Interior of a Restaurant

What does van Gogh’s beautiful painting of a restaurant have to do with a new eBook from the U.S. Department of Agriculture? This week, we find out.

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The children’s book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, weaves an adventure story around Interior of a Restaurant and 29 other Vincent van Gogh paintings. Readers also want information about each painting in the book. Every Monday, I write about one of those paintings. Why this painting, this week? Hint: it’s related to what you get in a restaurant: fun and food. I’ll explain in a minute.

First, a few facts about the painting. Vincent van Gogh painted it in Paris during the summer of 1887. You can see the picture at the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands. Unlike his other restaurant pictures, which involve food, the scene in this painting takes place between meals and there is no food visible. Fine art promotor Mia Feigelson also makes an interesting observation: except for the hint given by the top hat on the hook at left of center, there is also no human presence. Van Gogh did not paint many restaurant scenes, but when he did they usually had food or people or both. For comparison, below are two of his other famous restaurant scenes (Interior of a Restaurant, Arles and Cafe Terrace at Night):

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61cxd11m-fl-_sx423_bo1204203200_Also unlike his other restaurant paintings, today’s painting is dominated by dots. Van Gogh was experimenting with the artistic style known as pointillism. While the dots are prominent, in their book, Van Gogh’s Table: At the Auberge Ravoux, Alexandra Leaf and Fred Leeman make the point (pun intended) that van Gogh applied the dots selectively and only on the floor and walls. The concrete objects (chairs, lamps, tables, and even the top hat hanging high up) are executed with strokes, sometimes even with drawn outlines. (Their book is nice and even has 50 French recipes! Yummy.)

Ah, recipes, food, fun. That is why I wrote about this van Gogh painting this week. I was at the The National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference yesterday and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that they just published some eBooks on good nutrition febooks_graphicor preschool and kindergarten kids. Whether you are dining in a fine French restaurant or eating at your school cafeteria, good nutrition is important. The USDA eBooks are free, kids can read the words themselves or press a button for the book to read the words to them, there is an interactive “plan your meal” page, and a maze where children have to touch the right nutritional foods to make it through to the other side. Before turning to writing, I worked for many years in the child nutrition/hunger field and some of my former colleagues created these eBooks. I’m very happy to see that they are now available. Your kids may be happy to see them too. Did I say they were free?

– Ted Macaluso

Interior of a Restaurant is the third illustration in Vincent, Theo and the Fox. The fox is hungry. He wants to eat like humans do so he goes into the restaurant. Mistakenly thinking that people must eat the flowers on the tables, he jumps up. Chaos ensues, which readers like. If you haven’t yet seen the book, it is available on BarnesAndNoble.com and Amazon.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided that attribution and a link to tedmacaluso.com is given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight books for kids about female pioneers in the arts

How do women become pioneers in the arts? How do they shine apart from their male colleagues? Eight delightful children’s books hold valuable lessons that make art more fun for aspiring female artists.

American ballerina, Misty Copeland, a pioneer in her own right, recently made headlines flawlessly recreating some of Edgar Degas’s famous ballet paintings. A pairing of female and male artistic giants is not unusual: Degas and painter Mary Cassatt, for example, were friends for years. Other examples include Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as painter Georgia O’Keefe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. But how do female artists come to shine apart from male colleagues and gain the spotlight for themselves?

513xtv9ozll-_sy454_bo1204203200_Copeland, of course, is already famous in her own right (see the 2015 documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale). She also wrote an award-winning picture book, Firebird, for any girl whose confidence is fragile but who also yearns to reach the heights Misty has.

Here are 7 additional children’s books about other pioneering female artists, both well-known and less well-known (note: uses affiliate links).

51tsflvev5l-_sx398_bo1204203200_Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Newberry honor winner Margarita Engle and illustrator Rafael Lopez, tells the fascinating story of Millo Castro Zaidarriaga. In 1932 she broke through a Cuban traditional belief that only boys should play drums. She played alongside the greats of American jazz and became a world-famous musician. The text is a poem that paints captivating word images. The illustrations capture her father’s initial disapproval, her dreams, her actions to keep her dream alive, and her father’s eventual transformation. The illustration that moved me the most was a two-page vertical spread of Millo looking up at the ceiling where a bird cage holds a trapped bongo drum with wings. Great book!

