Painting Mondays: The Harvest and The Story

Vincent van Gogh’s The Harvest at La Crau is the painting that inspired Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Here we learn more about the painting and how it led to a children’s tale about growing up.

image001

During the time he lived in Provence, van Gogh braved the heat of the day and went out numerous times to paint the glorious countryside. He  completed The Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour in the Background in June of 1888.

If ever a painting captured the beauty of a summer day in the country, this one is it. The color scheme is particularly appropriate, with a blue sky, blue carts, and blue sides of barns  encircled by the orange of the foreground, the wheat stack and the roofs of houses. These elements highlight the almost luminescent gold of the wheat that dominates the image. The brilliant red wagon wheels in the middle right of the picture draw the eye on a line leading back to the white Abbey of Montmajour in the far background of the upper left. Van Gogh was fascinated with the Abbey, visiting it at least 50 times.

Wheat fields are a subject for many of van Gogh’s paintings and can be seen as metaphors for humanity’s cycles of life. Which brings us to children and growing up. How did this painting inspire Vincent, Theo and the Fox? Here is the story behind the story.

To get my son to go on exercise walks with me I would tell him stories. They were simple action tales: Suddenly, a monster…Bam, a hero…Wham another monster. And then one day a real monster struck: Mark had a series of lung infections and several times a day had to sit still for twenty minutes breathing through a nebulizer. Not what an active 5 year old boy wants to do! Just before one of these episodes his grandmother was visiting and we had all gone to the National Gallery of Art to see an exhibit of van Gogh’s paintings. She bought the exhibit catalog, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam by Richard Kendall with contributions by John Leighton and Sjraar van Heugten. One afternoon when Mark was being nebulized, he asked me to tell a story. I did not have it in me. He pointed to the catalog saying, “Read me the story.” I tried to explain, “It’s not a story.” Neither he nor Grandma would let me off easy. I had to “read” the catalog to him.

What to do? An art catalog is not a wham, bam action tale. I opened it at random and it showed The Harvest at La Crau. I thought to myself, “OK, Vincent has to be a boy to make this interesting…but what is he doing?” I surprised myself by saying, “One day, when he was a boy, Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, were looking at the harvest when they saw a fox sneak into the cart.” That picture and that idea became the start of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Vincent and Theo chased the fox through a bunch of van Gogh’s paintings until the nebulizer was done. At that point, the fox got away and the boys went home.

The tale kept Mark engaged but it was not really a story yet. I knew it needed more. I asked myself, “What do boys do?” The answer, of course, is that they grow up. And while they grow up they wonder what they will become. We all know that van Gogh became a painter, but he didn’t go there directly, trying a number of different jobs first. So as a boy in a story there is wonder and mystery when Vincent thinks about growing up. I came up with the idea that the fox was young too—he was also trying to grow up and find his way in the world. And that, I believe, is what makes Vincent, Theo and the Fox a delightful tale. We have two boys and a fox thinking about growing up and through their actions teaching each other about life. The writer, Susan Sontag, writes that “art is not only about something, it is something.” By this, she means that art isn’t like science or history, it doesn’t teach you facts you should know. Rather, literature gives readers an experience from which they learn and take their own lessons. I like to think that Vincent, Theo and the Fox achieves this: it does not teach about growing up, it lets readers learn about it.

Because the art is beautiful and chase tales are exciting, young readers don’t “get” what they are experiencing until it is over. But my hope is that the story stays with children and they learn while they process the experience of the story. Because the book gives a biography of van Gogh in an epilogue, children learn about van Gogh while processing the experience of the story. I think this really engages them in van Gogh’s art and gives the story more depth.

What do you think about the story? What do your children get from it? If you want to leave comments I will read them with interest.

Thanks, Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso.

Six Exciting Middle Grade Mysteries That Teach About Art

Fine art is beautiful but studying it can be, well, dull for too many middle grade readers. The books below grind down the dull into colorful pigments with which the authors paint gripping tales that attract readers while teaching a bit about art.

