Apr/May 2010

Painting by Words

The new edition of van Gogh's letters, one of the greatest autobiographies of an artist, provides fresh insight into how his paintings grew out of his writings, and vice versa.

Tyler Cowen


Like much Impressionist and Renaissance art, Vincent van Gogh's best paintings are overexposed. We have seen the images too many times in popular culture, and so The Starry Night, 1889, sometimes looks more like cliché than masterpiece. The story of van Gogh's life has become tired as well. We have all read about the drinking, the whoring, and the self-mutilation. Irving Stone novelized it as early as 1934, and Kirk Douglas played van Gogh in 1956, which is now more than half a century ago. His images are on tote bags and postcards everywhere. Any van Gogh exhibit at a major museum draws large crowds or even record ticket sales. What is left to surprise us?

The new six-volume annotated edition of van Gogh's letters holds the answer to that question, and it is a reaffirmation of the artist. In 902 letters, plus some fragments, all from the period 1872–90, we see the artist, through his correspondence, afresh. Maps illustrate the sites of composition in France and the Netherlands; extensive footnotes explain the names, places, and chronologies of events. Most important, however, are the more than four thousand reproductions and carefully executed marginalia—each image a vivid clue to his creative process. In addition, there are reproductions of paintings by other artists referenced in the correspondence, from obscure Dutch draftsmen to Paul Gauguin; and the volumes display sketches that van Gogh made on the letter paper itself, a beautiful side of his output.

The letters, which first appeared in obscure Dutch magazines (The Letters of a Post-Impressionist was initially published in English in 1912), have long served as the basis for the archetype of the bohemian European artist. When van Gogh complains about money, pays testament to his own dedication, or sends love to his sister, he enacts his part in the all too familiar drama of the lonely yet impassioned painter. The previous editions, including the indispensable three-volume Complete Letters, published by the New York Graphic Society in 1958, are standard reading for artists, art critics, and art historians. Yet none of the others are ambitious enough, scholarly enough, or heavy enough (the new volumes clock in at thirty pounds on my home scale) to give the true picture. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam spent ten years revisiting his correspondence; translators from the Dutch and the French were chosen only after the holding of a public competition. New letters were found, mistakes and misdatings were corrected, and the whole body of writing has been set in its proper context. (Anyone not prepared to invest six hundred dollars in six books can access the free digital edition at vangoghletters.org.)

It is the early rural sketches that rise most in aesthetic value, at least to this viewer. They appear fresh, unmannered, and the result of an intense engagement with the art and literature of the time. After reading the letters, it's easier to see the struggle and the authenticity in the works. The reader gets a better sense of how van Gogh's art stemmed from such artists as Boughton, Marks, Millais, Pinwell, du Maurier, Herkomer, and Walker (van Gogh offers this list on April 2, 1881). In this way, he transcends the popular conception of him as a painter of distorted mad scenes, replaced by the brilliantly experimental colorist.

Van Gogh was at least as much obsessed with words as with images, whether as a reader or a writer. He was a true infovore, to borrow a neologism from the world of the Web, and consumed as much as possible about literature, the visual arts, and Christianity. His early missives to his brother Theo are reports about what and how much he took in and what he finds of value. He's obsessed with the Bible, especially the notion of a communal Christian brotherhood, and quotes the Psalms at length. At times, the reader is overwhelmed with van Gogh's prodigious learning. He once wrote to Theo that "as far as knowledge is concerned, it's important to hold on to what one has and to absorb it internally as much as one can." He writes of studying Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and Dickens and of being so wrapped up in that he has let his appearance slip to the point where it is shocking to others (June 24, 1880).

