The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

A new selection of post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gough's letters, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh put a human face on one of the most haunting figures in modern Western culture. In this Penguin Classics edition, the letters are selected and edited by Ronald de Leeuw, and translated by Arnold Pomerans in Penguin Classics.Few artists' letters are as self-revelatory...

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Title:The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
Author:Vincent van Gogh
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Edition Language:English

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh Reviews

  • Kalliope

    In my youth I felt saturated with Van Gogh’s art. Its popularity made it predictable. As one of the greatest victims of the phenomenon that

    explores in his

    , one could expect to see posters of Van Gogh’s

    , or his

    , or

    , in a third of the rooms of students. I suspected that more than this bright colours, always welcome in dingy lodgings, it was the legend grown out of the morbid aspect o

    In my youth I felt saturated with Van Gogh’s art. Its popularity made it predictable. As one of the greatest victims of the phenomenon that

    explores in his

    , one could expect to see posters of Van Gogh’s

    , or his

    , or

    , in a third of the rooms of students. I suspected that more than this bright colours, always welcome in dingy lodgings, it was the legend grown out of the morbid aspect of his supposed suicide that explained the ubiquity of his art.

    As a museumgoer, I have seen many of his paintings in various galleries and cities. I also visited long ago his museum in Amsterdam. But it was more recently, in an exhibition with a room devoted to him, when I felt completely enraptured in wonder in front of a couple of his paintings.

    But I have wanted to read his letters for years and reading these has been a delight.

    Most of them are addressed to his brother Theo, but there are a few to painter friends, such as

    and

    . It was his sister in law who collected and edited them and gave them for publishing in 1913. They span from the Summer of 1872 until a couple of days before his death on 1890.

    Reading his Letters I feel that he could not have disapproved, since he himself was addicted to reading biographies of other painters, those he admired, hoping to find a guide to his own path as a painter. If not looking for the same guidance, I have approached them to help me get closer to his art.

    It has been a fascinating process to be able to follow how he gradually discovered his painting vocation, which happened relatively late. At first he felt his calling was for the church. Once he became disappointed with the clerical life, he thought of becoming a social helper. During this time, though, references to paintings and art, and close descriptions of landscapes, fill his letters. It was not until he was around 26 that he finally decided to become an artist. This was in 1879 and he had to begin his training, drawing and materials, from the start.

    What comes across clearly, whether he is discussing art or whatever else, is the profound intensity with which he approached anything he undertook and the passion with which he defended his ideas. One could say he was a Romantic, not in the historical sense, but in the theoretical one. He pursued with his art his religious longings. Aestheticism at its purest.

    During my read I felt compelled to post many updates. Most of these are either descriptions in text of what could have been visual. If even before he drew and painted he would send accounts of his visual impressions, once he began producing paintings, at a very fast rate, he would send textual versions of his painterly renditions. And in text colour dominates. His paintings are described as a succession of things in tones. The colour of the tree, the colour of his table, the colour of the grass, the colour of the sun, the colour of someone's coat… He does not discuss compositions or arrangements or drawing. His art discussions veer towards the most visual, colours. Why has he chosen which colour and what it signifies. We see then that even if he painted outdoors and very rarely from memory, he was not a naturalist. He developed his own system for colours based on correspondences with his own moods and very personal impressions. But this was not fixed. It could not be, It varied with his emotions.

    And this personal meaning to his painting is what explains that even if it was after his arrival in Paris in 1886, where he fell under the spell of Impressionism, when he changed his palette from the earth tones to the bright and primary colours, he pursued something very different from the French painters. He aim was not to record of the sensory. And that is also why he did not get close to the analytical art of the

    . Van Gogh had a profoundly and intensely intimate relation with painting, with the act of painting itself. His brushstroke is rich and thick and expressive. His canvases have a loaded texture. And this texture has his mark.

    With such a personal approach to his art we should not be surprised that his stated favourite genre was portraiture-- of others and of himself.

    .

    To follow this epistolary approach to his art is also suitable because Van Gogh was a very literary man. This literary outlook tinted his vision of his surroundings. A compulsive reader, he peppers his letters with references to a wide array of writers. Very knowledgeable of French literature, and even if he turned his back to the Naturalist painters, his preferences in literature were for the Naturalists, in particular those who included a lens focused on the social content. He mentions regularly Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, Daudet etc. From English literature his favourites were clearly Charles Dickens and, very dear to him, George Eliot.

    This selection of letters is a perfect antidote to the alienating effect of ubiquitous reproduced images. Reading them is highly refreshing. They succeed in enlivening the aesthetic emotion when contemplating Van Gogh’s very dazzling and unforgettable works.

    ---

    I want to thank Jasmine who, during my reading and as a comment to one of my updates, drew my attention to this great documentary. Benedict Cumberbatch impersonating Van Gogh. The text is composed out of sections of the letters and other primary documentation. Strong recommendation:

  • Edward

    --Early Letters

    --Ramsgate and Isleworth

    --Dordrecht

    --Amsterdam

    --The Borinage

    --Etten

    --The Hague

    --The Hague, Drenthe and Nuenen

    --From Nuenen to Antwerp

    --Paris

    --Arles

    --Saint-Rémy

    --Auvers-sur-Oise

  • Luís C.

