It is difficult to believe that, although Vincent van Gogh's paintings are virtually priceless today, his art went unrecognized during his lifetime. Van Gogh produced a phenomenal number of extraordinary works in the last decade of his life. Throughout this period, Van Gogh also wrote hundreds of letters, mostly to his brother Theo van Gogh, who acted as his patron and art dealer. Van Gogh also corresponded with family members including his mother and sister, Wilhelmina, and fellow artists such as Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard. His letters, more than seven hundred in all, were collected by Theo's wife, Johanna, and published in 1914 in several volumes.
Although Vincent van Gogh was well versed in literature and art history, as an artist, he was largely self-taught, and, to judge from his early works, hardly a natural-born draftsman. The creative outpouring of his last few years, during which his many famous paintings were created, is best understood in the context of the many struggles that preceded them. These struggles are documented in excruciating detail in his letters, which testify to his dogged pursuit of technical skills such as figure modeling and perspective. At the same time, the letters show the evolution of his theoretical principles. Van Gogh's astute observations about such artistic role models as Millet and Delacroix certainly do not sound like a lunatic's ravings. Yet this sophistication is always juxtaposed against a strong work ethic inspired by the humbler occupations.
A painter really ought to work as hard as, say, a shoemaker... I plow my canvases as [the peasants] do their fields."
- by Vincent van Gogh
The selection of excerpts from his letters, by turns contemplative and ornery, passionate and elegiac, aims to convey a fuller sense of this iconic artist's odyssey. Van Gogh's own words, illustrated by his own hand, belie his reputation as a maniac and do greater justice to his exuberant and joyous artwork than the caricature that has dominated popular opinion for so long.
Vincent van Gogh's letters are one of the greatest joys of modern literature, not only for the inherent beauty of the prose, and the sharpness of the observations, but also for their portrait of the artist as a man wholly and selflessly devoted to the work he had to set himself to. Van Gogh's letters are a journal, a meditative autobiography. Anyone familiar with the drawings and paintings Van Gogh produced during his short, intense life will discover that the letters highlight many facets of his personality that are suggested by his works as a visual artist.
Below is a collection of more than 100 of the most poignant and revealing of these letters. Van Gogh suffered from frequent mental breakdowns, particularly in the latter part of his life. The letters capture a mind never quite at ease and a soul that suffered from acute loneliness and self-doubt. But they also reveal his staggering artistic genius, the evolution of his theoretical principles, his formidable intellect and strong work ethic, and his deep connection to the natural world around him. In many of the letters, Van Gogh describes, in painstaking detail and beautiful prose, the progress of his work. He would often include a sketch of paintings he had already begun or musings on works he hoped someday to create.