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

In January 2010 a major exhibition opened at the Royal Academy in London and ran until that April. It examined the work of Vincent Van Gogh in relation to the countless letters written throughout his adult life. Many of those letters showed quite a different side to his character - so often portrayed as the 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. 

Most of the letters shown were addressed to his brother, Theo (above) whose profession was that of an art dealer. But, the existence of the exhibition, which was five years in the making and which displayed around 65 paintings and 30 connected drawings, was largely due to Theo's wife.

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

Widowed six months after Vincent's death when her husband succombed to the complications of syphillis (the two brothers are buried side by side in graves situated in Auvers-sur-Oise), Johanna Van Gogh carefully preserved every one of her brother-in-law's letters. And rather than disposing of what were then the unsaleable pictures that Theo had collected and stored, she devoted the rest of her life to promoting Vincent's talent and work.

Johanna Van Gogh

The RA exhibited some 40 letters, many in such a fragile state that it's highly unlikely that they will be exhibited publicly again. Many of them contained sketches of paintings that Vincent was planning to make in the future, and what is particularly interesting is that, whereas the paintings we know so well are full of thick and vibrant strokes, many of the smaller preparatory works were very precisely executed with fine straight lines and an element of realism: quite different to the Impressionist style of the larger canvasses. 

Visitors were even able to view a letter found in his pocket after he had shot himself. It 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  -”

Many of the artist's earlier letters are made up of thoughtful and eloquent prose. 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 filled with such inspired enthusiasm!

But, sadly, there were too many dark moments to balance out such joy. Even as a youth Vincent possessed a serious, brooding, troubled look. As a young man his first employment was with a firm of art dealers; his profession taking him to England and Paris. But, a series of disappointing 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 the exams were botched, though Vincent did work as a missionary in Belgium and there he produced The Potato Eaters - which was his first major painting. Like many of the earlier works, this was not a blazing of light, but suffused in dark and earthy tones which echoed the paintings of Rembrant. Vincent was also influenced by the prints reproduced in English magazines that showed the toil of the working man. He was to purchase a ten-year run of the popular magazine The Graphic, simply 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 moodswings were far from condusive to such harmonious living arrangements. Even so, despite his "sounds and strange voices...that cannot but frighten you beyond measure", the time he went on to spent in an asylum did offer some security. Vincent said that the close proximity of other mad people was somehow reassuring. It became his daily routine to set up his easel and paint - either the hospital gardens or the surrounding countryside, producing swirling images of corn fields and olive groves.


In the few years before his death, Vincent was to move to Arles where he rented 'the Yellow House' - another subject of his paintings, 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 art that went unappreciated during the course of his lifetime is now considered to be amongst the world's most sought-after and lauded art.

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/.


  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.