Review (Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist)

Bibliography: Greenburg, Jan and Sandra Jordan. Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist. New York, New York: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0385328067.

Plot Summary: This book details Vincent van Gogh’s life from birth to death. It separates moments of his life into chapters, mainly the places van Gogh traveled to, the people who came to know him, and the process and creations of his artwork, especially his education. It is a linear type of storytelling. He is quoted at the beginning of each chapter, many quotes coming from his letters to his younger brother, Theo. The book depicts the loving but draining devotion the brothers had to one another, with Theo being one of van Gogh’s supporters, despite preferring the Impressionist style that van Gogh rejected. The book does not hesitate to show the struggles van Gogh had, ones that he had no control over, such as the cool reception his works would receive, but also the ones that he sabotaged himself. A prime example is when he gets fired from his uncle’s gallery and from there on, he spends most of his life in poverty, depending on his family, mainly his brother, to financially support him. As Theo notes to their sister, “‘It is as if he had two persons in him–one marvelously gifted, delicate, and tender, and other egotistical and hardheaded. They present themselves in turn, so that one hears him talk first one way, then in the other, and this always with arguments which are now all for, all against the same point. It is a pity that he is his own enemy, for he makes life hard not only for others but for himself.'” The book also talks of his failing health, mentally and physically, how his artistry evolved with every painting he did, and his yearning to make an impact on the art world. This is a bittersweet book that can teach readers history, art, but also how beauty and tragedy can intermingle.

Critical Analysis: This is a well-organized book, not only compartmentalizing all the significant events of Vincent van Gogh’s life, but doing so in a way that still respects both the artist and the reader for not watering it down. The book does not hesitate to describe the famous ear incident, where he cut off his earlobe. Rather, it explains exactly what transpired, explaining it was due to his fight with Gauguin that he did it. In the notes section, the authors mention that there are two versions of the ear incident. “…the first story Gauguin told their mutual friend [Emile] Bernard about Vincent’s accident is more likely the truth than the version Gauguin recounted fifteen years later…The first is the one we have followed. In the second, more melodramatic version of the story, Gauguin claimed that Vincent threatened him with a razor, something he didn’t mention at the time.”

The authors take a no-nonsense approach to their research while writing in a clean, narrative style that, yes, goes into a storytelling flair, but gets descriptive only when discussing van Gogh’s paintings. And they do it in a way that tell young readers why this artwork is beloved: “The color scheme was dark, his favorite bistre and bitumen heightened with gold. The heads he painted ‘the color of a very dusty potato, unpeeled of course.’ He left the brushwork purposely rough. ‘It would be wrong to give a peasant picture a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasant picture smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam–that’s not unhealthy…to be perfumed is not what a peasant picture needs…We must continue to give something real and honest.'” The authors avoid creating any dialogue as way to drive the authenticity of the narrative. They only use letters to show what the people were saying to one another, which also gives intimacy to the reader as these were originally meant for the sender and the receiver. They choose many emotional parts of letters to drive the sorrow and passions of a complicated man.

The book features illustrations, a map, a postscript, a biographical timeline, museum locations of van Gogh’s famous works, a glossary of artists and terms. The book also includes notes that state where the authors took their resources from and stating the page number where the resource is utilized. There is, of course, also the bibliography that shows the array of research authors went into, sources ranging from the 1950s into the early 2000s, including books on the letter exchanges Vincent van Gogh partook in.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

2002 ALA Notable Children’s Books Winner; 2002 Sibert Medal Nominee; 2003 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee.

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published August 14, 2001, and posted online June 24, 2010:

“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. “

Connections: Teach children how to paint like van Gogh and reproduce his painting, Starry Night by imitating the brush strokes used as well as the main idea of the artwork. Another way to teach them is to have them paint a relative or friend and see how they feel about the endeavor.

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