Anyone who has read Dear Theo, the book of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother, which, in essence, is a kind of autobiography, knows that the popularized image of the artist as an uncouth, irrational, semi-literate wild man, stabbing at the canvas in frantic desperation like a crazed orangutan, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Though certainly emotionally troubled, Van Gogh was a thoughtful, well read and articulate individual, whose insights, observations and accounts of his personal journey as an artist are illuminating on many levels.
Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters, a number of which contain sketches, or even well developed drawings, that frequently presage his paintings or refer to the circumstances under which they were painted. Together, they form an account of the artist’s life and work that is unlike anything we have from other major artists.
There are several other collections of Van Gogh’s letters, from those specific to a particular time in the artist’s life, like Vincent Van Gogh – Letters from Provence (The illustrated letters), to more comprehensive collections like Letters of Vincent van Gogh (Touchstone), The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (Penguin Classics) and Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Bulfinch).
The latest and most deluxe collection, which should soon be available, is Vincent van Gogh — The Letters (Thames & Hudson) (details here), a multi volume set collecting all of his letters with new transcriptions and translations, reproductions of the illustrated letters and reproductions of all of the works that are referred to in the letters. It promises to be a unique study of the artist and his work, told from the artist’s point of view; but at a list price of $600 U.S. ($480 on Amazon), it’s not exactly a mass market collection.
The book set accompanies a new exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (choose a language at the upper left), called Van Gogh’s letters: the artist speaks, that showcases many of his letters from the museum’s collection and displays them with related paintings and drawings, forming an exhibition in which the artist, in effect, provides the commentary on his own work.
The exhibition runs until the 3rd of January, 2010, but it is part of a larger project, in which the letters were reexamined and photographed in preparation for both the exhibit and the book; and the museum has mounted excellent web resources that will continue after the exhibition has closed.
There is a web site devoted to the project at www.vangoghletters.org that is essentially a comprehensive, online, databased version of the book project. It can be searched by period, correspondent or place; or filtered for letters with sketches. There are also advanced search capabilities and background features on the artist, his time, the people with whom he was corresponding and more.
The letters are displayed as original text, translated, with notes and facsimile reproductions of the letters themselves, as well as reproductions of artwork (by Van Gogh and other artists) referred to in the letters.
It’s easy to miss the small links at top of the columns to the facsimile versions and artworks, and it’s worth looking through the Quick Guide they have offered to getting the most out of the resource (it pops up by default the first time you access the letters).
As if this wasn’t enough to delight lovers of Van Gogh’s work, the museum is also maintaining a wonderful Van Gogh Blog, in which letters form the artist are posted daily, giving the effect of the artist writing a daily blog post, or corresponding with you personally on a daily basis (whichever appeals to your disposition). The posts are accompanied with drawings and sketches.
The blog just started in the beginning of October, so you can catch up and then read a daily post from Van Gogh to start your day. Wonderful.
Addendum: Peacay has posted a very nice article with images and quotes from the letters on Bibliodyssey.