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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Here's a description of a canvas that I have in front of me at the moment. A view of the garden of the asylum where I am....This edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red ocher trunks and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black....

A ray of sun—the last glimmer—exalts the dark ocher to orange—small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks. You'll understand that this combination of red ocher, of green saddened with gray, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer....And what's more, the motif of the great tree struck by lightning, the sickly green and pink smile of the last flower of autumn, confirms this idea....that in order to give an impression of anxiety, you can try to do it without heading straight for the historical garden of Gethsemane...ah—it is—no doubt—wise, right, to be moved by the Bible, but modern reality has such a hold over us that even when trying abstractly to reconstruct ancient times in our thoughts—just at that very moment the petty events of our lives tear us away from these meditations and our own adventures throw us forcibly into personal sensations: joy, boredom, suffering, anger or smiling.

This letter ended the correspondence. Despite van Gogh's harsh words, neither man apparently viewed it as a rupture; over the next months, each inquired of the other through mutual friends. But van Gogh's "misfortune" was increasing. He moved from the Saint-Rémy asylum north to Auvers-sur-Oise to be under the care of a genial and artistically inclined physician, Paul Gachet. His psychological problems followed him, however. On July 27, 1890, following another onset of depression, he shot himself in the chest, dying two days later in his bed at the inn where he lodged. Bernard rushed to Auvers when he heard the news, arriving in time for the funeral. In the years to come, Bernard would be instrumental in expanding van Gogh's posthumous reputation, eventually publishing the letters the artist had sent to him. "There was nothing more powerful than his letters," he wrote. "After reading them, you would doubt neither his sincerity, nor his character, nor his originality; you would find everything there."

Arthur Lubow wrote about Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti's 15th-century gilded bronze doors in the November issue.


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