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.

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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.

Arles: In The Steps of Van Gogh

Solution to Arti’s Cryptic Challenge #4: Arles

While Paris has her cultured beauty and sophistication, I’d appreciated the change of scenery and warmer weather as I headed south to Provence.  Three hours via the TGV took us to the historic City of Avignon, site of the Papal Palace before the Vatican. We stayed in Avignon for three days, taking daily excursions out to nearby towns.  Arles was a must-see on my list.

Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris in 1888, seeking the tranquility that was so elusive to him in the big city.  In his letter to his brother Theo upon arrival to Arles, he wrote:

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.”    — Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1888.

The fresher and more colourful palette is apparent during this most prolific period of the artist’s life.  Bright yellows, blues, shorter and swirling brush strokes established his signature style.  As for me, I was a bit disappointed to see the sunflowers have already withered in late August.  Fields of yellow were now massive brown.  They would be harvested at a later time for their oil, a good reminder that, for tourists, it’s the view, but for those living here, it’s their livelihood.  The lavenders on the Luberon mountains too had long passed the season.  Note to myself:  Early to Mid July is best if I ever come this way again.

But all was not lost.  I was gratified to follow some of Van Gogh’s footsteps as I explored the clearly posted Van Gogh sites in the town, the scenes and locales where the artist so vividly captured in his paintings.

Arles is a Roman town.  What more prominent to reflect its past glory than the Roman Arena in the town centre.  Why all the arches?  The free flow of pedestrian traffic.  The full seating capacity, 20,000 people, could exit the Arena in 7 minutes.

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Used by gladiators in ancient time, the Arena is still the venue for bullfights:

But Van Gogh’s interest was not so much on the violent action of bullfighting than on the people, as his painting Spectators In The Arena At Arles (December, 1888) clearly shows:

The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum was his hang-out, renamed Café Van Gogh now.  The yellow building upon the backdrop of the blue, starry night had deeply inspired the artist:

Café Terrace At Night (September, 1888):

Van Gogh had wanted to make Arles a hub for fellow artists.  Upon his urging, Gauguin came to join him in October, 1888.  The two painters frequented the Café Terrace many a night but only for two short months.  What happened on December 23rd was reported by the local paper the next day:

At 11:30 pm., Vincent Vaugogh [sic], painter from Holland, appeared at the brothel at no. 1, asked for Rachel, and gave her his cut-off earlobe, saying, ‘Treasure this precious object.’  Then he vanished.[1]

After this incident, Van Gogh was admitted to a local hospital, now the Espace Van Gogh in Arles, a cultural centre:

In January, 1889, Van Gogh returned home to the Yellow House, but for the next few months, suffered onslaughts of hallucinations and delusions. His view of his own condition nevertheless was lucid and even progressive for his time.  His letter to Theo is poignant, as he openly faced his predicament and earnestly sought a solution:

And for the time being I wish to remain confined, as much for my own tranquillity as for that of others.

What consoles me a little is that I’m beginning to consider madness as an illness like any other and accept the thing as it is, while during the actual crises it seemed to me that everything I was imagining was reality.”

— Sunday, April 21, 1889.

On May 8, 1889, he checked himself into the Saint Paul de Mausole, the mental hospital at St-Rémy-de-Provence.  Under the care of his doctor Théophile Peyron, the artist’s condition improved and he thrived in the idyllic environment there.  Art therapy had brought healing and prolific output.  Van Gogh stayed there for a year and created more than 150 paintings.

Dr. Théophile Peyron out at the front garden:

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The olive grove outside St. Paul hospital:

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To his brother Theo, he wrote on Sunday, May 11, 1890:

At the moment the improvement is continuing, the whole horrible crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm, and I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush.  I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises…

My Van Gogh trip ended at St. Rémy, and so be it.  I’ve seen the sites wherein the artist was at his most prolific.  I’ve seen the town and surroundings where he found inspiration.  I’ve seen his final solace where he attained some stability and painted with passion.  I’d like to keep these as memories of my travel to Provence.  I could hardly bear to think of his last days, discharged from St. Rémy just a few days after the above letter, headed north to Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirt of Paris, and in just two short months, succumbed to the recurrence of his illness. He shot himself in the chest with a revolver on July 27, 1890, and died of his wound two days later.

Back to the thoughts I wrote about in my last post: How do we keep art from turning into a cliché?  I think it takes a certain awareness of the artist as a person, plus a measure of empathy and respect for the struggle to live and create… and realizing that the beautiful works are often triumphs in spite of life’s overwhelming adversities, rather than the natural products of bliss and fortune.

To wrap up my travel posts, and taking the risk of turning it into a cliché albeit my motive is pure, here’s the YouTube clip again, Don McLean’s tribute to Vincent:

Some Van Gogh links:

An excellent and comprehensive site for Van Gogh’s letters, 900 of them, poignant account of his life.

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh Gallery online

Wikipedia: Vincent Van Gogh

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[1]  Rick Steves’ Provence and French Riviera 2010, published by Avalon Travel, p. 69.