He could produce several works—and a few letters—in the course of a day, at least if he was in the right mood, and the content, style, and tone of the letters all communicate this manic commitment. In the spring of 1888, van Gogh worked in orchards in Arles, painting pear, peach, and apricot trees. Responding to his friend and fellow artist Emile Bernard, who had sent him a sonnet, van Gogh gives his critique:

It seems to me that what you want to evoke isn't stated clearly enough: the certainty that we seem to have and which anyway we can prove, of nothingness, of emptiness, of the treachery of desirable, good or beautiful things and despite this knowledge we forever allow ourselves to be deceived by the spell that external life, things outside ourselves . . . cast over our 6 senses, as though we knew nothing, and especially not the difference between the objective and subjective. And fortunately for us, in that way we remain ignorant and hopeful.

Van Gogh goes on to tell Bernard about the work he's been doing in the orchards, and a reproduction of the letter paper itself shows the sketch he made to illustrate his latest (Orchard with pear trees in blossom), which he then paints for Bernard in words: "Here's a new orchard, quite simple in composition; a white tree, a small green tree, a square corner of greenery—a lilac field, an orange roof, a big blue sky." He also explains that he has nine orchard paintings in the works, which are reproduced in color as footnotes (and larger elsewhere). And so the images and the words yield a consistent picture.

It is striking how thoughtful and philosophical van Gogh is, how aware of human vulnerability, including his own. Here is one typical bit (September 26, 1883):

And if I look at my things, they're too poor, too inadequate, too much exhausted. We're having gloomy, rainy days here, and when I come into the corner of the attic where I've installed myself it's all remarkably melancholy there—with the light from one single glass roof tile that falls on an empty painting box, on a bundle of brushes with few decent bristles remaining, well it's so curiously melancholy that luckily it also has a funny enough side not to weep over it but to regard it more cheerfully. But even so, it's in a very strange relationship to my plans—in a very strange relationship to the seriousness of the work, and—this is where the laughing stops.

Most of the time van Gogh was just hanging on financially. Yet for all his apparent scorn for bourgeois society, that world nevertheless provided the basis of his subsistence. Paints and canvas were cheaper than ever, and so he didn't need the support of a wealthy patron. Theo, the art-dealing brother, was not wealthy, but he had enough to spare to support Vincent; they came from a family comfortably middle-class by the standards of the time. Van Gogh, for all of his early talk about the simplicity and rejection of money he found in Christian living, was in fact a product of the Industrial Revolution. It comes as a double jolt when he mentions to Theo (March 10, 1888) that he's heard talk of America abolishing its import duties on foreign paintings. The first shock is that America was once culturally protectionist by law, and the second is how broadly van Gogh viewed his possible markets. This, of course, was the age of the fast steamship. In these ways, these letters document just how much modernization changed the arts.

Van Gogh, however, complained that he was living in "not so much a golden as an iron age for painters," characterized by economic want and lack of freedom. He frequently worried about the cost of materials and the likelihood of finding customers. He wrote of the benefits of sharing expenses by rooming with Gauguin and how they will be able to make their own paint together, rather than having to buy it (October 29, 1888). Many of the best painters of the time, including Gauguin, managed to make their way in this new commercial world of art, often with little or no governmental support. If van Gogh hadn't committed suicide at thirty-seven, he might well have enjoyed some success in his own time.

The collected letters of great creative minds can often be read as lengthy case studies in the dissimulation and the control of one's personal image to others. This is the case with van Gogh, whose writing also shows how such interpretive attempts break down. Some of his letters are practical documents containing very little information, a series of bland platitudes to cajole, influence, and perhaps even mislead their readers. Tone and content contrast strikingly, from one recipient to the next. He himself stated—if only in passing—that there is a lot wrong or exaggerated in his letters, "without my always [sic] being aware of it" (December 23, 1881).

When van Gogh writes to his parents, he sounds like a normal son who is keen to reassure Mom and Dad that everything is OK; with his sister Willemien, he is loving, doting, and domestic, and it feels that he is trying not to remind her of his chaotic life, rather than trying to conceal it. He describes to her the prospect of sharing a room with Gauguin (July 31, 1888), calling him "a very spirited painter." "We'd live together for the sake of economy and for each other's company." A few months later (October 8 and 29), he writes to Theo that Gauguin needs to eat, walk in the countryside with him (Vincent), and "have a screw once in a while": "He and I plan to go to the brothels a lot, but only to study them." The entire Gauguin story is a highlight of the volumes, and in those letters to Gauguin, not to mention to other artists, van Gogh is prickly, difficult, and condescending, playing the role of rival to the hilt.

