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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Lover and The Poet in Van Gogh’s Bedroom

Vincent van Gogh hung two paintings in his bedroom: a portrait of a lover and one of a poet. What can these two artworks tell us about his life?

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On Mondays, I write about one of the paintings that illustrate my picture book,  Vincent, Theo and the Fox, which is an adventure story about Vincent van Gogh for ages 4 and up. These posts are primarily for parents and older children interested in learning more about van Gogh’s artwork and life. Today’s painting, The Lover (Portrait of Milliet, Second Lieutenant of the Zouaves), appears two-thirds of the way through the tale. As young Vincent and Theo are returning home from their adventure, Vincent thinks about what he might become when he grows up. In my book, Vincent thinks about eight possible occupations. Today’s painting illustrates one of the seven possibilities–“being a lieutenant in a distant army”–that Vincent considers before thinking about being the  painter he would become.

The painting itself is interesting for at least two reasons. First, the portrait is about someone significant to van Gogh. In 1888, Paul-Eugène Milliet became one of van Gogh’s few friends in Arles. He became Vincent’s painting and drinking companion. A soldier with an interest in art, Milliet took drawing lessons from van Gogh and the two went on painting forays together. At one point, he was entrusted with 36 of van Gogh’s works to carry to Paris and give to van Gogh’s brother, Theo. When he returned, he hauled home Japanese woodcuts for Vincent from Theo.

But why did van Gogh want to paint Milliet’s portrait?  It was not because they were drinking buddies or teacher and pupil; he wanted to do the portrait because Milliet appeared to be the epitome of a lover in van Gogh’s eyes. Writing to Theo, van Gogh explained that he wanted to paint Milliet “because he’s good-looking, very jaunty, very easy-going in his appearance, and he’d suit me down to the ground for a painting of lovers.”

Van Gogh’s relationships with women were difficult, to say the least. His life was full of unrequited love, setbacks, and rejections. He admired Milliet’s romantic escapades. Van Gogh wrote his brother, Theo, that “Milliet’s lucky, he has all the Arlésiennes he wants, but there you are, he can’t paint them, and if he was a painter he wouldn’t have any.” [For your consideration, here are two scholarly books about van Gogh’s relationships with women: Van Gogh and Love by Hans Luijten and Van Gogh’s Women: His Love Affairs and a Journey into Madness by Derek Fell.]

But, back to the painting. The second reason why it is interesting is that it is one of the two paintings Vincent hung over his bed. You can see it in the first version of Vincent’s famous paintings of his bedroom. In the first version, Vincent painted his actual room, with the portrait of Milliet and another of Eugene Boch. In the second (shown below) and the third versions, the portraits are replaced by two different pairs of a self portrait and an  imagined women. Interestingly, there are always two pillows on Vincent’s bed, suggesting that the artist did not want to be alone.

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One has to wonder what Vincent felt. His admiration of Milliet as the epitome of a lover, the portrait’s placement in his bedroom, and his inadequate experiences with women, combine to make me think of Foreigner’s haunting lyrics:

In my life there’s been heartache and pain
I don’t know if I can face it again
Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far, to change this lonely life

I want to know what love is, I want you to show me
I want to feel what love is, I know you can show me

Foreigner – I Want To Know What Love Is Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Vincent, according to the Van Gogh Museum, eventually accepted that he was unlucky in love and turned to his ‘requited loves’ – art, nature and his brother Theo. Still, I wish he could have found a women with whom he could have known a deep and satisfying love.

Several artists have recorded “I Want To Know What Love Is.” Here is Mariah Carey’s beautiful 2009 performance:

The appearance of the gospel choir near the end of Carey’s performance is both true to the original song and important as we think about van Gogh. Mick Jones was interviewed after writing the hit song. In it, he reflected that, while the lyrics started on a personal level, he “ended up putting a gospel choir on it. And you know, realized suddenly that I’d written almost a spiritual song, almost a gospel song.” And spirituality brings us back to van Gogh’s bedroom and the second painting on his wall.

portrait-of-eugene-boch-1888largeThe second painting. Vincent’s painting, The Poet: Eugène Boch (right), was also on the wall of his bedroom. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh said, “I should like to paint the portrait of a fellow artist who dreams great dreams.” The artist was thinking of both love and infinity: “I would like to convey in the picture my appreciation, the love that I have for him.  […] Behind his head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of this shabby apartment, I will paint infinity, I will do a simple background of the richest blue, the most intense blue that I can create, and through this simple combination of the bright head against this rich, blue background, I will obtain a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky.”