51zvardrfol-_sy452_bo1204203200_Capturing Joy – The Story of Maud Lewis, written by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Mark Lang, gives the fascinating story of a Canadian folk art painter who was born with birth defects, was poor, and lived with rheumatoid arthritis. Maud Lewis married a fish peddler. In the home where they lived there was no electricity and no indoor plumbing. The book is about her self-determination to overcome these obstacles and create images of joy. Unlike the instant fame that Hollywood portrays, the book shows that Lewis became famous slowly (a message I think valuable). Lewis eventually turned her whole house into a work of art and it is now part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

51ykl0jup7l-_sx411_bo1204203200_Georgia O’Keefe followed a unique, sometimes controversial, path to becoming one of America’s greatest painters. Her relationship with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz is, perhaps, too complicated for young readers. Two picture books, however, do a good job of showing how Georgia saw the world and what motivated her to follow her own path. Originally published in 1998, My Name is Georgia by Jeanette Winter, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of51j0rxzxnil-_sx402_bo1204203200_ the Year and made the New York Public Library’s “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.” Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez and illustrated by Julie Paschkis also focuses on how Georgia saw the world. The illustrations are beautiful and the book’s goal is to convey Georgia’s “singular perspective as a woman artist in her time.”

Me, Frida, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist David Diaz, is one of many books about artistic pioneer Frida Kahlo. What I like about this book is that it focuses on Frida’s time in San Francisco. This is where she found her inspiration to step out and find fame on her own, sepa61pbefdi9wl-_sy481_bo1204203200_rate from the shadow of her husband and mentor, Diego Rivera. The book shows Frida and Diego exploring the city. How familiar is this: he  expresses an opinion; Frida disagrees? When the couple explore towering redwood groves Diego feels empowered; Frida falls asleep. Gradually, she explores the city on her own, focusing on the things that appeal to her. There is a great illustration where, out of the blue, Frida starts to sing Mexican songs at a party to honor Diego. That night, she painted a picture that made her famous. It was a portrait of her and Diego. As in life, he was big and she was small. However, in the portrait, in a ribbon in the beak of a bird, she puts her name first. Unlike many other children’s books on Kahlo (which, overall, give more information about her life and art), Me, Frida recognizes the significance of this step. In the story it occurs in a context in which its meaning makes sense.  Estupendo!

Mary Cassatt: Family Pictures (Smart About Art) by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Jennifer Kalis is a fun read. It takes the form of a school report by “Claire” who has such wonderful observations as:

“I thought that Mary would be a shy, gentle person. Wrong again! Mary had a bad temper and an opinion on everything. During dinner parties, if her guests said something she disagreed with, she’d bang her fists on the table.”

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The book has a lot of information about Cassatt and contains paintings she did as well as paintings that influenced her. We find out that Cassatt did few paintings of men because, back then, it was not respectable for a single woman to use men as models. Despite a 40 year friendship with Edgar Degas we find that they never married. It intrigues “Claire” that, before she died, Cassatt burned all the letters Degas had written her. Overall, the book shows that even in the 1800’s women could be independent; it shows that Mary wanted nothing more than to be a great artist and, by golly, that is what she became.

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Finally, how about a book about a woman who writes and illustrates books? The Scraps Book: Notes From a Colorful Life is both by and about Lois Ehlert, one of the most gifted picture book makers of our time. It is incredibly colorful, has many craft lessons for readers, and shows what it is like to be an artist. It addresses where inspiration comes from. I especially liked the time when Ehlert’s sister’s cat brushed her ankles. No spoilers here, but I recommend reading the page where she shows two versions of the story that grew out of that incident. Ehlert is a recipient of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art Artist Award for lifelong innovation in the field of children’s books. What a role model for an aspiring young artist.

These books will stick with young readers and engage their imagination. Check them out in the library, your favorite bookseller, or through the links above.

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso is the author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, an adventure story for kids based on the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, kind hearted dog, and temperamental word processor. His son is in college. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely copied provided attribution and a link to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is included.

