Van Gogh’s letters: the definitive edition
The publication next week of the complete letters of the artist is a distinguished scholarly achievement
By Martin Bailey. Books, Issue 206, October 2009
Published online: 30 September 2009
The new edition of Van Gogh’s letters represents a magnificent achievement. To be published in six volumes, on 7 October, the text runs to nearly 1 million words, with over 4,000 illustrations. It is the culmination of a 15-year project at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Vincent van Gogh: The Letters transforms our understanding of the artist. Although there have been earlier editions of the correspondence (notably in 1958), this one presents all the surviving letters in the proper chronological sequence (many are redated and there have been some newly discovered items), and is based on a revised and unexpurgated transcription of the texts, with more accurate translations and detailed annotations.
It will act as an antidote to the Lust for Life-perception of Van Gogh that has become so deeply engrained, as a result of Irving Stone’s novel (1934) and Kirk Douglas’s film (1956). Although Stone’s main source was the letters, he used an early edition published in the 1920s, and admitted that he had added “an occasional stretch of pure fiction”.
In Lust for Life, Van Gogh is presented as writing his letters as a highly-strung personality, slapping his words onto paper in great emotion. This did happen, but only occasionally, usually when it involved a family row. In contrast, reading through the 2,180 pages of the new edition of the letters shows that the artist was highly focused. True, he was an obsessive in one sense, in his dedication to developing as an artist, but the letters are usually carefully (and sometimes beautifully) written, normally with a clear purpose in mind.
The Letters also reminds us that Van Gogh approached his painting in a similar fashion. He did not throw his paint on the canvas in a burst of emotion, but considered carefully the effects he was striving to achieve. This comes through clearly in the stream of comments that he made to his brother Theo and his artist friends, in describing the pictures he was completing.
The new edition of the letters is annotated, recording the literary sources Van Gogh cites. Although his formal education was brief (with just 18 months at secondary school), he became remarkably well read. Some 800 literary sources (by 150 authors) are either cited in his letters or quotations are given from them. To take an example, there are 54 letters that refer to Dickens, although some of these are unattributed quotations that few readers today would spot without the annotations.
Van Gogh was also talented at languages. His French became as good as his Dutch (and from 1887, he wrote to Theo in French), he spoke reasonable English (The Letters includes correspondence with the British artist Horace Livens and the Australian John Russell), as well as some German.
The Letters reproduces the pictures that Van Gogh mentions—usually with admiration—in his correspondence. Until now, many of the less well-known works had not been identified, but most of them have now been found and all these are illustrated. Altogether The Letters has 4,300 illustrations (2,300 individual works, with a further 2,000 small images reproduced again when they are referred to in subsequent letters). Seeing the illustrations provides a vivid musée imaginaire of Van Gogh’s mind. What will come as a shock to many readers is quite how conventional his artistic tastes were, particularly up until his arrival in Paris in 1886.
The new edition of The Letters is fully annotated with footnoted references. These add up to 160,000 words, equivalent in wordage to a very substantial book. Along with the identification of literary sources and works of art, other important details are explained, such as topography, customs, historical context, etc.
In addition, even more material is available (free of charge) on the web, with 700,000 words of detailed annotations (www.vangoghletters.org, from 7 October). The website also reproduces the letters in facsimile (with technical data on the paper, etc), provides a transcript in the original language with line breaks, gives newly translated reading texts in three languages (English, French and Dutch) and the dating of each letter is explained.
With such an extensive body of words, all in three languages, occasional errors are inevitable, but the standard of accuracy is admirable, which is testimony to the dedication of the research team. Material on the web will be updated.
So, what is new in The Letters? Although most letters were published in earlier editions, some lines were left out for a variety of reasons. For instance, one delightful and telling phrase was omitted simply because it had been crossed out by Van Gogh. On 7 December 1883, while living with his parents in Nuenen, he had written: “People are like brushes—the ones that look the best do not work the best.” This very much reflected his philosophy, and his family often criticised his scruffy clothes.
Sometimes details were withheld, even as late as in the 1958 edition, because they were still sensitive to the family. For instance, in Van Gogh’s unsent letter to Theo and his wife Jo of 7 July 1890, in the last month of his life, the words “while there are disagreements between you” were omitted.
Occasionally material was worded obliquely on taste grounds. When Van Gogh wrote to Theo on 25 September 1888 about his soldier friend Paul Milliet, the 1958 edition of the letters recorded (using dashes) that Milliet had had to “return to his f------ garrison”. The new edition spells out what was really written, which is rather wittier. This was that after Milliet had said his farewells to the tarts of Arles, “his prick has gone back to the garrison”.
