2.1 The earliest letters

When the correspondence between the Van Gogh brothers opened on 29 September 1872 with the words ‘My dear Theo’,10 the 19-year-old Vincent had already been working for three years in the Hague branch of the French art and print dealers Goupil & Cie under the supervision of the young and energetic H.G. Tersteeg. It can be assumed that Tersteeg was an important formative influence on Vincent, as well as on Theo a couple of years later.11 He trained them, put them in touch with artists, and helped shape their tastes in art and literature. In this way he prepared them for dealing with art collectors and dealers – ‘higher circles’ to them because of their origins.
It goes without saying that the brothers wrote to each other about their work.12 However, given that they had both chosen the same profession and had similar experiences as young men living in lodgings, it is striking that those exchanges are quite superficial and almost entirely restricted to factual information and brief reports about things that had happened to them. They occasionally mention a work of art that had come to the gallery or was on its way, and once or twice they asked each other practical questions related to work, but we learn nothing about their day-to-day routines. More generally, too, these early letters, which are very brief compared to the later ones, do not really capture the imagination. Even the passages about their favourite subjects, art and literature, are really little more than simple statements of likes and dislikes, with little in the way of elaboration.
The letters from the first three years follow more or less the same pattern. They start with a remark about the progress of the correspondence such as ‘Thanks for you letter’ or ‘It’s time you heard from me again’. If Van Gogh responded to a letter from one of his correspondents, he dealt with it in a couple of short sentences. He then turned to family news such as illnesses, visits that had taken place and so on. This was followed by something about his own situation or experiences, and he closed with greetings to be passed on to others and the routine request that the correspondent write again. He was occasionally a bit more informative when he had moved to another location because the sights were new, as when he was transferred to London in June 1873. In general, though, the pattern remained roughly the same. The letter-writer in Van Gogh had not yet been unleashed.
This does not mean that we do not get to know him a little. It is clear from the very first letter that he took on the role of the older and wiser brother towards Theo. He used the correspondence to advise him what he should and should not do to get on in life. He moralized and comforted Theo if he had difficulties at work or mourned the loss of a friend. And he gave him advice about art and literature. These were his main interests, as is apparent from most of his letters, and for that reason they will be discussed separately from here on. Knowing the classics and being aware of important issues in the world of the arts was part of the bourgeois ideal imparted by their parents that was meant to gain them access to higher circles through self-development.13 But with their eldest son, art and literature gradually became far more than an aid for social intercourse. They became absolutely essential to him. He needed art and literature in order to get a better understanding of himself, human behaviour and the world around him.
One piece of advice that the older brother gave to the younger one was: ‘Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see’.14 Nature was a manifestation of a higher order, and was thus associated with art.15 The long walks that Van Gogh went on were consequently more than just a pleasant way of passing the time. In the very first letter he refers to the walks that he and Theo had been on when the latter visited him in The Hague. That must also have been the time when they made their memorable trip to the Rijswijk Mill, which became a glowing memory for both of them and was the seal on their special bond.16 Throughout his life Van Gogh went on long journeys by foot, not just to get out into the countryside but also to explore cities, to go to work from his lodgings in London (three-quarters of an hour each way), to make a pilgrimage from the Borinage to the home of Jules Breton in northern France, and later, as an artist, to go out in search of subjects far from home.

