Art Essays

Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters

Published November 1, 2009

Vincent Van Gogh – The Letters. The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition.
Leo Jansen, Hans Luitjen & Nienke Bakker eds.
“For the present I feel calmer than last year, and the turmoil in my head has really abated so much.” These words are taken from the last letter Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his mother and sister, on 14 July 1890, from Auvers-sur-Oise. “I’m wholly in a mood of almost too much calm,” he writes, but this was the calm before the storm. On 27 July he shot himself in the chest and would die two days later, his brother Theo at his bedside. He was thirty-seven years old.
Everybody knows the story of pauvre Vincent, as he came to be known by friends, family and legions of anonymous admirers. Van Gogh is the artist who cut off his ear in a fit of madness; the genius who sold only one painting in his lifetime, but whose oeuvre is now worth hundreds of millions. He has been mythologised by Irving Stone in his fanciful biography, Lust for Life of 1934; and immortalized in a 1972 pop song by Don Maclean that is now a popular ring tone. Directors such as Vincente Minnelli, Paul Cox and Robert Altman have brought his story to the screen, although it is Kirk Douglas in the first of these films who best exemplified the figure of “the tortured artist”.
The French writer, Antonin Artaud, who was far madder than Van Gogh ever was, called him “the man suicided by society”. In less surreal terms, many would agree: Vincent was too good, too sensitive for the world in which he lived. He had a vision of art, and human happiness, that he tried to communicate to everyone. His rewards were unbearable pain and anguish, loneliness, madness, incarceration and death.
With the waning of organized Christianity at the beginning of the twentieth century, it is a truism that many people found a new religion in art. But if art is a faith Van Gogh is a second Jesus Christ, sent to redeem the world through the medium of oil on canvas. Audiences have followed his passion with no less emotion than their ancestors felt for Christ’s agony in the garden. Whether we are looking at the paintings, reading his words, or following his life story in a Hollywood film, we can’t help but sympathise with this talented, vulnerable man who was his own worst enemy. He is the patron saint of every disgruntled teenager who feels that “they” don’t understand him; the inspiration for every self-appointed genius who can’t sell a picture.
Over the past century the canonisation of Van Gogh has been driven by his letters no less than his paintings. Indeed, the two activities have been mutually reinforcing. After reading those uncommonly honest essays in self-analysis, filled with kind thoughts, theories about art and detailed accounts of his own states of mind, one can never look at the paintings without seeing the man. More than any other artist of the modern era, Van Gogh leaves us breathless. We can feel the intensity in each brushstroke, and recognise the explosive power of his colours in those days when successful artists painted in shades of brown.
Australian audiences will soon have the pleasure of viewing seven paintings by Van Gogh in the forthcoming Masterpieces from Paris show at the National Gallery of Australia (4 December – 5 April).
Van Gogh’s letters are best known through a small paperback anthology that exists in many different incarnations. Since 1958 the most comprehensive English-language version has been a three volume boxed set published by Thames and Hudson. I was given these volumes as a wedding present – a vast improvement on toasters, wine glasses and tea towels. It was hard to imagine that anything more complete would ever be published, but over the past few decades the cult of Van Gogh has continued to grow. As more letters have come to light, and new research has revealed a clearer picture of the artist’s life, it became apparent that there was a need – or rather, a hunger – for a truly “definitive” edition.
Vincent Van Gogh – The Letters is a six volume boxed set, complete with a CD that contains the original versions in French and Dutch. The total package runs to 2,180 pages, and contains some 4,300 illustrations. The footnotes alone amount to 160,000 words. While the 1958 version put memoirs and biographical sketches in the first volume, the new edition places them, more appropriately, in volume six. The letters are now arranged in precise chronological order, unlike the earlier set that presented them in sections according to the recipient.
The new edition is the work of three editors – Leo Jansen, Hans Luitjen and Nienke Bakker, assisted by numerous interns; the designer, Wim Crouwel; and a team of expert translators. The co-ordinating publisher was the Belgian firm, Mercator Fonds, in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute. The English-language version is published by Thames and Hudson.
The project has taken more than fifteen years from start to finish. Researchers have tracked down and reproduced almost every picture that Van Gogh discusses in these letters, including smaller thumbnails when the work is mentioned again. Every drawing in these letters is reproduced. Every person mentioned has been identified and researched, as has every literary reference or quotation, no matter how garbled. There are lists of books Van Gogh consulted, and maps of cities in which he lived, pinpointing his former residences.
The result is not only a landmark of scholarship but a lavishly illustrated catalogue of the artist’s work. The price: a mere $795.00. Not too bad for one of the supreme lust-objects of art publishing. If this is beyond one’s budget, the entire book is available for free at This may be considered the fine arts equivalent of making the human genome sequence freely available.
The books contain 902 letters, 819 written by Van Gogh and 83 addressed to him. Of Vincent’s letters 651 are addressed to his brother Theo. More than 800 letters are the property of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which is hosting a special exhibition to celebrate the publication. Van Gogh’s Letters: The Artist Speaks contains 300 items, including 120 original letters. The show runs until 3 January, and will be seen at the Royal Academy in London, from 23 January – 18 April.
