“Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers” by Deborah Heiligman

People—maybe young adults in particular—are inherently fascinated with relationship. Which makes Deborah Heiligman’s choice of subject so compelling even before you start reading “Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers” (Holt 2017).

The Van Gogh brothers from the Netherlands come from a strong family, where the parents coddle their children in a way that looks familiar in middle class society nowadays. The senior Van Goghs are proud of their younger son Theo who has become a successful art dealer. They look askance at Vincent who first is an atheist, then an evangelical preacher, then vagabond, in search of a life path.

Theo financially and emotionally supports his older brother, then champions him as a late blooming artist. The brothers left 658 letters behind, showing their profound love, their fights, their reconciliations—their paths together and apart. Vincent is particularly eloquent. Once he starts making art, he says, “I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.”

Heiligman uses elements of art as metaphors for the relationship. She writes, “Sometimes in a painting, negative space is intentional; sometimes it is an accident of composition. Empty space can create a meaningful image, or it can just be empty . . .” when she describes Vincent’s “darkness and despair”—his longing for his younger brother Theo.

We know more about Vincent as a child than Theo, for whom we only have a rare glimpse. Heiligman creates these glimpses, then likens each to a “croquis”—or a quick sketch in the making of a larger piece—a study of the arm throwing a ball, another for the hand grasping a fishing pole. These studies are used to build the full picture. Theo is the good boy, the middle child to Vincent’s tumultuous behavior as a bad boy. Maybe Theo’s eventual depression started in his childhood. Maybe he shouldn’t have been ignored.

Vincent has a particularly difficult time with perspective in his drawings. He uses a perspective frame, crisscrossed with strings to view a scene of field and windmill in order to observe the size and placement of people, windmills, clouds. “The view depends on the perspective.” How does Vincent’s life look from Theo’s perspective?

Theo works in an art gallery, selling conventional art to wealthy individuals. Vincent is still developing his art which is not only unconventional but not ready to be sold. But Theo knows that Vincent is working toward greatness.

It is difficult for Theo to live with Vincent in Paris, but “Vincent brings to Theo social and intellectual stimulation—and that family connection . . . For Vincent, living with Theo is necessary.”

The small color reproductions and the larger black and white drawings help the reader understand this eloquent story. I’m not sure why it is marketed as young adult. Every artist, art enthusiast, every person interested in relationship should read it. Is that everyone?


Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker. talesforallages.com


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