The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

While reading van Gogh’s letters is a fascinating journey into the mind of the artist, it is also poignantly heartbreaking. This is an abridged version of van Gogh’s letters, almost all written to his brother Theo from the various places he had stayed from 1872-1890, Holland, Belgium, England and France.

A few decades separate his life from Hemingway’s, but I think he too had his “moveable feast”.  To the painter, it’s not Paris, but the open country of southern France, in particular, Arles and St. Remy’s, Provence.

(A corner store in Arles, named after the famous ‘Yellow House’ Van Gogh once lived in)

Unlike Hemingway, van Gogh felt Paris only ‘distracts’. He wrote to his brother Theo after moving to Arles from Paris in February, 1888:

It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.

While Hemingway sought to “write one true sentence”, van Gogh yearned to reflect what was true through his paintings:

… giving a true impression of what I see. Not always literally exact, rather never exact, for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.

And colours were his tools. Van Gogh began to use a new palette that he did not see in his native Holland. Under the bright Provence sun, the artist excitedly indulged in a myriads of brilliant colours he had not experienced before…”There is that sulphur yellow everywhere the sun lights on.” He eagerly ushered in a new style.

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly… — To Theo from Arles, August 1888

(The Sower)

I believe in the absolute necessity for a new art of colour, of design, and — of the artistic life.”

“But the painter of the future will be such a colourist as has never yet been [emphasis his].

Through the artist’s colourful lens, the view that van Gogh saw was one that I could never imagine. Here he described to his brother Theo a painting he’d finished, in a letter dated September, 1888:

 … the starry sky painted actually at night under a gas jet. The sky is greenish blue, the water royal blue, the ground mauve. The town is blue and violet, the gas is yellow and the reflections are russet gold down to greenish bronze. On the blue-green field of the sky the Great Bear sparkles green and rose, its discreet pallor contrasts with the brutal gold of the gas.

(Starry Night)

Many of the letters are descriptions like this to Theo in Paris. Reading them, I can sense the artist’s excitement and joy in capturing everything he saw in Arles:

At the moment I am working on some plum trees, yellowish white, with thousands of black branches. I am using a tremendous lot of colours and canvases…

… it will be to our advantage to make the most we can of the orchards in bloom. I am well started now, and I think I must have ten more, the same subject. You know, I am changeable in my work, and this craze for painting orchards will not last for ever. After this may be the arenas…

His letters alas are also pleas for funds, as he was “literally starving”. With the last fr.5 he had, he’d spend it on canvases. He lived in dire poverty most of his career, damaging his physical and mental health.

I can’t do without colours, and colours are expensive… I cannot get more on credit. And yet I love painting so…

Worse still, his letters are also accounts of anguish, depression, and “unbearable hallucinations.” He desperately sought cures, admitting himself into the asylum in St. Remy’s. Ironically, it was there that he experienced the most prolific period of his life.

                    (St. Paul’s Hospital at St. Remy’s)

Throughout van Gogh’s numerous letters, there are many beautiful lines, insight into love, art, books, and life. Here are a few:

  • “Since I really love there is more reality in my drawings.” — Autumn 1881
  • “I would not give a farthing for life, if there were not something infinite, something deep, something real.” — December 1881
  • “It is the painter’s duty to be entirely absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express sentiment in his work so that it becomes intelligible to other people. To work for the market is in my opinion not exactly the right way…” — July 1882
  • “I assure you that some days at the hospital were very interesting, and perhaps it is from the sick that one learns how to live.”  — January 1889
  • “I took advantage of my outing to buy a  book… I have devoured two chapters of it… This is the first time for several months that I have had a book in my hand. That means a lot to me and does a good deal towards my cure.” — March 1889
  • “What I should very much like to have to read here now and then, would be a Shakespeare… What touches me, as in some novelists of our day, is that the voices of these people, which in Shakespeare’s case reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. — From St. Remy’s Hospital, June 1889.

But tragically, van Gogh succumbed to his mental illness. In July, 1890 two months after moving back to Auvers, north of Paris, he went out to the open fields and shot himself. Two days later he died from his gunshot wound. He was 37.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh to his Brother and Others. Introduction by his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, abridged by Elfreda Powell, Published by Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2003, 324 pages.

***

The is my last post for the blogging event Paris in July hosted by Karen of BookBath, and Tamara of Thyme for Tea. My other post is “A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway.”

