Explore the remarkable life of Vincent van Gogh

Brooke Theis
Photo credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

From Town & Country

No single prominent artist wrote so copiously and so eloquently as Vincent van Gogh. Today, there are 819 existing letters from him, of which 658 are addressed to his brother Theo, an art dealer and ardent supporter of his work. Written without guard, and without the knowledge that anyone else might read them but their recipient, they act as a vividly revealing autobiography.

Photo credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

A new selection of the artist’s correspondence, Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters, presents 76 unabridged messages he sent to his family, friends and fellow artists such as Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard. They act as a window through which to observe Van Gogh’s thoughts and opinions; his closeness to his brother; his sometimes-turbulent relationships; his love of literature; and above all, his unwavering passion for his art.

Photo credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Grouped chronologically and by Van Gogh’s location when writing them – from Belgium to the Netherlands and across France – each section is introduced with a summary of the artist’s life at that point in time. The book is also illustrated with original manuscripts, as well as his magnificent sketches and paintings referred to in the letters.

Photo credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The correspondence details the tension between Van Gogh’s enduring financial struggle (he notably sold just one painting in his lifetime) and the passion that propelled him. In one letter, he thanks Theo for his support: “Money can be repaid, not kindness, such as yours.” In another, he excitedly describes conversations with Gauguin about Delacroix and Rembrandt as “excessively electric”. He writes: “We sometimes emerge from it with tired minds, like an electric battery after it’s run down.”

The book comes ahead of an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, ‘“Your loving Vincent”: Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters’, which will open in October.

Photo credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Another tome, Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him (published simultaneously), explores the artist’s literary influences, as detailed in the letters; those he wrote to Theo refer to more than 200 authors from the worlds of fiction and biography. Indeed, books and readers are frequent subjects of his paintings, such as L'Arlésienne and Man Reading at the Fireside.

From childhood through to the end of his life (and from deliberating a career as a pastor to his decision to become a painter), this study examines the texts that Van Gogh treasured, by writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Zola and Maupassant.

Photo credit: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Both volumes are testimonies to the lifelong commitment Van Gogh pledged to art. As he once wrote to his mother Anna: “…when one’s taken the trouble to become master of the brush, one can’t stop painting”.

Photo credit: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

‘Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters’, edited by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten (£30, Thames & Hudson) is published on 2 July. ‘Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him’ by Mariella Guzzoni (£19.95, Thames & Hudson) is published on 2 July. ‘“Your loving Vincent”: Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters’ at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will run from October until January 2021.