Here are six chapter books by authors that I like. Some of the links are “affiliate links” to Amazon.com, which means that Amazon pays me a few pennies if you end up buying the book through the link here. Your price is the same whether you use the affiliate link or find the book another way. The pennies don’t influence my judgment. These are all books I’ve read and recommend. You’re free to click, look on Amazon and not buy.

51xx2rfdt6l-_sx332_bo1204203200_

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by e.l.konigsburg is for older children (8 to 12) and is as incredibly delightful today as it was when it won the Newbery Medal in 1968. Claudia, who decides to run away, wants to go someplace beautiful and comfortable, not someplace untidy like a picnic with bugs. And that’s why she goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m quoting the book jacket here but it is because it says exactly what I want to say about this gem of a story: “It is an adventure, a mystery, a celebration of art and beauty, and most of all, a journey of self-discovery.” This is one that really makes art more exciting!

51caeleoa3l-_sx323_bo1204203200_

Under The Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald is so good I couldn’t put it down! The young heroine, Theodora Tenpenny, discovers a hidden masterpiece in her recently-deceased grandfather’s art studio, a masterpiece that he may have stolen. The book is about so much: the painter Raphael, how to determine if an artwork is real or a forgery, what happened with the art looted by the Nazi’s in world war II. But it is also about making friends, the challenges of being 13 and responsible for a mother who has retreated from the world, and how a girl re-discovers her emotional connection with a father-figure (the grandfather) who died leaving you poor, questioning his integrity, and faced with a mystery. Phenomenal. Get it! (Grades 4-7.)

51wfqb62rhl-_sx341_bo1204203200_

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, illustrated by Brett Hellquist. This is a charming and suspenseful book. Two nerdy kids, Petra and Calder, find themselves in the middle of an international art scandal when a priceless Vermeer painting is stolen. The story is also about secret codes, puzzles and unexplained coincidences that matter. The story conveys some of the mysteries of Vermeer’s life. Although the book does not show color reproductions of Vermeer’s paintings the text gives a good sense of what it is like to look at his paintings. For example, when Calder is looking at a book of the artist’s work, he thinks, “Most of them showed people in front of a window…the same yellow jacket turned up in a number of places. The pictures made you feel as though you were peeking in at someone else’s private moment.” An exciting book!

512qzgxfdsl-_sx327_bo1204203200_

Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells with illustrations by Marcos Calo is a middle grade mystery about–you guessed it–art thieves trying to steal a few Picasso paintings on New York City’s “museum mile.” I don’t remember learning that much about art (except for the fact that NYC has lots of wonderful museums) but it is a quick read with great voice. Fun book.

51snh4eotzl-_sx385_bo1204203200_

A Nest for Celeste: A Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home by Henry Cole (author/illustrator). This graphic novel (for grades 3 – 5) uses a fictional mouse to introduce readers to naturalist and painter John James Audubon and his assistant, Joseph Mason. While the book does not include any of Audubon’s paintings, Cole’s illustrations are beautiful. The opening is exciting and the ending is a heartfelt reflection on what “home” really is. It was an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection when it was published in 2010.

51itsvm1fbl-_sx339_bo1204203200_

Masterpiece by Elise Broach with illustrations by Kelly Murphy is for grades 3-7. Marvin, a beetle, has the talent to make miniature drawings as good as the ones Albrect Durer made. He becomes friends with the boy, James, whose house he lives in. James, of course, gets all the credit for the drawings, which sets up some tension that is eventually resolved. Together, James and Marvin help solve the mystery of who stole the real drawings. Readers empathize with Marvin, who is one brave and resourceful beetle that kids can look up to. The book is a little like The Borrowers, a little like Chasing Vermeer and a lot like its own heartwarming tale of friendship and bravery with some good art information thrown in. Nice read!

What do you think? If you know of similar books to recommend, please leave a comment below.

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso.

 

Picture Books With An Art Theme

Books About Famous Artists

51hlarmxwil-_sx425_bo1204203200_

Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!  by Jonah Winter (Author), Kevin Hawkes (Illustrator).  Great picture book about how Picasso stood up to harsh criticism to become one of the greatest painters of the Twentieth Century. It makes his story exciting. I wish I had written it.

