‘Vincent Van Gogh: A Life in Letters’ book review

The real man was much more complex, the son of a respectable pastor, well-read, fluent in three languages, who began his artistic career as an art dealer. His personality shines through in his letters, portions of which were being published within a couple years of his death in July 1890, widely believed to have been a suicide.

“Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters” is a beautifully produced selection of about a tenth of his surviving letters, culled by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten of the Van Gogh Museum from a complete collection published a decade ago.

Compelling though he may have been, van Gogh was a difficult character to live with, and his appearance mirrored the turmoil within. “He had a facial tic, and his hands seemed to be in constant motion,” the editors write. “People were often afraid of him, because of his wild and unkempt appearance and his intense manner of speaking.” Some of that wild and unkempt appearance may simply have been a result of poverty, but there is no doubt that van Gogh’s conviction that he was always right could make him as tiresome as a half-inebriated and wholly opinionated cousin at a Thanksgiving table. His younger brother Theo performed miracles to support him and undoubtedly, upon dying, ascended to a well-deserved place at the right hand of God for resisting the temptation to strangle the painter on numerous occasions.

“The correspondence of the great artists and idealists in the history of Western Man is mostly about money,” wrote Kenneth Rexroth, including van Gogh in that number. Even in this brief selection of his letters, money, or the lack thereof, is a constant concern. “Oh, Theo,” he writes in 1883 from The Hague, “I could make much more progress if I was a little better off.” A recurring dream throughout the correspondence is a move to the country or, if he’s already in the country, to some other country setting where a studio will be much less expensive and the food nourishing and cheap.

But despite such dreams, van Gogh needed the company of other artists, if only to argue with, and the correspondence comes particularly alive in 1886, when he joined his brother in Paris. “There is but one Paris,” he writes to an English artist friend, “and however hard living may be here and if it became worse and harder even — the French air clears up the brain and does one good — a world of good.”

Under the influence of the Impressionists whose works he saw in Paris, van Gogh abandoned the earth tones of the Barbizon-inspired Dutch painters who had influenced him in his early career for the vivid colors we now associate with his work. Visiting the studios of artists such as Gauguin, Seurat and Émile Bernard, he took his place among the radical avant-garde, though he was too independent to pursue a connection with any formal group. By 1888, when he left Paris for Arles in the south of France, seeking brighter light and cheaper lodgings, he knew himself to be one of the leaders of his artistic generation.

The summer and fall of 1888 brought forth the masterpieces for which van Gogh is famous today. His letters to Gauguin at last persuaded the artist to join him, but a complete breakdown at the end of the year landed van Gogh in an asylum. The collapse probably had a variety of causes — poor diet and malnutrition, mild seizures resembling epilepsy, the effects of sexually transmitted diseases he had contracted over the years, and his already high-strung nature. After nine months in the asylum, he wrote to Theo with an uncharacteristic hint of humor, “I’m trying to get better now like someone who, having wanted to commit suicide, finding the water too cold, tries to catch hold of the bank again.” Less than a year after writing that letter, released from the asylum and living in a small village north of Paris, his suffering ended.

The now-rusty pistol thought to have been used by van Gogh to shoot himself was sold at auction in Paris a couple of months ago for over $180,000, an indication of the fascination the artist still holds for us. A visit to almost any museum store today will yield a plethora of van Gogh-inspired items, from jigsaw puzzles and dolls to coffee mugs and silk scarves. It is the enormous popularity of van Gogh’s art that fuels our desire for a connection with the man, a man who still speaks so eloquently in these letters.

Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.

A Life in Letters

Edited by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten

Thames & Hudson. 448 pp. $39.95

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