A Complete Archive of Vincent van Gogh’s Letters: Beautifully Illustrated and Fully Annotated

van gogh to gauguin


First pub­lished in three vol­umes in 1914, only 24 years after his death, the let­ters of Vin­cent Van Gogh have cap­ti­vat­ed lovers of his paint­ing for over a cen­tu­ry for the insights they offer into his cre­ative bliss and anguish. They have also long been accord­ed the sta­tus of lit­er­a­ture. “There is scarce­ly one let­ter by Van Gogh,” wrote W.H. Auden, “which I do not find fas­ci­nat­ing.”

That first pub­lished col­lec­tion con­sist­ed only of the painter’s 651 let­ters to his younger broth­er, Theo, who died six months after Vin­cent. Com­piled and pub­lished by Theo’s wife, Johan­na, Van Gogh’s cor­re­spon­dence became instru­men­tal in spread­ing his fame as both an artist and as a chron­i­cler of deep emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences and reli­gious and philo­soph­i­cal con­vic­tions.


Now avail­able in a six-vol­ume schol­ar­ly col­lec­tion of 819 let­ters Vin­cent wrote to Theo and var­i­ous fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends—as well as 83 let­ters he received—the full cor­re­spon­dence shows us a man who “could write very expres­sive­ly and had a pow­er­ful abil­i­ty to evoke a scene or land­scape with well-cho­sen words.” So write the Van Gogh Muse­um, who also host all of those let­ters online, with thor­ough­ly anno­tat­ed Eng­lish trans­la­tions, man­u­script fac­sim­i­les, and more. The col­lec­tion dates from 1872—with a few mun­dane notes writ­ten to Theo—to Van Gogh’s last let­ter to his broth­er in July of 1890. “I’d real­ly like to write to you about many things,” Vin­cent begins in that final com­mu­ni­ca­tion, “but sense the point­less­ness of it.” He ends the let­ter with an equal­ly omi­nous sen­ti­ment: “Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my rea­son has half foundered in it.”


In-between these very per­son­al win­dows onto Van Gogh’s state of mind, we see the pro­gres­sion of his career. Ear­ly let­ters con­tain much dis­cus­sion between him and Theo about the busi­ness of art (Vin­cent worked as an art deal­er between 1869 and 1876). End­less mon­ey wor­ries pre­oc­cu­py the bulk of Vin­cen­t’s let­ters to his fam­i­ly. And there are lat­er let­ters between Vin­cent and Paul Gau­g­in and painter Emile Bernard, almost exclu­sive­ly about tech­nique. Since he was “not in a depen­dent posi­tion” with artist friends as he was with fam­i­ly, in the few let­ters he exchanged with his peers, points out the Van Gogh Muse­um, “the sole focus was on art.”


And as you can see here, Van Gogh would not only “evoke a scene or land­scape” with words, but also with many dozens of illus­tra­tions. Many are sketch­es for paint­ings in progress, some quick obser­va­tions and rapid por­traits, and some ful­ly-com­posed scenes. Van Gogh’s sketch­es “basi­cal­ly served one pur­pose, which was to give the recip­i­ent an idea of some­thing that he was work­ing on or had fin­ished.” (See the sketch of his room in an 1888 let­ter to Gau­guin at the top of the post.) In ear­ly let­ters to Theo, the sketches—which Vin­cent called “scratches”—also served to con­vince his younger broth­er and patron of his com­mit­ment and to demon­strate his progress. You can peruse all of the let­ters at your leisure here. Click on “With Sketch­es” to see the let­ters fea­tur­ing illus­tra­tions.


And for much more con­text on the his­to­ry of Van Gogh’s cor­re­spon­dence, see the Van Gogh Museum’s site for bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion, essays on Van Gogh’s many themes, his rhetor­i­cal style, and the state and appear­ance of the man­u­scripts.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load Hun­dreds of Van Gogh Paint­ings, Sketch­es & Let­ters in High Res­o­lu­tion

13 Van Gogh’s Paint­ings Painstak­ing­ly Brought to Life with 3D Ani­ma­tion & Visu­al Map­ping

The Unex­pect­ed Math Behind Van Gogh’s “Star­ry Night”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Abdul says:

    Hel­lo send me your e mail please I want to send you some pics . Thanks

  • JBS says:

    Immense­ly inter­est­ing. It is amaz­ing how great a drafts­man Van Gogh was, how well he could draw a scene using cross-hatch­ing and undu­lat­ing par­al­lel lines. And as Tchaikovsky was just as great and artis­tic a writer of lit­er­a­ture as he was a musi­cal com­pos­er, Van Gogh was also just as great and artis­tic a writer as he was a pic­to­r­i­al artist.

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