61qkw4vkdal-_sx383_bo1204203200_

Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock (Author) and Mary GrandPre (Illustrator). A picture book story about the condition of synesthesia and how accepting the condition helped Kandinsky become the pioneer of abstract art.

51iuazfm6kl-_sy477_bo1204203200_

When Pigasso Met Mootisse is Nina Laden’s classic book about, well, the meeting and artistic rivalry between Picasso and Matisse. Full of puns and an absolute delight. As fresh now as when it came out in 1998.

51fxibl8epl-_sx361_bo1204203200_

Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box by David McPhail tells how Beatrix got a point box when she was young and how that inspired her.

 

Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez (Author) and Julie Paschkis (Illustrator). Very pretty picture book about Georgia O’Keefe.

51kiimlglml-_sy427_bo1204203200_

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau written by Michelle Merkel, illustrated by Amanda Hall. A picture book that tells us its never too late to teach yourself how to paint.

51ykl0jup7l-_sx411_bo1204203200_

My Name Is Georgia by Jeanette Winter. Very nice book about Georgia O’Keefe.

 

 

 

Books About Color, Creativity or the Art Room

512brsljnqzl-_sx318_bo1204203200_Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color by Julia Denos is–surprise–about color. Swatch lives where colors run wild. She attempts to tame them and put them in jars until the day she meets Yellowest Yellow, who does NOT want to be tamed (and is a little fierce). Author/illustrator Julia Denos has illustrated several children’s books and says the hardest question for her to answer is “What is your favorite color?” This delightful book is her answer. Preschool – Grade 2.

 

61l2brwpildl-_sy402_bo1204203200_

Vincent Paints His House by Tedd Arnold. Cute book about color. It teaches kids in a fun way that every basic color has at least four versions (e.g., red can be rose, crimson, scarlet, or vermilion).

 

513fnhqksql-_sy496_bo1204203200_

Too Much Glue by Jason Lefebvre (writer) and Zac Retz. This made me laugh! It’s not really about art; it’s about what can happen in art class. Great twist at the end.

 

 

Other Great Books

61bvof2bpqvl-_sy449_bo1204203200_

Daniel Finds a Poem by Micha Archer. Beautifully illustrated book addresses the question, “What is Poetry?” The book’s answer ties everything together in a neat way. I love that it is a boy finding poetry and that, in the next book below, a woman is navigating the high seas.

51mndvxa2il-_sx452_bo1204203200_  Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. This is an exciting read and I couldn’t put it down. Eleanor became a great navigator and she led her husband’s boat from New York, around Cape Horn and on to San Francisco in record-breaking time. Storms, broken masts, a woman winning by skill and guts and a quicker grasp of science than competing  navigators! The language is beautiful. Here is one example: “Ellen’s heart raced like a riptide….”  The illustrations are perfect. Did I say I like this book? I do. A lot!41mcuifyojl-_sy374_bo1204203200_

Chalk by Bill Thomson. You don’t “read” this exciting book–the pictures give the whole story. It is almost like a movie and gets just scary enough. The illustrations make me wish I could draw!

The Song of Delphine by Kenneth Kraegel. Cinderella meets Where The 613nemlcigl-_sx375_bo1204203200_Wild Things Are. Lovely book. Magical trips on giraffes.

51tsflvev5l-_sx398_bo1204203200_

 

Drum Dream Girl. How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez. Picture book about Millo Castro Zaldarriaga who, in 1932,  overturned the Cuban tradition that only boys could play drums. She became a world famous musician.

51x5ykfqg7l-_sy448_bo1204203200_

In a Village by the Sea, written by Muon Van and illustrated by April Chu features (in one part) a cricket who paints up a storm that endangers the fisherman-father. It gives young readers a sense of the risky lives of fishermen and their families. But the story has a good ending and  the illustrations are very beautiful. I really like that the book is not “saccharine:” we do not see the father come home safely, it is implied by the art. Great book to spark conversation with your child!

