Vincent van Gogh was a missionary in a coal-mining village in Belgium before finally becoming a painter at age 27. I often wonder how van Gogh chose painting over writing as his primary devotion. After all, he had little money for art supplies and his village was slate-gray and sooty. His first paintings, such as The Potato Eaters, seem made of charcoal and tar.
Yet in his earliest letters to Theo, his brother, van Gogh speaks with a vibrancy that rivals anything captured in his latter, luminous paintings from the south of France. His voice as a writer, philosopher and art critic--widely printed today--seems so learned and assured.
In New York City, the Morgan Library & Museum now has an exhibit of van Gogh's letters to Emile Bernard, a fellow painter who befriended van Gogh in Paris while still a teenager. "Painted with Words" pairs van Gogh's lively, impassioned letters to Bernard with the original paintings they created and discussed from afar, revealing how intensely van Gogh read poetry and literature, and how he sought out serious camaraderie even as he slipped into madness and solitude.
Though the painters were friends, van Gogh's letters often assume the tone of a concerned brother—often admiring, but in the end, blistering and admonishing. Van Gogh disavowed abstract symbols and worked from nature, once writing that he replaced the halo of medieval paintings with the sun. Bernard, meanwhile, preferred to paint from his imagination.
In one funny collision of wits, young Bernard created a picture of a brothel; van Gogh chides him for being naïve and not working from experience. In another letter, van Gogh calls one of Bernard's paintings a "nightmare" for its religious iconography, stressing that one can convey spiritual struggle simply through the gnarled branches of olive trees.
Drawings within letters offer a glimpse into the artist's working process, such as a small sketch showing how he tethered his easel to the earth on windy days. I have often admired van Gogh's Japanese-style reed-brush drawings: lines and dappled dots evoke the texture of his oil paintings. But until this exhibit, I never realized that van Gogh created many of these drawings only after finishing his oil paintings, reversing the normal process of sketching, then painting.
The exhibit even calls the drawings "repetitions." Because van Gogh settled in the south of France, he often mailed out letters with "repetition" drawings so that others in Paris could imagine the original painting. He would even write the name of his colors in French right on the drawing, literally painting with words.
The exhibit includes stunning paintings from Bernard and van Gogh, but my favorite painterly moment, so intimate and humane, remains in one of the letters. Van Gogh, committed to a mental institution at Saint Remy, writes that he hopes to paint a nocturnal scene—what we know today as Starry Night.