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The Words of Van Gogh

Letters of Vincent van Gogh, 1886-1890: A Facsimile Edition (Amsterdam)

with an introduction by V.W. van Gogh
Scolar Press (London), in association with Moulenhoff International BV, two volumes, 1,100 pp., £180 (the set)

Flaubert is not Flaubert until we have read his letters to Louise Colet. Yet Flaubert died in 1880, whereas the full text of those letters did not appear until 1926. There will always be such cases. By comparison, the editing and publishing of the complete letters of Vincent van Gogh gave no trouble at all. Nearly all of them (some 650 out of 750) had been written to Vincent’s brother Theo and were lovingly preserved. As a young bride, and later as a young widow, Madame Theo did all that could be asked of her in the way of archiving, and until his death a few months ago her son V.W. van Gogh (born 1890) proved himself an exemplary guardian of the flame. In 1953 the centenary of the birth of Vincent van Gogh was marked by the publication of all the letters then known to have survived, together with reproductions of all the drawings with which the correspondence was truffled.

It was a family affair, that publication. Madame Theo (Johanna van Gogh-Bonger) had sorted the letters, put them in order, and written the long biographical foreword that is still a prime source for the facts of van Gogh’s life. Roughly two-thirds of the English translation had been done by her before her death in 1925, and the rest was done by a Dutchman, C. de Dood, in whom she had confidence. (Certain concessions to American usage were made for the New York Graphic Society’s edition). V.W. van Gogh had a clear run in preparing the centenary edition, in that all previous editions of the letters were out of print, and he included all the surviving letters from Theo van Gogh to Vincent and a whole batch of reminiscences of Vincent that had appeared—mostly in Dutch—in out-of-the-way periodicals.

To a reader who has no Dutch there would seem to be an instinctive plain rightness about the renderings of the 450 and more letters which were written in Vincent van Gogh’s first language. Mrs. van Gogh-Bonger’s brief preface raises some doubts about her command of English, in that the archaic form “ere” is used twice within the space of eight lines for “until.” When she writes, moreover, that “many dates failed” we know what she means—that many of the letters were undated—but the Germanism sits very awkwardly in English. But as we read through the letters themselves we come to believe in her implicitly. The final effect is, indeed, not so much that of a professional translation as of a family conference on which we are privileged to intrude.

Collected letters are almost as difficult to keep in print as they are to assemble—the correspondence of Eugène Delacroix, for instance, is one of the great unread books of the world—and when the English-language edition of van Gogh’s letters went out of print it turned out that it would be very expensive indeed to bring it out again. V.W. Van Gogh was not his uncle’s namesake for nothing, and he wanted the letters to be available to as many people as possible at a reasonable price. It was decided to reprint every word of the text while substituting black and white for color in the plates; and for more than a million words—not one of which should be skipped—the new set is something of a bargain at today’s prices.

The letters of Vincent van Gogh differ from most collections of their kind in that for almost their entire length they form a seamless discourse between one human being and another. Such indeed was the symbiotic relationship between Vincent and Theo that these are not so much letters in the ordinary sense as a diary that happened to get mailed. Vincent committed his whole self to them, without reservation. They were at once the locus of his deepest feelings and the source of a stability that he found nowhere else in his life. So far from being an agreeable garnish to an existence that was already being lived to the full, they were life itself for Vincent.

Letters also survive from Vincent to one or two fellow-painters, and in the last three years of his life (1887-1890) he often wrote to his youngest sister. But there are no letters whatever of the kind that give variety and a change of pace to other collected letters. There are no love letters, for example, no instances of relaxed social exchange, no comfortable journeys for pleasure, no casual inquiries made or replied to, no practicalities disposed of in an amusing or revealing way, none of the marginalia of “a full life.” In so far as Vincent functioned at all in a social setting he did so as an outcast among outcasts. Only when he put pen to paper did he make some headway in the struggle against estrangement that gives his Collected Letters their universal significance.

For it was not a fantasy of his that society conspired to block the power of communication that was within him and grew stronger every year. He got nowhere as an art dealer, though it was a profession in which more than one member of his family had excelled. Nor did he succeed as a schoolmaster, as an evangelist, or as a rather elderly theological student. (“Is this dative or ablative, van Gogh?” his teacher asked. “I really don’t care, sir,” was the answer.) He got nowhere as a suitor of eligible young ladies and nowhere, commercially, as an artist. If he had clothes, he gave them away. If he made friends, he soon lost them. And yet, as he wrote to Theo in August 1879, when he was twenty-six, “Like everyone else, I feel the need of family and friendship, affection and friendly intercourse. I am not made of stone or iron, like a hydrant or a lamp-post.” It was in letters, and in letters only, that that need could be assuaged.