Vincent was always seeking a connection to the infinite and the spiritual; his work is infused with those themes. I find comfort in knowing that–no matter how his relationships with women went–in his bedroom Vincent also found love in the broadest–indeed, infinite–sense.

I would love to know what you think–leave a comment below if you want.

– Ted Macaluso

Note: There will not be a Painting Mondays post next week as I am going on vacation. I know this may be hard for some, but have faith: the blog will return in two weeks.

If you haven’t yet seen Vincent, Theo and the Fox, you can check it out here.

 

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group. All other text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is included.

The Art of the Re-Do: From van Gogh to Steely Dan

“Don’t be a copycat,” people say. Teachers warn students not to plagiarize. But have you ever said something and later thought you could have said it better? Vincent van Gogh would repeat his paintings. Today, we look at one of them and ask what it tells us about creativity.

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I had the good fortune to visit The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. two days ago. The Road Menders (above) is in their permanent collection. It is also one of the paintings used to illustrate my children’s book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

There are two versions of the painting: the one in the Phillips Collection and another (below), titled The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Remy), held in the Cleveland Museum of Artlarge-plane-trees-1889blog

In 2013, the Phillips Collection brought the two paintings together for Van Gogh Repetitions, an exhibition that included 13 examples of van Gogh’s penchant to sometimes re-do his paintings.

Art teachers in prior centuries believed that making copies of artworks was a valuable practice in learning art. Later, the idea of copying fell into disfavor in some circles. It was felt that an artistic genius should capture and express the original; should make an “authentic” representation or gesture of the subject; not focus on the mundane practice of, eww!, copying. Besides, the thought went, while an original is “imaginative,” a copy borders on being a fake–and a copy can come dangerously close to plagiarism.

Van Gogh’s repetitions, therefore, did not receive serious comparative study for some years. The exhibition at the Phillips Collection used modern techniques, like x-ray analysis, to establish that the version held by the Cleveland Museum came first (for example, x-rays show erasures and changes underneath the top-level paint in The Large Plane Trees; these are not present in The Road Menders). Visual analysis shows that the version held by the Phillips Collection features smoother brush strokes. There’s more. Henry Adams, in an excellent New York Times article, Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker, interviewed one of the exhibition’s curators, William Robinson. While the two paintings are very similar, Robinson points out that in The Road Menders van Gogh moved the street lamp for artistic effect, added more lines to the trees, and included an extra person digging. You can find other differences between the two images if you examine them closely, above.

Why did van Gogh “copy” his paintings? In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh said that the repetitions were an opportunity to improve and clarify. Adams’ Seeing Double article further explains that, when working outdoors, van Gogh would be beset by gawking onlookers and the light would change. It was in the studio, van Gogh told Theo, that “he could transform a painting from a direct transcription of a scene into a true work of the imagination.” Take that, anti-copy purists!

Repetition is also modern. Using these two paintings, Michael Lobel, a professor of art history at Purchase College, S.U.N.Y., addressed van Gogh’s “contemporaneity” in an article in the May 2014 issue of Art in America magazine. Van Gogh remains relevant to the modern art world, he says, because his embrace of repetition lets us perceive him:

as an artist who understood the modern condition of the image as repeating and repeatable and subject to extensive circulation in the form of reproductions….this version of van Gogh is more compatible with the artistic outlook of our own time, in which the strategy of appropriation has become a central device in the artist’s toolkit.

