“I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.”
And so the artist did paint capturing his dreams, thoughts, hopes, and melancholies onto the canvas. But what many are not aware of is that behind the beauty of Van Gogh’s landscapes, portraits and still-lives, the artist deeply examined the emotional and intellectual context of his art through the written word.
Currently on view at the Royal Academy of Art in London is a landmark exhibition of work of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1893) alongside his tremendous written correspondences. Over 35 original letters which have rarely been exhibited to the public due to their fragility are now on display together with 65 paintings and 30 drawings. The coupling of Van Gogh’s painting with his letters reveals how closely the two art forms were interlocked for the artist.
Without taking away importance from Van Gogh’s paintings, the exhibition uses the artist’s letters as a starting point. His letters were often used as written “sketches” to signal a work in progress or a completed work. Actual works are referenced as are those pertaining to other artists with the majority of the letters written to his brother Theo, an art dealer who supported Vincent throughout his very challenging artistic career. Letters were also written to other family members such as his sister Wilhelmina and others were written to artists such as Anton van Rappard, Emile Bernard, and Paul Gauguin during various phases of his life.
The exhibition incorporates the latest edition of the artist’s correspondence: Vincent van Gogh- The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition. The new edition is the result of 15 years of scholarship by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker of the Van Gogh Museum. His letters, like his art, are often excruciatingly emotional. They reflect a deep pondering over the questions of art, nature, and literature. They are, undoubtedly, great works of literature.
Van Gogh was born in the South of Netherlands in 1853 and was the second of six children by a Protestant pastor. During his early years, the artist worked for a firm of art dealers in The Hague and in London before he became a missionary worker. His artistic career began when he was 27 years old and spanned only ten years until his suicide in 1890. Mostly self-taught, he produced more than 800 paintings and 1,200 drawings during his short career. He compulsively wrote eloquent letters expressing his hard-working and exceptionally sensitive nature and most importantly, his great intellect. Regardless of his melancholic nature and his eventual suicide, his writings express of love for life.
“And if my illness recurred you would excuse me, I still love art and life very much.”- To Theo Van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Auvers-sur-Oise, Wednesday, 2 July 1890
“Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.”- (As quoted in Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing (2006) by Larry Chang, p. 483)
“For me, the work is an absolute necessity. I cannot put it off; I don’t care for anything else; that is to say, the pleasure in something else ceases at once, and I become melancholy when I cannot go on with my work. I feel then as the weaver does when he sees that his threads have got tangled, the pattern he had on the loom has gone to the deuce, and his exertion and deliberation are lost.” –Letter to Theo Van Gogh.