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:

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(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.

 

Six Exciting Middle Grade Mysteries That Teach About Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso is the author of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, 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.

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

– Ted Macaluso

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

 

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

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.

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.

Painting Mondays: 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.

 

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.