The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh’s surviving correspondence begins on 29 September, 1872, when he was nineteen years old, and ends on 23 July, 1890, when he was thirty-seven. From the start, the close inter-relationship between his letters and his paintings was fundamental to the shaping of his reputation, in which the narrative of his personal life remains intimately bound up with the reception of his visual art.

Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, inherited Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, as well as the large collection of paintings that Theo owned. She realized the importance of promoting the correspondence and the paintings together, and in 1914 she published a landmark three-volume edition of the letters to Theo. The earlier and subsequent publication history of the correspondence is complex, but culminates in the recent, magnificent edition, Vincent van Gogh – The Letters, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, 6 vols. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2009). An expanded version is available free of charge at www.vangoghletters.org. A selected anthology by the same editors is due to be published in English in September 2014.

The 2009 editors estimate that perhaps half of Van Gogh’s correspondence has been lost. Still, what remains is voluminous and captivating, even though sometimes formidable and challenging. In 2010, the Museum of Dutch Literature placed Van Gogh among the one hundred greatest Dutch writers, and commentators often acknowledge the extraordinary literary distinction of the collected correspondence.

The total number of letters known to exist is 903. Van Gogh wrote 820 of these and received 83. Most (658) are to Theo, though Vincent also wrote 58 to his artist friend Anthon van Rappard, 21 to his sister Willemien, 22 to Emile Bernard, and 4 to Paul Gauguin, as well as a small number to various other recipients. Approximately two-thirds are written in Dutch, and one-third in French. There are also 242 sketches dispersed throughout.

The letters are the primary source for Van Gogh’s biography, and contain a wealth of information about the progress of his life’s work. But, by their nature, letters are occasional, and the style and tone of Van Gogh’s writing are often calculated to match the expectations of the recipients. Consequently, the information provided by his correspondence needs to be interpreted circumspectly. For instance, Theo did not approve of Vincent’s disastrous love relationships with Kee Vos and Sien Hoornik, and Vincent needed to assess his passionate involvements – which scandalized his parents – in relation to the fact that Theo was providing the monthly stipend on which Vincent depended. The rich complexity of many of the letters reflects an often remarkable discernment and range of nuance by which Van Gogh contrived to temper his combative and unconventional opinions to address the preconceptions of a particular reader. The quasi-narrative that the letters provide is thus far from straightforward, but it is all the more fascinating and compelling for that.

Although the letters tell us surprisingly little about Van Gogh’s ordinary day-to-day life, they provide a wealth of information about his practice as a painter and about the extraordinary range of his reading. We learn a great deal about the artists he admired and about the similarities he frequently found between literature and the visual arts. He provides detailed descriptions of his own painting and drawing techniques, and sometimes provides information about paintings that are lost, as well as descriptions of paintings in progress.

Until recently, the close links between Van Gogh’s letters and his paintings effectively pre-empted any extended assessment of his achievement specifically as a writer, despite the fact that the literary distinction of the letters is frequently acknowledged. In a recent book, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. A Critical Study (Alberta: Athabasca University Press, 2014), Patrick Grant undertakes to repair this omission by focussing on the imaginative power and conceptual coherence of Van Gogh’s writing. This book will be followed by a further study, “My Own Portrait in Writing”: Self-Fashioning in the Letters of Vincent van Gogh”. Together, these books bring Van Gogh’s collected correspondence into the domain of modern literary studies, both critical and theoretical, as is long overdue.

Patrick Grant

28 June, 2014

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WebExhibit's Van Gogh's Letters Unbridged and Annotated
Enclosed Field with a Sower in the Rain Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges Field with Factory View of Saintes-Maries with Cemetery
Enclosed Field with a Sower in the Rain Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges Field with Factory View of Saintes-Maries with Cemetery
"If ... boyhood and youth are but vanity, must it not be our ambition to become men?"