Sunday, 21 July 2013

A Life in Letters - The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Part Two

Enclosed sketch from a letter dated 16th October 1888.

I finished The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh this week and, I think I may have found a contender for my book of the year. 

Vincent Van Gogh's letters have been fascinating to read and have really changed any preconceived ideas I may have had about the great artist. I didn't really know that much about Van Gogh before I picked up this book - I love some of his paintings, but I had the general idea that he was a madman who cut off his ear and eventually committed suicide.

Reading these letters showed me a man who was dedicated to the creation of art and who longed for close relationships and a family, but who faced obstacles (poor health and poverty) in the pursuit of both of these goals. 

The letters in the second half of the book detail Vincent's disputes with his mother and father and the strain that this puts on his relationship with his brother Theo (to whom most of the letters are addressed). The close relationship which the Van Gogh brothers clearly had is one of the elements of the letters that attracted me when I started to read the book. That their relationship is sometimes strained is understandable when you take into account that Theo more or less supported Vincent throughout his adult life by sending him money to live and buy painting equipment.

Van Gogh's father died suddenly in March 1885 and from that time Vincent's relationship with his family (his mother and sisters) seemed slightly better. However, he still felt frustrated with Theo (an art dealer) who did not seem able, or willing, to sell any of his work neither as a professional nor in an individual capacity. 

In November 1885 Vincent moved to Antwerp to attend lessens at the Antwerp Academy, although at that time he began to have the idea that a move to Paris and the ability to study the works in the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg would benefit his artistic progression. He discusses a move to Paris with Theo, but before any definite plans can be made he takes any mutual decision-making out of Theo's hands by turning up in Paris in March 1886.

The fertile Parisian period of Van Gogh's life when he came into contact with Impressionism for the first time, met many artists (including: Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac, Emile Barnard) and developed his style significantly is not well covered in his letters. He shared an apartment with Theo, so they did not need to write to each other.

Vincent's Parisian period ended in February 1888 when he arrived in Arles, Provence. These letters were some of the most interesting, for me, when Vincent is full of ideas for his artist's union (a concept he developed which was designed to provide artists with a measure of financial security), his excitement at all the subjects available to paint in the surrounding area, his improving health and artistic development, notably in his fascination with colour theory.

The final letter in the collection does not feel like a goodbye as it contains Vincent's customary order for more paints. Nevertheless, on the 27th July Vincent shot himself and died two days later in his brother's arms.

Instead of finishing this post with Vincent's death I will leave you with a quotation about technique and the creation of art (I wrote out so many little snippets as I was reading, but this is one of my favourites),
"That art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man's soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self-righteousness in religion."

If you can't wait for a trip to your local library to pick up the Letters, or if you really want to read more right now, you can do so online at this fabulous resource

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