Letters from Vincent

Never-before-exhibited correspondence from van Gogh to a protégé displays a thoughtful exacting side of the artist

Van Gogh painted this portrait of himself, dressed as a bourgeois, in Paris, where he stayed with his brother Theo and continued to hone his painting skills. Van Gogh's brief flirtation with the separate, dappled brushstrokes of pointillism is evident in this early effort, which is one of his best paintings from 1887. (Self-Portrait: Three Quarters to the Right)(Van Gogh Museum)
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I'm not saying that I don't flatly turn my back on reality to turn a study into a painting—by arranging the color, by enlarging, by simplifying—but I have such a fear of separating myself from what's possible and what's right as far as form is concerned....

I exaggerate, I sometimes make changes to the subject, but still I don't invent the whole of the painting; on the contrary, I find it readymade—but to be untangled—in the real world.

On October 23, 1888, Gauguin moved into the Yellow House in Arles with van Gogh, while Bernard remained in Pont-Aven. Initially, the housemates got along well enough, but the relationship became increasingly turbulent. It climaxed violently on December 23, when van Gogh acted menacingly toward Gauguin, then slashed off part of his own left ear. Gauguin returned to Paris, and van Gogh recuperated in a hospital, moved back to his house and then entered an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he found only aloof doctors and deranged inmates for company. Although he kept in sporadic touch with Gauguin, almost a year elapsed before he would write to Bernard again.

Saint-Rémy, c. October 8, 1889

I hardly have a head for writing, but I feel a great emptiness in no longer being at all up to date with what Gauguin, you and others are doing. But I really must have patience.... Dear God, this is a pretty awful little part of the world, everything's hard to do here, to disentangle its intimate character, and so that it's not something vaguely true, but the true soil of Provence. So to achieve that, you have to toil hard. And so it naturally becomes a little abstract. Because it will be a question of giving strength and brilliance to the sun and the blue sky, and to the scorched and often so melancholy fields their delicate scent of thyme.

Bernard sent van Gogh photographs of his recent paintings, including Christ in the Garden of Olives. The older artist criticized these works severely, finding them to be inadequately imagined rather than truthfully observed.

Saint-Rémy, c. November 26, 1889

I was longing to get to know things from you like the painting of yours that Gauguin has, those Breton women walking in a meadow, the arrangement of which is so beautiful, the color so naively distinguished. Ah, you're exchanging that for something—must one say the word—something artificial—something affected....

Gauguin spoke to me of another subject, nothing but three trees, thus the effect of orange foliage against blue sky, but still really clearly delineated, well divided, categorically, into planes of contrasting and pure colors—that's the spirit! And when I compare that with that nightmare of a Christ in the Garden of Olives, well, it makes me feel sad....

My ambition is truly limited to a few clods of earth, some sprouting wheat. An olive grove. A cypress....


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