Vincent van Gogh, The Lettres

Authors : Under the supervision of Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker

Writing to his brother, on Sunday 25 March 1888, Van Gogh remarked : “it might be interesting to save correspondence between artists.” This letter, which deserves to be preserved and studied, had been sent to him by the painter John Russell whom he had met two years earlier in Cormon’s workshop. Another “stranger” with ties to Emile Bernard and Toulouse-Lautrec, the Australian is the author of a superb portrait of Van Gogh as lord of the Netherlands, confident of his vocation. But, for us, Vincent’s advice to Theo is a foreshadowing and applies first to his epistolary activity which was precocious, untiring, admirable, fruitful in countless manners. His correspondents, Theo and Bernard among others, quickly realized it and held on to this posthumous treasure… We know how the publication of some of these letters during the 1890’s was to lead certain clear-sighted spirits, such as Octave Mirbeau, to profoundly change the theory of the crazy genius, a genius because he was crazy.

Without overlooking the importance of the pathological aspects, the great Parisian critic fought against the image of the lunatic, a victim of his psychological demons, and reclaimed its share of the conscious and “humanity” for Van Gogh’s painting. The artist’s correspondence therefore could not be seen only as the diary of a deranged person who used painting as a release. To quote a popular thought from the 70’s, this is a monument, in more ways and levels than one, more than a document. A deliberate literary act despite an obvious aversion to emphatic effects, revealing information on his life, artistic career and thoughts on the meaning of life itself, these letters occupy as important a place in his aesthetic reflection as does the pictorial production. We should rejoice at the opportunity now provided to read them as Vincent would have wished, thanks to a literal transcription and an unbiased translation. This is a transcription as a third of them have been written in French and studied by Nienke Bakker. They are translated insofar as Van Gogh composed most of them in Dutch and sometimes in English, studied here by Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten.

1. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Letter of Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo,
middle of september 1881
Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum
Photo : Press

It took fifteen years of hard work, under the auspices of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Huygens Institute, to bring to light the six volumes of the latest edition which Actes Sud was brave enough to co-produce and offer at a rather reasonable price given this editorial exploit. The three specialists thus focused only on the text which had been freely adapted, trimmed, clipped, censored and reduced to an ordinary syntax resembling little more than a mediocre grooming by the previous experts. Times, and fashions, have changed. Van Gogh handled language, phrases and words like a painter with a steady hand, preferring actions to talk, but also a man of verb, familiar with the Bible, Shakespeare and contemporary novelists, intent on being convincing and even shocking his correspondents, family and other artists in his circle [1]. In Provence, influenced by the colorful speech of the locals and the disreputable places he frequented, he enjoyed peppering his correspondence with spicier notes, transformed into conventionally accepted suspension points for a long time by previous editors. The letters to Bernard, who was so close to him in his aesthetic choices and his relations to those persons who barter their affections, would have lost much of their flavor if their bluntness had been deleted [2].

Moreover, today’s publication offers a magnificent critical apparatus, the accompanying notes to the letters as rich as the reproductions of the works Vincent refers to. Goodness knows that he is constantly mentioning the old masters as well as the moderns, from Rembrandt to Hals, from Ruysdael to Delacroix, from Millet to Breton. They constitute a personal gallery, a product of his incessant visits to museums and to see dealers, which steadily builds up page by page, and is modified progressively every year. Delaroche, whom he adored at the age of 17, and Ary Scheffer do not survive the test of time and a personal reclassification. He will also detach himself from Leys, Tissot and the Pre-Raphaelites as soon as he embarked on a less polished manner of painting in favor of a “power of expression” more akin to Delacroix, to quote just one letter written to the artist Anton van Rappard (1858-1892). On the other hand, the frequent references to Manet, always extremely flattering, show that his familiarity with the moderns was partly established before his stay in Paris from 1886-1888, during which he saw the Impressionist painting Theo had mentioned to him before undergoing the shock with his own eyes. This change in his code of references is translated visually, with rich images, by this new edition. Who could ever have imagined that paper could rival internet and offer almost four thousand pictures echoing the letters. Even Van Gogh’s works, at the slightest mention or sketch of them, are illustrated. This accounts for the ease with which one can consult and understand the oeuvre, enabling the reader to approach the text in a new and more intimate way.

2. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Drawing sent with a letter to his brother Theo,
Arles, 16 octobre 1888
Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum
Photo : Press

Reading Van Gogh in a new light also means situating his writing within his vision of the world and of the art created by his brushes. The long mystical crisis, or at least the religious zeal he underwent between 1876-1880, from his failure in the art business at Goupil’s and his decision to paint, is revealed in his letters through his countless biblical references, mentioned as such or alluded to covertly. As a talented writer, Van Gogh in fact applied the practice of writing between the lines unscrupulously. The three specialists are constantly put to the test. It is now up to the reader to interpret the artist’s letters depending on his own culture, personality and nationality. A French person, for instance, will be struck no doubt by his fluency in our language and his knowledge of our literature, notably that of the 19th century [3]. After repeatedly speaking of his passion for the Naturalists, Zola and the Goncourt brothers above all, we have forgotten what links Van Gogh’s aesthetic thinking and his taste for writers of the preceding generation, the Romantics of 1830 and 1848, as stimulating as Zola’s lyricism [4].

We should now say a word about the great tool offered to us by the very carefully elaborated index in the sixth volume. As we were surprised by the extensive number of references to Théophile Gautier found in the correspondence, we decided to toy around and take a closer look at them. It then became obvious that Vincent had access to Gautier’s famous Salons as early as the mid-1870’s, at least those gathered into a volume, as well as his travel literature, his novels (Fortunio is quoted in 1883 in a disguised manner) and other more rare books, which addressed his particular brand of pantheism, such as La Nature chez elle, illustrated by Bodmer [5]. Van Gogh could also find Gautier in Sensier’s Millet, one of the books which never left him after 1880, filled with borrowings from Théophile’s Salons. What might just seem a fine point of erudition, of little transcendental value, demands that the ties between writing and images, such as they appear in Van Gogh’s correspondence and painting, be questioned in a different way. Much was written about his lack of knowledge of Impressionist painting before 1886, as we mentioned above. We should however wonder if his readings of French literature between 1830-1880, which strived to be more visual than narrative and “create an image”, did not prepare the astounding revolution experienced so quickly in his painting as of February 1886. Impressionism perhaps only served to confirm it.

local/cache-vignettes/L115xH121/Couverture_Van_Gogh-97a15.jpgVincent van Gogh, The Lettres, under the supervision of Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker, Actes Sud / Van Gogh Museum / Huygens Institute, 2240 p., 4300 illustrations, 6 volumes presented in a boxed set, 325€. ISBN 978-2-7427-8589-5

The publication of these volumes is also marked by an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam from 9 October 2009 to 3 January 2010.

Version française

Stéphane Guégan, jeudi 12 novembre 2009


[1] To Theo, on 7 December 1883, a perceptive analysis of his sense of the morality of actions : “We behave depending on how we feel. It is in our acts, the speed of our decisions or in our hesitation, that others come to know us – not in the more or less pleasant words which we pronounce with our lips. Good intentions, opinions are in fact worth less than nothing.”

[2] About Bernard’s deeper personality, see Schuffenecker’s notes, written for an article to be included in Hommes d’Aujourd’hui which never came out [see cat. Of exhibition Emile Bernard 1868-1941. A Pioneer of Modern Art, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, 1990, pp. 378-379]. This manuscript, dated 6 June 1891 and filled with long conversations with Bernard himself, insists on his deep piety when he was young, a late sexual awakening no doubt, his presence at Cormon’s, his admiration for Cezanne, his friendship with Van Gogh, his (other) Siamese twin, so to speak.

[3] Leo Jansen, one of the contributors to the present edition, wrote an excellent synthesis of Van Gogh’s Lettres (Van Gogh Museum, 2007 [new edition in 2009]). He underscores, and rightly so, the importance of the French language (p. 42) : “If Parisian critics to whom Theo shows his brother’s letters can understand the meaning, this is because Vincent, since 1888, writes in French, thus enabling Emile Bernard to publish a series of installments offering an extensive selection of letters in the review Le Mercure de France, after Van Gogh’s death, and more precisely between 1893-1897. His initiative will be instrumental in making the artist very well known. Van Gogh learned French when he was very young. At the time, French was considered the language of the upper class in the Netherlands, a circle he frequented at The Hague when he worked in the art business. His schooling at the secondary level was limited but his employer at The Hague would have obviously required him to learn the language. He then started reading French authors.”

[4] Just as much, perhaps even more than Zola, the Goncourt brothers held an important place in the artist’s choice of reading, including their novels and their books on the 18th century. On the subject of his superb and disturbing Café at Night (1888, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), “infernal furnace of pale Sulphur”, Vincent even talks of “soft Louis XV green”. We can only take note.

[5] In a letter to Theo, on 13 May 1878 [volume 1, p. 225], Vincent encourages his brother to read Michelet, Thoré or Gautier “on Paris and the period of young painters and writers. Oh, my friend, how I’d like to wander the city with you !” The current edition refers the reader to the Portraits contemporains (Charpentier, 1874), a credible theory. We would tend to think however that the tone of the sentence alludes rather to the Doyenné bohème as evoked by Gautier with humour and nostalgia in his Histoire du romantisme (published independently from the Bien public, 1872 ; then Charpentier, 1874).

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