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Van Gogh’s Letters: the books

After 15 years of work, the Van Gogh Museum has published an astonishing six volume set of the complete letters of Vincent van Gogh. Building on the groundbreaking work done by the late Jan Hulsker, the authors have set a standard in art publishing that it’s hard to see will be bettered. A more thorough piece of work is hard to imagine: every letter, in chronological order, illustrated with the pictures he is writing about (his own and other peoples) and annotated with scientific precision. Nearly a million words!

In other artist’s monographs we get someone else’s point of view about an artist. But in these new volumes we meet Vincent expressing himself, unabridged, as if under an electron-microscope. For me, the greatest joy about these books is that when Vincent mentions a painting or drawing he has been working on, it is illustrated alongside the text. As are the many sketches he included in his correspondence. So we can see immediately what he’s talking about, the better to understand his thinking.

The volumes are not cheap; but what price such time-consuming, painstaking scholarship? What price a lifetime of fascinating insight? We can learn as much about what it is to be human from Van Gogh’s letters as we can from Shakespeare or Dickens, two writers Vincent himself admired.

The letters show Vincent to be far from the ear-slicing loony of popular imagination. They show a sincere, eloquent and troubled soul seeking with grim determination to teach himself to be an artist of some worth. They show a human being struggling with desperate loneliness and a debt of gratitude to his brother Theo that he knew he could never repay. Neither Dickens nor Shakespeare could have written a greater tragedy.

The letters are also online here complete with annotations and illustrations. The way the website works is itself a work of art.

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