Friday, October 16, 2009

Why I Love Vincent Van Gogh by Sheramy Bundrick

Everybody loves Vincent van Gogh. Or at least it seems that way: he attracts millions of people to museums and exhibitions; he sells thousands of posters, not to mention the barrage of van Gogh shower curtains, coffeecups, and even action figures. Most people recognize his most famous pictures. He’s even been the butt of sitcom jokes.

Why do I love Vincent van Gogh? Partly for the same reasons everyone else does. His paintings knock my socks off, for starters. The first time I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2007, I was so dizzied by the colors, textures, and brushstrokes confronting me at every turn that I had to sit down, take a deep breath. Long before that, as a little girl I remember staring at “Starry Night” in a hand-me-down 1960s encyclopedia and being drawn into its swishes and swirls. Van Gogh’s art speaks to me the way it speaks to a lot of people.

But the Vincent I’ve grown to love in the past few years is not the Vincent cliché and popular culture speak about. He’s more complicated than that. The severed ear? Only part of the story. The solitary mad genius slapping paint on canvas in a lonely garret? Mostly mythology. What about “Starry Night”? Honestly, he didn’t like that painting very much. It barely gets a mention in the letters to his brother Theo.

So who is the “real” Vincent? Uncovering him, as with any historical figure, presents certain challenges, but it is still possible to delve beyond cliché. His letters are a wonderful place to start: hundreds of them survive, pages and pages of his thoughts on art and life. From them we learn van Gogh was extraordinarily well-read; that he was fluent in multiple languages; that he possessed a photographic memory and could vividly recall a Rembrandt he’d seen a decade earlier. Contrary to the image of the crazy painter wielding a frenzied brush, his artistic choices were deliberate and carefully thought out. A former art dealer, he was knowledgable about the contemporary market. He made important connections with fellow artists, and while he didn’t sell many works for money, he frequently exchanged his paintings with others to increase his exposure. And he wanted love. Almost more than anything, he wanted a family of his own. One of the deepest regrets of his life was that he never had a wife and children, or a real home.

This is the Vincent I wanted to write about in Sunflowers. The Vincent who could be stubborn and even selfish, but who also possessed tenderness and compassion. I didn’t want to dwell on the darkness and the illness, although I could not ignore those things. I wanted to show that there was optimism and light in his life too — big ideas and big dreams. As his own brother Theo said, a big heart. With each letter I read and each painting I studied, I think like my character Rachel I fell a little more in love with this Vincent – the real Vincent van Gogh.

You can find out more about this book at Sheramy's website and at her blog, Van Gogh's Chair. The book was released on 13 October.


  1. I have been very intrigued by this book. I have always been very interested in Van Gogh and that type of artwork. And he is everywhere you look - my boyfriend has Starry Night on his credit card! I can't wait to read this book and look more at the real man behind these works! Thanks so much!

  2. Great post. I would love the chance to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam! I suppose I will have to settle by reading this book :) It sounds incredibly well researched and I'm sure it's wonderful.

  3. Great guest post!! I just won this over at Catherine Delors's blog! I am so excited about this win! It's going to be one of my reads for The Art History Reading Challenge you turned me on to Marg!

  4. Sheramy, this was a terrific post. Of course, way back in high school I read "Lust for Life." Your passion for your subject shines through on every line, and your book sounds terrific!

    As you noticed, I find it interesting that the myths of so many famous people include the idea that the person was some kind of savant who didn't have to work hard educating themselves and practicing their craft. I guess people love the fiction that success and talent could somehow fall into one's lap -- instead of having to work their tails off for it!

    A big Congrats on the publication of Sunflowers!

  5. Totally awesome guest post! After reading this, I realize my knowledge of Van Gogh is sadly very pedestrian. I am very interested in reading this book and being exposed to a Van Gogh who is more fully fleshed and human. I am going to be putting this book on my wish list. Thanks!

  6. I'm so glad you all enjoyed the post -- thank you! I hope you enjoy the book, too.

    So true, Frances: the idea of things magically happening to the 'geniuses' is such a myth. Vincent's letters reveal just how disciplined (to the point of stubborness!) he actually was. His early drawings are not very good, in fact! He was determined to improve until the end.

    Allie, the copy you won over at Catherine's blog is going in the mail Tues morning. :-) Congrats on the win!

  7. Okay, this guest post has me very intrigued by the book. I don't know much about Van Gogh other than the ear thing and some of his more famous pieces.

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    It seems too complex and extremely broad for me.
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