As for his letters to Theo, these are so full of life that it's easy for the reader to assume that his brother is getting the "real Vincent." But is he? Through much of this period, Theo is supporting van Gogh, either by sending him money, by selling his art (or trying to), or both. Writing to Theo, the artist comes across as whining, manipulative, and in careful control of the flow of information. It's a kind of faux frankness, maybe not untrue but designed to portray a mind in creative ferment and to fit a certain stereotype. There is often first a thanks for money received, a blizzard of reports about what van Gogh is doing and painting, and then at the end a suggestion that even more painting, activity, and creative ferment might be possible if only Theo would do everything to support him. Time and again, the reader wonders just how much van Gogh and his brother trust each other. In the letter of August 14, 1879, for instance, he complains that Theo has advised him to give up his quest to be an artist. "And, joking apart, I honestly think it would be better if the relationship between us were more trusting on both sides," van Gogh suggests, before apologizing for the possibility that so much of the family sorrow and discord have been caused by him. These look and sound like letters to his brother, but in essence we are reading fund-raising proposals.

The next letter (June 24, 1880) is written almost a year later, not in Dutch but in French (as explained in one of the editors' many excellent footnotes), perhaps as a way of achieving a certain distance or formality. Van Gogh defends himself against reproaches, admitting to having written reluctantly and wondering whether he should be writing at all. What prompted him was the obligation to acknowledge the money that Theo had finally sent and reply with a message of thanks. But it is not to be a simple thanks. Van Gogh repeatedly hectors Theo for vilifying him with the rest of the family and announces his intent to keep a distance. He accuses Theo of thinking of him as an execrable creature who will never amount to anything. Yet by the end of this very long letter he is back to the thanks and placing himself in the service of Theo, perhaps hoping that more money is on its way.

The Theo letters we see in response are gracious. Maybe these disputes were more about autonomy and control than money itself. Van Gogh noted to his fellow painter van Rappard that he turned down his portion of his father's inheritance, on the dual grounds that he didn't deserve it and that he wanted to maintain the option of independence from his family (July 16, 1885). At one point, he quotes to Theo the French author Richepin: "The love of art makes us lose real love" (July 25, 1887). For van Gogh, at least, this seemed to be possibly true.

In an 1886 missive to Theo from Antwerp—a personal favorite of mine—van Gogh brilliantly assesses the painterly strengths and weaknesses of Rubens. He writes that he views Rubens as "superficial, hollow, bombastic . . . altogether conventional," admitting nonetheless that he is a wonderful painter who expresses moods of "gaiety" and "serenity" through his combinations of colors. His portraits are "deep and intimate," van Gogh writes, and have remained fresh "because of the simplicity of the technique." Nonetheless, he objects to Rubens's attempts to portray human sorrow: "Even his most beautiful heads of a weeping Magdalen or Mater Dolorosas always just remind me of the tears of a pretty tart who's caught the clap, say, or some such petty vexation of human life—as such they're masterly, but one needn't look for anything more in them."

So what did van Gogh see as his own strengths and weaknesses? In an early letter to Theo (May 8, 1875), he quotes Renan: "Man is not placed on the earth merely to be happy; nor is he placed here merely to be honest, he is here to accomplish great things through society, to arrive at nobleness, and to outgrow the vulgarity in which the existence of almost all individuals drags on." This is a vision he lived. But at what cost? In one of his late letters to his brother (July 2, 1889), van Gogh says that he was "infinitely too harsh . . . in claiming that it was better to love painters than paintings." The reader now has to ask similar questions. Van Gogh becomes less likable and more lovable, more familiar and yet somehow ever stranger. In reading and studying these books, we can at once achieve both ends.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He blogs at marginalrevolution.com.

Advertisement