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Young Vincent

I finally saw the beautifully animated film, Loving Vincent.  It is an Academy Award and Golden Globe Nominee for Best Animated Motion Picture. It tells a part of the life and also investigates the controversial death of Vincent Van Gogh.

It is told by his paintings and by the characters that inhabit them. It takes place one year after Vincent van Gogh’s death. A postman who knew Vincent asks his son Armand to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Armand goes to the town not even knowing that Vincent is dead and interviews people who knew Vincent in an attempt to deliver that letter.

He finds the circumstances of the death suspicious. Only weeks before, Vincent had said in letters he was in a good mood, calm and working and in need of new canvasses.

What makes the film unique is that each of the film’s 65,000 frames is essentially an oil painting on canvas. A team of 125 painters using the same technique as Van Gogh created the images which often flow one into another as the paint swirls.

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

Vincent Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters. Most of them were to his brother Theo who often supported him and his painting and served as his “art dealer” – not a very good one, since only one of his paintings sold in Vincent’s lifetime. He signed many of the letters “Your Loving Vincent.”  He also wrote to other family members and fellow artists including Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.

His prose is very detailed, especially about his work. Some are illustrated with sketches and some of the collections put the letters beside the paintings he is describing.

Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity
of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

The film was inspiring. It inspired me to borrow a few books to read more about Vincent and particularly to read his letters:  Letters of VincentVan Gogh’s Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890, Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and Van Gogh: The Life

The film and books also inspired me to take out my paints and brushes. I am the most-amateur of painters, but I have been setting things down in watercolors since I was in college, though very sporadically.

You have to let your creativity out. Usually, I do that with poetry. Visually, I am far more likely to take a photograph than paint. That is also a creative outlet but, for me, one done more from laziness.


Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat

What am I in the eyes of most people?
A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man,
somebody who has no position in society and never will have.
Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work
what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody.

Vincent was educated mainly in what he called “the free course at the great university of poverty.” He wanted to find purpose in his life after what knew was a long period of searching without purpose.

One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea
arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing,
incapable of filling any position, any role,
finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action,
shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.

self portrait

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Vincent suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions. He often neglected his physical health, not eating and drinking too much wine.

His friendship with Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor, which resulted in him severing part of his own left ear. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including a period at Saint-Rémy.

In the film, they cover some of the time he spent after he discharged himself from a hospital. He moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. There he befriended a homoeopathic doctor, Paul Gachet.

There are two versions of his death. One is that as his depression deepened, on 27 July 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. That is a very odd way to commit suicide.

Another version is that he was shot, probably by a man from the village who had harassed Vincent during his time there. The position of the wound suggests this version makes more sense.

In either version, he dies in the seemingly non-existent care from Gauchet two days later.


Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime. He is considered to be a genius, a madman and a failure. His fame came after his death. I doubt that he would be happy that he is often seen as a misunderstood genius or that it took until the early 20th century for him to be recognized as a great painter.

Van Gogh gave his 1889 Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey to Dr Rey. The physician was not fond of the painting and used it to repair a chicken coop, and later gave it away. In 2016, the portrait was housed at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and estimated to be worth over $50 million.

Vincent and Theo's graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

Vincent and Theo’s graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

Albert Einstein with his son Hans Albert

I am an Albert Einstein fan. Except for most of his parenting and the treatment of the women in his life. And, for me, that’s a big part to get past.

But it pleased me to find a letter that he wrote to his 11 year-old son, Hans Albert with some advice about learning.

It is included in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children which I came upon in the library this week.

It was November 1915 and Albert Einstein was 36, living in Berlin which was torn up by war. His estranged wife, Mileva, and their two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard “Tete” Einstein, lived in Vienna, which was a safer place at the time.

Einstein had just completed the two-page piece of genius that was his theory of general relativity. His fame was about to explode upon the world.

Einstein sent his son a letter about the simple secret of learning.

It’s not school.

Here’s the part I think is worth passing on:

“… These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal.”

Another interesting book of letters is Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children, a collection of about sixty letters from around the world and his responses. Alice Calaprice compiled the collection and also collected his many pithy quotations in The Quotable Einstein.

(I had a pair of those furry slippers that is shown wearing on the book’s cover. My sister and I called them “puff-puffs.”)

He seemed to be fond of children and enjoyed the simplicity of their questions and ideas. I wish he had been a better father himself.

When a child asked how old the Earth was and when it will come to an end, he wrote back that it is a little more than a billion years old, and, “As for the question of the end of it I advise: Wait and see!”  He told “six little scientists” from Louisiana who were mocked by their classmates for believing that life would survive even if the sun burned out: “The minority is sometimes right—but not in your case.”