Math at the Art Museum is written by Group Majoongmul and illustrated by Yun-ju Kim. The book is primarily pedagogical (rather than a gripping story like the other books on this page). I include it because there are too few books that combine art and math and because I really liked the painting the book uses to illustrate symmetry: Praying Mother and Son Rock Formation by Kim Jae-hong.

61ogiyd558l-_sy375_bo1204203200_

The Hare & the Hedgehog is the classic story by the Brothers Grimm. This version was  recently published with gorgeous illustrations by Jonas Laustroer. Not directly about art, but a beautiful book.

Clowns On Vacation by Nina Laden. Hey, its Nina Laden. Do I need to say more?

Langston’s Train Ride by Robert Burleigh (Author) and Leonard Jenkins (Illustrator). A picture book that captures how creativity strikes. It is about the moment that inspired one of Hughes’ most famous early poems.

 

Vincent van Gogh, Easel Paintings and a bit of Michael Jackson

Near the end of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, the young Vincent van Gogh thinks about what he might become when he grows up. When he thinks about becoming a painter, he thinks about easels. It turns out that lots of artists use easels in their self-portraits. What do these paintings mean?

“And [Vincent] thought about what it would mean to be a painter. He thought about standing at an easel in a studio. Then he thought about carrying an easel and paint to capture the landscapes he and Theo had seen.”

Vincent, Theo and the Fox is a story about Vincent van Gogh and growing up (for ages 4-10). It is illustrated with 30 of van Gogh’s paintings (including the two above). Some readers want to know more about the paintings so, on Mondays, I blog about one or more of them.

One of Vincent van Gogh’s more famous self-portraits (above left) is from 1888 and shows him standing at an easel. Paul Cezanne adopted a very similar pose in an 1885 self-portrait, as did Camille Corot in 1825, Peder Severin Kroyer in 1902 and Marc Chagall in 1914.

Some artists get quite imaginative with their easel-involved self portraits. As far back as 1605, Annibale Carracci painted his self portrait as if it were an unfinished painting propped on an easel (perhaps, as art critic Laura Cumming points out, to symbolize that he is like all men a work in progress). More recently, Norman Rockwell gave the genre a wonderful twist with his Triple Self-Portrait (which emphasizes the importance of the mirror to self-portraiture).

But why include an easel in a self-portrait? Is it the same as a stonemason, say, posing with a mallet and chisel (or the picture of me posing with a laptop above my bio)? Tools of the trade are important and there can be an aspect of advertising involved in artist self-portraits. A self-portrait shows the skill of an artist. A potential patron can compare the artist to her self-portrait and decide whether or not to commission a work. But there is, I think, more significance than that in both the idea of easels and self-portraits themselves.

The history of easel paintings is interesting. The website essentialvermeer.com gives some insight. The word “easel” comes from the Dutch word, ezel, meaning donkey. Around 1600, the word started to be used in its secondary sense of a stand used to support paintings. Easels, as stands, have probably been around since the ancient Egyptians. But, until the 13th century, paintings tended to be large: murals and wall-paintings. After the 13th century, there was growing public interest in acquiring art. Meeting that desire required smaller paintings, namely ones that could be done on an easel. Ever since, easel paintings have become the typical form of modern painting. Being highly transportable, easel paintings were easy to buy and sell, easel painting facilitated the growth of the art market.

Basically, easel paintings are an embodiment of a mind switch in the art world. Painting became secular. Fine art was no longer just for chapels and castle walls. Easel paintings were objects of worth in their own right. Also, an easel, with its freedom from a fixed location, makes a subtle assertion of the independence of the art of painting and the profession of painter.

But, with or without easels, self-portraits are often gripping to see. They are the artist’s answer to the eternal question, “Who am I?” The author of A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming, points out:

“Self-portraits make artists present as the embodiment of their art; it sounds so neat and succinct. But they often do so only to ask who or what this person is who is looking back from the mirror, how dismaying it is to be alone, how hard it is to represent or even just to be oneself.

