The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

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This moved me to tears. Granted, I’m getting more and more sentimental as I age (aren’t we all?) but shedding actual tears over a book is rare for me. Especially a non-fiction collection of translated letters by an artist whose paintings I’ve been aware of, respect even, but had never particularly liked.

And Vincent, the man, is hard to like. Given to rather tedious sermonizing in his early letters, he could be amazingly self-centered, humourless and ungrateful. He chastised his younger brother Theo for being unable to sell his (rather dour) charcoal sketches of Dutch peasants, while Theo paid for all Vincent’s living and painting expenses. For a decade.

But, through the letters we get an amazing amount of information about the artist, and eventually, the man, who emerges as a tragic, brilliant and even more surprisingly, compassionate man. And the same could be said of his brother, to whom most of the letters in the collection were addressed.

A few thoughts as I read the book:

  • He was, apart from a short few weeks enrolled in art classes, entirely self-taught.
  • He was a great writer, in English, French and Dutch. His descriptions of scenes and his thoughts are sometimes sublime. But always painfully honest.
  • He made art for 10 years before his death, and only moved on from sketching to actual painting in the latter five years.
  • He created over 900 paintings, dying at the age of 37.
  • He only sold one painting in all that time, and that came months before his death.
  • But while he no doubt was born with some talent for art, it was sheer grit that got him to develop his skills. He’d draw and later paint every day, even as he was forced through poverty to decide between a meal or paying for art supplies. He’d sometimes go for five days without food, but still paint.
  • If it were me, I’d have taken a part-time job to help tide me over, but, well, that’s why I’m here doing this, not art of any significance, and he is a legend. Discuss.
  • It wasn’t his “madness” that made him a genius, it was his work ethic, single-mindedness and naIve pursuit of his ideals that did it. His epilepsy, as it was diagnosed at the time (probably schizophrenia?) was just another obstacle in the list of those he had to overcome.
  • Although self-taught, he was extremely cognizant of the artists who came before him and was constantly absorbing lessons from the impressionists as well as classical artists.
  • Even when, in the last few months before his death, he started getting rave reviews and actually sold his only painting in his lifetime (for 400 Francs — enough for four months of living expenses) he was quick to denigrate his achievements, and praised his artistic influences rather than seeing anything in his own abilities.
  • His brother, Theo, emerges as a real hero and confidant whose selfless belief and support of his brilliant brother enabled Vincent to do all that he did.

I enjoyed this review of the book by YouTube artist Florent Forges:

No. 31 of 100 books I intend to read and review in 2019.

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Patrick Sherriff publishes a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction about Japan and featuring an original painting or sketch. He lives in Abiko, Japan, with his wife and two daughters.

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