To read my travel post from last August “Arles: In The Steps of Van Gogh” CLICK HERE.

Photos: Van Gogh’s paintings, from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. Arles and St. Remy’s by Arti of Ripple Effects, August, 2010.

To read all the 900 letters of van Gogh online, go to this excellent site of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

22 thoughts on “The Letters of Vincent van Gogh”

  1. It is hard to believe that during his lifetime people barely knew Van Gogh and his art. He certainly had a groundbreaking technique. Do you remember Jeanne Calment? She was born in Arles in 1875 and died in 1997 at the age of 122 (verified.) In 1988 she made news in France when she told the press that she had met Van Gogh at her father’s store in Arles in 1888 when she was 13 years old. She found him not well dressed, ugly and strange. Then she played her own role in the movie “Van Gogh et moi” when she was 114 – being the oldest actress ever. It’s hard to believe. I heard her speak on TV once when I was visiting my mother in Paris. Van Gogh’s letters sound like an interesting read.

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    1. Vagabonde,

      Yes, he only sold one painting in his lifetime. And about his appearance, due to poverty, undernourishment, and mental illness, he had stated in his letters he wasn’t at his best form all the time. Towards the end, the people of Arles had gathered names for a petition to get him out of town and be confined in an asylum. Well, he saved them the trouble as he admitted himself into St. Remy’s hospital. But as I read his letters, it’s just so sad to see a talented artist coming to such a tragic end. He was only 37.

      And thanks for telling me about Jeanne Calment… I haven’t heard of her and what an amazing person! A most interesting van Gogh tidbit indeed.

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  2. Paris is like heaven on Earth and no one who admires beauty would deny that. And I do feel I missed this event online. Perhaps next time.
    And I read a few of the letters to which you had linked and they were absolutely lovely. Thank you so much for the link.
    Paris is indeed a moveable feast and we are all very lucky to have read Hemingway’s take on that.

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    1. Dovereader,

      Yes, same time next year I hope. But as Vagabonde has mentioned on my last post, Paris is lovely and should be celebrated all year round, not just in July. Anyway, what Hemingway saw in Paris was not embraced equally by Van Gogh. He preferred the southern quiet in Provence. I can fully understand that too, since Provence is such a beautiful and natural place, distinctly different from Paris. Van Gogh’s paintings can testify to that.

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  3. I wish I would have read this before I went to the National Art Museum in D.C. I would have appreciated Van Gogh’s pieces there even more :0)

    .
    Ellen,

    Oh but you had a fine time there as I remember from reading your posts. Maybe next time it’s to France for a visit. 😉

    Arti

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  4. So wonderful, Arti.

    I’ve loved knowing that Arles is where he discovered color, and everything changed. And that hospital stay, didn’t he paint around 150 paintings there?

    In my blog (with Lorenzo of The Alchemist’s Pillow) A Year with Rilke) we pair paintings by van Gogh (and Chagall, Cézanne and sculptures and sketches by Rodin because of their connections with Rilke in some way). As I scour my online resources for van Gogh works, I am struck by his rudimentary drawings and sketches, at times primitive and bland. I am also interested to find many from the garden at the hospital. I love his quote about learning about life from the sick. It reminds me of when my friend Inge had breast cancer, and she was the happiest and most centered she’d ever been. ‘Happy’ in a deep joy and connected way.

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    1. Ruth,

      Yes, he did 150 paintings at St. Remy’s… plus drawings as well. I’m just amazed that he wrote so many letters to his brother Theo. I suppose Theo was a soul-mate to him. The letters gives us privy into his inner thoughts, feelings, and views on art and his own creative endeavours. Do click on the excellent online site of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam to read all of his letters. All annotated.
      Actually, St. Remy’s was the best solution for him… he was well taken care of, tranquil environment, lots of gardens and natural areas… If only he’d stayed there a while longer… Thanks for your input into this post. Illness and insights… again, it’s the co-existence of beauty and sadness.

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  5. I didn’t know there was a collection of letters! He must have been such an amazing person, I always wonder what he’s life would have been like had he lived nowadays.

    .
    Alex,

    Yes, do go to read his letters online, 900 of them, detailing his journey as an artist and a soul searching for truth and beauty. I’m sure you’ll enjoy exploring the informative site.

    Arti

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  6. It is such an extraordinary, yet quintessential story – and you tell it very movingly here. Have you read The Yellow House by Martin Gayford? It’s an excellent account of his time in Arles and the events leading up to his death.

