Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters Are Wise, Erudite and Ruthlessly Personal
© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters Are Wise, Erudite and Ruthlessly Personal

Vincent van Gogh was not only an artist, but also a passionate letter writer. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam exhibits more than 40 of the 820 preserved letters the painter wrote to his brother Theo, artist friend Paul Gauguin and many others. Those letters, of which a revised English anthology has recently been published, bear witness to a great talent for writing.

On 22 June 1880 Vincent van Gogh, a failed pastor in Cuesmes (Henegouwen, Belgium) who had recently taken up his paintbrush again, wrote a letter to his younger brother Theo, an art dealer in Brussels. It became a lengthy treatise. After all, there were certain matters that needed to be straightened out. A year earlier Theo had visited Vincent – an undertaking with a specific goal. The Van Gogh family were very worried about their eldest son: after a virtually endless series of prematurely terminated jobs, Vincent had arrived at a complete impasse. The more practically minded Theo was instructed to encourage his brother to get his life back on track – an academic career, wouldn’t that be something? The attempt does not appear to have been particularly fruitful: tensions ran so high that the brothers did not see each other or write for some time afterwards. Now, a year later, Vincent wanted to restore contact. The letter in which he went all out to convince his brother he was not a ‘layabout’ was what might be termed a cry from the heart.

An excerpt: ‘A bird in spring knows perfectly well what he could be doing; he can feel that there is something to be done, but he can't do it. He can't quite remember what it is, then he gets a vague idea of it, and thinks to himself, “The others are building their nests, producing young and raising them.” He bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And the cage remains in place, and the bird goes mad with grief. “That’s a layabout,” says another bird passing by. "He needn’t lift a finger." ’

It’s a beautiful passage: self-assured, pictorial, illuminating, humorous too though (‘He needn’t lift a finger’). There is a hint of powerlessness, of wanting to act but being unable to, and the associated shame, but at the same time there is the talent to analyse that powerlessness, to capture it in words and make poetry of it. It is this combination of psychological incisiveness and literary giftedness that makes us reach for Van Gogh’s letters time and again – that and many other reasons.

The Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans commented on Van Gogh’s letters that if the artist had not made a single painting, we would have known him as a writer. And that’s no exaggeration. Van Gogh’s letters (a mixture of diaries, reflections on art, descriptions of nature and philosophical musings) are wise, erudite and ruthlessly personal, an impressive mausoleum for a human heart, as Isaak Babel put it.

As luck would have it, one of the most actively corresponding painters of the 19th century is also the best preserved. As many as 820 of Vincent’s letters have been collected, not counting replies from his pen friends. The first letter dates back to 1872, when Vincent was 19 and Theo 15; the last is from six days before his death. And these are not just brief notes. When Vincent gets going you’re soon up to four thousand words or more – the magnitude of a weighty essay, for instance. To his friends and family, it must have sometimes been a bit much of a good thing. If Vincent were a 21st-century man with a Twitter account, he might well have been blocked a good many times.

If Vincent were a 21st-century man with a Twitter account, he might well have been blocked a good many times

The length and tone of his letters say a great deal about Van Gogh’s character, which tended towards the hyperactive, if not manic, but they also tell us about the place the letters had in his life, which should not be underestimated: his correspondence was in fact his lifeline. During his protracted wanderings through Brabant, Drenthe, Belgium and the south of France, deprived of company, his letters frequently formed the only contact worth mentioning with his fellow human beings. Both in a financial and in an emotional sense the artist depended on his correspondence – no wonder that many of the letters ended with the words ‘Write back soon if you can’.

A nervous and disorderly-looking figure like Vincent was best suited to writing as a means of communication. The paper offered him something that life outside rarely did: a platform that was always open, without the imposition of pressure or a jeering audience. Within the familiar corners of the writing paper there was no one to contradict or ridicule him – or to run away – and he could hold forth freely. In the slow form of the written dialogue he was able to give his didactic ambitions and educational aspirations free rein and his knowledge and eloquence flourished.

