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Behind a great artist, a quietly heroic brother

June 16, 2004|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times


The Other Van Gogh

Marie-Angelique Ozanne & Frederique de Jode

Translated from the French by Alexandra Bonfante-Warren

Vendome Press/A Mark Magowan Book: 240 pp., $24.95


Like the Impressionists who preceded him, only more so, Vincent van Gogh was avant-garde at a time when nonconformity was still an obstacle to acceptance rather than the royal road to success. In his brief lifetime (1853-1890), only one of his paintings found a buyer, although he was beginning to command a certain measure of admiration among a small number of fellow artists and critics. His reputation shot up only in the years after his death, when a later generation of artists -- Fauvists and Expressionists -- saw in him a progenitor of their dynamic, passionate approach to art. Today, the paintings he could not sell command some of the highest prices in the art world.

Vincent's arduous struggle to achieve his vision has lent itself to legend, inspiring (among much else) biographer Irving Stone's bestseller "Lust for Life," not to mention the film version starring Kirk Douglas. The figure of the stubborn, lonely, tormented genius still resonates. What better emblem of the great Romantic quest than this intensely religious pastor's son who took it upon himself to live and work among the poor, sharing their hardships, and who then decided to devote himself to painting with the same missionary zeal, the single-minded fervor and intensity that had animated his religious quest?

It can be a short step from fervor to lunacy, and Van Gogh's death at 37 from complications of a self-inflicted gunshot wound -- coming after the notorious incident of the severed ear a year and a half earlier -- fed the myth of the artist as madman. Not that the myth lacked some foundation in truth: Van Gogh doubtless suffered from mental illness. But his paintings can be seen not only as therapeutic efforts to rise above his chaotic emotions but as triumphs over his confusions.

But no one, not even a solitary genius, operates in utter isolation.

Much of what is known about Van Gogh's ideas as an artist -- his feelings, his beliefs and his aims -- comes from the letters he wrote his younger brother Theo, an art dealer, whose staunch support, financial and emotional, was the underpinning of Vincent's career. In "Theo: The Other Van Gogh," French journalists Marie-Angelique Ozanne and Frederique de Jode pay tribute to the artist's patient, self-effacing, altruistic younger brother.

Born four years after Vincent, Theodorus was a gentle, rather delicate child, less robust than his forceful older brother, whom he seems to have hero-worshipped. The Van Gogh parents -- a hardworking, dedicated Protestant pastor and his wife -- were only able to afford to send one of their six children away to school, and Vincent, the eldest, was expected to be the standard-bearer.

But when Vincent's plans for the ministry went awry, it was the sensitive, sweet-natured, often sickly Theo who would be the one to shoulder some of the Van Goghs' financial burden by going to work for a family-related firm of art dealers. More important from the perspective of art history, Theo took it upon himself to do whatever he could to enable his brother to pursue his painting.

Theo not only set aside half his own modest salary to give Vincent as a monthly allowance, but he also provided emotional, intellectual and professional support. Having labored diligently in the art world since his teens, Theo had developed a discerning eye and a sensitive understanding, which enabled him to appreciate what his brother was trying to accomplish. Their long-standing intimacy, grounded in childhood and sustained in more than a decade of letters, allowed them to share their thoughts freely. Helping Vincent wasn't often easy, to say the least: Given Vincent's uncompromising nature and emotional instability, it could be a veritable roller-coaster ride, with Vincent turning his destructive energies against his benefactor or against himself.

How did a quiet young man from a small Dutch village manage all this, even after marrying a sympathetic and intelligent woman who shared his concerns? It is almost too dramatically apposite, and certainly too sad, that only six months after Vincent's death, Theo died at age 33, leaving his wife and their infant son behind. Theo's story is an innately interesting one, and more than that, a very moving one.

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