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To the average person, van Gogh is the apotheosis of the mad genius, but his letters, written between 1872 and 1890, mostly to his brother, Theo, tell a different story. To be sure, he found it difficult to submit to an office job. He refused to become a baker, as his sister suggested, or a preacher, which was his father's line of work. And although his letters are filled with conviction about painting, he felt guilty throughout his life for depending on Theo and periodically lapsed into despondency, worrying, as do many artists, that his labors might ultimately be futile: "At the moment I'm working on some plum trees, yellowy white, with thousands of black branches. I am using up an enormous amount of canvases and paints, but I hope it's not a waste of money for all that." Doubt was dispelled by his earnest love of nature and art. It's strange, nonetheless, to read a chipper description of an orchard, only to discover that a few days after the letter was written van Gogh was stalking his good friend Gauguin with a razor blade. Despite his efforts to keep working, the attacks increased in frequency and severity. One can sense the fear of imminent collapse gnawing away at his exuberance. Either in the grip of another episode, or fearing it, van Gogh committed suicide in July 1890. His heartbroken brother died less than a year later.
The hardest thing for an artist, van Gogh noted in one letter, is to capture "the true and the essential." These letters reveal the extraordinary personal struggle that lay behind his triumphant ability to do so.
Ramsgate and Isleworth
The Hague, Drenthe and Nuenen
From Nuenen to Antwerp