Van Gogh had the courage to look in the mirror numerous times, painting 41 self portraits. Vincent–and all the other artists who have done serial self-portraits–make me think of Michael Jackson’s wonderful hit, “Man in the Mirror.” Here is a YouTube tribute by the person who wrote the song for (and performed it with) Jackson, Siedah Garrett.

 

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

 

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is included. Uses affiliate links.

The Yellow House: Sunflowers and a Sword

In Vincent, Theo and the Fox, the first place the fox visits on his adventure is Vincent van Gogh’s yellow house in Arles. In art history, this house was where van Gogh created some of his greatest paintings and experienced some of his worst tragedies. Today, we look deeper into this incredible painting.

image002

The fox ran to a village. He saw a yellow house and a restaurant. Boy was he hungry. The fox was young. That morning, he had left home determined to learn his way in the world. “I shall be like a human and eat in that restaurant,” he thought.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox is a story about Vincent van Gogh and growing up (for ages 4-10). It is illustrated with 30 of van Gogh’s paintings. Some readers want to know more about the paintings so, on Mondays, I blog about one or more of them.

When Van Gogh moved to Arles, he lived in temporary lodgings before finding the yellow house in May 1888. The house was two blocks from the Rhone river. There was a small grocery store next to the house (in the painting, the building to the left, with banner and awning). Vincent frequently ate at the pink-hued restaurant to the right. In a letter to his sister, van Gogh described the building as “painted in yellow colour of fresh butter on the outside…it stands in the full sunlight in a square which has a green garden…it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it there is the intensively blue sky. In this I can live and breath, meditate and paint.”

He rented four rooms. image019On the ground floor, he made two large rooms into his atelier (studio) and a kitchen. Upstairs, on the left was Vincent’s famous bedroom (in the painting above, the one with one green shutter open). The other room, with both shutters open in the painting, was a guest room.

The guest room was important to Vincent. He hoped to attract other artists to Arles and start an artists’ colony, a “studio of the south” as he termed it. He wanted painter Paul Gauguin to be the head of the colony. As Michael Prodger points out, the two artists made a very odd pair. Theo van Gogh brought the two men together. Theo was Gauguin’s art dealer and Vincent’s sole source of support; he thought it would be good for Gauguin to keep an eye on Vincent. Gauguin wanted to keep Theo as his dealer and wanted to save money on rent so that he could leave for Tahiti earlier.

work_25At first, Vincent was excited that Gauguin was going to join him in Arles. He proceeded to decorate the house, buying used furniture and making paintings for the dwelling, including four of his sunflower paintings. Today, with sunflowers such as the one on the left, used on greeting cards, it is hard to appreciate how beautiful, new and intense they were.

Unfortunately, the two men had contrasting personalities. After nine weeks they fought and, in the fight, van Gogh lost his ear. The popular story is that van Gogh cut off his own ear with a razor. However, in a 2009 study, two German art historians argue that Gauguin cut off the ear with a sword he always carried. The two men “kept a “pact of silence” – Gauguin to avoid prosecution and Van Gogh in a vain attempt to keep a friend with whom he was hopelessly infatuated.” The truth, of course, is buried in the past. Personally, given Gauguin’s narcissism, meanness, and treatment of underage women in Tahiti; I prefer to believe the account of the German scholars.

51jilwaqgyl-_sx313_bo1204203200_Two books about the time van Gogh and Gauguin were together may be of interest. For adults there is The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence by Martin Gayford.

512tkmkpg3l-_sx357_bo1204203200_For children, Susan Goldman Rubin (author) and Jos. A. Smith (illustrator) wrote a picture book called The Yellow House: Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin Side by Side. It was published in connection with the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South. It is no longer in print. To find it you will have to go to the library or buy it used.

The real yellow house was bombed during World War II and no longer exists (although there is a placard there). The painting never left the artist’s estate and is on permanent loan to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is included. Uses affiliate links.

