Yesterday was the anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh's birthday. The supremely difficult life of the Dutch painter -- who was born in 1853 and died in 1890, when he was just 37 -- has become inextricably linked with the idea of what it means to be a struggling, misunderstood artist -- and to press on, as Vincent did, without any hope of having one's work recognized, without even one sale of a painting in his lifetime. There are numerous books for young people about Van Gogh and his work, including a baby board book of his paintings. In one of these works, Laurence Anholt's Camille and the Sunflowers, we meet the artist as he comes to Arles, in the South of France, where he is befriended by the Postman Roulin, with his large, parted beard, and by Roulin's young son, Camille, who brings Vincent a bouquet of the region's now-priceless sunflowers, to spruce up the yellow house where the artist took up residence.
The book is illustrated in part by seven of Vincent's pictures, some of the best known ones that he painted while he was in Arles, including the series of portraits that he did of the entire Roulin family. But the world of Vincent and the subjects of these famous paintings are also brought to life by Anholt's lovely watercolors, which serve both to help tell the story and to create its visual poetry. When Vincent goes out on the hillside above the town one night to paint his breathtaking glimpse of the heavens in bright, swirling flux -- Anholt's double-page picture suggestively recreates this remarkable vision. Anholt doesn't try to match Vincent's own powerful color tones and brush work -- who could! And this restraint gives the book a subtle, understated authenticity while it also respectfully downplays the painful realities of Vincent's life -- hounded and mocked by schoolboys and their parents; in fact, asked to leave town because of the distruption to the general equillibrium that his mere presence caused. He was, after all, a very unusual personage in their midst -- haggard, spattered with paint, talking to himself, missing an ear. His is the Ugly Duckling story of the history of art, though he never did see his reflection mirrored back at him, except through the kindness of the strangers, like Camille, whom he immortalized.
Copyright 2006© John Cech
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