Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters

Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers
Paul Gauguin
1888

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.

27 comments:

Bagman and Butler said...

I have always loved Van Gogh and that is an interesting take on his ear. And, yes, we will never know for sure.

Donnetta Lee said...

Hi, Josie! Yes, I also love Van Gogh. What strikes me, though, are his excellent verbal skills as evidenced by his writing. Poetic quality. And the story of the "ear"...that would really make more sense to me. Perhaps...D

The Bug said...

I just finished a book set in the Netherlands & the main characters spent some time in the Van Gogh museum. They were very impressed by the art, but kind of sad about the story of his life.

Whitney Lee said...

Wow, I've never heard that story about his ear.
Sad that he should have thought himself an artistic failure. Perhaps he gained as much joy from the creation as others have gained from the result.

Alicia said...

What an interesting post! I loved reading his letter, love the way he phrases things. The letter would be an awesome collection to have but I agree the $600 price is a bit steep.

Kathy's Klothesline said...

Wonder what he would think of the price on his letters? Sad to think that we are valued more in death than in life. I guess I am in a morbid state of mind.....

The Panorama said...

I love the paintings by Van Gogh and Gaugin. I have heard that story about Van Goghs ear! It is indeed sad that both these great artists died without experiencing the rightful honour their work deserves.

jeannette stgermain said...

I always heard that van Gogh cut off his ear himself...when I presented that at the oral part of my art exam in Holland, one of the people quizzing me started laughing. "All rumors," she responded when seeing my surprised face.

I wonder if part of Vincent's popularity comes from his letters.
There were so many gifted artists at that time, all going through a major change in their art. But people have a chance to get to know Vincent, his art and his views through his letters.

I agree, $600 is steep, but since he is so popular, there will be some people who buy it.

Thanks for this post, Jo.

Land of shimp said...

I think one of the saddest things in the world is the death of a true genius. That is always made worse when there is evidence that the person died unappreciated, in conflict, in doubt, having been given what many believe is a divine gift. Van Gogh was one such genius.

Have you ever heard of the author John Kennedy Toole, Jo? He wrote A Confederacy of Dunces , which was published eleven years after his suicide at the age of 31.

For whatever reason, Van Gogh's paintings always make me think of Toole, the title of his book (based on one of Swift's writings), and a world that is not as good to divine gifts as it should be. Toole won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

robert said...

Thank you very much for the information about the letters, because I wasn't aware of them, and love to read letters very much.

With regard to the ear...well, found meself a couple of times in a fight, mostly about a girl, leaving with both ears and at one time a small hole in the head (five stiches).

Ach...life, is indeed great. A wonderful Thursday for you.

C Hummel Kornell a/k/a C Hummel Wilson said...

Jo, Thanks for the info on the museum. Reading the letters can be a long-term project. Interesting post. Enjoy your blog.

TheChicGeek said...

Fantastic post, Jo! I love Van Gogh and this is very exciting to me. Thank you so much for the link to read the letters! I will definitely do that!
I wonder????Hmmmmmmm...I think he cut off his own ear.

Hugs :)
Kelly

the walking man said...

I like the sense of humor in the Gauguin more than the painting itself. To his credit I think that Van Gogh was ever mindful of Theo his main patron. Though I disagree with one point, just like Emily Dickinson who only saw one pf her poems published in her lifetime, Van Gogh did see ONE painting of his sold.

Leslie Avon Miller said...

His letter is a bit like a blog post - show some art to e like minded soul, talk about it, make plans...

Smalltown RN said...

Van Gogh has always intrigued me...I was unaware of his writings....thank you for drawing this to my attention...

Katy said...

This is really cool. Thank you for sharring it with us. I think Van Gogh is someone who has captured our imaginations because he seems so normal and yet so weird and also tradic at the same time.

Now to have access to his letters... just another thing to add more layers to his legend.

TomCat said...

Let's hope that our resident artist, Josie, achieves the fame she deserves while she lives. :-)

Deedee said...

This is great, Jo! I have always loved Van Gogh's art, especially the sunflowers and the starry night. It's interesting to have this tiny glimpse into his life- I'd only heard he cut off his own ear in a fit of madness and passion for an unrequited love; this version seems more likely!

TC said...

I love Van Gogh, thanks for pointing out the website and letters, that is a bit of a reach for a Christmas present isn't it?
I paint also as you know or used to.... everyone will think this is callous but read to the end... My brother always said he wants all my paintings and drawings I will give him so he will be rich when I die and I'm finally famous like Van Gogh.
The catch is my brother is 17 years older than I am so who's outliving who? ;-)

Mary Ellen said...

Ahh....Van Gogh is one of my very favorite artists!

I like the story of the ear, it sure sounds more plausible than the other stories I've heard.

Thanks for stopping by Bad Habit, I didn't know you were still reading my stuff! Thanks, and thank you for leaving a comment. I'm back...my new post explains my unplanned absence. :-)

Margie said...

I love Van Gogh!
Wonderful post....thank you Jo!

Margie:)

Meggie said...

I love Van Gogh's paintings. He was a human, with all our frailties...

nomore said...

I'v already heard that story aboout his ear...it's not new and I don't care how to die with him and where to go his letters it's reputations...I only love see his sunflowers....Always it's great his many of sunflowers...Thanks...

nomore said...

correct a bit....Love to see his sunflowers....lol....not to eat his sunflowers seed....I wonder why he had not been left his only a work as if "The Sunflower Seed"... I love to try it...just a joke....Have a nice day....

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I have always loved Van Gogh, and Gauguin even more, not only his most famous Tahitian paintings but the earlier ones from Brittany and Haiti.

But while I have read Gauguin's journal, "Noa Noa," I have never read any of Van Gogh's writings, and the letter you've shared is a miraculous window into the soul that created such magnificent artwork.

Jo said...

Hello, all my wonderful friends. Time got away on me again yesterday -- they actually want me to work when I go to work, can you even imagine???

Thank you for all your wonderful, and lovely comments. I will be over to visit you.

Cheers!
Jo

Paula Slade said...

Oh Jo, that was a very interesting post. The website is a treasure as is the letter - what a wonderful reflection of Van Gogh's "thinking process" - lots of left brain mixed with the right!!! Extremely fascinating!!! As I was reading his letter, I couldn't help but see in my minds eye so many of his works, which today are considered his classics.