Exhibition ‘Your Loving Vincent’: Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters
Discover Vincent van Gogh’s finest letters in our 2020 autumn exhibition.
5 things you need to know about
Vincent van Gogh was a passionate letter writer. He had a strong need to share his ideas and feelings. After Vincent, his brothers and his sisters had all left home, they often wrote to each other and to their parents.
Many of Vincent’s letters have survived, and even some of the replies. The total correspondence features 902 letters: 819 by Van Gogh and 83 to him. By far the most letters are to his brother Theo, his best friend and loyal supporter. Theo kept Vincent’s letters with great care. Vincent was less careful – he threw lots of letters away, or burned them.
Van Gogh actually wrote a lot more letters, he probably wrote more than 2,000 in total. We can make this estimation thanks to comments in the letters such as ‘I wrote to … today’, and ‘I just received a letter from…’.
Vincent was a Dutch artist, but he wrote about a third of his letters in French. At the time, that was the most important international language. Children of the middle classes were expected to learn French. Van Gogh could speak French from an early age.
Yet it was only after he moved to Paris, in 1886, that he completely switched to writing in French. Also to his brother Theo and his sister Willemien: ‘If you’ll let me write to you in French’, he writes to Willemien, ‘that will really make my letter easier for me’.
Vincent came to see France as his second home. He wanted to make a name for himself as an artist there. Vincent usually ended his letters to his brother with ‘tout à toi, Vincent’ (ever yours, Vincent). He signed his paintings with ‘Vincent’, because French people had difficulty pronouncing ‘Van Gogh’.
Van Gogh’s letters are also special because of the sketches he added to them. He called them ‘scratches’. They were meant to give Theo or an artist friend an idea of what he was working on, or of what a drawing or painting looked like. Nowadays, we’d send a photo by WhatsApp or email.
The letters contain more than 240 sketches. They are often quick sketches made in pen, but sometimes more detailed, colour drawings. Vincent often wrote the colours on his black-and-white sketches, to give an idea of the colour of the painting. Like with Field with Irises near Arles: he wrote the colours ‘blue’, ‘grey-green’, ‘yellow’ and ‘purple’ on the sketch.
In addition to letters, Vincent also sent drawings and paintings to Theo. The brothers had agreed that in exchange for providing Vincent with a monthly allowance, Theo would receive all of his artworks. And that Theo would then try to sell them. Vincent sometimes packed the paintings in a box, but he often just sent them rolled up.
Vincent himself also received all sorts by post. Good painting materials weren’t available in Arles, so Theo sent Vincent’s orders of canvas, brushes and paint tubes from Paris. ‘I must warn you that very shortly I’ll need a big order for colours for the autumn, which I believe is going to be absolutely marvellous’, he wrote in September 1888. In April of that year, he had already ordered more than 100 paint tubes from his brother!
Vincent and Theo trusted each other deeply, they even wrote to each other about intimate matters. That was uncommon as in the 19th century, most people avoided writing about anything too personal.
In September 1884, Vincent shared something that needed to stay a secret. ‘Something has happened, Theo, which most of the people here know or suspect nothing about — nor may ever know, so keep as silent as the grave about it — but which is terrible. Miss Begemann has taken poison’.
Margot Begemann was Vincent’s 12-year-older neighbour. Vincent was planning to marry her. Margot attempted suicide by taking poison. She was desperate, because her family disapproved of her relationship with Vincent. ‘I was suddenly suspicious and said — have you taken something by any chance? She screamed “Yes!”’.
Vincent described what happened next in detail to his brother. It had a huge impact on him, and he had to get it off his chest. Margot thankfully survived, but it did mean the end of their relationship: she moved to live with a doctor she knew in Utrecht, and Vincent eventually moved to Antwerp.