  • Roy Lotz

    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

    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.

    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,

    (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.

  • Francisco

    I want to be careful in writing this review because I want to do what I can to urge you to put this book in your list of Books I Should Read During my Lifetime. You have such a list, don't you? No? Will you think about making one? It consists of the books that a large majority of your fellow humans believe are representative of what is most significant about this gift you have received, which we call life. Lots of the books that should go on that list are not necessarily ones you would pick from

    I want to be careful in writing this review because I want to do what I can to urge you to put this book in your list of Books I Should Read During my Lifetime. You have such a list, don't you? No? Will you think about making one? It consists of the books that a large majority of your fellow humans believe are representative of what is most significant about this gift you have received, which we call life. Lots of the books that should go on that list are not necessarily ones you would pick from a book store or library shelf. It's okay to put a book on the list out of a mysterious sense of obligation that you might feel. And once on the list, if you begin to read and it does not speak to you, that is okay too. There will be others who will. Only be patient with this book. It may take you a few pages to become interested in the author and to see in his struggles to be true to a calling lessons for your own life. This book is a compendium of letters from Vincent van Gogh. It does not contain all of Van Gogh's letters. But the letters selected (mostly to Van Gogh's brother Theo) tell a fairly complete story of Van Gogh's inner life. Now and then the editor will insert snippets of Van Gogh's life and circumstances at the time of the letter so that we have a good context for the letter we are reading. Lots and lots of letters consist of Van Gogh pleading with his brother to send him money (Van Gogh sold the grand total of one painting during his lifetime) but somehow even these letters are important to the slow vision of Vincent that you are gradually forming and befriending as you read. Not to mention the glimpse these letters give you of true friendship and devotion between Vincent and Theo. But why is this one of those books that should be placed in your Lifetime List? Someone once said that vocation is that place where your heart's joy meets the word's great need. And I think that this book shows you one man's struggle to develop and remain true to the inner joy that art brought to him and to have that joy be useful, of service to others. He says in an early letter, when he is discovering his aptitude to draw and paint: "I feel a power in me which I must develop, a fire that I may not quench, but must keep ablaze, though I do not know to what result it will lead me, and shouldn't wonder if it were a gloomy one. . . " And indeed he kept the blaze of that power throughout his short life even when gloominess was all there was. The power was kept alive sometimes by a fiery, consuming enthusiasm and sometimes by the cold steel of will and duty. But always there was that practice, practice, practice the need to align through visual description and color the emotions elicited by nature, by the poor peasants, simple objects and ordinary people he insisted in painting. At some point, the constant practice of his craft would have allowed him to paint pictures that would sell. But that would have been a departure from that place where his heart's joy met what he saw as the world's need. This a book for your Lifetime List because we are all called (and a call can come from you or from outside of you) to find that joy and find a way to make it useful.

  • ZaRi

    تئوی عزیزم!احساس زیبایی طبیعت،حتی احساس ظرافت ونکته های آن، با احساس عقیده وایمان فرق دارد، اگرچه به نظر من بین آن دو،رابطه ی نزدیکی موجود است.(احساس ما نسبت به هنرنیزهمین است.)درهرحال زیاد هم پایبند این موضوع نباش.هرکس طبیعت را یک نوع احساس می کند ولی کمتر کسی است که بتواند خدا را احساس کند،خدایی که باروح ما پیوستگی دارد.هرآن کس که دربرابرخدا سجده کند،باید برابرروح وحقیقت نیزسرتعظیم فرودآورد.

    پاریس،17سپتامبر1875

  • Ammara Abid

    This book is exceptional, thought-provoking, painstakingly beautiful and soulful. Not only literary letters but they encompassed whole life of a genius artist.

    I absolutely love this book ♡

    It's worth reading.

    This book is exceptional, thought-provoking, painstakingly beautiful and soulful. Not only literary letters but they encompassed whole life of a genius artist.

    I absolutely love this book ♡

    It's worth reading.

  • Chuột Thổ cẩm

    May mắn làm sao khi Theo không chỉ dành cả đời để giúp đỡ người anh bất hạnh, mà kể cả sau khi mất, ông và vợ vẫn giữ gìn những lá thư mà anh trai ông gửi, để cả thế giới được nhìn thấy một bi kịch thật đẹp, về một nghệ sĩ điên nhưng tỉnh táo nhất, một người buồn nhưng lạc quan nhất, đã từng hiện diện, từng bị chối bỏ, và rồi được yêu thương nhất.

    Có nhiều lý do khiến mình cực kỳ yêu mến Vincent van Gogh:

    - Ông chọn chủ đề trong tranh là đồng quê, và nhiều lần đề cập trong những bức thư việc yêu

    May mắn làm sao khi Theo không chỉ dành cả đời để giúp đỡ người anh bất hạnh, mà kể cả sau khi mất, ông và vợ vẫn giữ gìn những lá thư mà anh trai ông gửi, để cả thế giới được nhìn thấy một bi kịch thật đẹp, về một nghệ sĩ điên nhưng tỉnh táo nhất, một người buồn nhưng lạc quan nhất, đã từng hiện diện, từng bị chối bỏ, và rồi được yêu thương nhất.

