The artist’s troubled life revealed in letters.
In 2009, an illustrated edition of hundreds of letters by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was published, annotated by specialists affiliated with the Van Gogh Museum. These letters now are available at vangoghletters.org, which is continually updated by the Van Gogh Letters Project. Scholars and researchers undoubtedly will consult the authoritative website, since this selection of 265 letters, aimed at general readers, contains few notes or explanatory material. The editors’ introduction contextualizes the letters somewhat by offering a helpful, but brief, overview of van Gogh’s life. The letters serve as a kind of autobiography, attesting to van Gogh’s engagement in art, his trials and aspirations, and, most vividly, his relationship with his younger brother Theo, to whom most letters are addressed. In the late 1870s, van Gogh was floundering, having worked at an art gallery, as a clerk in a bookstore and as an assistant teacher. Obsessed with religion, he decided to become a minister but failed at theology studies and at gaining admittance to a training course to become an evangelist. His volatility and mood swings so alarmed his parents that they considered committing him to a psychiatric hospital. Theo, heroically patient, encouraged his brother to pursue a career in art, which had interested Vincent since youth. By the fall of 1880, Vincent told Theo that he was “working like mad,” drawing, learning “a wealth of anatomy,” and hoping “that these thorns will bear white flowers in their time, and that this apparently sterile struggle is nothing other than a labour of giving birth.” The majority of the letters chronicle the artist’s final 10 years: his art studies in Antwerp and Paris, move to Arles, artistic admirations, and his deteriorating physical and mental health, which he blamed partly on a “too artistic way of life” and partly on “fatal inheritance.” His descriptions of his own paintings are poetically evocative, and his long, detailed, emotional outpourings offer insight into his suffering, loneliness and dreams.
More context would have been appreciated, but the choices are illuminating of an iconic artist.