How many possibilities do we have to learn from the artist himself about his life? One of the myths about Vincent van Gogh’s letters is that they reveal he also could have been a writer. Reading these letters will help to solve that issue.
Amsterdam, 18th of August 1877. Later I had breakfast with a slice of dry bread and a glass of beer; that is a means that Dickens recommends to those who are near suicide.
One of the first “impressions” given by reading this book is that van Gogh was a modest towards the outside but profound from the inside person, always thinking about life and how to live it:
Those who said: “we are the same today as we were yesterday,” were honest men… It is good thing to be an honest man and to try increasingly to be one… and one does well to understand that this entails being an inward and spiritual man.
Then after the first few letters, the little sketches enter the scene and this communicates a special sort of climate around the text. It is as if you are part of the artist being at work.
Vincent’s roots were linked to art as his brother and uncle who worked in the art trading business. His father was a minister which gave Vincent his first direction to (also) become a minister. But he takes it all to fanatic. According to the missionary society he takes the bible too literal “sell what you own and give it to the poor,” was for him a direct order.
He than turns his back to the vested church:
“You should know with evangelists it is the same as with artists; there is the old academic school, contemptuous, tyrannical, people wearing a steal harness of prejudges and conventions…” (July 1880) Which didn’t mean he “left” God. “The best way to know God is to give love. Love someone a friend, something…”
It is in the Borinage we he “officially” and fully dedicates to painting.
Just before, on November the 15th in Brussels in 1878, he writes: How beautiful art is, (commenting on a painting, the lecture of the bible) being able to retain what you have seen. One is never without work in that way or really solitary, never alone.
For Vicent, art started with “reproducing.” He had to reproduce what was made — by others, by nature, by God — to really capture its beauty.
“I don’t know a better definition of the word art than this: art is man aggregated to nature.” (June 1879)
His struggle against faith continues (again, July 1880):
“Their God is like the God of Shakespeare’s drunken Falstaff, “the inside of a church.” Indeed, by a strange coincidence, some evangelical gentlemen have the same view of matters spiritual as that drunkard (which might surprise them somewhat were they capable of human emotion). But there is little fear their blindness will ever turn into insight.” … Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in pictures, perhaps you will also grant that the love of books is as sacred as that of Rembrandt, indeed, I believe that the two complement each other. (July 1880).
[this is probably why the letters are full of references to writers… and the French writers dominate (the time)]
Vincent dedication to painting was endless:
“I will manage to paint portraits, but only continuing to work hard; not a day without a line, like Garvarni Said.” (Brussels, January 1881).
The struggle with nature has something what Shakespeare calls: the taming of the shrew (meaning to overcome that what resists, by means of tenacity…)
But there letter are not only about his profession, or about spirituality, but also about earthly love, although one could wonder whether his love for the opposite sex is down to earth: I feeling happy when in love. My life and my love are the same thing… His love however is not corresponded of which he thinks it will be if only he applies his same tactics as in painting – endurance: this “never, no never,” he responds with: “this is only ice that will melt close to my heart…” (as a block of ice which I press to my heart to thaw).
In the beginning he – the painter – is merely “reproducing” objects from the real world. (April 1882). But than the study of colors starts. “There are only three basic colors, red, yellow and blue…. Other colors like orange are “tones” and composed.”
The painter has the obligation to immerse completely in nature and use his intelligence, put all his feelings in his work, so that it will become comprehensible for others.”
But details of how this works are left out. The real secrets are not revealed to the public (his brother).
As mentioned before, he declined to follow the official way (through the academic) in order to learn to paint: “I’m glad not to have learned to paint… I don’t know how I do it…”
Is this because of his religious background, believing in God which work, creation cannot be learned, in the same way that the work of an artist cannot be taught?
Some sketches in the book – for instance one of a woman working in the field – are so expressive that these change the perception of the book. Letters to Theo, cannot be read as a normal book, or as a normal correspondence. The sketches take the reader to a higher level…
Van Gogh is protesting against the formal school and their role in society, or directly protesting society as it is:
I ask you, do you know of a single digger, a single sewer, in the Old Dutch school? Did they ever try to do “a worker”? Did Velasquez look for one in his water carrier or his types from the people? No. (December 1883 Nuenen)
Nearly half of the letters are from his French period which is about the same as all letters before, written in only two years time.
Now, do these letters show that Van Gogh a writer?
To answer this question I would focus on how Vicent was productive. Obviously he was a tenacious and disciplined painter. But why did he write? In my opinion because of his social nature, informing his his brother, his family, that he cared for them and that he was grateful.
The letters to Theo tell the reader something about the painter; that the beauty of his paintings came from within.