Painting Mondays: Van Gogh, a Stagecoach to the Sea, and a Gypsy Caravan

In the summer of 1888, Vincent van Gogh took a stagecoach trip to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a tiny fishing village on the Mediterranean Sea. Inspired by the views and an encounter with gypsies, three of the paintings in Vincent, Theo and the Fox come from that one-week visit.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a story about Vincent van Gogh and growing up (for ages 4-10). It is illustrated with 30 of van Gogh’s paintings. Some readers want to know more about the paintings, so, on Mondays, I blog about them. Today, there are three to discuss.

image008

 

“At first, the fox loved the rocking of his boat and the snap of wind in the sails…”

 

 

During the time van Gogh was living in Arles, he made a trip to Saintes-Maries, to recuperate from health-problems and to make some seaside paintings. In May or June of 1888, when he made the trip, the village had less than 100 houses. According to Lucina Ward, International Art Curator for the National Gallery of Australia, the area “was still a sterile salty plain of lagoons and marshes, populated by flamingos, wild bulls and white horses.” Van Gogh was fascinated with the changing colors of the water. He wrote that the “Mediterranean Sea is a mackerel color: in other words, changeable – you do not always know whether it is green or purple, you do not always know if it is blue, as the next moment the ever-changing sheen has assumed a pink or a gray tint” (quote found in Saintes-Maries (Van Gogh series).

The painting above, Seascape at Saintes-Maries, and the one below, Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Marie, illustrate an early part of the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. As young boys, Vincent and his brother, Theo, are chasing a fox to save the creature from a farmer. Before they can catch him, the quick-witted animal manages to steal a boat. Like Vincent and Theo, the fox is young and trying to learn his way in the world. At first, the furry creature thinks he might become a sailor. But it doesn’t take long for the fox to realize he does not belong at sea. The paintings illustrate this part of the story.

image009

 

 

“When the boat drifted to shore the fox jumped out and started running.”

 

The village of Saintes-Maries is named after the three Marys of the Bible (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe). It was (and still is) significant to the Romany gypsies of Europe. Each year they make a pilgrimage to the village to honor Saint Sarah (sometimes known as Black Sara). Believed to be the Egyptian servant of the three Marys, she is their patron saint. Van Gogh encountered the gypsies there. Later, after returning to Arles, he made today’s third painting (below), Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans.

This painting comes near the end of the story. Vincent and Theo see the fox find happiness only after he tried–and failed at–different occupations. Young Vincent starts to think about what he will be when he grows up and what he will try as he grows. The range of “respectable” choices is overwhelming and, mentally, Vincent needs a break–a break only fantasies of gypsies can supply.

image031

 

“For a short time Vincent even thought about running away to join a gypsy camp.”

 

 

We don’t know how much van Gogh interacted with any of the gypsies during his sojourn to Saintes-Maries but he was undoubtedly drawn to their romantic lifestyle. Like him, they were socially ostracized. To quote Lucina Ward once more, in the gypsy caravan:

“the frieze of figures, vehicles and horses…seems designed to emphasise the flatness of the landscape. Only the tree at right and the scrubby vegetation at left offer refuge from the sun. The empty foreground adds to the feeling of harsh desolation, a suggestion, perhaps, of the peripheral position of gypsy people. The intensity of the light suggests the glorious palette of works to come…”

Three wonderful paintings and more to come as we explore van Gogh’s world. Stay tuned!

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10) . He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

Bullying and Compassion: Two Views of Van Gogh

“In the beautiful countryside in southern France…I used to do an ugly thing.” So begins the confession of a childhood bully in The Artist and Me, a wonderful new book which is about both Vincent van Gogh and the causes and consequences of bullying. It complements the now classic text, Camille and the Sunflowers, which addresses the same period in van Gogh’s life from the opposite perspective: compassion.

I have a soft spot for children’s books about artists that also teach about life. So when I found this book in the gift shop at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. I bought it immediately. Having read it, I’m very glad I did.

