Vincent Van Gogh: A life in letters

ON 23 July, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh sent a letter to his brother Theo from the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. "As for me, I'm applying myself to my canvases with all my attention," he wrote, and enclosed four sketches of paintings recently completed. A week later he was dead.

• Vincent Van Gogh's Self-portrait as an Artist. Picture: Complimentary

But the letter doesn't read like the work of a crazed artist about to paint a frenzied picture of crows above a cornfield then shoot himself. Van Gogh's last letter is very much like the hundreds that preceded it: thoughtful, articulate and above all, passionately engaged with the ongoing and difficult business of being an artist.

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Experts on Van Gogh often talk about "the Van Gogh myth", that of the mad artist producing works of accidental genius. It is pernicious, helped by Irving Stone's bestselling bio-novel Lust for Life, and the subsequent film starring Kirk Douglas. But it is a myth.

We know this because Van Gogh left us his side of the story. More than 800 letters of his survive, close to a million words, an astonishing correspondence with his brother and others about love, friendship, literature, religion, and above all, art.

These letters form the basis for a major new exhibition, The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, at the Royal Academy in London, the first major Van Gogh show in Britain since 1968.

Curator Ann Dumas says: "We're hoping the exhibition will bring out the real Van Gogh, not the myth, the mad man who painted in a crazy frenzy."

The exhibition also celebrates the publication of a new edition and translation of the letters. The six-volume collection, published by Thames & Hudson, is a momunentous scholarly achievement, representing 15 years of work by a team from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The Royal Academy show has borrowed 40 of those letters, in many cases reuniting them for the first time with the paintings to which they refer. Arranged chronologically, the show is a unique chance to a chance to trace Van Gogh's development as an artist, guided by his own words. Ann Dumas describes him as her "co-curator".

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"He is a wonderful writer. I can't think of any other artist who has written so comprehensively and intelligently about his own art. On one level the letters are a progress report, so Theo knows what he's doing with his time."

Van Gogh was a prolific, thoughtful, passionate correspondent. His letters range from the prosaic – "Can you send me a few ordinary brushes as soon as possible?" – to poetic descriptions of landscapes he was painting. They are peppered with references to art and literature: Van Gogh was fluent in English, French and German. He read Dickens, Zola and Maupassant in their mother tongue.

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Hans Luijten, who with Leo Jansen and Nienke Bakker formed the core of the Letters team at the Van Gogh Museum, says: "Through the letters we see him as a man, a struggling man, building up his life as an artist. His personality starts to come through in his handwriting. You can see him thinking, adding, crossing out.

"Sometimes you can see from his handwriting that he's been drinking, or is tired. He often writes at the end of the day. And when he says, 'I was early up this morning,' he means about 4am."

The year 1882 finds Van Gogh in the Hague where – having given up on his career as an art dealer, and an abortive spell as a missionary – is teaching himself to draw. He is sketching landscapes with the help of a self-built perspective frame, but writes, with some frustration, that perspective seems like "downright witchcraft or coincidence".

By 1884, he is in Neunen, with his parents, sketching the peasants at work in the fields. His drawing is growing in confidence and fluency but he is determined to master the human form. He is also painting in oils. By the time he paints the autumn trees in 1885, he reports "a thawing in my palette".

When he moved to Paris in February 1886, that thaw burst into a glorious spring. Seeing the work of the Impressionists for the first time seems to have had a profound effect. By summer, he was painting Terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens in the delicate colours and looser brush strokes of Monet and Pissarro.

Still learning voraciously, he travelled to Arles in Provence, where the sun-drenched landscapes of the south worked their magic. His colours intensified, the handling of paint became entirely his own. He walked miles into the surrounding countryside to paint orchards, cornfields, wide, sweeping vistas. He befriended the local postman and painted portraits of his entire family. He threw away his perspective frame. Ann Dumas says: "In Arles, he is writing less about the practicalities of painting. There's a sense that he can do it now."

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In Arles, he painted iconic works such as The Yellow House, and Self Portrait as an Artist, both of which are in the show. He dreamed of establishing an artists colony, a "studio of the south" in the Yellow House, and in autumn 1888, when Paul Gauguin came to stay, it seemed that dream was coming true.

However, after ten tempestuous weeks, Gauguin departed hastily, and Van Gogh suffered his first serious mental breakdown. "He was always looking for intimacy," says Ann Dumas, "but perhaps he wasn't very good at it."

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Van Gogh returned alone to the Yellow House in January 1889 after a short stay in hospital, and in his first days there painted a thoughtful, telling picture. Still Life around a Plate of Onions, on loan from the Krller-Mller Museum in Otterlo, Holland, the second-largest collection of Van Gogh works in the world, is the opening picture for the show because it is the only painting of his that contains a letter.

"It's like a self portrait," says Ann Dumas. "He has had a world-shattering experience, his dreams of an artistic collaboration with Gauguin are shattered, he comes back alone to the Yellow House and paints the ordinary objects around him, coffee, onions, a book on homeopathic medicine. It's a powerful and rather poignant painting."

Later that year, a further period of illness led to a longer stay in the asylum at Saint-Rmy. Though he did not paint or write when most seriously ill, he painted whenever he felt well enough: the view from his window, the hospital grounds. He reported to his sister that he was re-reading Shakespeare's history plays.

In his final weeks at Saint-Rmy, he produced a suite of still lifes, including a radiant vase of white roses which is included in the show. Writing of it to Theo, he said: "The whole crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm and I'm working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush."

When discharged, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he was in the charge of a homeopath, Paul Gachet. "He certainly appears to me as ill or confused as you or I," he observed in a letter to Theo, while working on Gachet's portrait. He would produce more than 70 paintings in as many days before his death in July 1890, many of them daring masterpieces.

He died less that ten years after those first sketches at the Hague, after a decade of striving, reading, thinking, learning, and immersing himself in the hard graft of becoming an artist. Though with little sense of the acclaim he would later receive, his letters enable us to understand and value that journey. Hans Luijten says: "We don't know how he talked, we don't know how he walked. This is the closest we can get." And it's pretty close.

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• The Real Van Gogh: The Man and His Letters, sponsored by BNY Mellon, is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 23 January until 18 April. Vincent Van Gogh – The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, is published by Thames & Hudson, and available online at