Barbara J. King, Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary, makes an additional observation. In her NPR Cosmos & Culture blog, Van Gogh Teaches Us How To Keep Life Interesting, she points out that  copying as a way to perfect artistic technique is not unusual  (musicians, for example, practice many hours every day). King’s insight is that van Gogh’s repetitions are not about copying or practicing in any conventional sense. Instead, she points out that van Gogh’s repetitions are about looking at one’s finished, visible-to-the-public product and deciding to do it again, almost the same, but not quite.

I agree with King. Creative repetition gives incredible freedom and growth. Live concerts are exciting because each performance is slightly different. Rather than getting caught up in perfectionism, in worrying about whether one’s so-called finished product is good or bad, we would do well to heed King’s NPR blog post. She highlights the lesson van Gogh teaches us with his repetitions: “embrace and take delight in an iterative process…you can appreciate what happens when a new mosaic of meaning emerges from the previous one.” As ’70s rock band Steely Dan sings and (for fellow jazz lovers) the more recent Philipe Saisse Trio plays, Do It Again.

– Ted Macaluso

How is The Road Menders used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? The book is an adventure story that introduces children 4 – 8 to van Gogh’s paintings in a fun, exciting way. The tale starts with young Vincent and Theo trying to catch a fox. After the young boys have finished chasing the animal, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows up. One is to be a road mender. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. If you haven’t seen the book yet, you can check it out here.

 

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

 

The Goat Herd

It’s van Gogh’s birthday in two days, which got me asking: what was his earliest drawing? What should we do to celebrate? Today, we discuss his early drawings and, yes, I’m giving away 3 free copies of Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

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Vincent van Gogh would be 163 years old on Wednesday. He was born March 30, 1853. Although Vincent did not think of himself as a painter until he turned 27, he was an artist much earlier. As far as I can tell, The Goat Herd is his earliest surviving drawing. He was not quite 10 years old when he created it in October of 1862. (It is very hard to find reliable scholarly information on van Gogh’s drawings made before 1877. WikiArt.org and David Brooks’ phenomenal vggallery.com have The Goat Herd as his first. After 10 pages deep on a Google search, nothing contradicts that. If you know of an earlier sketch, please leave a comment below.)

Here two other early drawings by van Gogh (courtesy of WikiArt.org): Corinthian Capital (from when Vincent was 10) and Two Sketches of a Man Leaning on His Spade (when he was 14).

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As David Brooks asks, “When does genius begin?” Clearly, quite early for van Gogh.

Van Gogh believed one had to learn to draw before one could paint. Although his adult drawings are not as widely appreciated as his paintings, they are still excellent. Here is a wonderful reference book: Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series).

Where does today’s artwork appear in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? It is not part of the story but appears in his biography at the end of the book.

And speaking of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, to celebrate van Gogh’s birthday I’m giving away three copies of the book.

Click here to enter giveaway (administered by Amazon.com). NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends the earlier of Apr 4, 2016 11:59 PM PDT, or when all prizes are claimed. See Official Rules http://amzn.to/GArules.

Hope you win,

Ted Macaluso

 

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

 

 

 

 

Five Bold Girls and Two Sweet Boys

Some of the best children’s books provide young readers with insight into the adults they could become. Sometimes these books have positive role models, other times not. But the 7 books below answer a child’s question: what can I be?

If you’ve ever been to the ocean or stood on the banks of a mighty river you know the magical pull of water. Today’s book recommendations start with women on the water.

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Eleanor, the heroine of Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud, is a shining example of a bold woman. Written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, this book 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; a broken mast; a woman winning by skill, 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! Both your sons and daughters will too. Intended age range is 5 to 8.

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Steamboat! The Story of Captain Blanche Leathers, written by Judith Heide Gilliland and illustrated by Holly Meade, is the tale of Captain Blanche, the first female steamboat captain on the Mississippi (ages 4 and up). Published well over a decade ago, the book is as fresh today as it was then. While the story focuses on her skill and bravery, I like that the book also tells us that she became a legend for her kindness as well as her skill. The book makes clear what a perceptive person she was. When the era of the grand steamboat was giving way to the new age of the locomotive, a reporter asked her about this change. Leathers replied, “Today belongs to land. Tomorrow–air. That is life, nothing humdrum about it. I love it!”

