Vincent van Gogh’s Peasant Women

Van Gogh painted dozens of portraits of peasant women. What do we know about them? And, why was this one used in a children’s book?

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This portrait by Vincent van Gogh, Head of a Peasant Woman with a White Cap (Nuenen, 1885), is dramatic: for the lighting, the woman’s chiseled features, and the intense concentration and intelligence in her eyes. The image marks an equally dramatic turn in Vincent, Theo and the Fox, my children’s book story about van Gogh and growing up:

“On silent, padded paws the fox jumped to the kitchen counter, where there was a basket of potatoes. He took one and ate it….With a clang and a clatter, the potatoes spilled everywhere. One of the women looked over and saw the fox. She nudged her husband. “I shall catch that fox,” her husband said. “We shall eat him for supper. Later, I will make you a fur coat…” 

I won’t reveal what happens next. Authors have to live, so please buy the book here to find out. However, I do want to talk about van Gogh’s portraits of peasant women. Here are four more examples of the many portraits of women created by van Gogh:

head-of-an-old-peasant-woman-with-white-cap-1884-1large   head-of-a-peasant-woman-with-white-cap-18841

head-of-a-peasant-woman-with-white-cap-1885-6large  head-of-a-woman-71large

(These examples are from WikiArt.org- encyclopedia of visual arts, where you can find many more similar portraits.)

Van Gogh did not just paint peasant women, of course. Between 1881 and 1885 he made many paintings of women, men and couples. These paintings include both portraits and studies of working people engaged in everyday chores: sowing and sewing, fishing and weaving, farming and cooking.

Why did van Gogh make these and his other peasant character studies? First, he was aware of the industrialization creeping across the Netherlands. Vincent saw the changing landscape and its increasingly harsh impact on the working poor, who had little chance to change occupations. Second, as an artist, he admired another painter, Jean-François Millet, a pioneer of the “peasant genre” in the realism movement in art.

For a full explanation we also have to recognize that the life of peasants and the cycles of nature are closely related. The significance of that point becomes clear when we look at van Gogh’s own moral compass: he started out ministering to coal miners and trying to serve their needs. His life and work were dominated by intense spiritual needs even after he had renounced formalized religion. As Ann H. Murray, retired Assistant Professor of Art and Director of the Watson Gallery at Wheaton College, points out, Van Gogh painted landscapes and images of  “simple people who lived in harmony with nature” because “he had turned to nature as his sole source of spiritual fulfillment and admittedly tried to express such feelings in his art.”

Back to the story. Why did I select the first portrait above to use in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? She’s looking to the right, first of all. In the story, the fox starts the scene by observing image010the people in van Gogh’s famous paintiimage012ng, The Potato Eaters, at their table. In my mind’s eye, van Gogh’s Basket of Potatoes was on a counter to the right.
So the woman had to be looking in that direction. More importantly, the woman’s expression is neither contemplative nor beaten-down. She is focused on something see sees and she is reacting intently to it. Perfect for a story character seeing a fox trying to eat her poor family’s scarce potatoes.

It is stimulating and fun to weave stories around fine art. I believe anyone can do it if they try. The trick is to make sure that the choice in art (of which there are many) matches the arc of the story (where the possibilities are almost infinite but under your control). How do you think  I did with this one match-up? Leave a comment, below. I’ll be sure to read it.

– Ted Macaluso

51yxdllnnwl-_sx416_bo1204203200_For more reflections about van Gogh and religion, see my earlier essay, The Church at Auvers.

If you are interested in learning more about van Gogh and nature, check out the Clark Art Institute’s Van Gogh and Nature, written by Richard Kendall, Sjraar van Heighten, and Chris Stolwijk [affiliate link].

If you liked this post and want to make sure you learn when future ones are posted, please subscribe to my newsletter by clicking here. Every other week you’ll receive news about blog posts on art, children’s books and writing; information about new books; and an occasional subscriber-only giveaway.

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. All rights reserved.

 

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.

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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.

If you liked this post and want to make sure you learn when future ones are posted, please subscribe to my newsletter by clicking here. Every other week you’ll receive news about blog posts on art, children’s books and writing; information about new books; and an occasional subscriber-only giveaway.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. All Rights Reserved.

Picture Books With An Art Theme

Books About Famous Artists

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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).

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Painting Mondays: 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.

Painting Mondays: 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.

The story behind the story

Readers sometimes ask how I wrote Vincent, Theo and the Fox; how did you come up with the idea? This 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 got very sick. He 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 Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour iimage001n the Background (Arles, June, 1888). 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. When I decided to turn it into a real story 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. Somehow 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, 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 brief 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

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso.