Introduced by Martin Gayford
Illustrated by Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh’s famous letters transform our understanding of one of the most haunting figures in western culture.
‘Consider, if you will, the times in which we live to be a true and great renaissance of art ... the new painters still isolated, poor, treated as madmen, and because of this treatment actually going insane ... ‘
Few artists' letters are as self-revelatory as Vincent van Gogh's, and this selection, spanning his artistic career, sheds light on every facet of the life and work of this complex and tortured man. Engaging candidly and movingly with his religious struggles, his ill-fated search for love, his attacks of mental illness and his relation with his brother Theo, the letters contradict the popular myth of van Gogh as an anti-social madman and a martyr to art, showing instead a man of great emotional and spiritual depths. Above all, they stand as an intense personal narrative of artistic development and a unique account of the process of creation.
The letters are linked by explanatory biographical passages, revealing van Gogh's inner journey as well as the outer facts of his life, and this new Folio edition is fully illustrated with over 40 integrated colour images. In addition to a slipcase case printed with his own handwriting, the edition features Van Gogh’s original drawings from his letters, a selection of his most famous paintings and watercolours, and reproductions of the letters themselves.
Behind most great artists lies a wealthy patron and for Van Gogh this was never more true. Theo was an art dealer for an international firm, Groupil & Cie, and for over a decade he funded Vincent’s career. Extremely well informed on the contemporary art world, Theo adopted many of Vincent’s own ideas, friends and contacts, and their artistic bond remained close even if socially they were miles apart. Martin Gayford writes in his introduction, ‘it was Theo who above all was responsible for the survival of [Vincent’s] words (and also, as Vincent’s financial mainstay, for the very existence of his pictures).’ Theo was the person closest to Vincent in a social environment which found him opinionated and unstable. Theo was selfless in his willing to support Vincent, and by far the most faithful person in his life. Theo was deeply affected by the suicide of his brother and just six months later he too died. Their partnership is explicit throughout the letters and there is no doubt that without Theo, Vincent would not have survived as an artist.
‘Through him I came into contact with many painters who held him in high regards […] Moreover, his heart is so big that he is constantly trying to do things for others. Tant pis for all those who cannot or will not understand him.’
Vincent Van Gogh was born in 1853 in Zundert, The Netherlands, the son of a minister. He took his first job in 1869, working in the Hague branch of an international art dealing firm. He also began a correspondence with his younger brother Theo, which continued for the rest of Van Gogh’s life. In 1880, at the age of 27, he decided to become a painter. He moved around, teaching himself to draw and paint, all the while receiving financial support from Theo. His first major work, The Potato Eaters, was completed in 1885. In 1888, Van Gogh moved to Arles in southern France, this was to be his most productive period, when he completed over 200 paintings and 100 watercolours, including his famous ‘Sunflowers’ series. It was here, in December 1888, where Van Gogh suffered a severe mental health breakdown and was placed in an asylum for a year. On 27 July 1890, suffering from depression, Van Gogh shot himself and died two days later.
Martin Gayford is a writer and art critic. He read philosophy at Cambridge, and art history at the Courtauld Institute at London University. He has written about art in a series of major biographies, as well as contributing regularly to newspapers, magazines and exhibition catalogues. He is currently art critic for the Spectator, a post he also held from 1994 to 2002. In 2005 he published The Yellow House – an account of Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles – to great acclaim. The book has since been translated into five languages. His other books include Constable in Love (2009), A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (2013), Michelangelo: His Epic Life (2015) and A History of Pictures: From Cave to Computer Screen (2016).
Mark Roskill (1933–2000) was an English-born art historian who spent much of his life in the United States where he lectured and published widely on nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. His books include: Van Gogh, Gaugin and the Impressionist Circle (1970), Interpretation of Cubism (1985), Klee and Kandinsky (1992) and Languages of Landscape (1997).
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