The Letters of Vincent van Gogh


Most unusually among major painters, Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) was also an accomplished writer. His letters provide both a unique self-portrait and a vivid picture of the contemporary cultural scene. Van Gogh emerges as a complex but captivating personality, struggling with utter integrity to fulfil his artistic destiny. This major new edition, which is based on an entirely new translation, reinstating a large number of passages omitted from earlier editions, is expressly designed to reveal his inner journey as ...
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Most unusually among major painters, Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) was also an accomplished writer. His letters provide both a unique self-portrait and a vivid picture of the contemporary cultural scene. Van Gogh emerges as a complex but captivating personality, struggling with utter integrity to fulfil his artistic destiny. This major new edition, which is based on an entirely new translation, reinstating a large number of passages omitted from earlier editions, is expressly designed to reveal his inner journey as much as the outward facts of his life. It includes complete letters wherever possible, linked with brief passages of connecting narrative and showing all the pen-and-ink sketches that originally went with them. Despite the familiar image of Van Gogh as an antisocial madman who died a martyr to his art, his troubled life was rich in friendships and generous passions. In his letters we discover the humanitarian and religious causes he embraced, his fascination with the French Revolution, his striving for God and for ethical ideals, his desperate courtship of his cousin, Kee Vos, and his largely unsuccessful search for love. All of this, suggests De Leeuw, demolishes some of the myths surrounding Van Gogh and his career but brings hint before us as a flesh-and-blood human being, an individual of immense pathos and spiritual depth. Perhaps even more moving, these letters illuminate his constant conflicts as a painter, torn between realism, symbolism and abstraction; between landscape and portraiture; between his desire to depict peasant life and the exciting diversions of the city; between his uncanny versatility as a sketcher and his ideal of the full-scale finished tableau. Since Van Gogh received little feedback from the public, he wrote at length to friends, fellow artists and his family, above all to his brother Theo, the Parisian art dealer, who was his confidant and mainstay. Along with his intense powers of visual imagination, Vincent brought to the
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Van Gogh was 37 and on the edge of fame when, in 1890, he shot and killed himself. Unable to sell his brilliant canvases, he was utterly dependent upon his younger brother, Theo, to whom most of the letters collected here are written. Anguished by loss of faith after planning to be a priest, disappointed in several once-promising love affairs, he was also so tormented by poverty that one of his artistic breakthroughs occurred when, without proper colors, he brushed in "a garden, green by nature, but painted without actual green, nothing but Prussian blue and chrome yellow." Whether van Gogh's suicide was the inevitable culmination of depression, or due to epilepsy or to professional frustration (he is remembered, beyond his pictures, for razoring off part of his ear), his letters reveal that the end was long contemplated. In 1878, he had written to Theo, "It must be good to die in the knowledge that one has done some truthful work." By the time he put a hole in his chest, he knew he had done that. The letters, edited by de Leeuw, the director of the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, echo the artist's passionate voice, and the connective narrative excerpts other letters that readers may regret not having in full. Integral to the letters are 49 pen-and-ink sketches that evidence van Gogh's development into a creative force. Although each letter possesses an inherent pathos because one knows what lies ahead, van Gogh's epistolary appeal goes beyond melodrama. Often inspired by books despite being a limner of peasant life and the land, he once wrote, "How beautiful Shakespeare is, who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy." (Sept.)
Library Journal
This popular edition of selected Van Gogh letters is based on the expanded four-volume Dutch edition De Brieven van Vincent van Gogh (Van Gogh Museum and SDU, 1990). The translations read smoothly and are more elegant than those found in other editions. Covering an 18-year period, this selection of letters aims to capture the spirit of Van Gogh's life rather than offer up yet another chronicle of facts and opinions. Following the beginning section of early letters, sections are organized chronologically by the geographic locale where Van Gogh lived and worked. Editor De Leeuw provides thoughtful explanations that link many letters and introduce each section. Several reproductions of Van Gogh's drawings accompany appropriate letters. As is often the case with one-sided collections of correspondence, one often wishes that letters sent to Van Gogh were as readily available as his responses to them. For larger art collections.P. Steven Thomas, Illinois State Univ., Normal
Kirkus Reviews
A new translation of van Gogh's ebullient letters (including some never before published), edited by the director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, revealing the painter to be an intensely observant and passionate man, struggling to understand and overcome the episodes of mental illness that so damaged his life.

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140446746
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1998
  • Series: Penguin Classics Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 187,090
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Table of Contents

The Letters of Vincent van GoghAbout This Edition
Translator's Note
Biographical Outline

Early Letters
Ramsgate and Isleworth
The Borinage
The Hague
The Hague, Drenthe and Nuenen
From Nuenen to Antwerp


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