Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers Book Poster Image
Riveting story of art, mental illness, brotherly devotion.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

This is a vivid and intimate look not only at the life of one of the world's greatest painters but also of the business of art -- the selling of paintings, exhibitions, how difficult it was for an unknown painter to achieve recognition. Famous painters such as Manet, Delacroix, Degas, and Renoir are either noted or make appearances in the lives of the Van Gogh brothers. Vincent was a good friend of Toulouse Lautrec and once shared a house with Gauguin. There's an insert that includes color reproductions of some of Vincent's most famous paintings -- "The Potato Eaters," "Self-Portrait," "Sunflowers," "The Starry Night." The bibliography at the end of the book lists numerous books, articles, and websites for readers who want to continue learning about Vincent.

Positive Messages

Love and take care of your brother no matter what. Keep following your dream, even if you're not having commercial success. Believe in yourself and your talent and work hard at what you're passionate about.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Theo cared for and supported his brother through some good but almost always bad times. He understood Vincent's mental health issues as much as someone could in the late 19th century. And while he sometimes felt frustrated by Vincent's often erratic and unpredictable behavior, he was his brother's greatest champion. 

Violence

A woman commits suicide. Vincent tries to poison himself, cuts off his ear and shoots himself. None of these events is described in any detail.

Sex

It's mentioned that Theo and Vincent visit brothels and that Vincent and Gauguin sketch prostitutes at brothels. Theo contracts syphilis, and his death from the disease is described.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Numerous characters drink and smoke. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Deborah Heiligman's Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers won a 2018 Michael L. Printz Honor and the 2018 Young Adult Library Services Association Nonfiction Award. It's the story of Vincent, the world-famous painter, and his younger brother, Theo, who was an art dealer. In short snapshot chapters, Heiligman offers an intimate look at the unbreakable bond between Vincent and Theo, who was Vincent's greatest supporter. Both brothers led turbulent lives: Vincent often was overcome by mental illness and his struggle to win recognition for his work; Theo fell in love with a succession of women who did not love him back. Heiligman drew on 658 letters between Vincent and Theo to create such a detailed portrait of the brothers that it can often feel as if you're eavesdropping on their private conversations. Teens who know little about Vincent could be shocked by the incident in which he cuts off his own ear as well as his violent death. This is a story sure to captivate even readers who have no interest in anything "artsy." Heiligman's Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith was a National Book Award Finalist.

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What's the story?

VINCENT AND THEO were best friends from childhood, brothers with a bond that was sometimes shaken but never broken. Raised in the Netherlands by parents who loved nature, the arts, and books, both left home in their middle teens to begin working for their uncles, who owned prestigious art galleries in several European cities. While Theo was set on a career as an art dealer, Vincent struggled. Fired from his uncle's gallery, he had a religious reawakening, taught at a boy's boarding school in England, and attended theology school in Amsterdam and an evangelical training school in Brussels. Finally he decided to become an artist. Unable to support himself, he spent the rest of his life largely depending on Theo to send him money for food, shelter, and painting supplies. Both brothers had chaotic love lives, falling in love with women who either didn't return their affections or were "unsuitable," and both had mental breakdowns. Throughout it all, Theo tried to find recognition for Vincent's work. The brothers died within six months of each other, Vincent from suicide and Theo from syphilis. 

Is it any good?

This biography reads like the very best fiction: vivid, colorful, and dramatic. It's full of complex characters, rich backdrops, and unexpected plot twists. Because the chapters are short "snapshots" from their lives -- an event, a conversation, a day with the family, a love affair gone wrong, or Vincent working on a painting -- the book never overwhelms readers who may know nothing about the Van Goghs or the art world in which they lived. It can be read and enjoyed by readers with a wide range of interests -- as a biography of one of the world's most acclaimed painters, as a dramatic family saga, or the story of friendship and brotherly bonds. A detailed timeline at the end of the book helps readers keep track of Vincent and Theo from childhood until their deaths. Websites listed in the bibliography (including the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum in New York) will allow interested readers easy viewing access to many of Van Gogh's finest works. Vincent and Theo is an exceptional reading experience for both teens and parents.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Vincent and Theo deals with mental illness. How do you think the Van Gogh family could help Vincent if he lived in 2017 instead of the 1880s and '90s? How can you tell if someone is just wildly eccentric or has mental health issues?

  • Have you ever visited an art museum or art gallery? How different was the experience from looking at a famous painting online?

  • Are you especially close with your sister or brother? How is the bond between siblings different from the bond between friends?

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