Wheatfield With Crows

One of van Gogh’s most striking paintings, “Wheatfield with Crows,” was also one of his last. Observers have therefore analyzed and re-analyzed it for meaning. There are probably as many viewpoints as there are crows in the painting. Perhaps we should all just agree its beautiful.

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Because it was painted in the final month of his life, some wish to see Wheatfield With Crows as a lonely, suicide note. These interpretations focus on the dark sky, the allegedly ominous birds, the emptiness of the field, and the fact that the path goes nowhere. Some observers believe it matters whether the crows are flying towards the viewer or away. Still others think there is a hidden image of a severed ear in the cloud (if you rotate the picture 130 degrees). Dark interpretations are bolstered by the 1956 movie about van Gogh, Lust for Life, which, for dramatic effect, falsely portrayed the painting as van Gogh’s last. It was not.

This all strikes me as silly. What we know is that the painting is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is a double-square canvas, which contributes to its imposing width and presence. It is dramatic. For example, the three paths could be the shadow of a giant bird. The darkness in the sky could be descending. Or, the darkness could be lifting. One can focus on the golden light of the field and the pretty, deep blue of the sky. But, then again, one could focus on the feeling of stormy darkness. Like most great art, the painting provides an infinite opportunity for viewers to draw forth their own meanings. Vincent’s letters do not clarify the issue. He wrote that he had made a point of expressing sadness, later adding “extreme loneliness” (de la solitude extrême), but also says he believes the canvases show what he considers healthy and fortifying about the countryside (and adds that he intended to take them to Paris as soon as possible).

The painting itself is in balance. The paths divide the canvas in 3 with 2 golden sections. The field occupies two-thirds of the canvass, the sky one-third. The colors–blue, golden yellow, green, brown–are complementary. Whether the viewer wishes to see the painting as “half full or half empty,” as impending darkness or impending light, the image is poised at the edge of change, at the moment just before something happens.

Personally, I see the painting as hopeful, as the sky being ready to clear for a beautiful day. In Vincent, Theo and the Fox, for this painting, I wrote:

“As the day drew to a close, the fox walked through a golden field. Crows flew out of his way, slowly circling in the sky. ‘I’m happy here. This is where a fox should be,’ he thought.”

Do you side with the pessimists or with the fox? It’s up to you. But I would love to know what you think. Leave a comment and I will read and respond with interest.

– 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. See the book here.

And finally, if you want to have some fun, enter wheat field with crows YouTube into your browser. One poster animates the crows flying toward you, another shows how to paint a copy by numbers, several pair the painting with good (and sometimes not so good) music. If only, van Gogh had known.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

 

Starry Night in person

What happens when you see a masterpiece in person? For me, The Starry Night went from an iconic image in popular culture, to something that is real, personal, and deeply moving. It also left me with a question.

Going to museums is special. I had the good fortune to visit New York City this weekend and see The Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum allows non-flash photos, so here is my photo of it hanging on their wall.

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One does not usually see the frame in reproductions of the The Starry Night. This may sound crazy, but it was seeing the frame that made me realize the painting is, in fact, a real object, not merely a meme floating through popular culture. In my mind I always knew it was real, but seeing it in person made it feel real in a deeper way.

When I saw it “live,” the painting was smaller than I thought it would be. This is a picture I took over someone’s head (it was very crowded) that gives some sense of its size.

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One of the nice things about seeing the painting in person was that I could focus on different parts of the painting. For example, although the sky and stars dominate the image, the town is really quite beautiful.

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Looking at the town, the buildings are flat and, in comparison to the hills and sky, stable. I was struck by how the hills and trees, in comparison, were flowing like waves (very much like the light of the sky).

Focusing on the cyprus tree, it also flows. Most importantly, the tree sparkles like the stars, reaching and flowing towards them. The tree touches three stars: both the white and green ones in the image below and (if you scroll back up to the full picture), the yellow one just above the flowing cloud.

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Many interpret cyprus trees as symbolic of death. If so, the cyprus in The Starry Night seemed to represent a harmonious “death,” one that flows with passion and connects the earth and the stars. I felt peaceful seeing the painting. Everything is united.

Finally, the paanimal?inting left me with a question. Is that an animal in the very lower left of the image, above, (and blown up to the left)? It might be. At the very end of Vincent, Theo and the Fox I wrote, “Vincent smiled. In his dream, he saw the fox was happy, running through fields and hills, wild and free under the starry sky.” Could that mischievious creature have come back down into town?

