London: Royal Academy Publications, 301 pp., $70.00 (distributed in the US by Abrams)
Whether in the work of the Pre- Raphaelites, the Futurists, or the Abstract Expressionists, innovation in the visual arts has always happened when a group of progressive young artists meet, work, and exhibit together. Though the act of creation is highly personal, it rarely happens in isolation—even if, as in the case of Braque and Picasso, it was only two young men “yoked together” in their exploration of cubist space. The unrecognized genius who dies alone in a garret is largely a myth.
Had the correspondence of Vincent van Gogh not survived intact, his brief career might look like an exception to this rule. But his letters have been in print since 1917, and the publication of a newly translated, fully annotated, and profusely illustrated six-volume edition reminds us that whatever his physical circumstances, Vincent was never truly alone. The recipient of all but a few of these 819 letters was his younger brother Theo—the confidant, friend, and adviser whose moral and financial support made Vincent’s ten-year artistic career possible. The first letter in Volume One was written to Theo in 1872 when Vincent was nineteen and trying to figure out what to do with his life. The last is the unfinished draft of his final letter to Theo, found in his pocket after his death on July 29, 1890. It can be seen, stained with what is probably blood from the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest, in the exhibition “The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
In between, the letters chronicle Vincent’s failed attempts to become a picture dealer, schoolteacher, and evangelizing preacher before belatedly —and at Theo’s suggestion—turning to art. Starting out with little obvious natural talent, stuck for long periods in provincial backwaters, and (in his own eyes) slow to progress in teaching himself to draw by studying books on perspective, anatomy, and landscape, he staved off loneliness by writing to his brother. Toward the end of his life when Vincent at last began to receive critical recognition, it was because Theo, a picture dealer in Paris, had been promoting and showing—although not yet selling—his work. When ravaged by mental illness, it was to Theo he turned for help and to Theo he said goodbye. All but thirty-nine of Theo’s letters to Vincent are lost.
Most writers try to amuse or entertain their correspondents. Not Vincent—at least not when he was addressing the person to whom he felt closest in the world. His primary purpose in writing—about art or anything else—was to communicate his thoughts, feelings, and needs as fully and as clearly as possible, at times seeming not to care whether what he had to say would interest his brother, as long as he got it off his chest. In letters that could run to as much as …