The beauty of the close, mutually supportive relationship between brothers Vincent and Theo van Gogh at the end of Vincent’s turbulent life is the heart and soul of this graphic biography, written by cartoonist Barbara Stok for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Stok “based scenes and storylines in Vincent on Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, including excerpts from select exchanges in between illustrated panels and incorporating parts into the characters’ dialogue.” This level of research brings a startling intimacy and authenticity to Stok’s narrative. Stok’s decision to tell the story of how and why Van Gogh moved to Arles, France, desperate to paint, set up an artists’ atelier, and prove his artistic genius, was an inspired one, as this was the period where so many of his great works and even greater torments occurred.
Vincent opens with Theo taking his brother to the train station, encouraging him to enjoy his time in the sun and regain his health. Vincent immediately begins calculating how many paintings he would have to sell to begin to pay back the 50 francs a month Theo will be sending him so that he can paint. Thus are the economics that plagued Vincent’s mind positioned front and center, and Stok moves swiftly to bring Vincent’s precarious new life on his own, as well as his high hopes for finally achieving success as an artist, into focus. At first, Van Gogh revels in the climate, the bright skies, and his discovery of inspiration seemingly around every corner:
But periods of relative contentment never lasted long for Van Gogh, which Stok deeply understands. She also depicts his legendarily obsessive work ethic, misanthropic rages and manic outbursts at anybody and everybody, and does a brilliant job re-creating the episode where, in his fury and grief at Gauguin, Van Gogh cuts off his left ear. Stok carefully sets the stage for both Van Gogh’s triumphs and failures, and his mental breaks are fully developed with jagged panels and patterned backgrounds that jerkily shift from dots to organic amoebas to exploding lines to spirals to lightning bolt pulses, reflecting moment to moment Van Gogh’s loss of control:
Stok takes Van Gogh’s vigorous brushstrokes and distills them into her characteristic ligne claire cartoon style where characters and scenes are carefully streamlined and simplified for clarity, yet completely recognizable. Van Gogh’s red hair sticks up and away from his high forehead, his teeth are visibly wobbly in his mouth, his shabby blue suit almost has an odor. Famous portraits come to life as Van Gogh talks to the wild-eyed postman in the village, or argues with the painter Gauguin while in the Yellow House.
Some of the most touching moments are when Stok imagines Van Gogh’s hard-won peace while at work, expressed through wordless panels and full page illustrations as he sets up his easel in front of golden wheat fields, picks triumphant sunflowers and puts them in a vase in his room to paint, or plays his violin on a starry night:
And then the book ends where it began, with Vincent and Theo together again one last time. Vincent is in a mental hospital when he receives word that Theo and his wife Jo have had a baby boy. Vincent looks out the window of his room at the hospital and sees a blossoming almond branch, the hopeful, yet bittersweet moment Stok gives us knowing that that branch is from his famous painting Almond Blossom which he painted for his nephew and namesake. Theo writes, “As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you.’ Vincent moves to Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, and Theo, Jo, and baby Vincent Willem come to visit. Stok draws a quietly powerful moment between the two brothers and gives Theo the last words of Vincent’s biography:
Wordless pages follow, with Theo and his young family leaving, then Vincent taking his easel and heading out to the wheat fields in July, 1890, with the crows gathering near his feet, the harbinger of his final fight with his demons, mental and physical:
Although created for adult readers, this graphic biography is also compelling reading for older teen nonfiction, biography, and art enthusiasts who can choose to wrestle with Van Gogh’s genius, love of family, dark habits and addictions, and mental illness. This is not a biography for children or the faint of heart: there are scenes of substance abuse, Van Gogh in a brothel with a prostitute, violent mental breakdowns, self-mutilation, all the more scandalous elements of Van Gogh’s legendary fame. But these pieces of Van Gogh’s story are effectively balanced by so many glimpses into Van Gogh’s life where his work was manifested, and where beauty, joy, and some kind of grace blessed him, mostly through his brother Theo who believed in him no matter what.
Written and illustrated by Barbara Stok
Translated from the original Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Published by SelfMadeHero, 2014
Originally published in 2012 by Nijgh & Van Ditmar
You can buy a copy of Vincent here.
Another outstanding biography for students of Vincent Van Gogh is Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman:
“The deep and enduring friendship between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh shaped both brothers’ lives. Confidant, champion, sympathizer, friend, Theo supported Vincent as he struggled to find his path in life. They shared everything, swapping stories of lovers and friends, successes and disappointments, dreams and ambitions. Meticulously researched, drawing on the 658 letters Vincent wrote to Theo during his lifetime, Deborah Heiligman weaves a tale of two lives intertwined and the love of the Van Gogh brothers.” — Provided by Publisher
You can read about Heiligman’s research here. Heiligman writes, “I used mostly on primary sources to write VINCENT AND THEO: THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS. My three main primary sources were the letters between Vincent and Theo, the letters between Theo and Jo, and, for the end of the book, the condolence letters written to Theo.”
You can purchase a copy of Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers here.
10 Graphic Novelists from Holland, with a profile of Barbara Stok and Vincent, published by Nederlands Letterenfonds/Dutch Foundation for Literature
Interview with Vincent author Barbara Stok at SelfMadeHero “New Release: Vincent by Barbara Stok”, 6 March 2014, where she discusses her choice to focus on Van Gogh’s last years: “There was a lot going on: he made his most beautiful paintings, he dreamed about setting up an artists’ house, there was the tragic incident with his ear and, finally, he went to a mental institution. He had hopes and dreams and big disappointments, but in the end he found resignation and consolation in his work and in nature.”
Stok’s entry in Lambiek’s Comiclopedia provides information about Stok’s autobiographical comics, her artistic influences, and her musical career.
“Stok does a brilliant, sympathetic job of picturing the artist, whether jagged with madness or sitting amid the wheat fields and sunflowers of Arles, the landscape at once gentle and alien, the man propelled by a desperate, radical passion.” — The Guardian
“By working honestly with the facts of van Gogh’s life and sparingly recalling his paintings rather than copying them directly, Stok has drawn an emotional, informative, and inspirational biography for artists and art lovers everywhere. Fantastic..” — Library Journal
“There’s great beauty, and not just in van Gogh’s madness and passion: sections of his letters to and from his brother Theo are touching. This inventive art biography eschews the usual visual cliches and brings its subject into a sharp and sympathetic focus.” — Publishers Weekly
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