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The thundering drop is as tall as a 17 story skyscraper. So, if you’re going to be bold, why not go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? The next book is about a bold, older woman who decides to win fame and fortune by doing just that. Written and illustrated by two-time Caldecott medalist Chris Van Allsburg, Queen of the Falls is the true story of Annie Edson Taylor (ages 6 – 9).  She was not just the first woman to successfully ride the falls in a barrel, she was the first person ever to do it (and there have only been 8 other successful rides in 100 years). I like that the book shows Taylor designing and helping to construct her special barrel. A strong barrel is only the start. Taylor solves the problems of how to survive inside the barrel. I like that the text is also honest about age discrimination: Taylor did not achieve the riches for which she had hoped because audiences wanted to see a young, beautiful daredevil rather than a 60s-something grandmother. Finally, I like that the book’s powerful lesson is not that a lady daredevil rode the Falls, it is that Taylor found inner satisfaction: she knew she had done the greatest feat ever performed.

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Pirates–love ’em or hate ’em (or both). I’m mixed about this next book because it tells of a lady pirate who was as bold as any man–and just as immoral as any other cutthroat. Emily Arnold McCully’s The Pirate Queen is about the half-real and half-mythic Grania O’Malley, an Irish woman who pillaged with the best of them. The book gives a sense of the clans along the Irish coast, the brutality of the English, and the political alliances necessary for survival during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The book is for older children (publisher’s suggested age range is 7 and up). To her credit, McCully presents her swashbuckling heroine straight, not as a Lara Croft or Xena stereotype. Published in 1995, you will probably have to find the book in your local library.

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After all of the above women navigating treacherous waters, let’s look at our two sweet boys before discussing the last bold girl. Daniel Finds a Poem by Micha Archer is a beautifully illustrated book which addresses the question, “What is Poetry?” The book’s answer ties everything together in a neat way (and, yes, poetry is all around us). For ages 5 – 8.

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Nothing quite like birds to help a story soar. The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, does just that. Although John James, as they called him, could ride and hunt better then most boys, what he really liked was to watch birds. Before Audubon, there was plenty of mystery when small birds flew south for the winter and small birds appeared in spring. Were they the same birds? How could that be? In the fall of 1804 Audubon was determined to find out. His ingenious method and meticulous drawings gave us the answer. This book tells us about America’s greatest painter of birds and conveys the passion of a boy who did his duty as a farmer while holding true to his desire to dream and observe. For ages 4 – 7.

51ubrx2blgzl-_sx394_bo1204203200_And finally, going from birds to butterflies, we have a girl from the Middle Ages who pursued truth at the risk of being labelled a witch. Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian is written by Newbery Honor-winner Margarita Engle and illustrated by Julie Paschkis (ages 5 – 8). In the 1600s, people thought bugs were evil, arising from mud in spontaneous generation. Thirteen-year-old Maria was observant and knew better. The book shows readers how she observed caterpillars, documented their transition to butterflies (the “summer birds”), and made brilliant drawings of their life cycle. This bold girl from the Middle Ages was both scientist and artist. Her paintings, by the way, became famous (see them here on WikiArt.org). The author of this book, Margarita Engle, is one of my favorites and also wrote the marvelous Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music.

Heroines and heroes are important. The books above are just a start. If you want to suggest others, please add them in a comment, below. I would love to hear from you. And always encourage your child to read.

– 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. The author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh (ages 4 and up), he now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced but please include attribution back to tedmacaluso.com. Some of the links above are affiliate links to Amazon.com.

The Church at Auvers

A church with no doors, sitting in its own shadow, splitting the path ahead in two, dark clouds reaching for it from above. What is Vincent van Gogh telling us about faith and religion?

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Monday’s blogposts are each about one of the 30 Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the children’s story, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today, the last Monday before Easter, the painting is The Church at Auvers.

