Everyone is familiar with Vincent van Gogh. Not only his great paintings like Starry Night, but also the mythos of the man. We’ve all heard about him cutting his ear off in a manic passion or that he never sold any of his art while he was alive. And yes, there are dozens of biographies of the man and examinations of his output. But to really know him and understand him, one has to read the words he wrote himself.
I recently finished reading The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, which is a collection of selected letters that he wrote to his brother, Theo, as well as other family members and a few close friends. Now, there are several collections of his letters in print. The one I read is a Penguin Classic, selected and edited by Ronald De Leeuw and translated by Arnold Pomerans.
If you aren’t familiar with the story behind these letters, it’s both sad and fascinating. Once Vincent died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, his brother, Theo was devastated and went into a rapid decline both mentally and physically. He died six months later. Not long after Theo’s death, his widow, Johanna, found all the letters that Vincent had written him tucked away in a desk drawer. After reading through them, she realized how important they were and began translating them into English. It took her many years, but they were eventually published for the first time in 1914.
The letters are now in the safekeeping of the van Gogh Museum.
As for the letters themselves, well, I found them to be an incredible read. They trace the trajectory of his life, from his early career as an art dealer in Paris and London to his sudden obsession with religion, to his eventual realization that he wants to be an artist.
The part of his life that I didn’t know about was his bout of religious fanaticism. When his career as an art dealer began to fall apart, he threw himself into religion, dedicating himself to becoming a man of the cloth. He read the Bible voraciously, studied religious texts, and wrote long letters to his brother espousing the depth of his beliefs.
After a few years, however, he suddenly decided he was no longer interested in this path and decided to be an artist. It was like flicking a light switch, and he rarely mentioned this time of his life. While he would still speak of God and religion, it was from a secular point of view. I think part of it was due to a faltering relationship he had with his father, who was a minister.
My overall takeaway from reading these letters was how well they track the state of van Gogh’s mental health, his struggle with finding his niche in life, and his never-ending quest to master his artistry. I’m sure the obsession was part of his mental illness and the bouts of anger that arose without warning. He occasionally lashed out at friends and family, even his dear brother, Theo, who supported him financially. And Vincent was not above manipulating his brother – first chiding him about some slight, then describing how he hadn’t eaten well in weeks and how badly he needed money.
This is one of the classic cases of having to separate the art from the artist. While van Gogh’s art is amazing and inspiring, van Gogh the person was an asshole. Not that he was totally responsible for his actions. It’s a fine line between someone struggling with mental health and someone who is simply an unpleasant person.
For the most part, the letters are an interesting read. He was well-read and his writing reflected that in beautiful descriptions and details. However, it’s the ones towards the end that hold the most power. His passion for art is evident, and it’s tempered by his struggle with self-confidence and self-esteem.
One constant topic throughout many of his later letters is the lack of public interest in his paintings. But towards the end, his work finally begins to be recognized, not just by other artists, but also by critics and the general public. Theo writes enthusiastically to Vincent about the comments from people at the exhibitions.
Oddly, Vincent seems to take this almost casually. And it isn’t long after he begins to receive recognition that he shoots himself in the chest, dying the next day in his brother’s arms.
I can’t help but wonder if the fact that he was finally achieving the recognition he had craved for so long was too much for him. It’s like he finally reached his goal and perhaps felt that was enough. Or maybe the thought of fame was overwhelming for his fragile psyche. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure.
At least we have his art, the sketches and paintings, that has inspired and touched so many with their beauty and elegance. If only he could have known just how important he was to become after his death. I think it would have eventually brought him peace.