Vincent van Gogh’s birthday is this week and this news reminded me of something fascinating I’d recently heard about the great artist and the almost symbiotic relationship he had with his brother Theo. In one way, Vincent was the classic lone genius; but it’s hard to read about the man and not find reference after reference to his brother. Not only did Theo provide his brother both financial and emotional support all his life but our most comprehensive source of information about Vincent comes from the hundreds of letters exchanged by the two of them between 1872 and 1890.
Joshua Wolf Shenk has written a series in Slate about “Creative Pairs”; about what makes creative relationships work (with a particular focus on John Lennon and Paul McCartney). In the September 22nd, 2010 edition of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast (always a good listen) guest contributor Shenk admits to a fascination with the Van Gogh brothers and their unique relationship:
“Those guys were so intertwined, they were like aspen trees; they were two branches of the same organism. And if you look at their letters, there’s this electrifying thing that happens, where Vincent will be writing his brother and he will begin a sentence in the first person and then shift to the third person. He’ll begin with “I” and then shift to “we.” And it’s very clear that it’s the same thing; that they’re a total “we.”
“And then just to flash forward to—I mean there are so many mysteries and complexities. But Theo died six months after his brother. What was happening there? I mean, you could say that there was this organic cause or whatever, but in what way were they actually the same organism and literally couldn’t survive on the Earth without each other?
And honestly it’s not even the most interesting detail about Vincent van Gogh’s life!
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