Some new letters have been discovered. Twenty-one were found earlier, but had only been published in Dutch, in a 1990 edition of the letters, so these are almost unknown to English readers. These include three telegrams Vincent sent to Theo after the death of their father in Nuenen. The first baldly states “Sudden death, come, Van Gogh”, which must have come as a terrible shock for Theo, since it was unclear who had died.
One of the most important letters to emerge after the 1958 English edition was from Van Gogh to Gauguin, sent on 21 January 1889, just a month after Van Gogh mutilated his ear, and the two artists had parted company. An acquaintance told me recently that in the early 1980s he had been visiting friends, and had casually taken a book on Van Gogh from their shelf. Out fell a folded piece of paper, which turned out to be that letter. His friends had bought the book from a bouquiniste in Paris for a few francs, and had not got round to reading it and thus hadn’t spotted the enclosure. When it was auctioned in 1983 it was bought by the Musée Réattu in Arles—the only Van Gogh letter to return to the town.
The most important completely new discovery is a letter from Van Gogh to his former boss at Goupil’s gallery in The Hague, where he had his first job. Van Gogh is said to have eventually written up to 300 letters to Hermanus Tersteeg, but all were apparently thrown into the fire late in his life when he wanted to warm his room. Recently, one letter surfaced, which had been given by Mrs Tersteeg to an autograph collector in around 1900 (it remains with the collector’s descendants). Sent on 3 August 1877, after the death of Tersteeg’s infant daughter Marie, it is a rambling condolence letter, peppered with Biblical quotations, and written at a time when Van Gogh had a deep religious fervour.
In terms of content, The Letters is replete with new details about Van Gogh’s life, and we can give some examples from his period in England, where he was an art dealer and later a teacher. Van Gogh visited Dulwich Picture Gallery on 2 August 1873, a bank holiday Monday. Since it is mentioned in a letter, the Van Gogh Museum researchers followed this up and discovered his name in the gallery’s visitors’ book (giving his address as The Hague, he signed in for another visitor, a German who was lodging with him).
On his arrival in Ramsgate in April 1876, where he taught for two months, he posted Theo two pieces of “seaweed” that he picked up on his first walk along the beach. Astonishingly, they have been preserved with the letter (they have now been analysed, and are not actually seaweed, but plant-like animals—a bryozoan and a hydroid).
While in England, Van Gogh wanted to become a missionary, and in June 1876 he wrote to an unnamed clergyman, explaining his qualifications and humbly asking for assistance.
An annotation in The Letters provisionally identifies him as Edmund Fisher, vicar of St Mark’s in Kennington, close to where Van Gogh had lodged the previous year.
Moving on to later years, The Letters will hold surprises even for those who think they know their Van Gogh. In August 1879 his sister Anna suggested that he should earn his living as a baker (this seems an astonishing idea, since he was a terrible cook—after concocting an inedible soup in Arles, Gauguin complained that he mixed the ingredients “the way he mixed the colours in his paintings”).
In January 1881 Van Gogh wrote from Brussels to say that he hoped “to see Mr Horta one of these days”. Research has confirmed that this was indeed Victor Horta, who was starting to train as an architect. All these points may be tiny details, but added together they help build up the picture of Van Gogh’s life.
Reading The Letters may even bring us closer to understanding the tragic end to Van Gogh’s life. On 10 July 1890 he wrote about his latest picture (possibly Wheatfield with Crows), saying he was painting “immense stretches of wheatfields under turbulent skies, and I made a point of trying to express sadness”. Before posting it, he added to the letter the phrase “extreme loneliness”. Since it was in the wheatfields above Auvers-sur-Oise that he shot himself just 17 days later, these additional two words could well have had a deep significance.
Most poignant of all is a detail that is not explicitly referred to in The Letters, but which can be viewed on the facsimiles on the web. One letter to Theo was never posted, and it was found with Vincent after his suicide. On it, Theo later wrote in pencil: “The letter he had on him on 27 July, that horrible day.” On the bottom of the folded page are several dark stains, presumably blood.
Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker (eds), Vincent van Gogh: the Letters. The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (Thames & Hudson), six volumes and a CD with complete text versions in French and Dutch, 2,180 pp, £325 until 31 December; thereafter £395 (hb) ISBN 9780500238653
The exhibition: “Van Gogh’s Letters: the Artist Speaks”, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (9 October-3 January 2010). www.vangoghmuseum.nl. Another selection of his letters will be shown in “The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and his Letters”, Royal Academy, London (23 January 2010-18 April 2010).
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