What do you think? I would love to know and will read and respond to your comments with interest.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book/early reader that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings.  See it here.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

View of Roofs and Backs of Houses

How did van Gogh become van Gogh? The two years, from 1886 to 1888, which he spent living with his brother among the rooftops of Paris, marked his transition from somber dark to expressive color.

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On Mondays I write about one of the 30+ Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the  book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today’s painting, of the roofs of Paris, is important because it is among this landscape of zinc and slate that van Gogh’s artistic vision was transformed. Before arriving in Paris, his paintings were dark, steeped in the tradition of Dutch painters. Two years later, when he left Paris for the south of France, he was ready to master the explosive expressions of color that we see in many of his most beloved paintings.

With no advance warning, in February 1886, Vincent showed up at the door of his brother’s apartment in Paris, asking to move in. Vincent was broke; he had arrived from  Antwerp, Belgium where he was unable to pay his rent. Not surprisingly, the next two years were one of the very few times when Vincent and his brother Theo struggled to get along. However, the move was a good one for van Gogh’s artistic development.

Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, lived in Montmartre, the artistic center of Paris. Two years earlier, in 1884, he had been promoted to work in the Paris headquarters of Goupil & Cie, at the time the leading art dealer in France. As Nina Siegal explains in her New York Times article, Becoming Vincent Van Gogh: The Paris Years, van Gogh “was immediately thrust into a milieu of young avant-garde artists experimenting with new styles.” Siegal explains more about the Parisian art scene in those years:

“Impressionists…were busy with their explorations of light and shadows. The Pointillists…were separating out colors into individual dots dabbed on canvas to form discernable figures. The Cloisonnists, meanwhile, were painting with bold and flat forms separated by dark outlines. Vincent…tried his hand at all of [these styles].”

Exposed to these influences, Vincent re-examined his ideas of painting. He met many of the notable Parisian painters during this period too, further inspiring his artistic growth. Read more in Siegal’s excellent and knowledgable piece, here.

From the start of van Gogh’s years in Paris to its end, the transition in his art is remarkable. For me, the two self-portraits below say it all. The one on the left is from 1886, just after he moved to Paris; the one on the right is from 1888, just before he left Paris and moved to Arles.

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Wow! I like both paintings. But it is the Vincent on the right who was ready to create such masterpieces as his sunflowers, wheat fields, and Starry Night!

(Many scholars have written about van Gogh’s Paris years. If interested, check out Van Gogh: The Life, a phenomenal book, or Becoming Van Gogh, a shorter piece in the New York Review of Books that displays images of his pre-Paris sketches and his post-Paris work. Van Gogh created 224 paintings in Paris, including a number of scenes of rooftops. You can find the complete list of them on vggallery.com, here.)

Finally, back to the roofs of Paris. Many artists, not just van Gogh, have been inspired by them. The Paris City Council is now asking UNESCO to designate their “unique” roofs a world heritage site. What do you think about the roof request? About van Gogh? About books intended to inspire children’s appreciation of great art? I would love to know and will read and respond to your comments with interest.

Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book/early reader that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. See it here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

 

 

 

A Pair of Shoes

What did van Gogh mean to convey with these shoes? Three philosophers debate what the painting means for the theory of art; other commentators see the shoes as spiritual; yet others, as symbolic of Vincent’s life.

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Vincent, Theo and the Fox weaves a story around 30 of van Gogh’s paintings. Readers also want information about each painting. Every Monday I write about one of the paintings. Why did I choose this painting this week? My house in the Washington, D.C. suburbs got 28″ of snow during the Blizzard of 2016. After shoveling through 4 – 5 foot drifts, my boots felt just like van Gogh’s painting!

Experts disagree on when and where Van Gogh painted A Pair of Shoes (some say Paris, 1886, others Nuenen, 1885). Either way, in Philosophers Rumble Over Van Gogh’s Shoes, Scott Horton argues that the shoes became a celebrated painting because philosophers disagreed about its meaning. In 1930, the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, saw the painting at an exhibition and, years later, used them in his essay, The Origin of the Work of Art.