With such treatment, anybody might think that Van Gogh’s letters are literary masterpieces, but this is far from the truth. They can be awkward, ungrammatical, repetitive and confusing, as the artist’s thoughts seem to race ahead of his pen. Their virtue is their sincerity. It is obvious that Vincent means every word he puts down on the page. He has no sense of writing for future publication, wishing only to express his ideas and feelings in the most direct, open-hearted manner. It is this lack of self-consciousness that makes his correspondence so seductive. We begin to see the world through the artist’s eyes, experiencing his pitiful hopes, his frustrations and disappointments.
For the reader, the optimism he displays is shot through with pathos, for we know that his every dream is doomed to failure. We marvel at his enthusiasm for people, even a ruthless narcissist such as Paul Gauguin, whom Van Gogh’s Australian artist friend, John Peter Russell, habitually described as “that bounder”. Van Gogh’s modesty is just as compelling, as he constantly notes that he is making some little progress but still has a long way to go. His greatest admirations seem to be reserved for artists such as Adolphe Monticelli, who is viewed as a very minor painter nowadays.
This adds up to a moving, somewhat misleading self-portrait. Despite all the generosity of spirit displayed in these letters, Van Gogh was difficult, self-centred, argumentative, and so neurotic that very few people could bear his company. One catches a glimpse of this in his repeated laments that he has not been able to make a good impression. He would praise someone in his letters, but be completely paranoid about them in everyday life, ready to fly into a rage at the slightest provocation. It was enough that they had a different opinion about a painting, or worked in a different style. He ran home to get a revolver to shoot Fernand Cormon, after the famous teacher had expelled Emile Bernard from his atelier for painting in a Post-Impressionist manner. By the time he got back the studio was deserted.
Van Gogh wore out everyone with his obsessive-compulsive behaviour – not just his fellow artists, but even the poor workers of the Borinage, to whom he sought to preach the gospel. He would probably be no less of an outcast were he alive today – the odd man out at every party.
Van Gogh was completely at the mercy of his emotions, and this, it might be argued, is why his paintings are so striking. One feels the uncompromising nature of his personality in every brushstroke. It is only when he sits down to write a letter that this ferocious energy is re-channelled into a love of humanity and a tenderness for his friends and relatives. His letters are riddled with doubt and self-criticism, but he could rarely reproduce these feelings in any social encounter. John Russell had more patience with him than almost anyone apart from Theo.
Aside from the mountainous footnotes and biographical research, the new edition contains more than twenty letters previously unpublished in English. The most interesting is addressed to Gauguin, dated 21 January 1889, a month after the ear-lopping episode in Arles and the end of their joint tenancy of the yellow house. “Ah! My dear friend,” he writes, “to make of painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has been before us… a consolatory art for distressed hearts! There are as yet only a few who feel it as you and I do!!!”
In a letter to Theo dated two days earlier, he had already announced: “I dare believe that at heart Gauguin and I like each other enough as characters to be able to start over again together if necessary.”
This dogged affection for Gauguin, who left for Paris while Vincent lay recuperating in hospital, glides over the tensions that caused their dream of the south to disintegrate. After his bout of madness Van Gogh seems ready to begin hero-worshipping his estranged friend all over again. This capacity for sudden changes of heart, swinging between despair and elation, is only too indicative of the artist’s disturbed state of mind. And yet, as we read through letter after letter, it is impossible not to be impressed by Van Gogh’s intelligence, his capacity for analysis, his enthusiasms for art, music and literature. One thinks of G.K.Chesterton’s famous quip that the madman is not one who has lost his reason, but one who has too much reason.
The Van Gogh that emerges from these pages is not Kirk Douglas’s tortured artist, but a thoughtful, highly literate man given to bouts of reckless idealism. At an early stage of his career he was fond of the quoting the Bible, identifying with the Saviour, and he never lost that evangelical aspect. He appears as a paradoxical figure: a man so egocentric that he expects the entire world to conform to his ideas, but with a boundless love and compassion for his fellow creatures. He is inflexible in his opinions about art, but filled with admiration for second-rate painters, seeing himself as a mere amateur in comparison. No wonder Theo felt so protective, or that Gauguin once felt moved to throw his arms around his disturbed friend after a violent outburst, and lead him home to bed.
It is generally believed that Van Gogh’s final crisis was brought on by a feeling that he was nothing but a burden to Theo, who was increasingly committed to his wife and child. In those final days he writes of his sadness and loneliness. He continued to feel that his painting was merely at a preparatory stage for the greater art of which he was capable, but this unfulfilled ambition was not sufficient to dispel his suicidal despair. Having alienated so many people, the bond with his brother was the strongest force in Vincent’s life, the only thing about which he could always be certain. It was ultimately more important than his painting.
For Theo, who had shared Vincent’s tortuous journey through life, the bond was just as powerful. He would die less than six months after his brother, having never overcome his grief. Because they lived so often apart, the relationship between Vincent and Theo was forged and maintained by their letters. Although he knew how difficult Vincent could be in the flesh, Theo loved the brother who wrote to him with such candour, such innocence and emotion. It is the same man we recognise in this monumental publication: a personality liberated from the messy details of biography, represented only by a remarkable inner life.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, November 2009
Vincent Van Gogh – The Letters. The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition.
Leo Jansen, Hans Luitjen & Nienke Bakker eds.
Thames and Hudson, six volumes, hardback, 2,180 pp. AUD $795.00
‘Van Gogh’s Letters: The Artist Speaks’
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until 3 January.
Royal Academy of Arts, London, 23 January – 18 April.