Vincent Van Gogh was born 159 years ago today. But that's not a picture of him. It's a picture of his younger brother Theo, who virtually single-handedly provided the financial and emotional support that allowed his brother to paint.
When we were teenagers, my younger brother, Richard, and I considered our destinations in life. He planned to become a lawyer. I thought I might be an alienated novelist like some in the peripatetic pack of Beats I admired. During those rare moments when I considered the financial implications of any such decision, I took to calling my brother "Theo." This was said half in jest, but only half. And it was said almost wholly in ignorance. I did not then know that Theo died at age 33 from dementia praralytica, a syphlitic brain infection. Luckily, neither did my brother know this.
It's easy to exaggerate Theo's patience and transform him into a saint of patrons. But Vincent was not easy to be with. For many of us, our image of Vincent is forever tied to Kirk Douglas' portrayal in Lust for Life. The real Vincent, sadly, was not anything like Kirk Douglas. The real Vincent was like a dirty street wanderer with rags for clothes who mutters to himself and, seemingly for no reason at all, suddenly begins to yell at or lecture passers-by. As an alternative to Kirk Douglas, it's worthwhile to track down Tim Roth in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo.
As Vincent's incredibly articulate letters make clear (letters we only have because Theo saved them; Vincent's mother destroyed his letters to her), Theo could get frustrated. The brothers fought about money, about what kind of art Vincent should be painting, about Viincent's interminable search for understandably reluctant women models. And yet, through it all, Theo stayed loyal. He sold the single painting of Vincent's that was bought during the artist's lifetime.
As an art dealer, Theo also pushed others then not so well known including Monet and Degas. It was Theo who introduced Vincent to Gauguin, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, and others, and it was Theo who convinced Gauguin to stay with Vincent at Arles.
I found it interesting that Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith chose to open their fascinating recent biography Van Gogh: The Life with Theo traveling to get Vincent's body for burial. The authors assert that Vincent did not shoot himself but that he was talking to two boys, and one of them, who had frequently verbally tormented him, accidentally shot him. The authors believe Vincent took responsibility so the boys wouldn't get into trouble. This claim is made at the end of the 976 page book through a series of closely-reasoned arguments that I nevertheless did not find conclusive. What surprised me is that the claim is never considered that Vincent took his own life for a good reason--Theo was dying and when that happened Vincent would no longer be able to paint. Indeed, Theo died six months after Vincent.
Theo's great-grandson, also named Theo, was a Dutch filmmaker who produced the film Submission. The film was critical of how Islam treated women. Some Muslims were outraged by the film, and in 2004 a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim named Mohammed bouyeri assassinated Van Gogh.
On Vincent's birthday, it's worthwhile recalling both his great art and his great brother and all great brothers.