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Friends, Vincent van Gogh nearly wrecked me.
Our homeschool co-op was exploring the 19th century for this school year and when I was asked to come up with a list of potential artists for picture study, he was of course one of the first to come to mind. What 19th-century picture study would be complete without his swirling skies and bold outlines? Everyone agreed that he should be one of our artists, and so I dove into his world. I’d of course studied him in school as the quintessential example of post-impressionism, but it wasn’t until I started really looking at his art and his life that I realized how little I knew about him.
I started my research by reading his letters. Over 500 of them, primarily between his brother and himself, have been published and I was immediately sucked into his world and his mind. This was actually a perfect place to start as he quite often narrated his own pieces in his letters, explaining his reasoning behind painting in a certain way or including specific elements. Had I not known how his life ended, I think I would’ve enjoyed reading the majority of the letters up to near his death. But reading all of the hopes and dreams and struggles he had early on in his life, all the time knowing the ugliness of the last years of his life, was a struggle.
So between preparing for our co-op picture studies and also writing the picture study and artist biography article on him for Common Place Quarterly, I wallowed in a dark place. His nephew, named after his famous uncle, said of the letters:
Part of the reason for his popularity today is that others recognise things in themselves that happened to him. You’re never the same person after reading his letters.
I found this to be entirely true for me. He was deep and profound and complex and sad and hopeful and angry and frustrated and could find beauty in so many things. And I think he is also so misunderstood by so many. He was not his severed ear or his early, self-inflicted death. He was a deep feeler and thinker and despite the fact that they were hard to read, I’m so glad his letters still exist to give testament to that.
This 31-page Picture Study Aid includes a summary of Vincent van Gogh’s early life, key topics about seven of his paintings (see below), resources for further reading, seven printable versions of the paintings (without artist names or titles) with the PDF, and a self-portrait of the artist in the printed version of the guide.
The pieces covered include:
- The Potato Eaters (1885)
- The Night Cafe (1888)
- Sunflowers (or “Vase with Twelve Sunflowers”) (1888)
- Bedroom at Arles (1889)
- The Starry Night (1889)
- First Steps (1890)
- The Church at Auvers (1890)
I also have high-quality printed versions of the guide itself as well as professionally printed copies of art available in the shop.
A plethora of books exists in which he and his art are discussed, however, to get to know the man himself, I can’t recommend his letters enough. These letters offer a glimpse into the mind of a man who is often summarily dismissed as a “troubled artist,” but who had so much more depth than this simple categorization can impart.
Admittedly, as I said above, they can be difficult to read as he was a profoundly sad man at times and went through many hard experiences in his life, but I think they give the very best view of him that you can find. I’ll add to this, though, that Vincent lived a dark life, particularly as he got older, and the content of the letters as well as biographies of his life should be reviewed before being offered to children of any age.
The letters can be found online at vanGoghletters.org. This site contains full-page scans of the letters (including the sketches that he added to many of them) and a wonderful function that allows you to search by work of art, among other things. There is also a beautifully published 3-volume set of all of the letters (The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh), but it is out of print and used copies go for at least $500 (though some libraries do carry them). For a more succinct and affordable option, Irving Stone “curated” Vincent’s letters down to a select number to create a sort of autobiography called Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh.
For a full biography, Irving Stone also wrote Lust For Life: A Novel about Van Gogh. This has received excellent reviews since its original publication in 1934, but I have not read it.
For older students, Vincent and Theo: The van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman looks intriguing, though I have not read this either.
For younger students, Vincent Can’t Sleep: Van Gogh Paints the Night Sky by Barb Rosenstock focuses on “The Starry Night” and Vincent’s childhood and is beautifully illustrated. Vincent’s Colors, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes excerpts from his letters to describe his paintings. And Katie and the Starry Night is part of a series of books about a young girl who travels through paintings.
You can also find all of these and any new ones I find in the Living Art Book Archive!
This is by no means an exhaustive analysis or study of each piece, and that is intentional. I tried to keep it all very simple in the spirit of there being, “no talk about schools of painting, little about style; consideration of these matters comes in later life, the first and most important thing is to know the pictures themselves. As in a worthy book we leave the author to tell his own tale, so do we trust a picture to tell its tale through the medium the artist gave it. In the region of art as else-where we shut out the middleman.” (vol 6 pg 216)
You can get your own copy of the Vincent van Gogh Picture Study Aid and art prints at the link below!