Van Gogh was also a wordsmith, his letters reveal

9th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

A new exhibition delves into the Dutch painter’s voluminous correspondence, which reveal a new side of the famously tortured artist.

Amsterdam -- Renowned Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh was also a literary giant, say researchers who have scrutinised his vast body of correspondence -- the topic of a new exhibition opening in Amsterdam on Friday.

"Van Gogh was a hero of modern art, and has also left behind a monument of literature," Axel Ruger, the director of the Van Gogh Museum, said at a press launch of the exhibition entitled Van Gogh's letters: The artist speaks.

A total of 902 letters written and received by the Impressionist painter between 1872 and 1890, the year he committed suicide at the age of 37, have recently been published in an imposing six-volume book collection and on the Internet.

The work is the fruit of 15 years of meticulous study by Dutch researchers.

To mark the feat, the letters will be on display at the Van Gogh museum until January 3 alongside works by the artist himself mentioned in his correspondence -- including his famous The Potato Eaters and Sower with Setting Sun.

The missives are rarely exhibited due to their fragile state.

"Lots of people say this is literature, and I can agree with that," Hans Luijten, a researcher at the Van Gogh museum, told AFP.

"He's a great writer. He knows how to use style. Once you start reading, you can't stop."

Analysis of the letters -- peppered with about two thousand references to books and artworks all identified by the researchers -- also allows for a more nuanced appreciation of Van Gogh than the simple tortured artist stereotype, said Luijten.

"I am afraid the myth is shattered," he said. "He was not a mad genius, indigent or unappreciated."

Art and literature are the main topics of the letters on show -- 893 written by Van Gogh and 83 addressed to him. The majority, composed in Dutch and French, are to his younger brother Theo, others to friends and fellow members of the 19th century post-Impressionist painting movement like Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.

"Van Gogh made little sketches of his works. They're beautiful to look at. They're also a step in the creative process, which is very interesting," said researcher Nienke Bakker.

"You can compare them to the actual paintings that he made the sketches of. And they are absolutely one of the remarkable things in these letters."

Added Luijtens: "He wrote about his perception of art -- his belief that it must reveal the prose in every-day life.

"He confides his thoughts, his dreams and ideas, he talks about literature, art and history, he shares anecdotes."

In one extract he talks about the southern French town of Arles, where he worked in 1888 and was smitten with local scenes, the light and the landscape.

"Colour plays an immense part in the beauty of the women here," he wrote. "I'm not saying that their forms aren’t beautiful, but that’s not where the local charm lies. It’s the broad lines of the colourful costume, worn well, and it’s the tone of the flesh more than the form."

He said he was "content with watching things go by, the way a spider in its web waits for flies."

According to Ruger, there was no barrier between painting and literature for Van Gogh as there was for many of his peers.

"There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing," the artist said in a letter to "my dear pal Bernard," dated April 19, 1888.

"On the contrary, it is as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing."

The letters indicate that Van Gogh, often thought to be little appreciated during his lifetime, was respected by his peers and received a stipend of 200 francs per month from his brother for the last six years of his life.

"A postman with a wife and five children earned only 135 francs," said Luijten.

Fellow researcher Nienke Bakker said the letters also reveal Van Gogh as meditative, energetic, determined and meticulous.

"He knew where he was going," she said. "He was very passionate."

The online version of the publication can be viewed online at

Martine Pauwels/AFP/Expatica

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