2.2 1875: a watershed

In the summer of 1875 there was a fundamental change in the tone and purpose of the letters. This was the beginning of Van Gogh’s religious phase, which was to last until around 1879. He increasingly peppered his letters with quotations from the Bible and other edifying books. He used the Bible as the measure for all things, the New Testament in particular. As early as June 1875 he first cited the words from St Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, which he quoted many times thereafter as if they were his personal motto: ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’.17 The letters began to lose some of their dutiful, conventional nature, and the subjects he touched on increasingly came from his own life and experiences. Theo was told, at first in passing but then in more detail, about the difficulties Vincent had to contend with as he searched for a new goal after his dismissal from Goupil & Cie in April 1876. At first the letters continued to be quite short and not all the conventions were thrown overboard, such as the requests at the end to pass on his best wishes to members of the family and acquaintances, sometimes whole rafts of them. In Ramsgate and Isleworth, starting in the spring of 1876, the average length of the letters began to grow considerably, even if one disregards the profusion of copied-out psalms, hymns and verses from the Bible. Each letter bespeaks an absolute trust in faith and an exaltation that sounds a little forced. Some give the impression of having been written in a sort of flush of religious intoxication, and the events he mentions are time and again used as pegs on which to hang quotations from the Bible, both short and long. At the beginning of this period Van Gogh often looked back on his youth in their parents’ home and on the safe family circle, which not infrequently give rise to sighs of longing that strike us as sentimental. That exaltation eventually mushroomed into full-blown religious fanaticism with an unmistakably missionary air.
That ebbed away when it ultimately proved impossible for him to be any kind of messenger of God’s word. Having worked in a bookshop in Dordrecht, prepared to study theology in Amsterdam, and served as a prospective evangelist in the Borinage, he realized that he had come to a dead end. He was done with the official church bodies, and from 1879 the edifying biblical quotations all but disappear from the letters. By then Van Gogh had found his own, independent way of writing.

2.3 A voice of his own

The letters from Dordrecht and Amsterdam already contain vivid descriptions of things Van Gogh had come across on his walks. The letters in which he describes the conditions in the mines and the lives of the mine-workers have great evocative power. He now allowed himself to give an impression of his surroundings and describe the mood that a rural or urban landscape had evoked in him. He was less restrained in confiding his ambitions to his correspondent, and the difficulties he had in achieving them – something that would have been inconceivable in the early letters. Back then, corresponding was part of proper and codified social behaviour and associated conventions. From the end of the 1870s, writing served as a personal means of expression, and it remained so ever after. It helped Van Gogh to to channel his impressions, order his thoughts and thus define himself, both for himself and for Theo, his only confidant.
In so far as Vincent felt the human need to unburden himself, that could only be done to Theo. That became almost literally a matter of life and death after his decision – a historic one in retrospect – to become an illustrator, which was soon extended to encompass the career of an artist. Up until 1880 he had searched for something in life that would give him both true satisfaction and the recognition he so much desired from those around him, particularly from his father. After the Slough of Despond that was the Borinage it was clear that he did not have the talent to conform to social expectations, and the family had little faith in the success of yet another undertaking. Vincent was already 27 years old, had failed in several attempts to find his way in life, and was now starting out from scratch on a path that was to lead to a profession in which it was very hard to make a living. Theo, who had made the initial suggestion for this new direction, became his only sheet anchor in many respects. As a successful art dealer and his parents’ favourite, he became Vincent’s mediator and advocate within the family. He understood the art business, and provided the financial support for this risky enterprise, at first in part but soon in its entirety. The relationship between the brothers had thus changed drastically, and Theo’s invaluable importance for the realization of Vincent’s plans is the background against which the letters written after 1880 have to be read. The correspondence was absolutely essential to the maintenance of the new, complex relationship, and in fact embodied it.

