Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh; drawing by David Levine

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).

However, Vincent’s was not a hurrying nature. In no way did he share the current belief in the importance of being at the center of things. The impressionists might have outlawed black, for instance, some years earlier, but Vincent went on thinking that Frans Hals’s command of twenty-seven different kinds of black was one of the most wonderful things that had ever happened in painting. “Is it true for me?” was his only criterion; and if it wasn’t, he went on as before.

Anyone else might have gone underground in these matters. Painting full-time takes all a man’s energies. What is talked about rarely gets done. Cézanne in his great years never wrote a letter if he could avoid it. Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien because Lucien was in England and Pissarro didn’t want him to get out of touch. Degas’s letters are tantalizing fragments from the hand of one of the best and most mischievous of recorded talkers. We love the letters of these men; but unless we know their paintings well there is a great deal that is puzzling. And the letters in question, though everywhere fascinating, are discontinuous.2

But in the case of van Gogh the narrative is as seamless after 1880 as it was before. Only during his sojourn in Paris between 1886 and 1888 is there a hiatus; much as we should like to know more about the only period in which Vincent was in regular contact with his peers, he was living with Theo at that time. Not only did he at last see the gamut of recent French painting at first hand, but he was in touch with Camille Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Armand Guillaumin, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac and Emile Bernard, contacts which must have called for a prodigious effort of assimilation. With so much to talk about and so many gifted people to talk to, van Gogh in Paris did not need to write letters. At all other times the correspondence was as rich as ever in self-sufficing statements which can be lifted out of the context of art and prove ideally applicable to our general concerns. Every reader will make his own choice among them—as Edmund Wilson said, “No two people read the same book”—but here are some examples, taken at random:

Admire as much as you can; most people do not admire enough.

A man may have a great fire in his soul, and yet have no one ever come to warm himself at it. The passers-by see only a wisp of smoke come through the chimney as they go on their way.

How rich art is! A man who can remember what he has seen need never be without food for thought or feel himself truly lonely.

There are no more unbelieving, hard-hearted and worldly people—with some exceptions—than clergymen and, especially, clergymen’s wives.

The “men of the day” are the men of one day. But the man who has so much faith and love for what he is doing that he actually takes pleasure in what other people find dull—that man will ripen, slowly but surely.

Painters are like a family—a fatal combination of people with conflicting interests, each one of them opposed to the rest. If two or more of them are of the same mind, it’s only because they want to annoy the others.

I am always greatly drawn to English draftsmen and English authors because of their Monday-morning-like soberness, and their studied simplicity and solemnity and keen analysis. There is in them something solid and strong that can help us in the days when we feel weak.

In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism and skepticism and humbug, and want life to be more like music.

We cannot but be aware of nothingness, emptiness, and the betrayal of what is desirable, beautiful and good. Yet in spite of that we allow ourselves to be eternally deluded by the charm that things outside ourselves exert on our six senses. It is as if we could not distinguish between objective and subjective. Fortunately for us, we never give up that particular stupidity, that particular hope.

Faced with passages such as these, we remember what van Gogh wrote to Emile Bernard, the young painter who had made friends with van Gogh and Gauguin and was later to make friends with Cézanne:

So many people, especially among our painter-colleagues, imagine that words are nothing. But the contrary is true: to say something well is as interesting (and as difficult) as to paint it.

As may by now be clear, Vincent van Gogh rarely said an ambiguous thing. Lucidity was his aim, and if it took him to the very frontier of platitude he didn’t care. He was not writing with big-city people in mind—Parisians in particular struck him as “faithless and changeable as the sea” and as “unnatural, foul, and sad”—but in language that would be accessible to the peasants of the Brabant for whom his father had given all that he had to give.

Intermingled with maxims of universal application there are of course passages beyond number in these letters that relate to art. Many of them now seem both timeless in their validity and remarkably prescient in their general outlook. Before how many great paintings of our own century could we not recall that van Gogh said: “The painter of the future will be a colorist such as there has never been before”? And when van Gogh wrote in 1885 that “Color expresses something by itself” (and was not, that is to say, a mere badge of identity) he said something that was fundamental to Matisse, to Munch, to Kandinsky, and to many of their successors (not least in the United States).