First, a few facts. Van Gogh completed the image in June 1890, the month before he died.The church is a real building that still stands in the Place de l’Eglise in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise.  Its architecture is Gothic. The building is believed to have been constructed in the 13th Century. The oil and canvass painting is in the Musee d’Orsay, 27 kilometers southeast in Paris. The deep blue of the sky was also used in Portrait of Adeline Ravoux, the innkeeper’s daughter discussed in last week’s post. The church refused to hold a funeral mass for van Gogh because it was believed he committed suicide.

country-churchyard-and-old-church-tower-18851blogVan Gogh mentioned today’s painting in a June 5, 1890 letter to his sister, Wilhelmina. He mainly wrote about the colors he used; but also referred back to his earlier life, saying, “it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower…[only] the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous.” Completed five years earlier, The Old Tower is indeed a darker painting.

Viewers, of course, want more than facts. We all want to extract meaning from van Gogh’s art and life. In this regard, there is a lot of misperception of van Gogh, especially given his romantic appeal in popular culture. As Teresa Watanabe pointed out in her excellent Los Angeles Times article, A Divine View of Van Gogh,  the artist “is commonly portrayed as a sometimes loony genius who failed in a fanatical quest to become an evangelical preacher, turned his back on religion and went on to become one of history’s most celebrated painters.”

The misperception that van Gogh turned his back on religion gets some support from the absence of doors in today’s painting (the church is closed to him) and IMG_1610from the bleakness of The Old Tower. Interestingly, in his famous painting of The Starry Night, the church is dark and silent even though the houses in town are warm and lit (the spire is also needle-sharp, touching a dark patch in the sky, and stands in contrast to the cyprus, with its living curves touching three stars).

A dark church at night means nothing by itself, but Kathleen Powers Erickson makes some cogent points in her scholarly book, At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. Ericsson is an art historian who also holds a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago. Her full argument is too long to cover properly here, but I find her essential points convincing. She argues that religion was a central driving force in van Gogh’s life.

Van Gogh, Erickson explains, faced a crisis of faith in his early adult years. His father withdraw support for van Gogh’s desire to be a pastor, the protestant church that gave van Gogh a six-month appointment did not renew it, and a significant religious influence on his life, his Uncle Stricker, continually rejected van Gogh’s many efforts to marry his daughter, Kee. Allegedly, van Gogh never set foot in a church again and, as with the three paintings here, his art reflects some of his bitterness. It was a bitterness with organized religion, however; not with God, not with faith, and certainly not with spirituality which his work exudes. Erickson shows, through van Gogh’s letters and his art, that the artist went on a voyage of religious discovery. His struggles with religion and modernity led to the synthesis of the religious and the modern which he achieved in both his life and his work.

Van Gogh subscribed to the sentiment, “Religions pass away, but God remains” (he believed Victor Hugo said this, although it was actually Jules Michelet). Van Gogh “believed in a religion that teaches people to have reverence and awe of creation, and to have compassion and feelings of charity and sympathy toward people suffering. It was totally non institutional,”according to another scholar, Naomi Margolis Maurer (quote is from Watanabe’s article).  Maurer is the author of The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.

The recognition of the spiritual in van Gogh’s art makes me love him even more. What do you think? Leave a comment, below, and I will be sure to read it.

Now, for some crazy stuff. The Church at Auvers is featured in season 5, episode 10 of the British sci-fi show, Doctor Who. In it, there is a monster in one of the church windows, signifying (to the Doctor) that an ancient evil is lurking in Auvers-sur-Oise in June 1890. Vincent must go inside the church to battle the monster before the painting can be returned to its original form. Hey, why not? Some other people believe there is a hidden portrait of Vincent’s face  in the painting. I don’t see it, but why not?

How is the painting used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? After young Vincent and Theo have finished chasing the fox, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows. One is to be a pastor like his father. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. As a young boy, Vincent does not know that his religious journey will be complex. As an author, I like that the illustration has some darkness to foreshadow the path that the real-life Vincent followed.

– Ted Macaluso

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is given. Some of the links, above, are affiliate links to Amazon.com.

Thatched Cottages By A Hill

An unfinished painting from van Gogh’s final days, an innkeeper’s daughter, and a Bob Dylan song. Today’s post ties them together, and also includes a giveaway prize.