2.4 Artist

The personal expansiveness that had manifested itself in the preceding years increased further when Van Gogh decided to become an artist. He no longer shrank from speaking of his dejected moods, or from criticizing artists or circumstances, or speaking of his happiness or satisfaction – although that was rare. It should be added that Van Gogh’s epistolary gaze was exclusively directed inwards from now on, and that the frame of reference from which he wrote was in fact one-sided. Everything revolved around achieving his artistic goals, around his drawings and paintings. He did not have many close friends, and few other social contacts. He worked as an autodidact, following his own programme. In this area, the letters – and not just those to Theo but to artist friends like Van Rappard, Gauguin and Bernard as well – provide us with an incredible amount of information that makes it possible to see how he developed as an artist: how he first concentrated mainly on drawing; how he experimented with materials like natural chalk and lithographic crayon; the difficulty he had getting proportions right and depicting the human figure correctly; how he often worked in ‘campaigns’; why he thought of making ‘prints for the people’; the stimuli he got from his reading, contacts with other artists and visits to museums; his ideas about the use of colour, in both his Dutch and French periods; how his first ambition was to be a ‘peasant painter’, and how that gradually metamorphosed into ‘modern painter’; the ideals of the ‘studio of south’; what he thought about the work of his friends and contemporaries; and the direction he felt that modern art should take. This list is both arbitrary and incomplete; its only purpose is to illustrate that the letters contain an unparalleled wealth of information and opinions.
On the other hand, on close inspection one sees that the outside world, the practicalities of life and personal contacts are secondary. They are only mentioned if they are directly connected with Van Gogh’s work, and he certainly related many things to his own situation. In addition he regularly had his hands full with those around him, so that despite his egocentricity the letters nevertheless have a lot of life in them. Moreover, he was able to describe things in a lively and original way, and his insights and opinions are often interesting enough. But however rich Van Gogh’s letters may be, there is a great deal that they do not tell, and it is misleading to compare them with a diary, let alone characterize them as such, as is so often done.18 Daily life is largely invisible in the correspondence, with the result that we do not know how Van Gogh organized his day, what or where he usually ate, where he met the people he mentions in his letters, what living conditions were like with his parents in Etten and Nuenen, what he did with his personal possessions when the time came for yet another move, how he acquired the hundreds of books that he mentions in the letters, and many times that number which he must have read but which remain unmentioned. He must have visited many cafés and prostitutes, but where and how remains hidden. And although he wrote so much about the practical side of his drawing and painting, we are told relatively little about the suppliers of his materials, for example.
There are exceptions to all these examples, but they can often be explained by Van Gogh’s fixation with his work and the necessity of getting on with it. For instance, we learn quite a lot about the difficulties he encountered when he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos in the summer of 1881, but that is because it caused turmoil throughout the entire family and posed a threat to the roof over his head as well as to his relationship with Theo. Something similar happened with Sien Hoornik, the prostitute with whom he lived in The Hague. He only confessed the truth to Theo when he ran into opposition from his acquaintances there, above all from the celebrated Hague School painter (and his cousin by marriage) Anton Mauve, and H.G. Tersteeg. Theo was in direct contact with them, and could have found himself in a difficult position with the latter if his brother brought shame on the family. That, in turn, could have influenced Theo’s benevolence towards Vincent. He did tell Theo about the venereal disease he caught in the summer of 1882, but then that had repercussions for his artistic output. In Antwerp he found himself in urgent need of dental treatment, but it is doubtful whether he would have found that worth mentioning to Theo if it had not cost so much money, which naturally had to be paid out of his budget for materials and thus had to be made up by Theo. When he was doing up the Yellow House in Arles, he gave Theo a fairly detailed account of the furniture that he was buying and what it cost, but Theo was the one who had to pay for it, and ultimately the ‘studio of the south’ was an investment in the future, not just for Vincent, Theo and Gauguin personally, but for the new art of painting in a broader sense.