    Có nhiều lý do khiến mình cực kỳ yêu mến Vincent van Gogh:

    - Ông chọn chủ đề trong tranh là đồng quê, và nhiều lần đề cập trong những bức thư việc yêu thích cuộc sống, con người và thiên nhiên ở vùng nông thôn. Với van Gogh, nhân vật trong tranh chẳng cần là ngài bá tước, cô công chúa, hay những điển tích Thánh kinh nào hết, mà chỉ đơn giản là nông phu đào khoai, chở than, là người đưa thư, là cây hạnh trổ bông trắng ngần, là cây bách dưới bầu trời sao. Nội dung giản dị như chính con người vẽ ra nó.

    - Sự nhạy cảm vô cùng của một người nghệ sĩ. Mình luôn nghĩ khi là một nghệ sĩ, đặc biệt là hoạ sĩ, người ta phải luôn có sự rung cảm, nhạy cảm khi nhìn thấy sự vật sự việc. Vincent may mắn có được điều đấy. Nhiều trang thư miên man sự miêu tả sống động những thứ mà Vincent nắm bắt được, cách dùng từ gợi cảm luôn phiên nhau như những cơn sóng từ ngữ uyển chuyển ập vào tâm trí người đọc. Rất nhiều tính từ hay xuất hiện trong sách.

    - Vincent thích màu xanh, thích bầu trời, thích đêm hơn ngày.

    - Mối quan hệ giữa Vincent và Theo. Nếu cần một ví dụ để nói về tri kỷ, thì không còn gì rõ ràng hơn là mối quan hệ của hai anh em nhà van Gogh. Cả hai chia sẻ một tâm hồn, một trí óc, thậm chí một sinh mệnh. Muốn khóc khi nghĩ về Theo.

    - Vincent không bao giờ từ bỏ tình yêu của ông dành cho mọi người, nhưng hầu hết đều chối bỏ ông. Thật buồn khi những lời cuối của ông dành cho Theo là, anh muốn được chết ngay lập tức. Tại sao tại sao, đáng ra phải ôm lấy người đàn ông nhạy cảm ấy vào lòng?

  • Matt

    Robert Hughes writes in one of his essays on Van Gogh that the myth's around Van Gogh run exactly opposite to the truth. He recommends delving into Van Gogh's letters as a way to get beyond the myths and better understand both the artist and his work. Van Gogh is often given an aura of a mad genius, whose hallucinations and fits gave rise to the intense colors and patterning of his paintings and drawings. In fact, his fits (most likely due to epilepsy) were debilitating, and often kept him out o

    Robert Hughes writes in one of his essays on Van Gogh that the myth's around Van Gogh run exactly opposite to the truth. He recommends delving into Van Gogh's letters as a way to get beyond the myths and better understand both the artist and his work. Van Gogh is often given an aura of a mad genius, whose hallucinations and fits gave rise to the intense colors and patterning of his paintings and drawings. In fact, his fits (most likely due to epilepsy) were debilitating, and often kept him out of commission for weeks at a time. Hughes closes and essay saying that Van Gogh was a great painter in spite of his madness, not because of it - and having read his letters, I'm inclined to agree.

    However, I somehow found the letters both more and less than I expected. The biggest disappointment was that they failed to provide as much insight into Van Gogh's working process and aesthetic ideas than I hoped. Much of his talk about his work is merely a description of recent paintings (at most a vague description of his goals) or a long list of influences. While it's interesting to see who he was looking at, I didn't come away with much more understanding of the piece by piece construction of his paintings, or of any grander aesthetic theory.

    On the other hand, I now have a much greater understanding of the character and biography of Van Gogh than of any other artist I've ever studied. I can look at any piece, and place where it was in his development, where he was physically and mentally at the time, and what issues he was grappling with in his life. I may not have had much more access to his artistic thoughts, but I'm able to process his work in a much wider context than I was before. And there are many, many interesting anecdotes to be learned - like the fact that the work that he is known for, his famously intense paintings and hatched drawings, were down in less than three years - from 1887 to 1890 (a period during which he produced over 1000 combined paintings and drawings).

    I also have some gripes with the editing of this edition - the letters are interspersed with brief biographical sketches which contextualize the letters, but there are also many letters left out. Without having read every single letter, it's hard for me to know whether the choice of letters reflects and editorial slant (and I have a sneaking suspicion that many letters were chosen for biographical upheaval rather than artistic insight, but have no real grounds for that claim).

    It's difficult to recommend this book to everyone. Those obsessed with Van Gogh or painting in general might find a lot to learn - and those who enjoy reality TV might get a similar kick out of the bizarre twists and turns of this self-narrated life. The rest will probably find it a bit dull.

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