Heidegger wanted to make the case that it is only what one perceives from a painting that matters for art theory. And Heidegger perceived a lot in these shoes: “From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind.” Heidegger attributes many layers of significance to the shoes: loneliness, anxiety about the source of her next meal, joy at surviving want, the “trembling” before impending childbirth and “shivering at the surrounding menace of death.” Ultimately, the shoes are “protected in the world of the peasant woman.”

But wait! in a 1968 essay, The Still Life as a Personal Object, philosopher Meyer Schapiro pointed out that Heidegger messed up: they are not women’s shoes and the painting is not addressing the world of the peasant woman. There is strong evidence that these were van Gogh’s own shoes, which he bought in a flea market and wore “on an extended rainy walk to create the effect he wished for this painting.” Shapiro argued you cannot just look at the physicality of a painting, like Heidegger proposed; you have to recognize that the artist is present in a painting, especially a still life. In short, Schapiro believes van Gogh is telling us about his own hard life in A Pair of Shoes.

The third philosopher to join the fray, Jacques Derrida, believes both Heidegger and Shapiro are wrong. The philosophical differences among the three scholars gets very complicated: to read more, go to art historian Dayna L.C.’s excellent article, Interpreting a Painting of Shoes.

A Pair of Shoes is certainly widely discussed. In addition to the philosophical debate, in Interpretations of Vincent Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes the website Spirituality & Practice says, “To be spiritual is…to see the fingerprints of the Divine in the most ordinary objects and things. We see that touch in A Pair of Shoes, and we are grateful to Van Gogh for opening our eyes to these humble companions which we usually take for granted. The artist conveys the sanctity of the shoes and as a result, we are compelled to reframe our view of them. Thank you, Vincent, for helping us to love as many things as we can.”

One wonders what van Gogh would think about the philosophical debate over, and spiritual interpretations of, his painting? What does the painting mean to you? I would love your comments and will read them with great interest.

Ted Macaluso

A Pair of Shoes appears halfway through the book, when Vincent and Theo are feeling frustrated from chasing the fox (don’t worry, they all get a second wind, which is when they learn about growing up). If you haven’t yet read Vincent, Theo and the Fox, check it out here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso.May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

Vincent’s Bedroom

Vincent van Gogh’s colorful bedroom is probably one of the most famous bedrooms in art. Did you know that there is not just one painting, but three? The Art Institute of Chicago tells us why.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox weaves a story around 31 of van Gogh’s paintings. Readers also want information about each painting. Every Monday we post about one painting in the book. Todays painting is Vincent’s bedroom in Arles.

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Vincent van Gogh loved the painting so much he actually made three versions. The Art Institute of Chicago has an upcoming exhibition that will bring all three versions together for the first time. The exhibition will run from February 14 to May 8 0f 2016. Using digital technology, it will show the subtle differences between the three paintings. The exhibition promises to explain the significance of the three paintings and how they relate to an important theme in van Gogh’s work, the idea of home.

This exhibition is the first to truly delve into the fascinating history of these three paintings. Beginning with Van Gogh’s early canvases of cottages and birds’ nests, the show explores the artist’s use of the motif of home—as haven, creative chamber, and physical reality—and follows the evolution of this theme throughout his career… Source: Art Institute Chicago: Member Magazine, January/February 2016, p. 13

You can find out more on the Art Institute’s website. The Art Institute is one of the world’s great museums. Go if you can. (A big thanks to Duke Ryan, author of Amanda’s Autobiography, for telling me about the exhibit.)

Finally, whether or not you can go to the exhibition, check out this intriguing video from mjkooopman about Vincent’s bedroom:

And why are there three paintings of his room? According to the Art Institute, water damage threatened the stability of the original painting. About a year later, therefore, van Gogh made a second full-size painting of his room so that he could ensure that the image would be perserved. A few weeks after that, he made a smaller, third painting as a gift for his mother and sister. Van Gogh’s artistic investment in the image of his room in Arles gives credence to the Art Institute’s interpretation that the three paintings exemplify van Gogh’s “relentless pursuit of home.”

The painting of Vincent’s bedroom appears about halfway through the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. If you haven’t yet read the book, you can check it out here.

text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso

 

 

 

 

 

 

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