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.

image016

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.

self-portrait-with-dark-felt-hat-at-the-easel-1886(1).jpg!HD  image030

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.

 

 

 

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.

image019

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

;

Starry Night

The book weaves a story around van Gogh’s paintings. Readers also want information about the paintings. Every Monday we post about one painting in the book.

Kids (and parents) who read Vincent, Theo and the Fox often want to learn more about each of the 30+ paintings in it. So every Monday I’m posting interesting information about one of the book’s paintings. Here is educator Natalya St. Clair’s fascinating explanation of the math behind Starry Night. The video is animated by Avi Ofer.

Enjoy!

 

text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso

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 – 2019 by Ted Macaluso.

More information about Vincent van Gogh

Thank you for.looking at Vincent, Theo and the Fox. If you are interested in more about the artist, here are some resources to consider.

BOOKS

Clicking the links below takes you to the Amazon.com page about the book or item.

Van Gogh: The Life

Van Gogh’s Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890

Van Gogh at Work (Mercatorfonds)

WEBSITES

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The Vincent van Gogh Gallery. This is a private website that has a wealth of information.

%d bloggers like this: