Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Van Gogh's letters

 “And men are often faced with the impossibility of doing anything, imprisoned in some kind of horrible cage. There is also, I know, deliverance, eventual deliverance. A reputation ruined rightly or wrongly, embarrassment, circumstance, misfortune, all these make people prisoners. You can’t say what it is that shuts you up, what walls you in, what seems to bury you alive, but you still feel some kind of bars, some kind of cage, some kind of walls.
Do you know what makes the prison disappear? It is every deep, genuine affection. To be friends, brothers, to love, that opens the prison by its sovereign power, its powerful charm. Someone who does not have that remains bereft of life.
But where sympathy is reborn, life is reborn.
Sometimes the prison is called prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance of this or that, distrust, false shame.”
Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh’s words are rooted in a timeless universal truth. 
Reading his letters seems to make time come to a halt. It throws me into a deep meditative state of serenity. And it is also akin to the effects of connecting with a sincere friend.
 (I am not going to focus on his death here, but I want to clarify that van Gogh did NOT commit suicide. He was shot to death by another person. )
 I believe every person who endeavors to take an artistic discipline seriously will benefit from reading Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. There are various reasons why his deep insights and wisdom are of much relevance today.
  His letters reveal his self-taught journey in drawing and painting. The drawings and paintings that he enclosed in the letters are shown; they correlate with his musings, reflections and life anecdotes (some of them are funny!).
 Van Gogh shares his learning process with painstaking details. He also describes nature and people with great care, and from his unique interactions with them we learn about his exquisite sensitivity and intelligence. Being a keen observer of his surroundings was vital to his artworks.
 “The doctor is just as I would like him to be, he looks rather like some of the heads by Rembrandt: a magnificent forehead and a very sympathetic expression, I hope I have learned something from him, in the sense that I hope I will be able to deal with my models more or less in the same way he deals with his patients, that is, to be firm with them and to put them in the required position without further ado. It is marvelous with how much patience this man treats his patients himself by massaging, applying ointments, and handling them in all kinds of ways, infinitely more firmly than an attendant, and how he has the knack of removing the scruples and getting people in the position he needs them to be. There is an old man who would be superb as a St. Jerome: a thin, tall, wiry, brown and wrinkled body, with joints so fabulously clear and expressive that it makes me melancholy not to have him as a model.”
Through his delightful prose and images we witness how his work progressed over time; we can appreciate the skills that accrued as a result of his persistent dedication and passion. (Yes, he was talented, but talent alone wouldn't have been enough to accomplish what he accomplished). 
 Every time I contemplate his masterpieces I immerse myself in those places as if I were a real visitor. Not only do I see the settings he portrays but I also absorb their moods; I become a part of them.
  Last but not least, I admire his humility. The thoughts and feelings he expresses are humble and genuine. His letters unravel his soul and regale us with his deep introspection and friendly voice.

 I will share some of his quotes and I hope that the energy of his words spreads and becomes contagious.
Thank you, Vincent.

“How enormously pedantic it is really, how absurd, a man who thinks that he knows it all and that it will be as he thinks, as if there were not always in all things in life a je ne sais quoi of great good, and also an element of bad, from which we feel that there is something infinite above us, infinitely greater, mightier than we are.”
“A man who does not feel himself small, who does not realize that he is just a speck, how wrong he is basically.”
“Art demands a tenacious effort, an effort in spite of everything, and continuous observation. By tenacious effort I mean in the first place constant labor, but also not abandoning your views at someone else’s say-so.”

"In my view I am often immensely rich, not in money, but (although just now perhaps not all the time) rich because I have found my metier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life."
"My moods vary, of course, but nevertheless I have on average acquired a certain serenity. I have a strong belief in art, a certain faith that it is a powerful current that carries a man to haven, although he himself has to put in an effort too. I think it is such a blessing when a man has found his metier, that I don't count myself among the unfortunates."


  1. My husband and I both cound Van Gogh as one of our favorite painters of all time. We've seen a couple of films about him, one that was taken from his letters to his brother Theo. What a beautiful spirit Van Gogh had. What a caring person he was. I was amazed at your comment that he was shot to death by someone else. Can you send me a site that would give more information about that?

    1. Certainly. You can read more on his death here:

  2. Great review, Julia! And great insight on the artist.
    His letters is my all time favorite literary (or philosophic) work. I read it during my late teens. I hardly can tell which I love better, his paintings or his words, probably latter, because I like literature more than art. You are right, talent alone was not enough. He literally transformed his original life into his paintings and his words!

    Based on what I read ("Van Gogh: The Life") he was shot by a teen boy, and it was an immense kindness of his that he didn't charge that boy, instead, admit suicide (considered the hostility he received from neighborhood).

    I wrote this review years ago. Though I might re-read his letter in future and re-write another review, it expresses how I felt about this book when I was still so young:

    1. Thank you for sharing your review here, Yun.
      I will read it.
      Yes, the paradox is that he was misunderstood during his life in so many ways... and yet after his death he was still misunderstood.

    2. "after his death he was still misunderstood."
      --- sadly true!

  3. I imagine it'd be very dull to feel I knew it all and there was nothing interesting left to learn. Fortunately there's a lot I don't know!

  4. Hi Julia .. fascinating post - and one I will be back to read properly soon ... I'll also look at the other links.

    I want to write about synesthesia sometime (soon I hope) ... and Van Gogh is of relevance ...

    What a great post early in 2015 - cheers Hilary

    1. Thanks, Hilary. I'm glad you find it fascinating. A book I'm still enjoying.
      Synesthesia is something that I think of often. It is of much to the creative process.

    2. I meant to write that it is of much relevance to the creative process.

  5. What a wonderful reflection of his letters and work Julia. This sounds like a wonderful book and more than just a read, almost a spiritual resource, how fortunate we are that Van Gogh was able to appeal to us through both his words and his pictures. I am so pleased he found serenity.

    1. Yes, Claire, thanks! I'm glad he found serenity.
      I like how you define it: a spiritual resource. It is indeed a spiritual resource, a book that will stay alive in our book shelves.

  6. Van Gogh is such an interesting character study. Even at a young age I was curious about the life he led. One of these days I'll get to see an exhibit of his work. :)

    1. Now that you mention it, I was also interested in Van Gogh when I was a child.
      Thank you.

  7. Julia, I truly love the excerpts and quotes you posted from Van Gogh’s letters! He was a deep, soulful thinker who expressed himself in writing as beautifully as he expressed himself in art. In the first excerpt, he writes about universal and timeless truths that so many of us can relate to. In the richly descriptive excerpt about the doctor, “he looks rather like some of the heads by Rembrandt,” you can really see how his keen ability to observe and interact with others shaped the scope and depth of his work. “Yes, he was talented, but talent alone wouldn’t have been enough to accomplish what he accomplished,” well said! I admire his humility too, as well as his passion. Vincent Van Gogh has been and still remains my favorite artist. Beautiful post and review!

    I completely agree that Van Gogh did not commit suicide. Have you read, “Van Gogh: The Life” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith? The authors thoroughly researched the matter and their findings that Van Gogh did not kill himself are compelling. The book has excerpts from his letters too. (Back in 2012, I wrote about Van Gogh. Reading your post has now inspired me to do a new post about him sometime in the near future.) :)

    1. How wonderful that my post inspired you to write about Van Gogh! I look forward to it!
      There are so many quotes that I'd love to share but I can't share all of them, of course, so I selected a few.
      I know about that book but I didn't read it. I read a few articles about his death. It all makes sense to me and when I read the letters I understand everything clearly.
      There is so much in those letters, Madilyn... I LOVE Van Gogh.

  8. Hello Julia,

    This is a beautifully serene post and contains so much of interest. We had not heard of this book but it does indeed sound to be a most intriguing insight into the mind of a most talented artist.

    Most significantly Van Gogh draws upon love as a prime mover of all things. This certainly does have a resonance in our own lives. Indeed, we have often said that should there be a Day of Reckoning then it will be upon love that we are judged. To give and receive love is a treasure beyond comparison and it is a great sadness that in the world today there seem to be so many people living in loveless situations if one kind or another.

    This is a most thought provoking post upon which we shall think long and hard. There is to be a major exhibition of Van Gogh's work in the Netherlands in 2015 marking his 125 th anniversary. We shall certainly hope to see it.

    Thank you for your kind messages which are very much appreciated.

    We wish you peace, joy and success in the year to come and beyond.

    1. Thank you for the good wishes and for letting me know about the exhibition.
      Love and hugs,

  9. Hi Julia,

    I'm not going to make out like I have a knowledge of Van Gogh. All I can state, in my own simplistic way is that you have showed me that beyond the misconceptions of the genius of the man was a different perception of was not aware of.

    Thank you for enlightening me.


    1. I love to debunk myths, Gary, and above all I love to broaden people's perspectives.


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