2.5 The effect of dependence

Although the financial relationship between the brothers remained unchanged, there was a shift in their relative positions. The tone is more defensive in the Dutch period, or Vincent tries to vindicate the choices he had made. As yet he had no saleable work to justify Theo’s support, and it is a fact that Theo saw little chance of selling any of it before Vincent left the Netherlands at the end of 1885. After living together in Paris for two years their relationship had become noticeably more equal, and Theo had far more faith in his brother’s work, who accordingly felt more confident about exhibiting it.
All in all, Theo was told more details if something was going on or threatened to go wrong which would impede Vincent’s progress or if he needed more money. In other words, there is undeniably an element of self-justification in the letters to Theo, who after all was making the entire enterprise possible with his financial support, and in line with their agreement was joint owner of Vincent’s work.19 In many cases, Theo’s regular or extra remittances provided a reason for Vincent to write to a letter of thanks confirming receipt. This was done so pointedly that it may well have been part of the agreement between them. But that does not make the correspondence ‘businesslike’, as has been asserted.20 Van Gogh’s letters are too rich in ideas and too personal in tone for that. And the practical, financial agreements between the brothers do not alter the fact that the letters were also clearly written out of a simple human need for communication, a need to exchange ideas and feelings with a kindred spirit. Needless to say, another argument against the reductive qualification ‘businesslike’ is that even before Theo’s patronage the two main subjects were art and literature, and they remained so after 1880. In letters to other correspondents as well, they were the two poles of Van Gogh’s world.

