Van Gogh had a habit of abruptly up and leaving places—so it’s not surprising that he ultimately lived and worked in more than twenty towns and cities throughout Europe. The Vincent van Gogh Atlas (Yale, $25) combines biography, graphics, history, and wonderful design to chart this restless painter’s life from Z to A. From Zundert, that is, in the southern Netherlands, where he was born in 1853, to Auvers-sur-Oise in the South of France, where he died in 1890. Compiled by Nienke Denekamp, a freelance writer and editor, and René van Blerk, senior curator of education at the van Gogh Museum, this colorful and informative scrapbook carries on the spirit of its subject’s letters, featuring pages as full of pictures as of text. Van Gogh left some 1,300 drawings, over 850 paintings, and 800 letters; the editors draw from each of these troves, and put van Gogh’s experiences in the context of the growing railway systems he used, advances in photography, and even the Eiffel Tower, which appears here as the rising stump it was in 1888, when van Gogh was in Paris. There are also glimpses of the weathered palette and paints van Gogh used for working outside and a sketch of him on his deathbed by his own frequent subject, Dr. Gachet. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this multi-layered timeline is comparing what van Gogh saw to what he made of it. A photo of a windmill, of a cypress tree, of a room at the asylum of Saint-Rémy—these are just windmills, trees, and rooms. As reimagined in van Gogh’s artworks, they are something else again.
Laing’s composite portrait of the artist as a solitary figure explores with extraordinary detail and compassion just how painful loneliness is. Focusing on Henry Darger, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and David Wojnarowicz, with profiles of Basquiat, Billie Holliday, and others, Laing traces early experiences of alienation to a lifelong sense of vulnerability and shame. Showing how rejection leads to further rejection, she puts the artists’ isolation in the context of the early panic about AIDS, when even health-care providers feared contact with the stricken. Laing’s writing is sharp, sensitive, and angry; the stories are heartbreaking, including her own, as she tries to suppress loneliness by scrolling for days through Craigslist personals.
In 1845 John Snare bought a Van Dyke portrait; he thought it was by Velázquez and spent the rest of his life proving it, going bankrupt in the process. Was it really by Velázquez? Cumming retraces Snare’s steps and uncovers truths and further mysteries. Her search leads her to Philip IV’s Spain, and her vivid evocation of Velázquez’s court life includes eloquent readings of his paintings. An unabashed admirer, she shows how Velázquez achieved stunning realism with the thinnest coats of paint and no preliminary sketches. As to what compelled Snare’s undying devotion, Cumming can only speculate; no one knows where he’s buried, and the painting was last seen in 1898.