Too Darn Cute

Friday, October 11, 2013

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers
Written and illustrated by Laurence Anholt

When 11-year Camille meets a strange painter that moves onto his street, they quickly becomes friends. He loves watching the painter, Vincent van Gogh, create beautiful pictures of sunflowers and fields. The rest of the town, however, does not appreciate his work and forces him to leave. Camille struggles when he sees others being so mean to his friend. This is a charming story about van Gogh's life while teaching us about accepting those that are different.

This was a really cute story. It caught my eye in the library because I’ve always had a thing for van Gogh, but when I found out the story takes place while he lived in the south of France, I was sold. This is part of a series by British author and illustrator Laurence Anholt who teaches about famous artists and the real children that knew them. It’s a fun way to learn more about the artists, see some of their work, and learn about important virtues through a relatable story.

Though I’ve always been drawn to van Gogh’s work, I am no expert. After reading the story, I wanted to know what in the book was true and what was fabricated to make a good story. For instance, after Camille befriends the strange new artist, Vincent paints a portrait for each member of Camille’s family. It turns out that this really did happen. Camille’s dad, a postman named Joseph Roulin, actually became a good friend to Vincent when he moved to Arles (in southern France) in 1888. He usually had trouble finding models to paint, so Vincent was very pleased that the entire Roulin family sat for him. Each member ended up sitting for him several times and, in exchange, Vincent gave the family a portrait of each family member.

I loved that Anholt included so many of Vincent’s masterpieces in the story as well. The yellow house shown in the story really was where Vincent lived during his time in Arles. It was also here that he painted his famous sunflower paintings and bedroom. It was not, however, where he painted Starry Night. That one was actually painted while he was in an asylum in Saint-Rémy. Interestingly, he didn’t even paint it at night. Instead, he painted it during the day from memory. It doesn’t bother me that he included it in the book though. It is probably his most well-known piece and the story wouldn’t feel complete without it.

“I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort—and disappointment and perseverance.”

There was something else in the picture of Vincent painting Starry Night that caught my eye. Looking out onto the small town at night, he is wearing a straw hat with several candles balancing on its brim so that he could see. It seems like a cute anecdote so I wanted to find out if it was true. I wasn’t able to find a definite answer, but I think it is just a van Gogh myth. Though several internet sources document this as a fact, I couldn’t find where the story originated. Most of what we know about van Gogh comes from letters that he wrote to friends and family. While there is nothing about painting by candlelight, he did tell his brother that he painted "the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp." He is talking about a similar starry painting called Starry Night Over the Rhone. While the candles make for a good story, I don’t think it actually happened.

Lastly, it is true that many of the people in Arles did not appreciate his art or want him in their town. He finally left Arles after a petition from 30 townspeople calling him a “fou roux” (red-headed madman) was given to the police. Vincent committed himself to the asylum in Saint- Rémy only two months later. He was undoubtedly rejected and unappreciated by most he met during his life.

Students will recognize many pices of this painting in Anholt's story.

Phew. That was a lot of background, but I do also have a few fun ideas on how to use this story to teach.

Bullying: Vincent van Gogh is a great example of someone who was not admired or even liked but that was very talented. He only sold one painting during his life but is now one of the most recognizable artists of all time. Camille looked past his oddities and saw that the stranger actually had many things to teach us. This would be a great story to help address issues of acceptance and kindness.

Writing Letters: Most of the information we know about van Gogh and the Roulin family comes from letters that he wrote to his brother Theo. It would be fun to connect this story to a lesson on letter writing and format. Students could then write a letter like Vincent to a friend or family member to tell them about something going on in their life. Or, students could write a letter to Vincent to tell him what they think about his artwork. This would also be a fun way to help teach students about primary documents.

“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, 
in order to learn how to do it.” 

Creative Writing: When you see a portrait for the first time, you usually don’t know who the person is or why the artist painted them. But there is always a story behind the picture. I loved this book because the reader gets to actually learn about Camille, the boy in the painting, and imagine what a day in his life was like. A painting would be a great source of writing inspiration. Students are incredibly creative and would have a great time imagining who the person in a new painting is, how they knew the artist, or why the artist chose to paint them. Van Gogh has several other portraits that could be used for this activity.

Music/Poetry: The song “Starry Starry Night” by Don McLean provides a wonderful opportunity for a cross-curriculum lesson. The song contains a lot of imagery that connects to van Gogh’s life and several of his works. Used with the book, this could make a fun introduction to the artist’s life. It would also be great at the end of a van Gogh unit where students can use their knowledge of his life and paintings to find meaning in McLean’s song. There is an awesome website that could be used for such a lesson here.

“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Art: There are obviously many different art lessons to teach when studying van Gogh. I would love to use his work to teach students about Impressionism, contrast, movement, and color. Colors hold a lot of symbolism and even young children will relate certain colors with certain feelings. Van Gogh once wrote, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange.” I would love discuss the meaning of this quote, both in art and in life. Even though Vincent faced rejection and depression during his life, he was still able to find the sunflower and stars. He has made a huge impact in the world of art and this book would be a great introduction to his life and talent.

I would absolutely recommend this book and this series. Laurence Anholt crams so much history and art in his short stories and does a fabulous job of making artists relatable. They are great for teaching art, connect to many other disciplines, and inspire learning.

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’
then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”


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