The Letters of Vincent van GoghThe Letters of Vincent van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For great things do not just happen by impulse but are a succession of small things linked together.

The main problem when encountering Van Gogh is that his life has become the quintessential artistic myth of our age. The obscure genius ahead of his time, toiling in solitude, tortured by personal demons, driven by a creativity that sometimes spilled over into madness—and so on. You’ve heard it all before. You have also seen it before. His paintings suffer from the same overexposure as does his life story. Starry Night hangs, in poster form, in dorm rooms and offices; it is used in commercials and as desktop backgrounds. The challenge, then, as with all iconic art, is to unsee it before it can be properly seen.

The best way to pop this swollen bubble of this myth is, I think, to read these letters. Here an entirely different Van Gogh is revealed. Instead of the mad genius we find the cultured gentleman. Van Gogh could read and write English, French, and German fluently, in addition to his native Dutch. He peppers his letters with references to Dickens, Elliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Zola. His prose is fluent, cogent, and clear—sometimes even lyrical. His knowledge of art history is equally impressive, as he, for example, compares Shakespeare’s and Rembrandt’s understanding of human nature. Not only this, but he was far from insulated from the artistic currents of his day. To the contrary, he was friends with many of the major artists in Paris—Seurat, Signac, Gauguin—and aware of the work of other prominent painters, such as Monet and Cézanne.

But, of course, Van Gogh’s myth, like many, has some basis in truth. During his lifetime he did not receive even a fraction of the recognition his work deserved (though if he had lived a little longer it likely would have). He was often unhappy and he did suffer from a mental illness of some sort, which did indeed lead him to sever a portion of his own ear. What is less clear is the role that his unhappiness and his mental illness played in his work. In our modern world, still full of Romanticism, we are apt to see these factors as integral to his artistic vision, the source of his inspiration and style. Van Gogh himself had, however, quite a different opinion, seeing his suffering and illness as a distraction or an obstacle, something to be endured but not sought.

The letters in this volume span from 1872 to 1890, the year of his death. Most of them are addressed to his brother, Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris and who supported Vincent financially. There are also a few letters to his sister, Wil, and to his artist friends. From the beginning we see Van Gogh as an enthusiastic and earnest man, very liable to be swept up into passions. His first passion was the church. Following in his father’s footsteps, Van Gogh went to England to work as a preacher. His letters from this period are full to bursting with pious sentiments; in one letter he even includes a sermon, which he composed in English. He quickly grew disenchanted with conventional religion, however, and soon he is pining after his cousin, Kee, who rejects him and refuses to see him. Not long after that he takes in a woman named Sien, a former prostitute, and his letters are filled with his dreams of family life.

But in all of these letters, even before he decided to take up art—which he did comparatively late, at the age of 27—Van Gogh show a keen visual awareness and appreciation. He includes long, detailed, and sometimes rapturous descriptions of towns and landscapes. He is also, from the start, independent to the point of stubbornness. He persists in trying too woe his cousin even in the face of his whole family (including Kee herself) discouraging him. He insists on taking in Sien despite the disapproval of nearly everybody, including his brother and his mentor, Mauve. When it came to art he was absolutely uncompromising, refusing to paint anything just for money, and getting into passionate disagreements with some of his artist friends (Gauguin, most notoriously).

Van Gogh’s intractability often landed him in trouble. He had a bad relationship with his parents and often quarrelled with his brother, Theo, who was his closest confidant. But it is also, I think, the quality that is ultimately most admirable in him. His personal standards drove him to work hard. He was no savant. His letters are filled with exercises and studies. He was tough on his own work and constantly strove to improve it. And though he sometimes got discouraged, there is never any hint of quitting or compromising. This is the classic story, often told. But it is easy to lose sight of how dreary and dispiriting this life could be, day to day. In films the struggling artist is enmeshed in a moving drama, and the audience always knows it will come right in the end. But for Van Gogh this was a plodding daily reality of struggle and failure, with no audience and no guarantee of ultimate success.

That we admire Van Gogh for persisting is, in large part, because his art was truly great. But what would we think if he was mediocre? This, you might say, is the paradox of persistence: We admire those who persist in the face of struggle when they have genuine talent; but when they do not, the spectacle becomes almost pathetic. What would we think of a man financially supported by his brother, constantly quarrelling with and alienating his parents, toiling away in isolation, who produced nothing beautiful? We might be inclined to call such a person naïve, foolish, or even selfish. Whether we admire or scorn stubbornness, in other words, depends on whether it eventually pays off. But in the meantime nobody can know if it will, least of all the stubbornly persistent person. It is, in short, a great risk.

Yet it cannot be said that Van Gogh wagered everything on his talent, since there is not even a hint of calculation or self-interest in his continuing persistence. He is so manifestly, uncompromisingly, absolutely obsessed and absorbed by art that there is no other option for him. Even when institutionalized and hospitalized he thinks of nothing but when, how, where, and what he can paint next. And though he at times expresses regret for the sacrifices this entails—he is especially vexed by the toll it takes on his love-life—he never discusses art with even a touch of bitterness. He is willing to live in a hovel and survive on crumbs if it means he can afford paint. To see such unqualified devotion, not in a novel or on a stage, but in the real, intimate context of his daily life is (to use a hackneyed word) inspiring.

Vincent’s story had a tragic ending. On a summer day in July he walked into a wheat field where he was painting and shot himself in the chest. He survived two more days, finally passing away in his brother’s arms on July 29. The circumstances surrounding this death are rather remarkable, and I don’t wonder that two biographers, Naifeh and Smith, have raised questions about it. The tone of his final letters, while troubled, are far from despairing. He even includes an order of paints in his final dispatch to Theo. And it is also extraordinary to think that a man who had shot himself in the chest could walk a mile back to the inn, or that a man locally known for his mental instability could get a gun. The recent film, Loving Vincent (which I haven’t seen), is focused on this question.

Theo did not long survive his brother: he succumbed to syphilis within just six months. Theo had married his wife, Jo, less than two years earlier, which proved an extremely fortunate circumstance—for art’s sake, at least—since it was Jo who championed Vincent’s legacy and who published his correspondence. Theo and Jo’s only son, named after his uncle Vincent, was responsible for founding the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which I recently visited. To any who get the chance, I highly recommend this paired experience, for the letters and the paintings are mutually enriching. Few people in history seemed to have lived so entirely for the sake of posterity: churning out paintings which few people saw, writing letter after letter few people read, creating a story and an oeuvre that now have the power to tear you in two.

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