2.6 Art

Paintings, drawings, prints, and of course their makers, always had a central place in Van Gogh’s life, and they occupied a position of considerable importance in his correspondence. As a trainee art dealer between 1869 and 1876 he had seen a great deal of art at Goupil & Cie. He visited museums, read about art and artists, and collected reproductions. He did so with an intensity and dedication that show that this was more than an ordinary interest. Art met an essential need in his life. He did not just admire paintings; he drew a vital spiritual or intellectual force from them. As a result, he had deep respect for the artists behind the works. He wrote in July 1885, citing the authority of Emile Zola, that when looking at a work of art he always wondered what sort of ‘a human character’ lay behind it.21 He regularly defended his behaviour or views by referring to admired artists who had done or said something similar. They served, without any reservation, as practical and moral role models.
In principle, this attitude remained unchanged after Van Gogh had become an artist himself, although then some of them were elevated to artistic models as well, such as Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton as peasant painters, Georges Michel as a landscapist, Delacroix and Monticelli as colourists, and Japanese printmakers for their use of colour and unusual compositions.
In the first two letters, which were addressed to Theo, there is as yet no trace of this craving for art. Van Gogh evidently felt that his young brother could not yet be receptive to matters of that kind, but as soon as Theo started to work at Goupil’s himself, Vincent began telling him about art. At first it was above all because they both worked for the same firm, but soon, and certainly from the time of his transfer to London in June 1873, he says more and more about what he has seen and admired. The letters were a way of sharing that, although it should be added that Van Gogh was not yet capable of backing his opinions with arguments. His enthusiasm can be deduced from the fact that he was continually raising the subject himself, and that it often involved all sorts of things at once, as in his letter of January 1874: ‘I’m writing below a few names of painters whom I like very much indeed’ (17). There then follow no fewer than 61 names of living artists, mainly French, Belgian and Dutch. He went on: ‘But I could go on like this for I don’t know how long, and then come all the old ones, and I’m sure I’ve left out some of the best new ones’ (17).
His judgements were restricted to pithy remarks like ‘beautiful’, ‘splendid’ or ‘dazzling’, and if he disliked something it was condemned as being ‘disagreeable and feeble’. It was only occasionally that he revealed more of himself, for example when he dared to add ‘you can imagine the sentiment’ (29) when speaking of a Descent from the cross that was thought to be by Rembrandt at the time, or about the Belgian artist César de Cock: ‘he’s one of the few painters to have understood our Brabant intimately enough’ (23). At first his preferences were not very personal. That for contemporary painters was heavily influenced by what Goupil & Cie sold and which appealed to the wider public: the Barbizon School, realism, ‘juste milieu’ and the Hague School. Artists like Manet, Degas, Pissarro, Monet and Cézanne had begun making their mark in the mid-1860s, and broke through in the 1870s, but Goupil & Cie ignored them, so they did not come into Van Gogh’s field of vision at the time.22
His growing preoccupation with religion in 1875 diverted his attention from art a little, and his opinions became based more on morals and ethics. He was himself in search of devout wisdom and manly maturity, and he tended to judge art (and literature) from this idealistic standpoint. Having quoted from Ecclesiastes that ‘childhood and youth are vanity’, he told Theo: ‘You know the etching by Rembrandt, Burgomaster Six standing in front of the window, reading. I know that Uncle Vincent and Cor like it very much, and I sometimes think that they must have looked like that when they were younger. You also know the portrait of Six when he was older, I believe there’s an engraving of it in your shop. That life of his must have been a fine and serious life’ (47). Here one begins to hear a stronger view, and although admittedly it was influenced by impersonal Christian values that he had not formulated himself, it was his own conscious choice to uphold them.
The years prior to 1880 had a formative influence on Van Gogh the artist. His admiration for the work of Millet, for example, was not just aroused when he made drawn copies after The sower during his earliest exercises in Etten. He had sung his praises for years, and in Paris in 1875 he had gone to a large exhibition of drawings and pastels by Millet, who had just died. This prompted the following outpouring: ‘When I entered the room in Hôtel Drouot where they were exhibited, I felt something akin to: Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’ (36). One crucial event was his discovery in March 1882 of the biography of Millet by Alfred Sensier. From then on he not only admired Millet’s art but also identified with him on a personal level, and took him unconditionally as his role model. Millet's influence runs from there through Van Gogh’s paintings of peasants from the Nuenen period up to the very last year of his life. In January 1890 he could again heave a sigh: ‘Ah, speaking of the difference between the city and the fields, what a master Millet is. That fellow, so wise, so moved, does the countryside in such a way that even in town one continues to feel it. And then he has something unique and so good right down to his depths that it consoles one to look at his works, and one wonders if he did them this way expressly to console us’ (841). This is the very highest praise imaginable, for the letters from the last years of Van Gogh’s life make it clear that he regarded it as the ultimate goal to make ‘a consolatory art for distressed hearts!’ (739).23
One finds a similar case of a combination of continuity and a decisive renewed sense of understanding in Van Gogh’s love of Dutch seventeenth-century masters. He had got to know them at an early age in the museums in Amsterdam and The Hague, and he also read about them in Thoré. His opinion of them changed in the autumn of 1885 when he visited the newly opened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. There he viewed the works of Rembrandt, Frans Hals and many others through fresh eyes, and it stimulated him to think again about colour and visible brushwork.24
