The Best Books to Truly Understand the Real Vincent van Gogh

Who am I?

As well as being a novelist (ten published books to date), I’m a Senior Lecturer in Prose at Liverpool John Moores University. My current academic fields of interest are the role Johanna van Gogh-Bonger played in Vincent’s rise to fame, the silencing of women involved in creative pursuits, and the consideration of a novelist’s ethical and moral responsibilities when fictionalising a real life. My true passion lies in the creative uncovering of those erased stories, and in adding to the emerging conversation. That’s why I’ve shifted from writing contemporary to historical novels. I’m also known as the international, bestselling author Caroline Smailes (The Drowning of Arthur Braxton).

I wrote…

Mrs Van Gogh

By Caroline Cauchi

Book cover of Mrs Van Gogh

What is my book about?

She’s been painted out of history…until now. Who tells her story?

In 1890, Vincent Van Gogh dies penniless, unknown, a man tortured by his own mind. Eleven years later his work is exhibited in Paris and his unparalleled talent finally recognised. The tireless efforts of one woman gave the world one of its greatest creative minds. But twenty-eight-year-old Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, Vincent’s sister-in-law and the keeper of his immense collection of paintings, sketches, and letters, has, until now, been written out of history. This beautiful, moving novel finally gives this extraordinary woman a voice…

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

Why did I love this book?

On Vincent van Gogh’s death, and the subsequent death of his brother, Theo, six months later, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger – at only twenty-eight years old – became keeper and advocate of Vincent’s immense collection of paintings, sketches, letters, and illustrations.

Whilst grieving and caring for her infant son, Jo translated those letters. That we are able to read Vincent’s letters and to hear his words add both depth and insight to our appreciation of his art. This book is our chance to connect with a Vincent beyond the tortured artist that contemporary society portrays. These letters are one of Jo’s many gifts to us.

Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Can Gogh and Jo Bonger

By Theo Van Gogh, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger

Book cover of Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Can Gogh and Jo Bonger

 Why did I love this book?

Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger fascinates me.

Her existence as an artist’s sister-in-law, art dealer’s wife, widow, and mother overshadowed her key contribution to the reputation building she undertook for the van Gogh family. I wanted to understand how Johanna and Theo began their relationship. I needed to understand why Johanna, after Vincent’s death, became obsessed with providing the artist’s work with the recognition it failed to attract in his lifetime.

I was thrilled to discover this now out-of-print book. It includes translations of letters exchanged between Johanna and Theo. It provides a stunning platform to voice the bond, love, and the intimacy that the couple gifted each other in their too-brief time together.

This is one of the most endearing and unaffected love stories.

Book cover of The Van Gogh Sisters

Why did I love this book?

I maintain that the only way to gain a true understanding of Vincent van Gogh is to identify his role in seemingly peripheral narratives.

This book considers the Van Gogh sisters, and gives stunning voices to their previously untold narratives. An intimate and necessary insight into the siblings’ relationship, their struggles with mental health, and their intelligent observations of the changing social climate are given.

Without doubt, to recognise Vincent fully, there’s a need to both navigate and to appreciate the female relationships that influenced him.

Book cover of Van Gogh's Ear: The True Story

 Why did I love this book?

Sadly, when asked about the artist, most people describe Vincent as the man who chopped off his own ear. I hate that they do.

This book though is neither gratuitous nor indulgent. Instead, it offers a detailed, well-researched, and intelligent response to the question – Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear? There has been much speculation about the events that led to Vincent delivering his ear to a maid at a brothel in Arles.

This book is essential reading for any who wishes to open conversations about Vincent’s motivations and the happenings that led to that gruesome act on a specific day in December.

Book cover of Living with Vincent van Gogh: The homes and landscapes that shaped the artist

Why did I love this book?

Martin Bailey is an expert on all things Van Gogh, and any of his books could have been recommended.

This one though – if we are learning about influences that have shaped and guided and disconcerted Vincent – has to be considered. To know the artist is to understand the numerous homes and landscapes that have shaped and influenced both him and his art. In an era when people rarely left the area where they were born, Van Gogh was both a traveller and unsettled.

This book made me truly consider what that might actually mean.