A beautiful example of Vincent wearing his teaching hat is the letter he wrote on 30 July 1888 to the (much younger) painter Émile Bernard. In a moment of inattention Bernard had made so bold as to speak disparagingly of Rembrandt and Hals, which earned him an admonishing epistle from Vincent’s side on these ‘diamonds’. ‘My dear friend Bernard’, the letter begins, ‘I would certainly like to remind you that neither Baudelaire nor you have a sufficiently clear view of Rembrandt.’ There follows a lecture about Rembrandt and Hals, as well as Zola and Balzac, and the gallery of honour of the Louvre, and the Republic, ‘the WHOLE of the illustrious Republic, depicted by these two productive portrait painters’, and once again about ‘Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, a man who is as broad-minded and naturalistic and healthy as Frans Hals himself’ and so on.

Bernard, who had probably long forgotten his own remark, will have raised his eyebrows at such an unsolicited lecture. On the other hand, Vincent’s point was fascinating, and vibrantly worded.

Writing offered Van Gogh something that life outside rarely did: a platform that was always open, without the imposition of pressure or a jeering audience

One of our reasons for reading his letters is to gain insight into Vincent’s stormy development as a painter. You follow him closely, from nothing to forerunner, from the first scholarly sessions drawing anatomical pictures (‘I would have written sooner but I was too busy with my skeleton’) to the final blazing landscapes from Saint-Rémy and Auvers. Descriptions of the battle with the material are numerous, as are references to his own work, and characterisations of paintings by colleagues he admired, such as these words about a painting by Israëls: ‘An old woman, bent over like a heap of rags, by a box bed where her husband appears to be lying. People may harp on about technique, spouting their sanctimonious, hollow, hypocritical words – the true painters are guided by that awareness we call sentiment.

Such magnificent characterisations are a reason in itself to read the letters. There are countless examples. A horse by Potter stands ‘deeply dejected [in] the pale green endlessness of the damp meadow’; the faces of smallpox patients in the port of Antwerp have ‘the colour of boiled prawns’; a cottage is ‘dark as a cave’. Sometimes Vincent’s impressions read as descriptions of scenes he painted himself, or was yet to paint: ‘Entering the village was so beautiful’, he wrote of a trip to Zweeloo, Drenthe. ‘Enormous mossy roofs of houses, stables, sheep pens and barns. The houses here are very broad, between oak trees of a superb bronze. Golden green tones in the moss, reddish …, dark purple-grey in the ground.

The energy and appetite in such descriptions are infectious. However gloomy the object described, and it certainly is gloomy, the effect on the reader is anything but depressing. On the contrary, Vincent’s prose is invigorating. His rich, surging use of language has an energising influence on one’s mood: it makes you feel like taking action yourself.

Van Gogh's prose is invigorating. His rich, surging use of language has an energising influence on one’s mood

It also has to do with a person’s attitude to life. Our boy from Zundert was a go-getter. However many setbacks he encountered, he always picked himself up again. He lived his life on the edge, and anyone who has experienced rejection, heartbreak, thwarted ambitions or any other form of adversity (and who has not?), can find comfort in him. If you’re looking for a literary friend to offer you a powerful boost, Vincent is your man.

The new collection of letters, Your Loving Vincent, is the most slimmed down so far, based on the 2009 edition. A considerable task, said Nienke Bakker, curator at the Van Gogh Museum and one of the editors; in particular, Vincent’s skilful but idiosyncratic French presented challenges to the translators. The letters have been updated in terms of spelling and punctuation; many of the Gallicisms and Anglicisms which the polyglot Vincent sprinkled generously through his prose are explained at the back of the book. Some words, such as ‘droogkloot’ (an insult approximating in a literal sense to ‘dry-clod’, used in phrases such as ‘I’ve always thought you were a droogkloot), appear to be modifications, but on closer examination turn out to have sprung directly from Vincent’s pen. Apparently, such language was used even back in those days.

‘Your Loving Vincent’, Van Goghs Greatest Letters, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until 10 January 2021. (temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic)

In the meantime, read Vincent's finest letters online or explore the audio letters.

Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten (ed.), Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters, Thames & Hudson, London, 448 pp.

This article was previously published in de Volkskrant.

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