Book review: Vincent & Sien, Silvia Kwon

Forget your textbook knowledge of Vincent van Gogh.

Forget your textbook knowledge of Vincent van Gogh, it’s almost irrelevant whether you know or appreciate the work of the Dutch painter to enjoy Silvia Kwon’s art historic fiction, Vincent & Sien.

The book focuses on Clasina (aka Sien) Hoornik, the only known lasting love interest of the famed artist and a frequent model of van Gogh’s drawings during his time in The Hague from 1882-3. Right from the start, Kwon’s intention is clearly to highlight Sien’s perspective and avoid a glorified narrative of Vincent. He is introduced casually and always by his given name, while Sien’s first impression includes ‘the man moves like a stick insect’.

Readers learn of Sien’s life on the streets as a pregnant prostitute with a young daughter. She is not a damsel in distress, but someone worn hard from her situation, who doesn’t even spare herself the pity, but does what it is needed to survive. Kwon’s writing cuts to the bone, delivering Sien’s character with authenticity and autonomy despite the harsh reality of Sien being a women born to an impoverished family.

Sien and Vincent’s meeting is described as a fever dream. It’s a Cinderella moment when Sien – who has nearly died on the side of the street from hunger, exhaustion and a bitter winter – is transported from the impoverished neighbourhood of Geest in The Hague to the comfortable hearth of a gentleman, one different from others she has known, despite his class and family name. Rather than attraction, Sien’s first feelings are those of astonishment, uneasiness and suspicion. At the sight of Vincent’s wall full of drawings, she asks herself, ‘Who is this man obsessed with the poor?’ to which Vincent answers ‘I’m an artist’. Yet, as the story develops, readers learn alongside Sien herself, that Vincent isn’t the kind and charismatic Prince Charming that she may have thought him to be.

Through Vincent & Sien, we see the flaws of a man, an artist and a lover. Despite possessing a passionate nature and a kind heart, Vincent is never able to rid himself of his family’s ideals, let alone his financial dependence on his brother, Theo – the golden child of the van Gogh family. As Vincent grapples with his art (the fact that his pictures don’t sell) and his temper (quick and fiery), Sien grows increasingly disheartened by his promise of marriage and a life of their own together. While Vincent battles with paint and line, Sien battles with hope and disappointment.

There are warm moments of intimacy when a happy ending seems possible, including when Vincent cares for Sien during her pregnancy as if he himself is the father, his fondness for Sien’s son Willem and how, for the first time, Sien feels seen and even admired.

As Sien comes to know Vincent – what both calms and what provokes him, causing both his happiness and his angst – Kwon offers readers an insight into an artist too often celebrated for his courage and ingenuity without properly acknowledging his faults and struggles. Further, Kwon grounds Vincent in the social and historical context of his day, his relationship with others – including family, fellow artists and a range of life models that frequented his home with Sien – and vice versa.

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The ending of Sien & Vincent is a powerful and transportive moment, connecting with history in a way that still leaves enough to the imagination.

Vincent & Sien by Silvia Kwon
Publisher: Macmillan Australia
ISBN: 9781761264863
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 336pg
Release date: 25 July 2023
Price: $34.99

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne. Instagram: @lleizy_