Vincent van Gogh is one of the most beloved painters in history. The sunny wheat field and starry night, the flowers and faces painted in van Gogh's utterly unique style have visually seduced viewers for generations. Most of us know the sad facts of his life: the indifference of the art world, his inability to sell his paintings and some sort of mental illness that led to hospital stays, an act of horrifying self-mutilation and suicide.
But there's still a lot of mystery surrounding the artist's final years, despite his frequent letters to his brother, Theo, which reveal much about van Gogh's state of mind.
To suggest possible explanations for questions records can't answer, Sheramy Bundrick, associate professor of art history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, turned to fiction.
Bundrick's novel, Sunflowers, speculates on van Gogh's life in the South of France from 1888 to 1890, the year he died. We asked her about the artist and her novel.
What is your area of expertise in art history?
I have a Ph.D. in ancient Greek and Roman art.
Is this your first book?
No, I have written a scholarly book, Music and Image in Classical Athens. It was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005. It's not something you'll find in a bookstore. This is my first novel.
Why van Gogh?
Two reasons. I had a research fellowship at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The van Gogh gallery became one of my favorite places to go and learning more about him became a hobby. I went to the town where he's buried and was surprised at how I was affected. It felt like I was walking through his paintings.
The second reason was I had just completed my scholarly book and needed to clear my head. It came to me — what about a story? Why not give it a try? I had a lot of freedom since it isn't my livelihood.
Did you find fiction difficult?
Really hard. But Vincent was something of a role model. He never stopped taking risks and was largely self-taught.
It's written from the point of view of a young prostitute in a brothel who, in your novel, has a love affair with the artist.
Rachel. She was mentioned in a newspaper article, her first name, occupation and address, when he cut off his ear and delivered it to her.
And you built a story around that incident.
I learned when you write historical fiction, you look for windows and doors, entry points. Rachel was that. It's fiction but I felt a responsibility to get the known facts right. We know that he asked for this person and gave her the ear. I felt that he must have known her pretty well.
There's so much argument about how to pronounce his name.
I don't think it's pronounceable in English. It's very guttural, completely out of the throat. All the pronunciations are bastardizations of the way it would be said in his native Dutch. In France they say van GUG. I just say van GO. He signed his paintings "Vincent," I think, for that reason.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.