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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, by Deborah Heiligman. Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2017. $27.99 ages 14 and up

"The crisis brings out the very best in Vincent. He immediately writes to Theo and tells him the money he sends will go to Ma and Pa., not for his painting supplies. He nurses Ma with the kindness he showed the miners in the Borinage. Pa appreciates how helpful he is around the house. His relationship with both of his parents improves dramatically. When he's not helping his parents, he still works ..."

It is difficult to describe all the feelings I am experiencing having finished reading this remarkable book: melancholy, admiration, astonishment for the Van Gogh brothers and their lifelong commitment to each other. It is an impressive and incredibly descriptive biography, written with care and insight by the incomparable Ms. Heiligman. If you have not read Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith (Henry Holt, 2009), this book might be all the incentive you need to find a copy and put it on your TBR pile.

The relationship between the Van Gogh brothers is complicated, to say the least. They are born four years apart (Vincent is the elder). It is not hard to tell they are brothers on the outside; they look very much alike. Their differences are evident in personality, routines, and outlook. It is their abiding love for each other, despite these many differences, that is at the heart of this carefully constructed and impeccably researched biography.

"They promise always to be close, to keep the bond between them strong and intimate. They always will walk together. They will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art. Together they will achieve lives filled with purpose. And they will, when needed, carry each other's parcels."

Using the nearly 700 letters exchanged between the two, the author plots her story as a series of gallery visits, using a reproduction of one of Vincent's pieces of art to introduce each one. The letters are quoted often, and allow readers a sense of the volatile, yet always loving, relationship. The style of her writing changes according to Vincent's work at the time. He sketches, draws, paints endlessly, always learning and searching for the best way to express himself. I read an advanced reader's edition which did not include the final full-color insert from the published work. I can tell you reading it sent me time and again to carefully study his body of work.

When I mention that the back matter is extensive, it is not an understatement. Beginning with a list of the people included in its pages, and moving on to a carefully constructed look at the journey the brothers took together, the author then adds an informative author's note, a lengthy bibliography, acknowledgements, and finally endnotes and an index. IMPRESSIVE!

It is a memorable look at the lives and loves of two brothers, whose deeply touching and creative connection ensures the world can celebrate Vincent Van Gogh and his life's work.

"The world would not have Vincent
                 without Theo."

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