Vincent van Gogh

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

“There may be a great fire in your soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it, all that passers-by can see is a little smoke coming out of the chimney as they walk on.”

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh are collected letters Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) wrote to his beloved brother, Theo. They cover the period from 1873 to right before van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. We’re preconditioned to expect madness, but van Gogh is a kind, self-aware, inspired, and passionate individual.

Remarkable is his verbal rendition of his artist’s eye for nature and an innate understanding of color and flowers.

The artist always comes up against resistance from nature in the beginning, but if he really takes her seriously he will not be put off by that opposition, on the contrary, it is all the incentive to win her over—at heart, nature and the honest draughtsman are as one.

Ronald de Leeuw, the former director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, edited the collection and throughout adds dimension and context, turning letters into a man in full:

[Van Gogh’s] decision to become an artist was unconditional. He accepted the social implications even when madness was the price. […] Throughout his life, admittedly, his letters bear witness to a man possessed, frequently agitated, enraged, dejected, obsessed, but never deranged, or emotionally or intellectually unstable. We learn about his crises after the event – through the analyses he himself was wont to give of them.

The privacy—perhaps isolation is a better term—of mental illness and the need to hide it from others, especially loved ones, are indeed present but obscure.

Unlike, for example, the Diary of great ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose deterioration into schizophrenia manifests in words, van Gogh demonstrates a man in control. A reader can easily forget how deeply he suffered or easily mistake his impassioned and brilliant articulation for stability.1

Self Portrait - Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
“Self-Portrait.” Vincent van Gogh. This self-portrait is widely thought to be his last, painted in 1889. It hangs in the Musee D’Orsay. Learn more.

For a sensitive reader, the signs of depth and distinction of this remarkable man abound. His longing for meaning, solace in long walks, and how he took to them, like so many writers and artists, as a way of seeing and achieving communion with the world.

Do go on doing a lot of walking & keep up your love of nature, for that is the right way to understand art better & better. Painters understand nature and love her & teach us to see.

[…]

Did I write to you about the storm I watched not long ago? The sea was yellowish, especially close to the shore. On the horizon a streak of light and above it immensely large dark grey clouds, from which one could see the rain coming down in slanting streaks. The wind blew the dust from the little white path among the rocks into the sea and shook the hawthorn bushes in bloom and the wallflowers that grow on the rocks.

Van Gogh, a painter of exquisite vision, describing something in words reminds me of something Mary Oliver wrote in Upstream: “Sunflowers themselves are far more wonderful than any words about them.” Van Gogh would have exalted; sunflowers were his favorite flowers.

Vincent Van Gogh - The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
“Farm Near Auvers” by Vincent van Gogh, one of the two canvasses he left unfinished when he died in 1890. Learn more.

Throughout his letters and life, van Gogh was a deeply religious person. At one point he tried his hand at the clergy. His religion, however, was highly spiritual and intrinsically felt, invoking God’s presence and meaning more often than he demonstrated academic knowledge of texts.

But I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself. But you must love with sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand Him more, better and yet more. That will lead to God, that will lead to an unshakeable faith.

Van Gogh sought the warmth of grace, the eternal. Lines like “The need is for nothing less than the infinite and the miraculous” and “Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself deeply in the worldly mire” speak to his internal convictions and, maybe, need for self-direction.

From van Gogh’s uncompromising morality, his grasp of sorrow and joy, and his unique sight of the world – in words not paint—these letters reveal an extraordinary man anew.2

Vincent Van Gogh age 19. Featured in Van Gogh's "Letters of Vincent Van Gogh" in the Examined Life Library.
Vincent van Gogh, age 19. Photograph by Jacobus Marinus Wilhelmus de Louw.

Read more on seeking the eternal in Henri David Thoreau’s deeply reflective journal of his week spent drifting up the Concord River. On the harsh implications of the artistic life, I recommend John Steinbeck’s Working Days Journals of the Grapes of Wrath.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh is one of the most precious and surprisingly human expressions of self I’ve ever read. In honesty, resounding doubts, and occasionally sublime happiness, van Gogh carries us into dulling clarity and confusion that will feel familiar yet unexpressed.