Vincent Van Gogh 30 March 1853-29 July 1890 - self portrait: As an Artist

In 2010 the RA in London exhibited the work of Vincent Van Gogh, with the artwork being complemented by some of the countless letters he wrote during his adult life. Many of those letters showed quite a different side to the character captured in history - that of a tortured depressive who pickled himself in absinthe, cut off his ear in a spate of passion after an argument with Gaugin, and finally shot himself in the chest in a badly bungled suicide, after which he took two days to die. 

Theo Van Gogh

Most of the letters were addressed to his brother, Theo, who worked as an art dealer. But, their existence, along with  the 65 paintings and 30 connected drawings displayed in the show, are still in existence today mainly because of Theo's wife.

Photograph of the graves of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh ©Suzette Raymond

Widowed only six months after Vincent's death, when her husband succumbed to the complications of syphillis (the two brothers are buried side by side in graves in Auvers-sur-Oise), Johanna Van Gogh took care to preserve every one of her brother-in-law's letters. And, rather than disposing of what had been Vincent's unsaleable paintings, all of which Theo had collected and stored, she devoted the rest of her life to promoting his talent and work.

Johanna Van Gogh

Many  of the letters are now in such a fragile state it is highly unlikely they'll ever be exhibited publicly again. Several of them contained sketches of paintings that Vincent was planning to make in the future, and although final pieces we know today are often composed using heavy and vibrantly coloured strokes of paint, these smaller preparatory works were very precisely executed, with fine straight lines and an element of realism. Entirely different to the Impressionist style of the larger canvasses. 

The letter found in Vincent's pocket after he shot himself is splattered with either paint, or blood, and the words that Vincent wrote there were: “I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it  -”

But many of the artist's earlier letters are less tragic, and are made up of thoughtful and eloquent prose. In them we 'see' a cultivated man who is clearly well-read and whose words convey poetic imagery. He describes the light shimmering on the sea -“like a mackerel ... always changing — you don’t always know if it’s green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue...”

Of his paintings of Cypress trees, he said: "The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. [The cypress is] beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes... they must be seen here against the blue, in the blue, rather."

Imagine talking to the man whose thoughts were so inspired!

Vincent Van Gogh as a child

Sadly, the darker moments obliterated the joyful. Even as a youth, Vincent possessed a brooding, troubled look. 

As a young man he found employment was with a firm of art dealers; his profession taking him to England and Paris. But a series of disappointing love affairs, along with an increasing dissatisfaction with the unscrupulous art world led him to contemplate life as a preacher - the same profession as his father. 

That ambition was doomed to failure when Vincent failed to pass the necessary exams, though he did work as a missionary in Belgium, and it was there he produced The Potato Eaters - his first major painting. Like many of the earlier works, this was not a blazing of light, but suffused in dark and earthy tones to echo the paintings of Rembrandt. 

Vincent was also influenced by prints reproduced in English magazines that showed the toil of the working man. He purchased a ten-year run of the popular magazine The Graphic so as to study such gritty scenes which he then attempted to emulate.

 The Potato Eaters 1885-6

It was when Vincent travelled to the south of France that his obsession with colour began. Inspired by the French Impressionists he had hopes of founding a community of artists, but his sense of inadequacy and increasingly violent mood swings were far from conducive to such harmonious living arrangements. Even so, despite his 'sounds and strange voices...that cannot but frighten you beyond measure' the time he then went on to spend in an asylum did offer some security. Vincent said the close proximity of other people similarly afflicted was somehow reassuring. It soon became his daily routine to set up his easel and paint - either in the hospital gardens or the surrounding countryside, producing swirling images of corn fields and olive groves.


In the few years before his death, Vincent moved to Arles where he rented 'the Yellow House' - another subject of his paintings, and about which he was to write: "That's a really difficult subject! But I want to conquer it for that very reason. Because it's tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue." 

Well, however hard the task, there can be no doubt that Vincent succeeded in his ambition. And, how poignant it is that the artwork unappreciated during the course of his lifetime is now considered to be among the world's most sought-after.

The Real Van Gogh exhibition was curated by Ann Dumas. In this short BBC film you can hear her thoughts and view some more of the works on display.

If you have more interest in the letters of Van Gogh, Thames and Hudson have published them in a six-volume edition of books. They can also be viewed online at http://www.vangoghletters.org/.

Soon to be published in January 2023, the novel Mrs Van Gogh by Caroline Cauchi tells the story of Joanna Van Gogh, and her relationship with the Parisian art world and the two brothers who became so central to her life. 


  1. I had heard about this exhibition. I would love to see it. I have always been a fan of Van Gogh. His art was a great favorite of my mothers. Again another interesting and insightful post.

  2. Fab post with beautiful illustrations. What particularly struck me was the contrast between the realistic style of painting in the letters, and the style for which Van Gogh is famous. Just goes to show you have to know and be accomplished in 'the rules' before making the decision to break them.

  3. There have been some amazing reviews of the exhibition, Ann - but then again, the work speaks for itself. The most famous paintings, such as the sunflowers and starry night scenes, are not included in the displays but - nobody seems to have minded.

    And, thank you, Caro - that struck me too. In fact, the sketches made for 'The Potato Eaters' was almost Hogarthian.Van Gogh liked to draw in graphite and emulate the appearance of woodblock prints - one letter was all about a new pencil.

  4. The exhibition revealed a completely unknown and new side to Van Gogh's work. He appears immensely talented, mastering both drawing and painting; figures, portraits and landscapes; colour and black and white. The letters provide a fascinating insight into the man himself, although more could have been made of them. Here are my views on the exhibition. I am interested to know what you think...

  5. History Today Magazine - thank you so much for posting a comment and for the link to your review which is very interesting. I'm going to post the link in the main body of the post above.

    I agree about the stunning breadth of his talent - and somehow very moving to be able to follow the thoughts of the man.


  6. What a brilliant post - thank you so much. I'm intending to visit the exhibition today and this has already added to what I've read in the RA magazine about it. I'm almost scared to go, truth to tell, as I think Van Gogh's story is one of the most tragic and miraculous creative stories...

  7. Thank you, Susie. Would be wonderful to get your views on the exhibition.

  8. What a fantastic and well thought out article relaying the loves and life of one of history's greatest artists.