    .
    litlove,

    Thanks for letting me know about the book. No I haven’t read it and it sounds interesting. As a matter of fact, when I took a walking tour of Arles last year, I was told that the Yellow House had been replaced by something else, while the Terrace Café in the Forum still stood. You can see my photo in my Arles post.

    Arti

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  7. He was only 37 when he killed himself? For some reason I always thought he was older than that. It makes it even more tragic. I love his work so, he is one of my favorite artists and it breaks my heart thinking about the beauty we lost because of his death. Thanks for the link to his letters. I have been meaning to read them from the library for ages, but now I can read them online!

    .
    Stefanie,

    He looked uncouth and gaunt in his self-portrait… maybe that gave people the impression that he was older. The online site of his letters is just excellent. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading them.

    Arti

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  8. In an oil painting class, I did a copy of one of Van Gogh’s paintings just to get a feel for the brushstrokes. It was very difficult to capture what so looked so free and easy in his work. I thought the painting I copied was a self-portrait but a recent article makes me think it might have been of his brother Theo. He painted many paintings of Theo, who looked a lot like him but had different ears.

    I had read once that some physicians have theorized that Vincent ate some of his oil paint, which is highly toxic and that could have exacerbated any mental disorders he had. http://blogs.princeton.edu/wri152-3/f05/manli/

    .
    Cathy,

    That’s an interesting view from your link. The letters I read are from
    an abridged compilation, and so I can’t say for the other ones I didn’t read. But from what I read, there isn’t much said indicating he’s a substance abuser. Further, he was so poor that he sometimes had only a piece of stale bread for dinner. And with the last fr.5, he’d rather spend it on canvases than food. So, I’m not sure whether he’d use the money for alcohol or waste it on eating his paints. But of course, that’s only from these letters I read, which certainly present a very devoted and sincere artist. But yes, I’m sure he’d had bouts of madness that could well be caused by alcohol, like the time he threw a glass at Gauguin and chased after him with a knife down the forum, subsequently going home and cutting off his own ear.

    I admire your attempt to learn from Van Gogh’s paintings directly like that. Must be a helpful experience into the style and technique of the painter.

    Arti

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  9. What an incredible post! This is something I MUST read. I’ve always loved his work, what little I know of the tortured life. Consider this one at the top of the list.

    Meanwhile, the illustrations you picked to define the passages (and the Maison Jaune) are fabulous! They so move the “story” along!

    .
    Jeanie,

    Thank you and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the post. I’ve more photos of my journey to Arles, you can click on the link I’ve provided. The book I read is an abridged version, but do check out his letters online. In his actual letters to Theo, he often included sketches. I think the links to the annotations might lead you to those drawings and paintings.

    Arti

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  10. I so love reading and rereading Vincent’s Letters to Theo (mine is a different edition from yours).How soulfully he embraced life. Such wonder and humility. And tragedy.
    Thank you for this wonderful post. It was nice to “see” St. Remy (oh, the irony–if only they had let him stay a while longer).

    .
    ds,

    Yes, it’s just so tragic that he didn’t stay there longer. Apparently it was his own decision to leave St. Remy’s. It’s sad too to see he had only sold one painting in all his life, and that he had to live in poverty and struggled so hard just to paint and stay healthy. But then again, the paradox could well be that it’s due to his torments that he could create so sensitively.

    Arti

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  11. Arti, this adds such a wonderful dimension to your Arles post. He was a beautiful writer, wasn’t he? One doesn’t think of him in those terms, just as an artist. Yet his thoughts are so beautifully expressed, they almost take my breath away. You choice of illustrations really adds depth to his words. Thank you!

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    1. Jeanie,
      You can read all his 900+ letters online. Despite his mental illness, van Gogh was very lucid and very much aware of his own state of mind. His account of his creative process is also illuminating. It’s heart-wrenching reading his own very candid sharing of himself with our present knowledge of his end. Thanks for reading through these posts!

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  12. Do you have a page number for the quote “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly… — To Theo from Arles, August 1888”? I would like to include it in an article. Many thanks!

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        1. Glad to be of help. One thing I noticed though when I checked back the page no. Since this book is an abridged version of some of Van Gogh’s letters, on page 220 where this quote comes from, the letter is #520. But when I got on the website to double check, it’s not #520. Maybe you’d like to investigate this to find the exact source. Here’s the webpage to his Arles letters.

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