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Mark Harden's Artchive: CD-ROM Reviews

Van Gogh: Straight from the Heart "Van Gogh: Straight from the Heart"

Available for purchase from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

Reviewed by David Brooks, creator of The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery

click on the thumbnails to view the screen captures.

See also: The Complete Works of Vincent van Gogh on CD-ROM

It was a pleasure to review Chris Engel's CD-ROM, "Straight from the Heart", devoted to the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. More and more CD-ROMs about Van Gogh are being released all the time, but none take as serious and comprehensive approach as Mr. Engel's work.

Whatever your background "Straight from the Heart" will almost certainly please you. Regardless of whether your interest is academic or perhaps you just think that Van Gogh's works are "cool", you'll find something interesting and enjoyable on this CD-ROM.

The CD is divided into 14 sections: Main Menu

  • Paintings
  • Drawings
  • Letters
  • The Readings
  • Photos
  • Self-Portraits
  • Craft-technique
  • Vincent's Prints
  • Movies
  • Artists Location
  • Contemporaries and Precursors
  • Appendix
  • Notes
  • Help
I'll give a brief overview of each of the major sections and will discuss the underlying strengths and weakness.


A good overview of many of Vincent's works, with all of his artistic periods well represented. Some of the information is a bit out of date, but that's always a challenge when it comes to Van Gogh's works--things are constantly changing. Peasant Woman Digging (F 95), for example, is listed as "owner unknown", but the work is actually in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. In addition, neither the Van Gogh nor Kröller-Müller museums are owned by the Dutch "state" any longer so the "rijksmuseum" status from each has dropped.

The links from the paintings to the letters that discuss them is extremely valuable, but only a small fraction of any of the letters on the entire CD-ROM include a date. This would be quite helpful.

The custom menu at the top of the screen (specific to the paintings section) is excellent and easy to use. The only other criticism would be the quality of some of Van Gogh's early works. Some of the graphics are so dark (Two Birds Nests/F 109 or Head of a Peasant Woman/F 135, for example) that they display as virtually black.


Many people are unfamiliar with the more than 1,300 sketches and watercolours that Vincent van Gogh produced. This section provides a good overview for those who want to learn more about these works which are, in many ways, just as important as his most famous paintings in terms of Van Gogh's development as an artist.

Occasionally the Information ("I") button wouldn't work and the details about the sketch's name, place of origin, etc. weren't available. Also, it might have been useful if the sketches had been grouped separately from the watercolours since the media are so different, but that's a minor point.

The Reading

The Reading This section is very well done and provides valuable insights into Vincent's life and work through his own words in his many letters to his brother, Theo, and others. The letters from the St.-Rémy period are particularly effective and moving.

Again, as with the other sections, the customized drop down menu at the top of the screen is excellent and makes navigation within the section clear and easy.

There are some factual errors here and there. For example, it's noted that Vincent was in love with Ursula Loyer during his stay in England, whereas it was really her daughter, Eugenie--a common mistake among Van Gogh enthusiasts (actually newly uncovered evidence suggest that it was neither, but rather a Dutch woman named Caroline Haanebeek).

The only real criticism I have about the letters section is that the narration itself is weak. The narrator's voice often wavers and this detracts a bit from the letters themselves.


Photos Another extremely well done section with some rarely seen photographs relevant to Vincent van Gogh. The one feature I found particularly effective was the ability to view a photograph and then link immediately to a corresponding sketch or painting of Van Gogh's. This means of linking the "reality" of the photograph with the "art" of Vincent's work helps to create a real sense of immediacy to the paintings and sketches.


A good overview of Vincent's self-portraits--not only the well known oils, but also some lesser known, but absolutely charming rough sketches.


In many ways, this section is the most valuable on the CD. Here Chris Engel explores Vincent's ever-evolving technique and does so in an extremely well done manner, combining essays, graphics and features specific to CD-ROM technology.

