From page to canvas: the reading and writing of Vincent Van Gogh
PUBLISHED: 17:23 16 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:23 16 July 2020
FLORENCE HALLETT on two new books which find a fresh side to Vincent Van Gogh, exploring the artist’s literary interests and his writing and how they influenced his work.
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When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, two days after shooting himself in the chest, he was 37 years old and had been an artist for just 10 years.
Though he ended his life convinced of his own failure, his final decade had been driven by a sense of purpose that had previously eluded him.
After a good start with the art dealer Goupil & Co., which employed him in its offices in the Hague, London and Paris, Van Gogh’s growing religious obsession began to affect his work and after nearly seven years with the firm he was sacked.
After that he drifted from one job to another, working in schools and then for a bookseller, before embarking on another doomed mission to become a preacher.
Through all of this, the single thread that ran unbroken was not painting, as we might expect, but literature. His appetite for books of all sorts – novels, poetry, history and catalogues of art exhibitions and sales – was enormous, nourishing an interior life that is vividly evoked in two new books, published by Thames & Hudson.
In Vincent’s Books, Mariella Guzzoni aims “to map an artistic-intellectual journey through his favourites, in a continuous dialogue between his work as an artist and the key authors and illustrators that inspired him”.
Having learned English and French during his time with Goupil & Co., he read in four languages, including Dutch and German, “covering centuries of art and literature: hundreds of different literary works are mentioned in his letters, penned by around 200 authors,” she writes.
His favourite authors included Dickens, Zola and Victor Hugo, and the books that struck a chord with him, like the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852), and Hard Times (1854), often explored particular themes, identified by Guzzoni as “injustice and sympathy for the poor; the value of simplicity, humility and hard work; celebration of the land and nature; the examination of the human soul”.
Many of these concerns make an appearance in Van Gogh’s art, too, from the grim social realism of his first major painting, The Potato Eaters, 1885, to the many portraits, and self-portraits, of later years, in which he communicates such sympathy with his sitters.
Many – perhaps most – of his portraits include books and readers, and books appear often throughout his work, functioning in ways that range from the decorative to the deeply symbolic.
Sometimes they are a subject in themselves: the vividly coloured Piles of French Novels, October-November 1887, are as enticing as a confectioner’s window, and though Van Gogh would leave Paris in 1888, exhausted by his two years there, his painting expresses the excitement of being there, and the compulsion he felt to absorb all that he could.
In Paris, Van Gogh became friends with the neo-impressionist painter Paul Signac, and discovered Japanese prints, transformative influences that would lead him to abandon dark, muddy colours and adopt the vivid palette for which he is best known.
Still Life with a Plate of Onions, 1889, was Van Gogh’s first painting after cutting off his left ear following an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, and in it can be seen a copy of François-Vincent Raspail’s Manuel annuaire de la santé ou médecine et pharmacie domestique, a popular health manual in 19th century France.
Its presence, surrounded by his day to day things – onions, his pipe, a letter, a candle – hints at Van Gogh’s recuperation, but also his ongoing illness. It may have been to Raspail that he turned for a cure for his “fearsome” insomnia, and in a letter to his brother Theo he wrote: “I’m fighting this insomnia with a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and my mattress, and I recommend it to you if you ever have trouble sleeping”.
Van Gogh’s letters to Theo, and to a lesser extent, to friends and other family members have provided Guzzoni with her principle source, an archive of 820 surviving letters written by Van Gogh and 92 written to him, as well as other related documents. The letters were compiled and translated over 15 years by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten, who have now edited an anthology of 76 letters entitled Vincent Van Gogh: A Life in Letters.
An exhibition “Your Loving Vincent”: Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters is scheduled to take place at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in the autumn and the entire archive of the Van Gogh Letters Project can be accessed via the website vangoghletters.org.
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The anthology brings together letters from 1880-1890, the years that Van Gogh spent as an artist and are, say the book’s editors, “the window to Van Gogh’s universe”.
From them we can get a sense of the artist’s daily life, thoughts and anxieties, and as with the letters of Cezanne, they offer a detailed if perplexing impression of an artistic personality.
