Vincent Van Gogh lived in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and England. This small-format hardback book is a brief biography in the form of a guide to the places Van Gogh lived, illustrated with some of his art. There are many quotes from Van Gogh’s letters, which give his own words about his surroundings. Drawings from letters show how Van Gogh presented places to his family, mainly his chief correspondent brother Theo. Contemporary photographs show buildings and people the artist would have known. And – of course – the artist’s paintings are reproduced too.
Van Gogh’s stints in school teaching, bookselling, art selling and missionary work are presented summarily. Much of this time was before the artist’s commitment to become an artist, so there is little art to display. The majority of the book is taken up with the last decade of Van Gogh’s life, 1880-90, when he was producing art.
Van Gogh stayed in Kent, Isleworth and London, teaching boys. The author mentions Van Gogh’s lay preaching and church going around London, consumed with an evangelical fervour. A pencil sketch of two churches is included. Two of the best drawings are early large elaborate landscapes drawings in pencil heightened with white chalk. These are not often reproduced, so it is nice to see them. They well portray the gloom of the Dutch landscape. Nature inspired Van Gogh from a young age, when he drew and described insects and plants. Nature would underpin his best art. Van Gogh spent time in Drenthe, where the population harvested peat, which was transported away by barge. It was a singularly bleak region. Borinage in Belgium was a mining area. There Van Gogh ministered to the local population and made himself ill with his Spartan living, giving away all he had to the bemused mining families. He then decided to study art in Antwerp and Brussels.
The author strikes a good balance, explaining the significance of different locations while avoiding detailed specifics of individual pictures. Heslewood takes us around Paris and environs to show us the places the painter worked in when he absorbed Impressionism into his technique: Asnieres, with its distant factories and chimneys, Montmartre, with its windmills and dancehalls. When the artist moved to Arles he made a point of travelling in the region as much as he could afford to. Pictures and text refer to the Camargue, the coastal village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Montmajour and other locations.
For Van Gogh, Arles became the centre for a longed-for School of the South – to complement Schools of the North (Pont Aven) and West (Martinique) already pioneered by Gauguin, Laval and Bernard. Provence, for Van Gogh, resembled the Japanese woodcut prints that he had pored over in Paris. It had bright light and intense colour as well as a distinct (if not precisely exotic) regional culture. Provence could be their Japan.
Van Gogh’s painting excursions were curbed by his confinement to a hospital in Arles and later his voluntary commitment to the asylum in Saint-Rémy, following his infamous self-mutilation and breakdown. The grounds of the asylum and a view of a wheat field are the most common motifs for 1889. In the summer he moved to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, to be under the care of Dr Gachet. There he painted his last works – views of wheat fields, Daubigny’s house and garden, ivy thickets of undergrowth. This was a very productive period for the artist and some of his best loved landscapes come from this period.
This book would make an ideal addition to a school library and is recommended as reading for anyone passingly familiar with the art of Van Gogh who would like an introduction to his life.
Juliet Heslewood, Van Gogh: A Life in Places, Unicorn, 1 November 2018, hardback, 172pp, 85 illus., £15, ISBN 978 191 160 4648
© 2018 Alexander Adams
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