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As with last week’s column, this week we continue to look at van Gogh’s work during the period he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise. Van Gogh was fascinated by the thatched roofs he saw in the area. In a letter to his sister dated the same month as the painting (June 1890), van Gogh wrote, “there are some roofs of mossy thatch here which are superb and of which I shall certainly make something.”According to Ronald Pickvance, author of Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, today’s painting “shows the most extensive view of thatched cottages in all van Gogh’s Auvers canvasses (p. 269).”

However, while it is an extensive view, a number of art historians believe that today’s painting is unfinished. It is easy to see the reason for this belief when we compare the painting to another painting of thatched roofs done in the same month, the dramatic Houses With Thatched Roofs, Cordeville shown below (courtesy of WikiArt.com):

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In contrast to the Cordeville painting, today’s painting has a blank sky and some of the fields appear uncharacteristically plain. Compared to the turbulent sky and the witches tree hovering over the Cordeville house, the dwellings in Thatched Cottages By A Hill appear calmer.

At the same time that they offer relative calm, the dwellings in Thatched Cottages By A Hill lack straight walls and roofs: they curve organically and feel almost alive. There is a tension in them, accentuated by the angle formed between the cottages on the left and right. They offer shelter, both in the form of solid roofs and the hills that surround them, yet bear the knowledge that storms will come. Van Gogh was suffering from psychiatric problems and he died in July, the month after creating these paintings. It is tempting to think that van Gogh sought shelter from his coming storm through them.

When vaportrait-of-adeline-ravoux-1890-1blogn Gogh was living in Auvers-sur-Oise he stayed at the Auberge Ravoux, an Inn run by the Ravoux family. The innkeeper’s daughter, Adeline Ravoux, was young (I believe 15) when van Gogh lived with them and painted her portrait. When she was 76 she wrote a memoir about the artist which you can read here. Her memories include:

“Vincent did not visit anybody in the village, to the best of my knowledge. He had few conversations with us….On the other hand, Vincent had attached himself to my little sister Germaine…then a baby; two years old. Every evening, following the meal, he took her on his knees, and drew The Sandman for her on a slate: a horse harnessed to a cart, in which the sandman stood upright, throwing sand by the handful. Following this the little girl kissed everyone and went to bed.”

Thatched Cottages By A Hill and the facts surrounding van Gogh’s life in Auvers therefore evoked for me Bob Dylan’s classic song, Shelter From The Storm, especially his last two verses:

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Even though I doubt Dylan was thinking of van Gogh when composing this song,¹ the parallels between his lyric and van Gogh’s life are intriguing.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings in the book every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

¹ Some claim that Dylan’s beautiful song Visions of Johanna is about van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger, who moved Dylan because of her single-handed transformation of the reputation of an obscure suicide into that of a major artist….

WIN A FREE GIFT

I’m introducing free giveaways this week to reward readers and build up my followers on Twitter. It is administered by Amazon.com. Click here to win a copy of a Van Gogh Coloring Book from the Van Gogh Museum. Three copies being given away, winners chosen at random.

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Bob Dylan’s lyrics copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music. Everything else © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. This post may be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Children’s Books About Artists That Also Teach About Life

Children’s biographies of famous painters teach about an artist’s work and life. A few books go beyond that and use an artist’s life as a way to convey deeper lessons and virtues.

Stories 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.

Here are six books that can both educate and inspire young readers (uses affiliate links).

51hlarmxwil-_sx425_bo1204203200_Themes: Courage; Standing up to Mean Comments. At one level, Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter (author) and Kevin Hawkes (illustrator) is about Picasso’s life and artistic evolution. At a deeper level, the book is about courage in the face of doubt; about the exuberance for life that helped make Picasso one of the prominent painters of the twentieth century. Winter turns Picasso’s life into a drama (rather than a mere retelling of biography). By doing that, the story reaches into the heart of every child who is told to “just behave,” of every child who needs to find the inner strength to pursue a dream in the face of harsh criticism. The illustrations reinforce the drama of the story. The book starts with a peaceful landscape. But, turn the page, and a young Picasso is bursting through that same canvas. When art dealers tell Picasso his new work is terrible and ask why he is abandoning prior styles that made money, Picasso “expands himself to a height of one hundred feet” and shouts, “The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good sense!’” What a marvelous way to relate to the intense feelings of children. Readers feel what it means to resist the judgments of peers and forge one’s own path.