Contrary to legend, Vincent van Gogh did not come from nowhere and was not at all a predestined outcast. Though himself the son and grandson of Protestant pastors who lived simply and carefully, he had two uncles who became generals in the Dutch army and a third who attained the highest rank in the Dutch army. His art-dealing uncles made money and took it for granted that there were fine flowers and rare fruit on the table, that wine came by the case, and that when the Dutch winter got too bleak they could take the train to Nice or Mentone.

It is also clear from Vincent’s letters that as a young man he enjoyed society in a modest way, was careful of his dress, liked boating and sightseeing, and had exceptional gifts as a maker of images. At that time and in that setting, words did all the work. But what words! Vincent could set a scene as deftly as any of the great nineteenth-century novelists. When he was an aspirant schoolmaster in Ramsgate, England, he wrote to Theo:

Did I tell you about the storm I watched recently? The sea was yellowish, especially near the shore; on the horizon a strip of light, and above it immense dark gray clouds from which the rain poured down in slanting streaks. The wind blew the dust from the little white path on the rocks into the sea and bent the blooming hawthorne bushes and wallflowers that grow on the rocks. To the right were fields of young green corn, and in the distance the town looked like the towns that Albrecht Dürer used to etch. A town with its turrets, mills, slate roofs, and houses built in Gothic style, and below, the harbor between two jetties which project far into the sea.

A year later, he was in Amsterdam. “Twilight is falling,” he wrote to Theo,

and the view of the yard from my window is simply wonderful, with that little avenue of poplars—their slender forms and thin branches stand out so delicate against the gray evening sky; and then the old arsenal building in the water—quiet as the “waters of the old pool” in the book of Isaiah—down by the waterside the walls of that arsenal are quite green and weather-beaten. Farther down is the little garden and the fence around it with the rosebushes, and everywhere in the yard the black figures of the workmen, and also the little dog. Just now Uncle Jan with his long black hair is probably making his rounds. In the distance the masts of the ships in the dock can be seen, in front the Atjeh, quite black, and the gray and red monitors—and just now here and there the lamps are being lit. At this moment the bell is ringing and the whole stream of workmen is pouring towards the gate; at the same time the lamplighter is coming to light the lamp in the yard behind the house.

What Vincent saw, he seized. Even in the darkest days of his youth, when he was living as a free-lance evangelist in the coal-mining district of the Borinage, he would go many miles on foot to see a countryside that interested him: around Courrières, for instance, which he knew from the paintings of Jules Breton, he took a mole’s-eye view of “the brown earth or almost coffee-colored clay, with whitish spots here and there where the marl appears.” It was on the way back from this journey (in September 1880) that he made a crucial decision: henceforth he would be neither teacher nor preacher (“the only two possible professions,” he had said in 1876) but a full-time artist. Thereafter he drew continually;1 fifteen months later he produced his first paintings; and for the rest of his life he saw himself as one thing and one only—a man who made art.

That he would ever make good art seemed unlikely to others. Even his brother Theo, who lived by selling art, could not persuade his clients that Vincent’s work was of any interest. Theo was not, of course, a demon salesman. When he showed a painting to a potential buyer his bearing—so one observer remembered—was that of “a beggar humbly proffering his bowl.” What Vincent sent from Holland between 1880 and 1886 was disingratiating in the highest degree. It looked exactly what it was: the end result of a long hard slog through subject matter that Parisian connoisseurs considered to be both tedious and repulsive.

Vincent was starting late in life and also in his beliefs. In the heyday of French impressionism, for instance, he thought that “one of the highest and noblest expressions of art” was represented by such living British artists as Millais and Herkomer and Frank Holl. Living in The Hague in the early 1880s, he wrote that “up to Millet and Jules Breton there was always progress. But to surpass those two—don’t even talk about it.” In 1885, when he was living in the little village of Nuenen where his father was the Protestant pastor, he wrote, “There is a school—I believe—of Impressionists, but I know very little about it.” It would be difficult to contest the proposition that until he arrived in Paris in 1886 at the age of thirty-three Vincent van Gogh knew nothing of the advanced art of the period (and that for one reason or another Theo van Gogh had not chosen to enlighten him).

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    Vincent Van Gogh: Drawings (Over-look, $12.95) includes 100 illustrations in black and white, four in color, and some examples of comparative material. The text is by Evert van Uitert, a Dutch scholar who specializes in van Gogh. The reproductive process tends to make all the drawings look both coarse and dark, but the selection is intelligent and unhackneyed, and we are given a glimpse of the English black-and-white illustrators who meant much to van Gogh.

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