It’s incredibly rare that we’re afforded an in-depth insight into the mind of a creative genius. Sometimes, where letters exist, they are in fragments, or reveal little about the writer’s state of mind. Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter of the late Nineteenth Century, is the rarest of all exceptions. The Folio Society have released a stunning edition of his letters. Van Gogh’s literary skill is rightly celebrated, and this book is a journey through the adult years of the short life of a genius – who saw life in more vivid colours than most.
Letters of Vincent Van Gogh contains the correspondence from Vincent to his brother Theo. Hundreds of hand-written originals were retained. Theo’s letters, just as those of Van Gogh to others, such as the artist Gauguin, aren’t presented here, but most of Theo’s responses were lost as Vincent moved from the Netherlands to London, Paris and other parts of France. Yet there is an added clarity afforded by hearing only one voice in the volume, and only one side of a conversation. Just as Theo was Vincent’s art dealer, and regularly sent his brother money (many letters open with thanks for the latest offering), he remains an off-stage character in the reader’s mind, taking the role of his brother’s confidant.
The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh are of course tinged with tragedy, too. We know where Van Gogh’s story ends, but Theo too would die (from illness) less than a year after his older sibling, and it’s Theo’s young widow Johanna who preserved the letters and oversaw their publication.
The themes of the letters concentrate on Vincent’s artistic processes, but also his views on life. An evangelical Christian zeal is apparent in the earlier years. While his faith doesn’t leave him, it recedes a little the older he becomes. There are his struggles with mental health, too. There is the letter Vincent writes from his hospital bed in Arles after the manic episode in which he cut off his ear in 1889. There’s his reference to Dr Gachet, the physician who asks him to open up about his depression should it become too much (the advice is as pertinent today as it was in 1890 – and only a few months later Vincent would take his own life). But there are also records of Vincent’s passions – the development of his painting, as well as the books that inspired him such as the works of Charles Dickens. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh are if anything, inspiring. He was an artist who never gave up on his profession, despite his struggles to achieve recognition during his lifetime, and never gave up hoping for love, despite his equally prevalent rejection from women.
This book isn’t just of interest to those who love painting and a history of art (though they will certainly appreciate the commentary on the craft) but to students of the human condition. There is a tendency to romanticise bygone times as simpler and purer: whilst Vincent’s life was one of struggle and hardship, it reflected the realities of the age he lived in and the omnipresence of extreme poverty (see his paintings of the postman, and his early work the Miners’ Wives). Yet he never lost sight of beauty being part of the pain and misery of existence. The letters are testament to the work on canvas, and bear out the essential truth with which they were created. It’s why Letters of Vincent Van Gogh is a must-read.
The Folio Society’s edition of the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh is a must-have copy for admirers of the painter’s work and for lovers of beautiful books. This one has been very attractively produced. Excepts from the letters form the backdrop of the card slip case, and a detail from Wheatfield with Crows is on the hardback cover. A cloth spine is a great detail. The letters are printed on high-quality, thick paper, and contain many illustrations, often poignantly placed (such as the sketch of the wheatfields where Vincent would take his own life) which give a strong sense of chronology. Many pages or half-pages are given over to reproductions of oil paintings, or else pages of his letters, affording this edition a personalised touch.
The Folio Society’s edition of Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, introduced by Martin Gayford with paintings by the artist is available exclusively from The Folio Society.
Publisher: The Folio Society Publication Date: April 2018