When I was teaching middle school back in the 20th Century, I had a little project for my students that I stole from my own seventh grade English teacher. She had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left the junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish we had gotten the letters.

When I was teaching, I decided I would try it and be sure to mail them. I asked students to supply a self-addressed envelope with two stamps on it (to cover postal increases) and the return address was me at the school.  I didn’t do it every year, but I got so many favorable responses for the years I did do it, that I regret not doing it every one of my 25 years teaching.

Of course, depending on how well the student composed the letter, it would have some impact to see your thoughts from five years earlier. Those years from 13 to 18 are big years of change.

I gave them a form to fill out too, asking them to list favorites (movies, TV, food, music) and best friends, goals, plans and such. They could also just write the letter. Some just did a quick scribble – and that is what they got back five years later.   I actually mailed envelopes to students who didn’t even do the assignment with a note reminding them of that – partially because I didn’t want them to blame me for losing their non-existent letter, and partly because that might have been a good message from their younger self too. I got a few interesting comments on those non-letters – mostly from students who wanted me to know that they had changed in a good way from the younger person.

I was reminded of this recently because one of my students who did a letter years ago became an English teacher herself and, via Facebook, I found out that Ines paid the letter forward.

In 7th grade, my language arts teacher had us write letters to our future selves. The week I graduated from high school, I was so surprised to receive a letter from…me! It was the letter I had written myself so many years earlier. I don’t remember now what I wrote but I remember loving the idea so I did it for some of my own students.

I just mailed all their letters that they wrote a couple of years ago. I hope they are as excited about receiving them, as I am in sending them.

I also had students write letter to famous people and amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I posted on the bulletin board. This was in the days before email and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

It all seems rather quaint today, I suppose. But when my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Jaded as we are by online communication, I think all of us still get more excited by actual paper mail when it is something unexpected than we do by an online message.

And some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. there were autographed tennis balls, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did. Another asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home. Many of my students wrote to the young adult authors that we read in class. We wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers.

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that I don’t mean just the format. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.

Juliet or The Blue Necklace (1898) by John William Waterhouse

I went with my wife this past week on “date night” to see Letters to Juliet. (We had already seen Date Night.) It was light and likable. It made me want to go to Verona and Sienna. It made me think about my own letter to Juliet. (Here’s my post about the film.)

Back when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to seventh graders, I discovered that visitors to Verona, Italy often left letters addressed to the fictional Juliet Capulet.  People also mail her letter – sometimes only with the address  “Juliet, Verona, Italy” and they reach their destination. That’s Santa Claus status.

More amazing (and the reason for the film) is that the letters get answered. That has been going on since the 1930s.

It is believed that Shakespeare’s play was based on a similar true love story of young lovers who were separated by warring families. But truth is not the reason that Guilietta (her Italian spelling) is asked for advice in the ways of love for hundreds of years.  Fiction doesn’t stop lovelorn people from all over the world from seeking her advice on matters of the heart.

Letter writers don’t expect a reply from Juliet, but they do expect a reply. That  response will come from one of a group of volunteers in “Il Club de Guilietta” (“The Juliet Club”) who pledge to answer all mail.

There are letters in many different languages from all over the world. Letters are given to native speakers and sometimes to volunteers who focus on particular kinds of advice. I have read that a letter goes beyond the lovesick, the volunteers may turn to a psychologist or a priest before responding.

The film, Letters to Juliet, is the story of  one letter that is answered fifty years after it was written and what happens because of that reply. (more on the film on this related post)

Juliet Capulet is one of the title characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet who falls in love with Romeo Montague. If there was a historical Giulietta, she became Juliet in the narrative poem by Arthur Brooke which is very likely to have been how Shakespeare became acquainted with the story.

Juliet is the youngest child of a wealthy Verona family. It seems that she had older siblings before the time setting of the play, but she is the only surviving child and therefore even more precious and protected.

Brooke said she was 16, but Shakespeare made her just about to turn 14. That may have been partially to allow a young boy to play the role on stage (Remember, females were not allowed on the stage in WS’s time – see Shakespeare in Love for a great take on that), but that also changes the dynamics of the R&J romance. It also made her much more identifiable for my middle school students.

The idea of getting married at 14 seemed very strange to my students. But the idea of parents being opposed to your friends and prejudices against groups did not seem so foreign.  I also had students whose heritage included “arranged marriages” like the one that the Capulets have planned for their daughter and Count Paris.

In many cultures and time periods, women did and do marry and bear children at such a young age. In Shakespeare’s England, most women were at least 21 before they took the plunge, so even his audience had a similar reaction to the characters as my students.

