Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh

A fascinating collection of curated letters from Vincent to brother Theo, who kept him alive by sending money each month to cover all his housing, food, paint expenses. There’s apparently a movie that’s been further distilled from this book, which I have zero interest in seeing. Through the magic of the internet, I was able to look at images of the paintings Vincent describes in his letters, phenomenal. The inclusion of a bold red signature in a particular work because he wanted a tinge of red in the water, the reluctance to sign his work, the reluctance to read what people are saying about his work as it becomes known, like this article by Aurier – for which Vincent thanks the author with a sketch but requests that Aurier doesn’t write about him again.
It’s heartbreaking to read the extreme poverty of Van Gogh living in a world where his paintings are some of the priciest around, where his sunflowers have been printed to death on posters and t-shirts. He starts out begging for money for books, and once he gets painting, is always asking for more for paints, canvas. His greatest wish is that someone give him money to cover the physical costs of the art with just a tad added for his own labor. The “story” unfolds only from Vincent’s side, but you can hear the urgings of his family to give it up and find something respectable to do (engraver, bookkeeper, carpenter’s apprentice, baker, barber, librarian). You see him struggling with confidence (“perhaps you will see some day that I too am an artist, though I do not know beforehand what I can do; I hope I shall be able to make some drawings in which there is something human”).
As he progresses from theologian to artist, he leaves crumbs for us, telling us books he’s reading about color (Delacroix) and perspective (Cassagne), growing close to other artists to share thoughts (Mauve) who then ditch him when he starts living with a pregnant former prostitute whom he takes care of. He talks endlessly of the peasants he sketches, landscapes he captures, his struggle to perfect his drawing, his battle with inferior paint that is yet too expensive. Later Gauguin comes to stay with him (is there for the ear-incident, in fact), they dream of having a collective to share the expenses of the impressionist painters, to have famous ones (Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro) donate funds from the sale of their artwork to nourish those who struggle to be recognized. He talks of becoming a printer in Paris in order to see how they do something technically, waxes rhapsodically over Japanese prints (“extreme clearness”, “simple as breathing”).
The nature of the book itself is a bit puzzling – who did the translation from Dutch/French to English? Brother Theo died only six months after Vincent and his widow Jo found the stash of letters, got them printed in 1927 as three volumes totaling 1670 pages. The manuscripts passed to her son V.W. on Johanna’s death, and V.W. gave Irving Stone his blessing to cull the work down to a manageable 500 pages. I found the work incredibly interesting and dogeared too many pages, but of course I must include these bits.
In the beginning, Vincent struggles to teach and find work as a clergyman (emulating his father), writes about his faith (“I yearn towards the Bible”), gardening, and how he’s taken up drawing again but then stopped. “Perhaps I shall take it up again some day or other.” Working in Ramsgate as a teacher, we get a foreboding of V’s moods:

These are really very happy days I spend here, but still it is a happiness and quiet which I do not quite trust. Man is not easily content: now he finds things too easy and then again he is not contented enough.

I have been very busy today with a great many little nothings, but they belong to my duty; if one had no sense of duty, who would be able to collect his thoughts at all? The feeling of duty sanctifies everything and binds things together, making one large duty out of the many little ones.

A Jewish bookseller who procures me the Latin and Greek books I want has a large number of prints which I can choose from very cheaply. I have taken some for my little room to give it the right atmosphere, for that is necessary to get new thoughts and new ideas.

I have such a craving for thousands of things, and if I had money I should perhaps soon spend it on books, and other things, which I can very well do without, and which would divert my attention from the strictly necessary studies. Even now, it is not always easy to fight against distractions, and if I had money it would be worse still. And there may come a time in which we can spend our money better than on the best books – when we shall perhaps have a household of our own.

What moulting time is for the birds – the time when they change their feathers – so adversity or misfortune is the difficult time for human beings. One can stay in it, in that time of moulting, one can also come out of it renewed, but anyhow it must not be done in public, and it is not at all amusing.

… admit also that a love of books is as sacred as the love of Rembrandt, and I think even the two complete each other… My God, how beautiful Shakespeare is! Who is mysterious like him? His language and style can indeed be compared to an artist’s brush, quivering with fever and emotion. But one must learn to read, as well as one must learn to see and learn to live.

I wish all people had what I begin to acquire gradually: the power to read a book without difficulty in a short time, and to keep a strong impression of it. It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitation, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.

