Vincent Van Gogh’s story has always been a complicated one, but the strength of his art and vision has always stood strong—as has his creative and emotional impact so many years after his death.
From Black Panel Press and Jamison Odone comes The Man in the Painter’s Room, a graphic novel telling of Van Gogh’s later years of life and unexpected death. Based on multiple sources and drawing heavily from the memories of the daughter of the innkeeper who housed Van Gogh after his departure from an institution, Odone’s narrative is an intimate look at the painter’s life. The book depicts Van Gogh’s falling out with fellow artist Gaugin through his hospitalization and correspondence with his family and ultimately to his final days wandering the French countryside to create his last works, all while facing the mental illness that followed him for so much of his life.
In delivering the story, Odone gives us a simple presentation that prioritizes quiet moments—interspersed with excerpts of letters between Van Gogh and his family—rather than a detailed biographical accounting. The writing leaves many of the specifics unexplained, opting instead to simply follow Van Gogh along his journey through a selection of scenes stitched together with just enough connective tissue to understand the context. This is not a book for someone wanting an exhaustive biography full of facts and details. Rather, The Man in the Painter’s Room seeks to understand the man himself—understand how Van Gogh moved through the world and understand the conflicting parts of his soul that ultimately drove him to his death.
The book takes a melancholy tone from the beginning, capturing the sparseness of the countryside and the lone painter lost amidst a larger world. But Odone’s writing never loses sight of Van Gogh’s vision. This was a man who sought beauty in every corner of existence, and we see Van Gogh enraptured by houses and skylines, turning the natural world into art that would far outlive him. And the story, even as it relays the biographical details, never limits itself to dry recollections of history. Reminiscent of Tom Gauld’s long-form storytelling, Odone’s work is run through with a dry and subtle humor that finds comedy in simplicity and turns the mundane into something that is always entertaining—and sometimes also profound.
Odone’s art captures the simple and unassuming life of its subject. Without complex detail, the panels weave together a stylized cartoonist style with flourishes of Van Gogh’s own view of the world, embodying a quiet artist in search of beauty and peace amidst a community that did not always see what he did. Stepping sometimes into the surreal and balancing realism with the weight of Van Gogh’s own difficult mental health, the artistic style and straightforward writing complement each other and keep the book engaging.
Ultimately, The Man in the Painter’s Room is a eulogy of Van Gogh’s life and legacy. A simple man who battled his own demons for much of his life; his artistic legacy continues to hold sway. Odone makes sure to recognize the impact that Van Gogh had on his contemporaries and those that followed. The book plays out more as a slice-of-life than true biography, but in balancing subtle humor with the beauty and tragedy of its subject, Odone’s tribute to a famous artist is well worth the read.
For any fans of biography or art history—as well as those who enjoy work similar to Gauld’s Mooncop—The Man in the Painter’s Room packs a lot into its minimal presentation. It will probably be of most interest to older readers who appreciate its subtleties, but there’s not much here that would offend younger readers either. In the end, it might be a slightly niche title, but delivered with both skill and empathy, it’s a caring tribute to both the artist and the man who left so much work to those of us who followed him.
The Man in the Painter’s Room
By Jamison Odone
Black Panel Press, 2020
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: French, Ambiguous Mental Illness, Depression