Vincent van Gogh was not only a prolific artist, famous for the nearly 900 exceptional paintings he produced during his short career, but he also wrote over 800 letters to his friends and family. Living away from his family for long periods of time, most of these letters were affectionate correspondence to his younger brother and confidant Theo detailing events in Van Gogh’s life. Of those letters, over 150 contain Van Gogh sketches.
In addition to corresponding with his brother Theo, Van Gogh also exchanged letters with friends and other artists often with a young artist who had impressed him, Emile Bernard. In the candid and informal letters to Bernard, there was clearly a continuing conversation taking place as they traded ideas about technique and color as well as art itself.
Van Gogh to Bernard, 1888:
"My dear old Bernard, I'm quite curious to know what you've been doing lately. I'm still doing landscapes - sketch enclosed. I'd very much like to see Africa as well. But I'm hardly making any firm plans for the future. It'll depend on circumstances. What I should like to know is the effect of a more intense blue in the sky…"
"You can't have blue without yellow or orange, and if you do blue, then do yellow and orange as well, surely. Ah well, you'll tell me that I write you nothing but banalities. Handshake in thought, Ever yours, Vincent"
Within the pages of the lengthy letters are remarkable sketches by van Gogh of works that he was in the process of creating or had recently finished. The sketches allow us to see the progression of Van Gogh’s work as well as his growth as an artist.
Van Gogh’s sketches can show the process he was using with color, and the path he was taking to make his paintings. In that letter to Bernard from 1888 van Gogh includes sketches of six works, of varying genres, from a house, to a seascape, to a still life. In these sketches, all drawn in black ink, Vincent labels where the colors go, and what colors he intends to use. They are included to show his new thoughts on creating art, and to get Bernard’s thoughts.
Van Gogh’s letters show a side of him many don’t know about and give a good perspective of the artist’s life and his connection to his artwork as well as his state of mind. The sketches within his letters are invaluable as they give us glimpses into the process by which Van Gogh arrived at his masterpieces. When discussing ideas about art, Vincent used the sketches to provide examples on ideas about color and composition that he was exploring.
In a letter to Theo from 1882 Van Gogh wrote,
“Where in this little sketch the black is darkest, there in the watercolour are the strongest effects, dark green, brown and grey. Well, adieu, and believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily, because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdities, of which I do not nourish an inkling. (I who am really nothing but a friend of nature. of study. of work, and of people in particular.)”
When his paintings were finished, van Gogh’s sketches provided a glimpse into the work he was doing for his friends and family. Since it can take months for the paint to dry and it was more expensive to ship a large canvas than a letter, it was quicker and easier to show his work in small sketches. The sketches that van Gogh includes with his letters show the confidence he has in the work he is producing. It shows that Vincent was excited about what he was creating and wanted to show it off.