Mauve takes offence at my having said, ‘I am an artist’ – which I do not take back, because that word included, of course, the meaning: always seeking without absolutely finding. As far as I now, that word means: ‘I am seeking, I am striving, I am in with all my heart.’ It is just the contrary from saying, ‘I know it, I have found it.’

More and more it seems to me that the most practical and direct way is not to look too far or aspire too high. When I think of London, that is an animating thought, but the question is only: Is it now to be done? Is this the right moment? Is it not better, in fact, to say frankly to myself: You have not matured enough; what you mean is not yet comprehensible enough to others; they are more or less frightened of it. Go on still, work faithfully and firmly after nature; seek it once more on the heath or in the dunes… I do not doubt that my work has its faults, but neither do I doubt that I am not quite wrong, and that I shall succeed, be it only after long seeking. And I do believe that it is dangerous to look for success elsewhere.
I think there is a difference between art appreciation today and that of earlier years. There used to be more passion both in the making and in the judging of works of art. This or that work was chosen deliberately; one side or the other was energetically taken. There was more animation. now I think there is a spirit of capriciousness and satiety; people are in general more lax. Some time ago I wrote that I had noticed there was since Millet a marked decline, as though the summit had been reached and decadence had begun. This has its influence on everybody and everything.

The whole art business is rotten – I doubt if these enormous prices, even for masterpieces, will remain… Is this of great influence on artists? Not at all; for the greatest of them for the most part profited but very little from these excessive prices in their last period when they were already famous.

Hardly a day passes now that I do not produce one thing or another. I cannot but make progress; each drawing one completes, each study one paints, is a step forward.

Today is almost a spring day. I think in the country they will have heard the lark sing for the first time. This morning I took a long walk alone all through the city, in the park, along the boulevards. There was something of resurrection in the atmosphere, yet what depression there is in business and among the people!… it is hard for anybody who must earn his bread by his work, the more so because we can foresee that it will get worse and worse from year to year.

To succeed one must have ambition, and ambition seems absurd. It depresses me to t hink that even when it’s a success, painting never pays back what it costs. What will come of it I don’t know; i should like above all to be less of a burden to you; and that is not impossible in the future, for I hope to make such progress that you will be able to show my stuff boldly without compromising yourself. Then I shall take myself off somewhere down South, to get away from the sight of so many painters that as men disgust me. (LLL- he’s in Paris)

Now, for us who work with our brains, our one and only hope of not being too soon done for is this artificial eking-out by an up-to-date regimen of health rigorously applied; but I for one do not do everything I ought. And a bit of cheerfulness is better than all the other remedies. As for drinking too much – if it is bad, I can’t tell. Look at Bismark, who is in any case very practical and very intelligent: his little doctor told him that he was drinking too much, and that all his life he had overworked his stomach and his brain. Bismarck immediately stopped drinking. After that he got run down and couldn’t pick up.

Since seven o’clock this morning I have been sitting in front of a clipped round bush of cedar growing amid grass. A row of bushes in the background are oleanders raving mad; the blasted things are flowering so riotously they may well get locomotor ataxia. They are loaded with fresh flowers, and heaps of faded flowers as well, and their green is continually renewing itself in fresh, strong jets, apparently inexhaustibly. A funereal cypress stands above them, and some small figures are sauntering along a rose-colored path.

I live soberly because I have a chance to; I drank in the past because I did not know how to do otherwise. Deliberate sobriety leads to a state of being in which thought, if you have any, moves more readily. It is like painting in grey or in colours. I am in fact going to paint more in grey. I have a feeling rather like the one I had when I was younger, when I was very sober – too sober, they used to say, I guess.

Although copying may be the old system, that makes absolutely no difference to me. What I am seeking, and why it seems good to me to make copies, I shall try to tell you: We painters are always asked to compose of ourselves, and not to be compositors only. So be it. But in music it is not like that, and if some person or other plays Beethoven he adds his personal interpretation; in music, and more especially in singing, the interpretation of the performer is something, and it is not a hard and fast rule that only the composer shall play his own composition. I pose the black and white of Delacroix or Millet before me as a subject and improvise colour on it, not, you understand, altogether as myself, but searching for memories of their pictures – the memory, ‘the vague consonance of colours which are at least right in feeling’; that is my own interpretation.