Reading van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh—The Letters Edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker Thames & Hudson, 2,164 pages, $600

In an 1882 letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh included a sketch of his recent watercolor Pollard Willow to help explain his experiments with dark pigments.


With the publication of this monumental six-volume edition of his letters, Vincent van Gogh is fully revealed as a supreme writer-painter. True, some artists left even more extensive literary remains. Constable’s correspondence, journals, and lectures run to eight volumes, some very thick. Delacroix’s journals are perhaps more polished. But for sustained eloquence, insight, and intensity, van Gogh’s letters stand alone. Collectively they are a masterpiece of writing and match his achievements in painting and drawing.
Indeed, his writing and his art were intimately connected. Naturally enough, his theme was often painting, and—quite frequently, though not invariably—when he described a new work in words he also drew it on the page. These letter-sketches effectively transformed some pages into mixed-media works, partly verbal, partly linear. Even when he used only words to describe his paintings or those of other artists, the evocations were as direct and vivid as his brushstrokes.

One of the great strengths of this superbly thorough and accurate edition, which has been 15 years in the making by a team of Dutch scholars, is that each reference to a painting or drawing by van Gogh or another artist is illustrated with a reproduction of the work. Thus, for the first time, one can always see exactly what van Gogh is talking about without leafing through half a dozen other tomes. The ­re­searchers’ meticulous annotations are helpful in another way. Van Gogh lived a great deal—too much for his own good—in his head. When he was not painting, he was often writing or reading. In these volumes, every book, magazine, and newspaper article van Gogh mentions has been tracked down and noted.

The artist was a lonely individual for most of his adult life. When he did have company, he couldn’t stop talking. Even his faithful brother Theo complained about it, and van Gogh’s garrulousness caused a lot of the trouble during Gauguin’s stay with him, in the fall of 1888. But the general lack of conversation partners meant that a rich part of his internal life poured out onto paper. The translation of van Gogh’s words here is faithful to the helter-skelter way in which he wrote, and the text is consequently somewhat blunter and less polished than previous English translations, which were tidied up. Whether one prefers that tone is a matter of taste, but this is truer to his actual words in Dutch and in French—the language he wrote in almost exclusively after his move to Paris, in 1886.

This new edition, which was ­produced in cooperation with the Van Gogh ­Museum (and is fully available online at, contains every word of the 819 surviving letters sent by van Gogh and of the 83 sent to him. The ­editors have included a number of passages previously omitted for one reason or another, reordered some others, and changed the dates of several letters. There is room for a more portable ­selection—lifting these volumes in their slipcase could damage one’s back. But, probably for all time, this collection is ­definitive.

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