Then too he had “a more or less irresistible passion for books” and “a need continually to educate myself, to study, if you like, precisely as I need to eat my bread.” In addition to the Bible and Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, he read Shakespeare, Bunyan, Dickens, Carlyle, Ruskin, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe in English and devoured in French the novels of Zola, Balzac, and Hugo as they came out. The letters are unselfconsciously littered with hundreds of literary quotations, often unattributed.
Even if you knew none of this, when you look at his pictures you sense the depth of experience and the breadth of culture behind them. Lesser artists like Maurice de Vlaminck or André Derain imitated Van Gogh’s bright colors, thick paint, and expressive brushwork, but all they achieved in their work was surface excitement. Their art had none of the moral weight and psychological density that in Van Gogh’s came from living among the poor, taking the gospels to heart, poring over the works of Shakespeare and many other writers, and studying the history of art.
These things came into his work in ways that are not always obvious at first glance. For instance, his early drawings of miners, weavers, and peasants hauling heavy sacks or bent over back-breaking work owe much more to both Dickens’s depiction of workers’ lives in Hard Times and illustrations of similar subjects by Hubert von Herkomer than to any old master. His belief that art must be useful, that it must be placed in the service of humanity, is closely related to his work as a missionary and to his knowledge of the Bible; it finds expression in his compassionate depiction of the peasant family in The Potato Eaters (1885).
Timed to coincide with the publication of the new edition of letters, the exhibition of about sixty-five paintings and thirty drawings at the Royal Academy amounts to a two-pronged riposte not only to sensationalist accounts of Van Gogh’s life but also to the misreading of his work as the spontaneous expressions of unconscious emotion, undirected by the intellect. Such ideas can be traced back at least as far as the expressionist painters who formed the Die Brücke group in Dresden in 1905; they persisted through the Cobra school of woefully misguided Scandinavian and Dutch painters in the 1950s.
At Burlington House, Vincent’s letters are shown next to the pictures they describe or illustrate, so that by turning from one to the other we can see the paintings through his eyes. About a quarter of all the letters include sketches, many highly detailed and with written color notations. The artist whose voice comes through in the letters on show here spoke not about suffering but about the practical business of how he was learning to draw and paint. He tells a friend about a new type of pencil he’s just discovered; he makes delicate drawings in pen and ink showing the kind of brushes he wants Theo to send him from Paris.
In 1882, when he was trying to master the art of perspective, he explained that he was using a wooden frame with wires stretched across it through which the artist viewed his subject “as if through a window.” A few days later Theo received a sketch showing Vincent looking out to sea through such a frame, palette in hand, painting from nature.
Only after reading his description—in a letter to Theo of July 23, 1882—of an early watercolor showing a bird’s-eye view from his attic studio in The Hague do you notice the myriad details he mentions:
So you must imagine me sitting at my attic window as early as 4 o’clock, studying the meadows and the carpenter’s yard with my perspective frame—as the fires are lit in the court to make coffee, and the first worker ambles into the yard.
Over the red tiled roofs comes a flock of white pigeons flying between the black smoking chimneys. But behind this an infinity of delicate, gentle green, miles and miles of flat meadow, and a grey sky as still, as peaceful as Corot or Van Goyen.
Other letters discuss his developing sense of color. On October 28, 1885, for example, he wrote about his dawning realization that color can be separated from its descriptive function:
Suppose I have to paint an autumn landscape, trees with yellow leaves…. What does it matter whether or not my basic yellow colour is the same as that of the leaves—it makes little difference…. If you think this a dangerous tendency towards romanticism, a betrayal of “realism”—painting from the imagination—having a greater love for the colourist’s palette than for nature, well then, so be it.
We have only nine letters from 1886–1887, the crucial years of transition when Vincent lived with Theo in Paris. The paintings themselves tell us that after meeting Gauguin, Émile Bernard, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac, and Georges Seurat, he experimented with Impressionist color and a Pointillist technique, tried to work from the imagination as Gauguin urged, and learned to fuse non-Western perspective, asymmetry, and the flat decorative patterns of Japanese woodblock prints with realism based on direct observation. Even without the correspondence from this period, we know from Theo’s letters to his sister and from eyewitness accounts that Vincent was as maddening to be around as ever—so untidy and so ready to pick quarrels that he made Theo’s life hell. When Vincent took up Toulouse-Lautrec’s suggestion that he move to Provence, his brother could only have heaved a sigh of relief.
Following the first eight years of Van Gogh’s ten-year career through the works illustrated in these letters is like watching a plane taxiing down a runway—on and on it trundles, gathering speed and power and then, suddenly, when you come to the first pictures painted in Arles, the wheels lift and the pictures rise to new aesthetic heights. Instantly, the tone of the letters changes as depression lifts and self-doubt disappears. He has “a constant fever for work”; he is “going like a painting- locomotive”; and he is “thrilled, thrilled, thrilled with what I see.” His letters to Theo contain vivid descriptions and detailed sketches with color notations of the pictures he is working on, and tell his brother not only what he is doing but why he is doing it:
In my painting of the night café I’ve tried to express the idea that the café is a place where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes. Anyway, I tried with contrasts of delicate pink and blood-red and wine-red. Soft Louis XV and Veronese green contrasting with yellow greens and hard blue greens.
