Van Gogh’s Letters

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Sketch by van Gogh in a letter to Émile Bernard, March 1888, Thaw Collection, The Pierpont Morgan Library.

As anyone knows who has ever dipped into Van Gogh’s correspondence with his brother Theo, his letters aren’t just art historical documents. He talks into your ear. Each of the letters are little gems of lyrical, intimate and philosophical writing. Warm and supremely lucid, full of fine description and close attention to his own creative process, they’re proof it wasn’t his madness that made Van Gogh a great artist. It was his sanity. The L.A. poet Charles Bukowski had a nice line:

“Van Gogh, of course, was never insane. He simply realized the world was elsewhere.”

About 800 of Van Gogh’s letters survive. Of those, 22 were written to the painter Emile Bernard, who was fifteen years younger. They cover a period of roughly two years between December 1887, a few months before Van Gogh departed for Arles in the vain hope of forming a collective paradise with a few like minded painters, and November 1889, eight months before he took his own life. I’ve spent some time lately reading a collection of Van Gogh’s half of their correspondence, Vincent Van Gogh: Painted with Words. (Bernard’s half, his letters to Van Gogh, have not survived.) This morning I’m headed out to a preview of a show opening this Friday at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan that, like the book, combines the letters with drawings and paintings from the same years.

In the letters Van Gogh talks to Bernard about religion, the cost of living, weather, sex. (They had a shared interest in brothels.) But the main conversation is about art, about where it is that art must go next. Like Van Gogh and Gauguin, Bernard was searching for a way to restore to painting the weight and stability he felt the Impressionists had robbed it of. The same problem had impelled Seurat towards pointillism, a solution that Bernard rejected. Instead he had moved into what would eventually be called cloisonnism, building his pictures out of sturdy compartments of color partitioned within heavy outlines that were the antithesis of the Impressionists’ feathery modeling. Van Gogh’s art would be described with the same term, and largely by way of him cloisonnism would later become fundamental to the Modernist reconstruction of the painted surface.

The letters are full of that warmth that is everywhere in Van Gogh’s correspondence. At one point he’s advising Bernard not to intensify a spat with the pointilliste Paul Signac, but to take stock — “reflection making us see in ourselves, when there’s a falling out, as many faults on our own side as in our adversary…” (You hear the voice here of the man who had tried for a while to preach the Gospels.) Van Gogh had a dream that, whatever their different directions as artists, painters should support one another. “Instead of getting at each others’ throats, painters would be happier and anyway less ridiculous, less foolish and less guilty.” Meanwhile, he tells Bernard, “we’re sailing on the high seas in our small and wretched boats, isolated on the great waves of our time.”

The correspondence is mostly friendly. (I love Van Gogh’s chracteristic sign off: “Handshake in thought.”) But his last letter to Bernard was a denunciation of his friend’s latest religious paintings, which Van Gogh disapproved of because he saw them as creations of Bernard’s imagination, things that had no roots in observed nature. He feared that Bernard was drifting into a world of pure invention. It’s ironic that after his death Van Gogh would be thought of as the model of the artist who substituted his personal vision for the world as he found it. Nothing could be less true. As these letters remind you again and again, at the end of the day Van Gogh was Dutch. No less than Rembrandt or Vermeer — or better, painters of the countryside like Albert Cuyp or Paulus Potter — he had a Dutch painter’s allegiance to the plain facts of the physical world, to whatever was actually before him, to the cows and the thatch and the mud. For all his starry nights, Van Gogh was the artist who painted his own beat up shoes.

All the same, I probably wasn’t the first reader to come across that final letter to Bernard and wonder whether, because it was written at a time when Vincent felt his sanity slipping away, he might not have been insisting all the more on the importance of staying connected to reality. His own world really was moving “elsewhere.”