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Vincent and Theo – A Wonderful Biography of the Van Gogh Brothers

The author of Vincent and Theo, Deborah Heiligman, writes an engaging biography about the famous Van Gogh brothers. In her book, she details beautifully the brothers’ lives during the times they lived together and apart.

Heiligman describes how Theo, the younger brother, was an advocate , a source of comfort, a true believer in and a dedicated best friend to Vincent. Theo totally supported Vincent during his ongoing struggles both emotionally and financially and throughout Vincent’s entire life .

“You can’t have me without Vincent,”

wrote Theo Van Gogh to his eventual bride.

The Letters between Vincent and Theo

The Van Gogh brothers told each other everything. When they lived apart, they shared their thoughts and experiences via letters. They wrote about the women and friends in their lives, the successes and failures they experienced, and the hopes and aspirations they each wished for.

Vincent Van Gogh drawings and letters to Theo
Vincent Letter to Theo

Heiligman meticulously researches the brothers by referring to the 658 letters Vincent wrote to Theo during his lifetime.

I don’t really have any friends except for you, and when I’m ill you’re always in my thoughts.

The words of Vincent to Theo in a letter dated
July 1883

Vincent Van Gogh picture of his bedroom in his letter to Theo
Van Gogh’s bedroom described in one of his letters to Theo

A Biography that reads like Historical Fiction

Although a biography, this book reads like a historical fiction. Deborah Heiligman describes the main characters with an candor and empathy that you rarely see in nonfiction books. Her decision to write the narrative in the present tense makes the book totally engaging from the first page until the last.

This book is categorized as a young adult book, but in my opinion it also appeals to older teens and adults. The book tells the story of Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo, two siblings who helped each other and highlights the incredible emotional connection between the two. In contrast, Vincent barely had contact with the rest of his family.

Van Gogh portrait of Theo
One of Vincent Van Gogh Famous Paintings of Theo [Public Domain]

The Relationship Between the two brothers

Vincent and Theo Van Gogh were brothers and best friends. They were born in the Netherlands, by parents who loved and nurtured the boys with art, books and nature.

Both Vincent and Theo left home in their mid-teens to work for the uncles who owned well-known art galleries throughout Europe.

While Theo found his career path as an art dealer, Vincent struggled and his uncle fired him. Vincent then tried out many other career paths and failed at them all. Finally Vincent decided to become an artist. Throughout his entire life as a painter, Vincent was unable to support himself. He depended on his brother Theo to send him money for accommodation, food and art supplies.

Both brothers had challenging love lives, falling in love with women who did not reciprocate their love or were “unsuitable”. Both brothers suffered with emotional problems and both had mental breakdowns.

We learn from the book, that Vincent would not have been successful as an artist without Theo’s unwavering support. Even though Vincent only sold one painting in his lifetime, Theo believed in Vincent’s talent and encouraged him to continue to paint.

Van Gogh Self Portrait
Vincent Van Gogh Portrait

Fascinating Stories Behind Vincent’s Paintings

The author provides the reader with some colored paintings painted by Vincent Van Gogh. She details for the reader, the fascinating background story behind each painting. It really gives an added appreciation to Van Gogh’s artistic mastery and his emotional state at the time of each painting. This certainly highlights the convergence of Van Gogh’s artistic mastery and his emotional turbulence.

The death of the two brothers

After Vincent committed suicide in Auvers -sur- Oise, Theo died only six months later from syphilis.

(…) and then it was done. (…) I miss him so; everything seems to remind me of him.

After Vincent dies, Theo writes to his wife, Jo – August 1890

Interestingly Vincent was buried just a day after he died in the small local cemetery of Auvers -sur- Oise. Theo died 6 months later and was buried in Holland.

Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger , decided 30 years later to move Theo’s body so that he is buried next to his Vincent in Auvers. Why she waited so many years remains an enigma.

Vincent Van Gogh's grave in Auvers-sur-Oise
Theo & Vincent Van Gogh’s grave in the cemetery in Auvers-sur-Oise

They rest side by side in the little cemetery amid the wheat fields of Auvers

Words written by Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger

A Book for All Van Gogh Fans

This book would appeal to anyone interested in postimpressionism art and of course to any Van Gogh fan. It provides the reader with so much information about Vincent Van Gogh throughout his short but incredibly creative and challenging life.

In short, this Vincent Van Gogh biography is a compelling and well-written book, totally deserving of it’s many accolades.

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