All of that in an ambiance of a hellish furnace, in pale sulphur.
One of the many masterpieces of the Arles period, The Tarascon Diligence (1888), is so freely painted that it looks and feels as though it was improvised on the spot. In fact, the composition was meticulously constructed so that the upward diagonal of the ladder at the left leads our eye into the picture but is then immediately countered by a downward diagonal at the right—the driver’s whip leaning at the front of the diligence. Together these diagonals turn the vehicle, which otherwise would float unanchored in space, into a stable triangle locked in place by an astonishing smear of violet shadow linking it both to the ground and to the yellow wall behind it. When we turn to the letter in which Vincent writes about the picture we can see that far from being an incidental detail, the diagonal line formed by the coachman’s whip was important enough to his composition to include in the little sketch at the bottom of the page.
Working under light so intense that it minimized shadow and banished tonal gradations, Van Gogh used color to transform what was probably an unremarkable corner of a pretty southern town into a scene of beauty. And then, as described with exquisite sympathy by Martin Gayford in his study of the nine weeks Vincent spent with Gauguin in Arles, a severe personality disorder turned into full-blown psychosis.2 Just before Christmas in 1888, after a violent quarrel with his friend, Van Gogh turned his rage upon himself, sliced off his ear with a razor, and handed it to a prostitute. This was the onset of the recurring bipolar illness in which he experienced aural and visual hallucinations, with periods of exaltation alternating with self-harm.
Because of this Vincent is still popularly seen as an inspired madman who wielded his paintbrush instinctively, as though it were a conduit for the feelings roiling through his tormented soul. In this reading of his work, his breakdowns in some way fueled his genius. But the letters show that the exact opposite happened. His mental illness, far from driving his career forward, interrupted it by stopping his ability to paint; and if you didn’t know anything about the artist who painted the pictures during the year he spent in the asylum in Saint-Rémy, I don’t think you would guess that ill health stopped him from working for months at a time. Unlike the schizophrenic Richard Dadd, whose pictures are symptomatic of his madness, it would be hard to detect any trace of Van Gogh’s bouts of insanity in his art.
In Starry Night (1889), which is not in this show, the pulsating aureoles of light scrolling across the night sky as though on the ocean swell are sometimes cited as evidence of his mental turmoil. But Vincent told Theo that the undulating lines amount to the straightforward use of expressive distortion: “These are exaggerations from the point of view of the arrangement, their lines are contorted like those of the ancient woodcuts.” He didn’t even think the use of exaggeration had been successful, for he told the young painter Émile Bernard that he had made the “stars too big” and that in the future he would be returning to more realistic representations of the natural world.
Van Gogh frequently mentioned that he had taken only an hour or so to paint a picture. But what he didn’t always say is that before he started to work, the picture had been carefully planned. However quickly he painted, Theo should know, he wrote, “that I’m in the middle of a complicated calculation that results in canvases done quickly one after another but calculated long beforehand.” What he meant was that before his brush touched the canvas he had mixed or chosen the precise color and tones he wanted to use and calculated how much turpentine and linseed oil to mix it with. When he finally began to paint he knew exactly how much paint he needed on his brush and how much pressure each of the hundreds of brushstrokes in a picture required. Though he worked at much speed, there are few corrections and revisions in his pictures, indicating that he must have known exactly how he wanted each one to look before he began it. All this took forethought and sustained concentration. It is simply not possible to paint like this in a mad frenzy.
This is not to say that there is no sadness and loneliness in his work, only that he put it there deliberately. And what is so striking about the letters he wrote when sane is how fully in control and entirely professional he was. On May 23, 1889, he sent Theo detailed instructions about how his pictures should be displayed in an exhibition—“the Berceuse in the middle and the two canvases of the sunflowers to the right and the left, this forms a sort of triptych.”
In the last letter posted to Theo, written on July 23, 1890, only four days before he shot himself in the chest, Vincent wrote not of depression or anxiety but of applying himself to his canvas “with all my attention.” He enclosed a sketch of Wheat Fields after the Rain (1890), one of the most radiantly serene pictures in the Royal Academy’s show. In it Van Gogh is working at the height of his powers, so completely in control of his medium that he uses two different viewpoints—the foreground seen from close up (painted with short flicking brushstrokes) and the patchwork of fields in the distance painted with parallel ribbons of light yellow, apple green, and forest green edged with dark blue. The newly washed fields stretch on forever under an aquamarine sky filled with whorls of woolly white clouds, an image of pure bliss.
Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (Little, Brown, 2006).↩
Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (Little, Brown, 2006).↩