The letters of Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh self portrait.jpg

The letters of Vincent van Gogh

A window to the soul of an extraordinary artist.

In my opinion, Vincent van Gogh was one of the greatest artists in the history of mankind. I’ve been captivated by his paintings ever since I was a child and my first visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was a life-changing experience.

There are no words to describe just how beautiful paintings like ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ or his many amazing self-portraits are in real life. The colours in his paintings are so vibrant and contain so much passion and emotion, it can be an overwhelming experience just to look at them. It certainly was for me. His paintings are very individualistic, very personal. This is why he signed his paintings with ‘Vincent’, rather than ‘Van Gogh’. He did not want to portray the world as it is, he wanted to portray the world as he experienced it.

Vincent was able to express all the beauty and tragedy of life and hint at all the secrets of the universe with nothing but some brush-strokes on a canvas. When you look at his self-portraits, it’s as if you’re looking directly into his soul. His paintings of almond blossoms, sunflowers, starry nights, and wheat fields, portray the beauty of nature in such a unique and moving way, one tends to feel alive and intoxicated by the passion this man was able to express. Whenever life has got you down, just make a visit to that magical building on the Museum Square in Amsterdam, and let the genius and beauty of Van Gogh fill your soul with love and inspiration.

The letters:

There are many mysteries and myths surrounding the life of this great Dutch artist, it seems we will never really know all the details of why he cut off his ear and exactly why he shot himself. What we do know, is that he struggled with mental illness and was an outsider his entire life. He only began to paint when he was 27 years old but nevertheless, he created more than 800 paintings, most of which were painted in the last two years of his life! Although he was beginning to gain recognition for his art in his last years, Vincent was unappreciated for the biggest part of his life and when things were about to change, he shot himself and died two days later.

Luckily for us, Vincent wrote many letters during his lifetime. Most of these letters were written to his brother Theo, who supported his artistic brother, both financially and emotionally, his entire life. More than 600 of these wonderful letters have survived. Vincent also wrote to other family members, such as his sister Wil, and to other artists such as Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard. A great collection of Vincent’s letters is ‘The Letters of Vincent van Gogh’, published by Penguin Books in 1997. It’s one of my all-time favourite books. These letters truly are a window to the soul of an extraordinary artist.


A deranged madman or a rational, intelligent individual?

The image of Van Gogh created by pop culture is that of a tortured madman. The mythical image of a deranged genius getting drunk on absinthe is still the way many people view Vincent. The image we get by reading his letters, however, refutes these clichés. Vincent’s letters show us a rational man, extremely observant of the world around him, who was able to express himself in a very eloquent way. He was a troubled soul who struggled with mental illness, but he was also a man in search of God, with a strong desire to perfect his art and to connect with other artists.

Vincent was an avid reader. He loved to read other artists’ biographies, particularly those of the painters he admired, such as Millet and Delacroix. He was also a connoisseur of literature and an admirer of writers such as Voltaire, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo, and Flaubert. Vincent’s letters are evidence that he himself was a pretty good writer as well. It’s very impressive, for example, how he was able to describe landscapes in such detail it seems as if you can see the landscape through his eyes.

In his writing, Vincent philosophizes on love, friendship, happiness, art, and religion. It is a testament of a man who was in search of excellence and salvation with an admirable dedication to integrity.

Now, let’s have a look at some of my favourite passages from Vincent’s letters.

Vincent in his own words:

On happiness and melancholy:

In a letter written to his sister Wil in 1887, Vincent gives some advice on happiness. He encourages his sister to enjoy life and to not become bitter. He uses the phrase “tout comprendre c'est tout pardoner”, which means “to understand all is to forgive all.” What Vincent is saying here reminds me of Spinoza’s philosophy, which claims that understanding our emotions and experiences is the path to contentment. This is truly one of my favourite passages in Vincent’s letters:

“I don’t want to be one of the melancholics or those who become sour and bitter and morbid. To understand all is to forgive all, and I believe that if we knew everything we’d arrive at a certain serenity. (…) So don’t study and swot too much, because that makes for sterility. Enjoy yourself too much rather than too little, and don’t take art or love too seriously either — one can do little about it oneself, it’s mostly a matter of temperament.”

In another beautiful letter, Vincent explains how adversity can lead to change and melancholy to hope:

“What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. Instead of giving way to despair, I took the way of active melancholy as long as I had strength for activity, or in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and searches to the one that despairs, mournful and stagnant.”

On love:

In a letter to his brother, Vincent explains how a love for nature and art can act as an armour against criticism and negativity:

“But, again, anyone who works with love and with intelligence has a kind of armour against people’s opinion in the sincerity of his love for nature and art. Nature is severe and hard, so to speak, but never deceives and always helps you to go forward.”

In another letter, Vincent talks about the power of love again:

“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!”

Vincent also believed that love was the key to artistic integrity:

“In order to work and to become an artist one needs love. At least, one who wants sentiment in his work must in the first place feel it himself, and live with his heart.”

On his art:

In a letter to his brother Theo, written in 1882, Vincent beautifully describes exactly what he wanted to achieve with his art:

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

On 29 July 1890, Vincent died from a gunshot wound he had inflicted on himself. According to his brother Theo, his last words were: “the sadness will last forever”.

What will also last forever, is the power and beauty of Vincent’s art. His ambition to show the world what was “in his heart” has become a success in more ways than he could have ever imagined.