNINGS the children climbed out of bed and went downstairs to the back room for breakfast, maybe a cup of hot chocolate. This room had a well pump, a fireplace, an oven, and a stove. When he was cold, Vincent would wrap his arms around the stovepipe to get warm.
The family spent most of their time here: they ate their meals, played games, and read novels and fairy tales together in the evenings. The room faced the yard and overlooked the long, sloping garden, which was filled with flowers: bright red geraniums, sweet-smelling mignonette, and purslane with red, orange, yellow, and pink blossoms. The garden had fruit trees, too, and berries, herbs, and pea vines in one corner. A beech hedge fenced in the garden. There were more vegetables, including potatoes, in a larger vegetable garden farther behind the house, next to a field of rye. A hired gardener helped them with the harvest. The family also kept three goats.
When it was warm enough, Vincent and Theo and their sisters Anna and Lies played in the kitchen garden. They ran, climbed, and dug in the sandy dirt, building sand castles as if they were at the beach. Vincent invented games for the younger children, and one day they had so much fun that Anna, Theo, and Lies declared the most beautiful rosebush in the garden now belonged to Vincent, a thank-you gift.
The happy intimacy of his childhood home stayed with Vincent forever. Wounded in Arles, hovering in that space between life and death, his head was filled with "primitive memories of all of you, of those days."
When dorus had moved into the house at 26 Markt in 1849, Zundert was a market town thick with commerce, a gateway into the Netherlands from next-door Belgium. Carriages, carts, and wagons carrying merchants, goods for sale, and travelers — the outside world — passed by the parsonage every day. Stagecoaches and mail coaches changed horses at the market square, just down the street. Servants gathered at the town pump to get water and gossip. On many days the square jammed with so much traffic that nothing could move. Townsfolk complained about the congestion, the noise, and, when it was dry, the dust clouds the traffic stirred up, making the air so thick and dirty they couldn't open the windows of their houses.
On Sundays, when the square was much quieter, the constable read the village news on the steps of the town hall, followed by the clerk, who read the legal news from the notary's office.
By the time Vincent's name was entered into the ledger in the town hall, his existence recorded and announced, a railroad had diverted some of the traffic away from Zundert. With fewer travelers passing through, the town quieted down a bit, though the parsonage fronted on the main street, which was still crowded and busy. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman. Copyright © 2017 Deborah Heiligman. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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