Vincent’s Books and Letters

Vincent van Gogh_ A Life in Letters, Jacket (1)

A new edition of the letters of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) guides us through the inner world of one of the world’s great painters. It is only the latest in a series that dates back to the years immediately following the artist’s death. The editions produced under the guidance of Jo Bonger Van Gogh (widow of Theo Van Gogh) are credited with being a major factor in popularising Van Gogh’s art. Evers Yours (2009) was another collection very similar to this one but without any footnotes or illustrations of paintings. The new A Life in Letters is a version with more commentary and extra information. It also includes an index. Van Gogh corresponded primarily with members of his family and fellow artists, with some letters to critics. There were letters to his lovers and the objects of his devotion, but those were all destroyed.

A Life in Letters follows Van Gogh from the age of 27 up to days before his death in the summer of 1890. The majority of the letters are to his younger brother Theo, who was more settled and focussed than Vincent. Theo made a career in art dealing, following in the footsteps of his uncle. (Vincent also tried this but found himself to be incompatible with the niceties and deference expected of picture dealers.) The pair confided in each other and Vincent came to rely on Theo for a regular allowance after the death of their father.

The year 1880 was a critical one for Vincent. At this point his increasing involvement in art – he had always drawn and taken an interest in fine art – became central in his life. The failure of his previous vocation of being a missionary among the working class had led him from helping the poor directly to portraying the poor and thereby promoting reform through greater understanding and empathy with miners, weavers and peat cutters. His first works as an aspiring artist were depictions of workers, drawn in charcoal. He soon lavished money on materials and hiring models. His letters form such a careful record of his artistic endeavours and thoughts because he considered Theo a collaborator and also had to justify the use of the expenses and materials that Theo provided. There was genuine love and respect – and more than a little loneliness – that drove his writing but Vincent was additionally working consciously to maintain the good favour of a brother who was also his patron.

One appealing aspect of Vincent’s letters are the illustrations. He was sketch in pencil or ink the compositions of his paintings, something he had seen and a place where he lived. Sometimes the illustrations were more elaborate. In his letter of 31 July 1882, Vincent drew a pollarded willow in a gloomy landscape using ink and watercolour. The letter illustrations are included as part of the page in facsimile form, which shows how the drawings were integrated into the text. For Vincent, speech, writing and image-making were interchangeable.

Vincent’s frequent moves act as a form of punctuation in his biography. There were periods in various places in the Netherlands, England, Belgium, Paris, South France and Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died. Short editorial introductions explain the biographical circumstances during the period in question. The notes at the end explain some obscure references in the letters. Under the colour plates are extracts of the letters relating specifically to the paintings.

The move to Arles sparked a flood of art in a new quasi-Impressionist manner that came to be called Post-Impressionist. He wrote rapturously about the south, the quality of the light and the clothing of the locals. Included in this collection are letter to Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, discussing a plan to set up an artists’ commune in Arles at the Yellow House. Gauguin came but Vincent and he quarrelled over art and domestic matters. Vincent’s breakdown in a psychotic episode which caused him to cut off his ear led to him being confined to a mental asylum in St Rémy. His letters from the asylum are the most affecting and vivid as he describes his suffering and his dwindling hopes for a full recovery. The move north to Auvers-sur-Oise did not save him.

This is a fine edition of one of the great documents of Western art – somewhat more approachable than the other editions – and is warmly recommended to every reader.

Vincent's Books jacket (1)

Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him is Mariella Guzzoni’s study of Vincent as a reader and the way his responses to books shaped his outlook. Central was the Bible. Vincent had an ambivalent relationship with Christianity, no doubt in part influenced by his turbulent relationship with his father, who was a pastor. While Vincent was unstinting in his admiration for the example and teaching of Christ, he was temperamentally set against the Church – as he saw it. Perhaps it was his tendency towards activities that the Church taught as sinful – sex outside of marriage and drinking – and his passionate attachment to the physical sensual world that drove him into conflict with conventional religion. He remembered many Biblical passages by heart (he had a good memory) and considered de Kempis’s Imitation of Christ a touchstone for living a Godly life.

He was a constant reader and frequently recommended books to his brother, at the beginning mainly religious texts and later modern novels. The 1885 painting of an open Bible next to a copy of the 1884 yellow-jacketed edition Zola’s La joie de vivre (1874) presents a contrast in the might and authority of Christianity and a description of modern life. Beyond the obviousness of the symbolism, this painting is a biographical sketch of the artist. There are other oil paintings of still-lifes including books; many of these books can be identified and Guzzoni links these books with Vincent’s written comments in letters. She explains what moved Vincent about the books and authors, quoting the books and providing synopses.

Vincent frequently moved between discussion of art and literature, treating them as comparable forms of description and expression. Favourite illustrators were Herkomer, Doré and Fildes. Vincent encountered many paintings in the form of the reproduction prints. This is particularly true of the compositions of J.-F. Millet, some included in Sensier’s 1881 biography of the “painter of peasants”. Millet’s depictions of rural workers and their families were the art that was closest to Vincent’s heart. While in the asylum in St-Rémy, Vincent painted Millet’s scenes. Guzzoni discusses Vincent’s project to sell Japanese woodcuts and how he may have learned about the art form through a book by Louis Gonse.

Vincent’s favourite authors included Dickens, Zola, Daudet, Maupassant, Hugo, Michelet, Shakespeare and the de Goncourt brothers. Guzzoni has tracked down copies of the books that Vincent mentioned and sought the editions he read. These are reproduced in her book. This book presents illustrations that Vincent followed. An illustration from Alphonse Daudet’s Tartarin sur les Alpes (1885) inspired Vincent’s Artist on the Road to Tarascon (1888). Vincent visited the town of Tarascon specifically because of Dadet’s novels to draw and painted a coach there that reminded him of the stories.

Vincent’s Books covers all aspects of Vincent as a reader, book owner and maker of art featuring books and readers. The author guides readers through these aspects with a deft touch and thorough knowledge. This will become an essential book for anyone seeking detailed understanding of Vincent Van Gogh’s art and thought.


Mariella Guzzoni, Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him, Thames & Hudson, 2020, hardback, 232pp, fully col. illus., £19.95, ISBN 978 0 500 09412 9

Vincent van Gogh, Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten (eds.), Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters, Thames & Hudson/Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2020, hardback, 432pp, 85 illus., £30, ISBN 978 0 500 09424 2


© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit: