Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt, 2017

Heiligman (Charles and Emma, 2009) artfully lays out her magnificent biography of the Van Gogh brothers “as if you are walking through a museum show of their lives – a collection of paintings, drawings, and sketches.” This series of chronologically arranged vignettes, grouped into thematic “galleries,” is written in the present tense and illuminates the lives of Vincent and his younger brother Theo and their deep and intense relationship.

There are two touchstones which the author returns to several times. One is a conversation the teen brothers had on a walk together in 1872 in which they pledge that “they will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.” She also uses as a central metaphor the idea of Vincent and Theo “carrying each other’s parcels.”

Drawing deeply on the plethora of letters from, to, and between the brothers (and recording this in detail in the endnotes), she follows them from their early years in rural Netherlands across Belgium, England and France, sometimes together, often apart. Echoing Vincent’s eclectic and evolving style, the author moves fluidly between sketches, impressions, and richly detailed portraits narrating the brothers’ friendships and romances, their mental and physical states, and the development of their work, showing how these are all fused together.

Theo (left) and Vincent

Though Vincent is the more famous one, she argues that without Theo’s support – financial, emotional, and professional – he would not have become the magnificent artist we know. Using black and white reproductions of ink drawings as illustrative “gallery” dividers and an insert of color prints of key paintings, the author connects Vincent’s life with his work and gives the reader an insight into his process and vision.

Ms Heiligman has succeeded in writing an intricate and layered biography that readers will enjoy both as a story of the complicated bond between two brothers and for the understanding that they gain into one of the world’s most renowned painters and his art.

Extensive backmatter also includes a list of people, a thorough timeline, sources, and index.

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