Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother (and best friend), Theo, throughout his life. Today, hundreds of these letters survive, opening a remarkable window into the artist’s mind. The letters span from 1875 to 1890, ages 22 – 37.
I bought the book above during a recent Barnes & Noble binge (don’t judge me! I have a problem) and I’m a quarter of the way through it now. The book has selected excerpts from the letters, and the editors did a good job of picking out interesting parts. Even better, it includes copies of the sketches he enclosed with the letters, and pictures of the paintings he refers to. And it’s all in chronological order, so you can watch the development of not only his art, but his thought as well.
Reading Van Gogh is peaceful, beautiful, inspiring. Why?
First, because the man himself is deeply compassionate. He sees beauty in just about everyone, souls as well as bodies. Though he’s best known today for Starry Night and sunflowers, his early work focused almost exclusively on people. And not just anyone, but the common people: laborers, potato diggers, peat cutters.
It is always very tempting to draw a figure at rest; it is very hard to express action, and in the eyes of many the effect of the former is more “attractive” than anything else.
But this “attractiveness” should not hide the truth, and the truth is that there is more toil than rest in life. So you see, my opinion about it all is particularly that I personally try to work on the truth.
But Van Gogh is no passive observer. He believes that artists should work as hard as farmers and ditch-diggers, and it shows. He works on his art all day, every day, in spite of lifelong poverty and the complete indifference of the art world. His letters touch on things like truth and beauty, but mostly they’re about craft: practicing new techniques, learning from mistakes, the logistics of finding models to draw or paint. He doesn’t talk about it, he lives it.
His work ethic is as inspiring as his kindness. Reading his letters pushes me to work harder on my own passion, the artificial intelligence. I give in too easily; I’m tired, so I don’t do as much that night. But for Van Gogh, tiredness is hardly an excuse. It’s simply the normal state of an artist hard at work.
He’s strong in other ways, too. He has a vision of what he wants to create, and he doesn’t care if other people like it or not. Indeed, he writes of people walking by as he draws in the street, mocking his work or even spitting on the paper. He takes it in stride.
My moods vary, of course, but nevertheless I have on average acquired a certain serenity. I have a strong belief in art, a certain faith that it is a powerful current that carries a man to a haven, although he himself has to put in an effort too. I think in any case that it is such a blessing when a man has found his métier, that I don’t count myself among the unfortunates.
I mean that even if I were in some considerable difficulties, and if there were dark days in my life, I would not wish to be taken for one of the unfortunates, nor would it be right.
Of course, he did endure some very dark days. The darkest was July 27, 1890, when he fired a revolver into his own chest. He died of the wound a day later; his last words were “The sadness will last forever.” His work was never appreciated in his own lifetime, nor his mental illness treated.
I wrote recently that happiness is not the goal, that the pursuit of something like truth or beauty or kindness (and perhaps they are all the same) is a surer guide than making oneself happy, or even making others happy. Nobody lived that ideal like Van Gogh. Reading his letters is a balm for the soul.