Romeo and Juliet are impulsive, passionate, and idealistic. So were my students. And those qualities are both wonderful (and why I loved that grade level) and the path to heartbreak and tragedy.

Let’s remember that the play ends in a double suicide. Scary stuff to deal with when teaching kids of that age. Tragically, I could find real life examples in the news every year that I taught the play – once in the town where I was teaching.

I got hold of the address for the Juliet Club and asked my students to write letters to her if they felt they had something to ask. I wrote one myself.

My letter to Juliet was written as if I was 14 again. It was a time when I was in love. Before you scoff at that, I caution you that one thing you learn in dealing with kids that age (in a classroom or in your home) is that you can’t trivialize their perception of being “in love.”  Crushes are not silly, but serious.

When I was that age I was in love with a classmate. We had a few “dates.” Those included meeting up at a movie, walking home together, being at a school dance and dancing together and a few kisses and hugs. Pretty innocent stuff by 2010 standards, I know, but very real to me.

All that ended when her parents found out. Their reason? I wasn’t Jewish.  They had assumed I was because my surname could be Jewish.  They told her we could not “date.”

I was shocked. We weren’t on the path to marriage. Why was my religion an issue? She obeyed her parents. We stopped dating. We saw each other every day at school. I seemed to be more upset than she was – which didn’t help me deal with it. It was entry into Shakespeare’s play when I encountered it a few years later.


My first look at the play was, like many of my contemporaries, through a film version. Mine was the 1968 Zeferelli film version, and I joined many of my friends in having a crush on Olivia Hussey. (The low cut dresses and brief nude scene certainly helped fuel many crushes.) For my students, it was the Romeo + Juliet 1996 version directed by Baz Luhrmann


There is a book that collects a group of those letters, Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona, and the Power of Love, that the film is “based on” and is out to coincide with the film’s release.

*  full text and audio of the play at

What might be the “real” Juliet’s balcony in Verona – now the place to post your letter to her.

The film, Letters to Juliet, is the story of one letter written to the fictional Juliet Montague of Shakespeare’s play that is answered fifty years after it was written and what happens because of that reply.

The film is light and airy and made me want to visit Verona and especially Sienna, Italy. I wanted to drive those empty dirt roads, eat that food, drink that wine, walk those cobblestone streets.  It seems like a very romantic place to go with my wife – who has been there already and still has relatives there.

I posted here earlier about the letter I wrote to to Juliet years ago.

In the film, the woman who wrote the letter 5o years ago, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), returns to Italy because of the reply to find the boy she left behind.

It’s Italy but it’s Hollywood. Is it a spoiler to say that she finds him, they are both currently free and that they finally marry? I don’t think so. No more of a spoiler than it is to say that Romeo and Juliet both die and that the Titanic sinks. It’s a Comedy in the Shakespearean way.

The people are pretty, the scenery is pretty, the colors are beautiful.

Sophie, who accidentally finds the 5o year-old letter to Juliet and replies, is a fact checker at The New Yorker. She is in Verona on a prenuptial, quasi-honeymoon with her fiancé, Victor who is researching vendors for the restaurant he’s opening in New York. He’s so caught up in that process that he ignores Sophie, so you now that relationship isn’t going to work out.

Claire returns to Verona with her protective grandson Charlie and he immediately dislikes Sophie – which is a Hollywood and TV guarantee that they will fall in love.

The three of them set out to find the long-lost Lorenzo and the road trip makes up most of the film. There are many Lorenzos to sift through, but you know he will be found.

It’s predictable in a Hollywood way, but that didn’t really bother me.

Amanda Seyfried as Sophie

I enjoyed my theater chair tourism.  One of the aerial shots of Verona with its red tile roofs seemed to me to be a duplicate of the shot in the 1968 film Romeo and Juliet. I’d like to believe the town is very much like it was back then. I’d really like to believe it’s like it was when the real Juliet was on that balcony with her Romeo.

That’s Romance with the capital R.

It’s made for fans of Shakespeare’s play, Italy, even Anglophiles and Americans who have a fantasy expatriate life in their head.  After all, I read about all that in Henry James and E. M. Forster.

It was nice to have it for 105 minutes.  When my wife and I left the theater, I had a real craving for a glass of wine.  We had one, on our Paradelle deck with the scents of mint, thyme, lavender and the other herbs from the garden in the night air. Nothing wrong with Romance.

Get in the mood…

Romeo and Juliet on the screen in the 1968 Zeferelli film version (Olivia Hussey & Leonard Whiting) and the Romeo + Juliet 1996 version directed by Baz Luhrmann with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.

A collection of some of those real letters to the fictional Juliet was the basis for the film  Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona, and the Power of Love

Mood music – The Juliet Letters CD by Elvis Costello

in lots of formats via Amazon

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