In the sub-section "Working Process", for example, we gain some insights in colour by looking at Vincent's palette (as he himself drew his own palette in a small sketch within a letter to his brother, Theo, in 1882). This particular section is an excellent example of combining Vincent's own information with features that only CD-ROM or web technology can offer. The discussion about "primary", "secondary" and "primitive" colours works especially well, too.

The section on Van Gogh's works after Millet is quite good, combining the Millet original with Van Gogh's copy as well as a narration of Vincent's discussion about his Millet copies in the letters. At times this section was a bit awkward though--you can chose to see a particular Van Gogh copy of Millet's by moving the mouse over the Millet original, but at the same time an automated sequence takes over and you lose and then regain control.

The Japanese section is a bit weak with only three examples (and only one of three of Vincent's Japonaiseries works). The CD shows one of the Japanese original prints by Hiroshige but directly links it to View of Arles with Trees in Blossom rather than Vincent's copy of the work, Japonaiserie: Flowering Plum Tree. There is also no textual information about Vincent's own extensive collection of Japanese woodblock prints, nor any type of overview Japanese art and its influence on Van Gogh.

The navigation within this section is a bit confusing at times. In the "Artistic Development" sub-section the magnifying glass appears active, but does nothing until prompted. The palette icon appears active, too, but only brings up message referring to the top menu--a bit frustrating for the user. On the positive side, the essay in this section (written by Chris Engel) is first-rate.

In addition, the "Magnified Views" sub-section (which allows the user to zoom in closer into a work) would be more effective if the quality of the graphics were better. It also doesn't tell you the name or F (catalogue) number of the works.

Vincent's prints

Explores the various prints that Van Gogh had in his own collection (including the 19th century British illustrators who had such a huge impact on Van Gogh in his formative years as an artist).


One of the weakest sections with only three (out of dozens available) films listed. Not very comprehensive and with some glaring factual errors. For example, the CD lists the director of Lust for Life as John Houseman, but it was really Vincente Minnelli. It also says that the film was based on the book Dear Theo by Irving Stone. Not so--Dear Theo is a compilation of Van Gogh's letters that Stone edited, but the film Lust for Life was, in fact, based on the Irving Stone book of the same name.

Artists location

An excellent idea. This section displays an aerial map (linked to photographs) of the area around Paris when Vincent lived with Theo in 1886-88. The apartment where they lived, 54 Rue Lepic, is the centre of this particular universe of artists whose works would have a profound impact on Van Gogh. Very insightful and well done.

Contemporaries and Precursors

A very thorough look on the artists (both before Van Gogh's time as well as his contemporaries) who influenced Van Gogh's own development as an artist. A huge amount of valuable information is available in this section. Extremely comprehensive and informative.


Various references are available, however navigation is a bit frustrating. Scrolling through the "Bibliography", for example, is painfully sluggish. In fact, scrolling virtually anywhere in the appendix section is incredibly slow.

General Comments

"Straight from the Heart" is an excellent CD-ROM and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in Vincent van Gogh. Having said that, I'll quickly detail some suggestions for any future versions that might be released.

  • A search feature would be nice in order to allow the user to run queries across multiple sections ("Which letters does Van Gogh mention Zola's novel Germinal?", for example).
  • Some type of "you are here" indicator would be helpful in order to show the user exactly where they are at any given moment.
  • The CD is somewhat unstable. During the evaluation of the CD the program locked up on three separate occasions (the third time while trying to access the "Help" section--a double whammy in terms of user frustration) and had to be restarted from scratch.
  • Very picky point: A bit of cleanup needs to be done in terms of spelling and grammar ("He was fond of litho crayon because of it's rich black" -- watch those apostrophes!)
The final word--Chris Engel has been working on "Straight from the Heart" for years and his dedication is abundantly clear. This CD is, without question in my mind, by far the best Van Gogh CD-ROM available. It's an absolute must-have for any Van Gogh enthusiast.

David Brooks
The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery

For further information on this product contact Christopher Engel.

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