It was van Gogh, likewise, who unriddled what for the layman has always been one of the more bothersome aspects of modern art: distortion. When a fellow-artist complained that the figures in his Potato Eaters were distorted, van Gogh said,

Tell him that I should be in despair if my figures were “correct,” in academic terms. I don’t want them to be “correct.” Real artists paint things not as they are, in a dry analytical way, but as they feel them. I adore Michelangelo’s figures, though the legs are too long and the hips and backsides too large. What I most want to do is to make of these incorrectnesses, deviations, remodelings, or adjustments of reality something that may be “untrue” but is at the same time more true than literal truth.

Here a great part of twentieth-century art is foreshadowed in something Vincent van Gogh said before he knew anything at all about the progressive art even of his own day.

Van Gogh also argued for a new openness and candor in the movement of the brush. As against the crafty and rhetorical methods of the past, he stood for “brushwork that would cut out stippling and the rest and offer simply the varied stroke.” With the help of remarks such as these it would be easy to present Vincent van Gogh as a protomodernist: a man who knew exactly in which directions art should go and was able to put them into words.

But that is not how van Gogh saw himself. It was not in his nature to race toward the future. The Provençal cypress seemed to him “as beautiful, in line and proportion, as an Egyptian obelisk.” Even when he came to know the founding fathers of modern art at first hand he insisted that “a man must be blind not to think that Meissonier is an artist—and a first-rate one.” When people vaunted the scenery of Provence as unique and without parallel he broke it down, color by color, and said,

You will see that it constitutes something like the color-combinations in those pretty Scottish tartans—green, blue, red, yellow, black—which, alas, one hardly sees anymore nowadays.

When people carried on about the painting of the future, he said,

Well, I must say what I so often told Gauguin—that others have done it already. I for one cannot forget all those beautiful paintings of the Barbizon school. It seems hardly possible that anyone will do better, and in any case it’s unnecessary.

One consequence of the close and loving family connection that was maintained throughout the lifetime of V.W. van Gogh may be that we are as far as ever we were from having, as distinct from an authentic text, a critical edition of Vincent’s letters that would bring out connections between his letters and his painting. It is as if posterity in general were engaged in a conspiracy of expiation which made it unthinkable to say that van Gogh ever painted a bad picture or said a silly thing.

Before he died however, Vincent’s nephew saw through the press a two-volume set of facsimiles of nearly all the letters that van Gogh wrote between his arrival in Paris in March 1886 and his death in July 1890. As far as possible, the letters are reproduced actual size, and certain datings have been revised in the light of Dr. J. Hulsker’s researches.

What might seem to some severe natures no more than a very expensive souvenir album of material that is already available in full is in fact a venture of genuine historical importance. Quite apart from the poignancy of seeing (for instance) the exact look of the note in which Vincent announced his arrival in Paris (“I shall be in the Louvre from noon onwards. Please let me know at what time you could join me in the square gallery”), the facsimiles offer invaluable evidence both of the state of mind in which Vincent wrote each letter and to the points which he wished to emphasize in ways that cannot be mimicked in print.

Above all, they make us intimately aware of the prodigious effort of self-observation with which van Gogh strove to keep his illness under control. Karl Jaspers and Meyer Schapiro3 have written on that point; for confirmation of it we have only to turn to the letters in facsimile. For much of his life van Gogh wrote in a regular, open, and self-evidently generous hand that was the very antithesis of what we think of as an “inspired” or “visionary” script. “With a rare lucidity,” Meyer Schapiro wrote in 1946, “he watched his behavior to foresee the attacks [of madness] and to take precautions against them, until in the end his despair destroyed him.” In the facsimiles of his letters we see that watchfulness made visible, over and over again.

Only in the facsimiles, in fact, do we see exactly how van Gogh gave an ordered majesty even to a straightforward listing of colors and could lay out page after page, quite unselfconsciously, with every word given room to breathe and every individual letter within each word set down as a loved object. For him, the written word was an object like any other object, a “real thing” (as he used to say). “I love things that are real, things that are possible,” he once wrote. Objects were for van Gogh, as Meyer Schapiro put it, “a symbol and guarantee of sanity.” And among those objects a letter ranked high: just how high is clear from every page of The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

This Issue

April 5, 1979