Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers
This wonderful painting is a picture of Van Gogh as he was painting his sunflowers, done by his close friend, Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh and Gauguin had a love/hate friendship, and there is one theory that Gauguin -- in a fit of rage -- was responsible for cutting off Van Gogh's ear. As the story goes, Gauguin had been staying with Van Gogh in his "Yellow House" in Arles, but the two men had an argument and Van Gogh threw a glass at Gauguin. Gauguin left the house with his baggage and his sword, and the argument spilled out onto the street. As they fought, Gauguin took a swipe at Van Gogh in self-defence, and accidentally cut off Van Gogh's ear. Gauguin then threw his sword into the in the Rhône River, and Van Gogh proceeded to a bordello, where he presented his ear to a prostitute and then staggered home. Apparently both men made a pact to keep the truth a secret. It's an interesting story, and I suppose no one will ever know for sure.
There is a six-volume edition of Van Gogh's letters to his family and friends, that has just been published, "Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters". There are 819 letters altogether, the first being written when he was 19 years old, and the last -- which was found in his pocket when he died -- written when he was 37. Can you even imagine how wonderful it would be to read through his own account of his life? The publication costs $600, so I don't think I will bother to put in on my Christmas wish list. However, there is a website at the Van Gogh Museum, where all the letters are published, and you can choose the language in which you prefer to read them. Several of the letters have sketches on them as well. Here is a letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin, written in 1888.
My dear friend Gauguin
Thanks for writing to me again, my dear friend, and be assured that since my return I’ve thought about you every day. I only stayed in Paris for three days, and as the Parisian noise &c. made a pretty bad impression on me I judged it wise for my head to clear off to the countryside – otherwise I would have swiftly run round to your place. And it gives me enormous pleasure that you say that you liked the portrait of the Arlésienne based rigorously on your drawing. I tried to be respectfully faithful to your drawing while taking the liberty of interpreting through the medium of a colour the sober character and the style of the drawing in question. It’s a synthesis of an Arlésienne if you like, as syntheses of Arlésiennes are rare, take it as a work by you and me, like a summary of our months of work together. To do it I, for my part, paid with another month of illness, but I also know that it’s a canvas that will be understood by you, me and just one or two others, as we’d like it to be understood. Here my friend Dr Gachet came to it completely after two, three hesitations and says: ‘how difficult it is to be simple’. Right – I’m going to emphasize the thing even more by etching it, that thing, then that’s enough. Whoever wants it can have it.
Have you also seen the olive trees? Now I have a portrait of Dr Gachet with the deeply sad expression of our time. If you like something like you were saying about your Christ in the Garden of Olives, not destined to be understood, but anyhow up to that point I follow you, and my brother clearly grasps this nuance. I also have a cypress with a star from down there. A last try – a night sky with a moon without brightness, the slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque projected shadow of the earth – a star with exaggerated brightness, if you like, a soft brightness of pink and green in the ultramarine sky where clouds run. Below, a road bordered by tall yellow canes behind which are the blue low Alpilles, an old inn with orange lighted windows and a very tall cypress, very straight, very dark.
On the road a yellow carriage harnessed to a white horse, and two late walkers. Very romantic if you like, but also ‘Provençal’ I think. I’ll probably make etchings of this one, and of other landscapes and subjects, reminiscences of Provence, then I’ll look forward to giving you an ensemble, a rather deliberate and studied summary. My brother says that Lauzet, who’s doing the lithographs after Monticelli, liked that head of the Arlésienne. So you’ll understand that having arrived in Paris a little confused I haven’t yet seen any of your canvases. But soon I hope to return there for a few days. Very pleased to learn from your letter that you’re returning to Brittany with De Haan. It’s highly likely that – if you allow me – I’ll come for a month to join you there to do a seascape or two, but especially to see you and make the acquaintance of De Haan. Then we’ll try to do something deliberate and serious, as it would probably have become if we’d been able to continue down there.
Look, an idea which will perhaps suit you. I’m trying to do studies of wheat like this, however I can’t draw it – nothing but ears, blue-green stems, long leaves like ribbons, green and pink by reflection, yellowing ears lightly bordered with pale pink due to the dusty flowering. A pink bindweed at the bottom wound around a stem. On it, on a very alive and yet tranquil background, I would like to paint portraits. It is greens of different quality, of the same value, in such a way as to form a green whole which would by its vibration make one think of the soft sound of the ears swaying in the breeze. It’s not at all easy as a colour scheme.
Van Gogh would be amazed at the interest in his work and his life. He did not live to see any of his wonderful paintings sold, and died believing he was a failure. I just hope he would not consider it voyeuristic for the world to be interested in his writings as well. The letters and accompanying illustrations and maps were published as a joint project of the Huyegens Institute and the Van Gogh Museum, and I believe they were treated with the respect and reverence they deserve.