Of the 820 letters that survive, 651 are to his younger brother Theo, to whom he was exceptionally close. It was Theo who encouraged Van Gogh to become an artist, and he also supported his older brother financially.
Van Gogh was the eldest of six children, brought up in a middle class family in rural Brabant, where his father was a village parson. Though he had an unhappy time at school, his family was loving, and he recalled aspects of his childhood with great fondness.
In 1888, after his first major breakdown, Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “During my illness I again saw each room in the house at Zundert, each path, each plant in the garden, the views round about, the fields, the neighbours, the cemetery, the church, our kitchen garden behind – right up to the magpies’ nest in a tall acacia in the cemetery.”
Even so, the relationship between Van Gogh and his family came under strain as his behaviour became more unconventional, and things came to a head after 1876 as he became increasingly fixated on a career in the church.
For a time, he was a lay preacher in the Borinage, Belgium’s mining region, and though he was nicknamed the Christ of the Coalmine, he was nevertheless considered unsuited to the job, finding himself unemployed once again in 1879.
A letter from the summer of that year, written to Theo by his mother after a visit from Van Gogh, indicates his family’s concern about him. “He reads Dickens all day long and does nothing else, speaking only when required to answer a question, often correctly, often oddly, if only he would benefit from the good in those books; not a word about anything else – his work, his past or future – we’re not in a hurry, for he must recover fully. He eats and sleeps well and is completely at ease, though he pulls ugly faces now and then. Even so, in the circumstances it’s good that he’s here, but we have no idea what to do.”
Though Theo was for the most part the intermediary between Van Gogh and their parents, it is clear that a rift developed between the brothers at around this time, and there is a break in their correspondence of almost a year.
The letter that broke the silence, was written by Van Gogh on June 24, 1880, ostensibly to thank Theo for 50 francs that seem to have been the first of what would become regular contributions to his brother’s upkeep.
The letter is long and tortured, and he subjects himself to merciless self-scrutiny, suggesting that “I’ve more or less become some sort of impossible and suspect character in the family”, but expressing his hope that he could repair his relationship with his family, specifically with his father and with Theo.
He compares himself to a caged bird and is often despairing, but also makes clear his love of books and art, writing “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books, and I have a need continually to educate myself, to study, if you like, precisely as I need to eat my bread”.
The letter makes clear that for him, literature, art and life are inseparable, and he talks about books and writing in the same breath as mundane, day to day matters.
Writing and painting are broadly interchangeable, and he talks of portraits painted by Dickens and Shakespeare, describing Zola and Balzac as “painters of society”. For Van Gogh, Mariella Guzzoni writes, artists of all sorts were broadly united in purpose, and “only the tool in hand changed”.
By the end of 1888, Van Gogh had been living in Provence for nearly a year, and had moved into the Yellow House at Arles, which he painted with great fondness, sending a copy of the picture to Theo. In December he suffered a mental breakdown that caused him to cut off his own ear, and he was admitted to hospital where he stayed until early January. Further attacks of illness followed, and he eventually admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital at the nearby village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he would remain for a year, joking darkly to his sister that “Every day I take the remedy that the incomparable Dickens prescribes against suicide. It consists of a glass of wine, a piece of bread and cheese and a pipe of tobacco”.
Despite his poor health, the last two years of Van Gogh’s life included spells of enormous productivity and he continued to read at an impressive rate, revisiting comforting old favourites and making ambitious plans to tackle new territory. In May 1890, he left Saint-Rémy for the village of Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, where Theo had found lodgings for his brother and a doctor willing to supervise him. The doctor was Paul Gachet, himself an amateur artist and a friend to many others, including Pissarro, Renoir and Cézanne, and his influence seems to have spurred Van Gogh to work. Perhaps it was Dr Gachet who suggested he might ask Theo for Charles Bargue’s Exercices au fusain (Exercises in Charcoal), so that he might “keep on studying proportions and the nude”. His immersion in his work was misleading, and though by June, both patient and doctor dared to think that Van Gogh might be cured, Van Gogh shot himself on July 27, 1890, his death as unexpected as it was protracted.
Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him, by Mariella Guzzoni (£19.95 hardback), and Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters, by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten (£30 hardback) are published by Thames & Hudson
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