A mixed review of 'Vincent & Sien' by Silvia Kwon
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Vincent van Gogh is an artist we see and hear about often, in both real and imagined tellings; across fiction and non-fiction formats. Most of us know the Dutch artist was ‘tormented’ in some way, leading him to cut off part of his ear. We know he was kept alive with money from his brother, that the art world of his time didn’t appreciate his ‘genius’, and that he died broke. His style is now categorised as ‘post-impressionist’ and hundreds of his paintings are shown around the world, most of which were made in the final, frenzied years of his life before he died by suicide in 1890.
Let’s start with what’s good about Vincent & Sien. There’s a lot to love.
Silvia Kwon has found an absolute nugget of gold in this overlooked detail from the sidelines of van Gogh’s history. (Spoiler alert.) She leaves it until the final pages of the book to give us the par that presumably catalysed the fiction:
Sien Hoornik’s body was found in a canal in Rotterdam, early on the morning of 23 November 1904 by a public gardener. Two policemen confirmed her death. An exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s work was held at Rotterdam’s Oldenzeel Gallery, a kilometre from Sien’s home, between 10 November and 15 December 1904.
Well well well. Doesn’t the imagination just explode upon reading this? We know, of course, that Sien was Vincent’s lover and model/muse for some time. We know they split. He died in 1890. And then more than a decade later Hoornik sees his work exhibited (finally!) and is found dead. A coincidence? Impossible. Hoornik’s life in her own words? Impossible.
Enter the novelist.