Vincent van Gogh was a prolific writer, it is estimated he wrote over 2,000 letters. Of these a little over 800 survive. These letters give a glimpse into both the man, and the painter. In letters, van Gogh was philosophical, poetic, sometimes even emotional. His letters offer glimpses into his daily life, and his art. Van Gogh often described his work.
Depending on who he was writing to, or what he was feeling his tone was very different. We take a look at straightforward letter to his brother Theo, nostalgic letter to his sister Wil, Letter between his colleague, a letter of his daily life to his brother Theo, and a letter describing his philosophy to his sister Wil.
Straightforward Letter to Theo October 16, 1888, Arles
Van Gogh’s letters to his brother tended to be more practical. Theo, was in charge of Vincent’s monthly allowance. Vincent would ship all his paintings to Theo so he could try to sell them. Theo also frequently sent Vincent paints, canvases, and other supplies. This passage describes van Gogh’s first painting of his “Bedroom at Arles.” There are three versions of this work, this one on permanent loan to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Excerpt from letter #705, to Theo van Gogh
“In short, looking at the painting should rest the mind, or rather, the imagination.
The walls are of a pale violet. The floor — is of red tiles.
The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.
The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.
The blanket scarlet red.
The window green.
The dressing table orange, the basin blue.
The doors lilac.
And that’s all — nothing in this bedroom, with its shutters closed.
The solidity of the furniture should also now express unshakeable repose.
Portraits on the wall, and a mirror and a hand-towel and some clothes.
The frame — as there’s no white in the painting — will be white.
This to take my revenge for the enforced rest that I was obliged to take.”
Nostalgic Letter to his Sister Wil November 12, 1888, Arles
In this letter van Gogh tells his sister, “Wil,” that the women of Arles remind him of her, his mother, and the family garden they once had in Etten, a city in theNetherlands. “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)” is at the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Excerpt from Letter #720, to Willemien van Gogh
“I’ve now just painted a reminiscence of the garden at Etten, to put in my
…I know it isn’t perhaps much of a resemblance, but for me it conveys the poetic character and the style of the garden as I feel them.
In the same way, let’s suppose that these two women walking are you and our mother…The figure in the Scottish plaid…gives me an idea of you, vaguely a figure like those in Dicken’s novels.
I don’t know if you’ll understand that one can speak poetry just by
arranging colours well, just as one can say comforting things in music. In the same way the bizarre lines…draw (The Garden) for us as if seen in a dream, in character and yet at the same time stranger than the reality.”
Letter Between Colleague June 17, 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise
Contrast those with beautiful vision van Gogh describes to fellow artist Paul Gauguin as he describes, “Road with Cypress and Star” (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands). This letter was not sent.
Excerpt from #RM23, to Paul Gauguin
“I also have a cypress with a star from down there.
A last try – a night sky with a moon without brightness, the slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque projected shadow of the earth –
a star with exaggerated brightness, if you like, a soft brightness of pink and green in the ultramarine sky where clouds run. Below, a road bordered by tall yellow canes behind which are the blue low Alpilles, an old inn with orange lighted windows and a very tall cypress, very straight,
On the road a yellow carriage harnessed to a white horse, and two late walkers. Very romantic if you like, but also ‘Provençal’ I think.”
Daily Life Letter to Theo as an Artist September 5, and 6, 1889, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Van Gogh painted himself many, many times. Here is what he told Theo about his process. The self portraits he mentions can be found at The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Musée D’Orsay, Paris.
Excerpt from Letter #800, to Theo van Gogh
“People say – and I’m quite willing to believe it – that it’s difficult to know oneself – but it’s not easy to paint oneself either. Thus I’m working on two portraits of myself at the moment – for want of another model –
because it’s more than time that I did a bit of figure work. One I began the first day I got up, I was thin, pale as a devil. It’s dark violet blue and the head whiteish with yellow hair, thus a colour effect. But since then I’ve started another one, three-quarter length on a light background. Then I’m retouching some studies from this summer – anyway I’m working from
morning till night.”
Life Philosophies to his Sister September 19, 1889, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Excerpt from Letter #804, to Willemien van Gogh
“Lately I’ve done two portraits of myself, one of which is quite in character…
I myself still find photographs frightful and don’t like to have any, especially not of people whom I know and love.
These (photographs), first, are faded more quickly than we ourselves, while
the painted portrait remains for many generations. Besides, a painted
portrait is a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being
represented. What remains to us of the old Dutchmen? The portraits.”
If you want to read van Gogh’s letters, they can be found on-line. The translations used here are from “Vincent van Gogh The Letters.”