51v9oi4xsdl-_sx426_bo1204203200_

Written by Shane Peacock and illustrated by Sophie Casson, The Artist and Me is a brand new picture book (ages 5 – 9) about both bullying and Vincent van Gogh. The artist was misunderstood during his life and tormented by both inner demons and public criticism of his appearance and eccentric behavior. The contrast between van Gogh, the artistic genius, and van Gogh, the disheveled human man, became intense when he moved to the French country town of Arles. Van Gogh created some of his most beloved paintings in the few months that he lived in Arles. But he had few friends there, many of the townsfolk complained about him, and their children would tease him.

61048cn65vl-_sx362_bo1204203200_

Another, earlier, book, Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt, also addresses this period of van Gogh’s life, doing so from the perspective of Camille Roulin, the son of the Postman Roulin who was immortalized in several paintings by van Gogh. Anholt’s 1994 book recounts how Camille and his father help van Gogh when he was a poor stranger arriving in town. The father models good behavior and Camille becomes friends with van Gogh, despite area children who tease the artist. When Camille feels helpless, because he cannot defend his new friend, his father helps him understand his feelings. Camille learns compassion and hope from his father and from his friendship with van Gogh. The book is about the facts of van Gogh’s life but it is also about a boy learning what compassion means.

FullSizeRender

The Artist and Me takes a very different–and more dramatic–tack, an approach to the facts of van Gogh’s life that is perhaps more relevant to the times we live in. The protagonist is fictional and nameless–one of the many children who teased van Gogh. The artwork is sometimes tough, just as bullying is painful to watch. As shown in the image detail, the acclaimed, Montreal-based illustrator, Sophie Casson brilliantly captures the ignorant meanness of which children are capable. The text by Canadian journalist and screenwriter, Shane Peacock, explains what is happening in a way that young readers will understand. The bully explains that van Gogh “was a crazy man….Everyone I knew made fun of him.” The artist’s colors “weren’t supposed to go like that.” Peacock captures the difference between a private child, who is secretly fascinated by van Gogh’s paintings (which he sees while spying on van Gogh from a hiding place), and a public bully who was mean in crowds “since that is what cowards do.”

As the story progresses, its protagonist hears–but does not yet understand–van Gogh’s mission: “to tell the truth by painting pictures.” Then, one day, he is alone in the countryside and accidentally encounters van Gogh painting in a wheat field. The boy sees what van Gogh sees, but is terrified: “for an instant the world was bigger and brighter than it had ever been.” Van Gogh, who knows the boy is terrified, is kind; with his face glowing “like the pictures I had seen of saints in churches” the artist offers to give him the painting he just made of the wheat field. Still scared–perhaps by the artist’s kindness in the face of bullying, perhaps by the intensity of the beauty van Gogh is painting, perhaps in shame at his earlier rude treatment of van Gogh, perhaps in fear of what villagers would think if they saw he had befriended van Gogh–the boy runs away. I won’t reveal the book’s ending, but it is perfect and fitting and a valuable lesson on how wrong people can be about people who are different. The ending is a lesson about how bullies can change and grow. It is a lesson about the rewards of artistic integrity.

The Artist and Me is a Junior Library Guild selection and I highly recommend it. The illustrations capture not just the meanness of bullying (as in the example above), but also the yellow, green and gold hues of the French country side memorialized in van Gogh’s work. Casson’s paintings of the bully capture his youthful wonder and fear; she poignantly depicts the chagrin and self-reflection he later experiences as an adult. Her depiction of van Gogh in the midst of inspiration, when his face is glowing like a saint, is, by itself, worth the price of the book. The text is lyrical and subtle. It works like the best picture books should, with the pictures telling and foreshadowing the story in partnership with the words.

Stories of real life–whether it is the dark side of bullying and fear of things that are different, on the one hand, or, on the other, the bright side of courage, compassion, standing up for oneself, choosing a path in life, or overcoming adversity–are important for children. Finding those themes in the context of the arts gives the readers of such books an experience that goes beyond facts and inspires them to think about their own life choices. Such books make art more fun and relevant for children. I urge you to find The Artist and Me at your library, local bookstore, or here on Amazon.com (affiliate link).

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10) . He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

Illustration © 2016 by Sophie Casson. Image detail used under “fair use” law for purposes of review.

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.