61048cn65vl-_sx362_bo1204203200_ Themes: Compassion; Bonds Forged by Fathers and Sons. Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt is based on a true story in Vincent van Gogh’s life. The book recounts how Camille and his father, the postman Roulin, 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. 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.

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 Themes: Perseverance, Overcoming Disability. In Capturing Joy – The Story of Maud Lewis, written by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Mark Lang, children learn about a Canadian painter who, through force of will, created images of joy despite a hard life. The details of Lewis’ life are fascinating, but the book is really about the artist’s self-determination. Lewis was born with several birth defects, had rheumatoid arthritis, and was dirt poor. Her husband was a fish peddler and they lived in a house without electricity and indoor plumbing. Despite these challenges, she persevered, and became famous slowly, over time (rather than suddenly–another good lesson for today’s children). Lewis’ house—which she turned into a work of art—is now a part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In addition to illustrating what self-determination means, the book introduces children to a less known female artist and to folk art.

 Vincent cover 17x10-5 2-11 half for v3-3Themes: Growing Up, Learning from Failure.  Vincent, Theo and the Fox is written by Ted Macaluso (full disclosure, that’s me) and illustrated by Vincent van Gogh. The book is a fable about van Gogh’s life that addresses growing up and figuring out what one wants to do in life. 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. In the story, the fox was young too—he was also trying to grow up and find his way in the world. So the book has two boys and a fox thinking about growing up and through their actions teaching each other about what to do in the face of failure and, eventually, success. Full-color reproductions of 30 van Gogh masterpieces illustrate the story. A brief, factual biography of van Gogh ties the events in the story to van Gogh’s life.

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 Theme: It’s Never Too Late to Pursue your Dream. At first, one might think that the story of a toll-collector who didn’t start painting until he was 40 years old, would hold little interest for a child. But the lesson–just because you haven’t started, it doesn’t mean you can’t still do it—applies to every age, especially children who procrastinate over homework or have self-doubt. In The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Amanda Hale, we learn that “not a single person has ever told him he is talented.” But Rousseau wants to paint anyway. “Why? Because he loves nature.” And so he does. Teaching himself, mocked by experts, doing it over and over again, until—like The Little Engine That Could—he succeeds. One of my favorite parts of the book comes when Henri is 61. He is too poor to ever travel to a real jungle. And then we read, “It doesn’t matter—he sees one before him. Clear as day.” The story tells the facts of Rousseau’s life in a way that can inspire children to appreciate art and to pursue their dreams.

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Theme: Inspiration Strikes When You Least Expect: Listen to It, Believe in Yourself. Langston Hughes was a poet, not a painter, but Langston’s Train Ride, written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Leonard Jenkins, enables readers to experience the magic moment, that single instant, when inspiration comes. The story starts at a moment of success in Hughes’ life and flashes back to his youth, when he was riding a train to Mexico to meet his father “who left us to fend for ourselves when I was just a little boy.” As the train crosses the Mississippi, three words come to Langston, “I’ve known rivers.” From that, comes one of the first poems that made Hughes famous. The magic of this book is that the writing and the pictures combine so that readers experience the train ride, the buildup of thoughts that led to the words, and how Hughes captured them and expanded upon them. The book teaches facts about Hughes’ life but draws readers in to experience the creative process and how one learns to believe in oneself.

Books that go beyond the facts of an artist’s biography to address important themes about life are ones that stick with young readers and engage their imagination. The books above are just a start. If you want to suggest others, please add them in a comment, below. I would love to hear from you. And always encourage your child to read.

 – 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. The author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, he now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced but please include attribution back to tedmacaluso.com.