Mention of Thoré brings us to the question of the great importance of Van Gogh’s early readings about art, for they left permanent traces in his later letters. Keen as he was on self-development and expanding his knowledge, he had been reading the main art periodicals for years, such as the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, which he urged on Theo in a passage which unintentionally reveals a lot about his own approach. ‘You must in any case go to the museum often, it’s good to be acquainted with the old painters, too, and if you get the chance read about art, and especially magazines about art, the Gazette des Beaux-Arts &c.’ He then immediately added: ‘When there’s an opportunity I’ll send you a book by Bürger about the museums of The Hague and Amsterdam’ (15). This book by Bürger (the pseudonym of Théophile Thoré) was Musées de la Hollande. Amsterdam et La Haye (1858), and it was an important source of Van Gogh’s knowledge about seventeenth-century Dutch painting. It crops up again in a letter written 15 years later. From Arles, Van Gogh conducted a debate with Emile Bernard about the direction modern painting should take. Bernard argued the case of the primitives, but Van Gogh held up the seventeenth-century Dutch masters as the example to be followed. He complimented Bernard on a portrait of his grandmother that he had painted the previous year: ‘You’ve never been closer to Rembrandt, my dear chap, than then. In Rembrandt's studio, the incomparable sphinx, Vermeer of Delft, found this extremely sound technique that hasn’t been surpassed. Which today..... we're burning... to find. Oh, I know that we’re working and arguing colour as they did chiaroscuro, value. What do these differences matter when in the end it's a question of expressing oneself powerfully’ (655). Van Gogh had read in Thoré that Vermeer had learned his secret from Rembrandt, and the French author was also the source for the description of Vermeer as a sphinx.
One final method of enjoying and studying art – and the word ‘method’ is appropriate here, because Van Gogh worked at it intensively and thoughtfully – was to collect original graphic art, prints after works of art, and photographic reproductions.25 That must have started when he went to work at Goupil & Cie, for the firm earned a good part of its income from the sale of engravings and of reproductions in various techniques and sizes, from small ‘cartes de visite’ to large sheets, sometimes signed. Much of it consisted of contemporary art (often by artists in whom Goupil itself dealt), but there were also series with art by the old masters. By collecting them, Van Gogh was able to look at his favourite works any time he wanted, and he hung some of them on the walls of his room, which he would describe in his letters to Theo, and put others in albums and portfolios. Other members of the family also shared in this interest, for many prints and photographs were exchanged as gifts.
Van Gogh was not in the least bit materialistic and did not care for possessions, but he had no limits when it came to collecting graphic works. In his Hague period he bought illustrations from periodicals on a grand scale, or even several entire back volumes at a time, with a particular passion for the so-called ‘black & white’ prints from English magazines such as The Graphic, The Illustrated London News, Harpers Weekly and others, but also from Dutch, French and even German periodicals. They appealed to him for their inherent beauty, but at the same time they were a source of inspiration for his own work, a reservoir of models and ideas that kept him going, which was made all the more important by the fact that he did not have any artistic contacts who could give him the ‘friction of ideas’ that he so much desired. The only person with whom he had long and regular contact in those years was Anthon van Rappard, who also collected prints on a large scale. It is due, in particular, to the letters addressed to Van Rappard that we have such a good idea of what Van Gogh collected and considered beautiful, and also where he made his purchases.26
Less specific but nevertheless revealing are the later letters expressing Van Gogh’s enthusiasm for Japanese prints, which rekindled his passion for collecting. He had hundreds of impressions of this form of art, which was very popular among painters of the day.27 He first encountered it in Antwerp, where he wrote the following to Theo soon after his arrival: ‘My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches’ (545). This diversion would blossom into true love in Paris, but because there is little correspondence from that period we lack a lot of the background information that is available about the ‘black & white’ prints. On the other hand, what is missing mainly concerns the way in which Van Gogh collected, where he bought his prints, what he paid for them, how ownership was divided between him and Theo, and so on. What is more important is what he valued in these Japanese prints and how they contributed to his own artistic development, and we have vital information about that in the letters from Arles, naturally combined with the works which betray a Japanese influence. In addition to the use of colour, the heavy contours, the different perspective, the unexpected cropping of the images or the choice of subject, he also admired the makers themselves for their supposedly simple way of living, closely connected to nature. The dedication of Japanese artists, their sober lives centred solely around their work, the intense concentration on the simplest of motifs like a blade of grass – he considered them exemplary. It is true that he based his ideas about Japan and the Japanese in part on fiction, or to be more precise on the novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, but Van Gogh saw nothing wrong in that: ‘Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me’, as he put it in February 1883 (312), not for the first time, nor the last.
Although relatively few of Van Gogh’s letters are addressed to artist friends, what has survived is a substantial addition to our knowledge of his views. In contrast to members of his family he was not in a dependent position with them, and the sole focus was on art. With Van Rappard he constantly discussed practical and technical problems of their craft, and they argued the relative merits of academic training versus learning on one’s own, which not surprisingly was what Van Gogh preferred. The correspondence with Gauguin and Bernard is of the utmost importance in the later years, and it is an importance that goes beyond the study of Van Gogh, for this was a key episode in art history. The friends’ discussions about abstraction, colour, the use of the imagination and abandoning reality in favour of suggestion and symbolism touch on the roots of modern art.
It is therefore most regrettable that Bernard’s side of the correspondence has not survived, for it is clear from Van Gogh’s letters that much of what he says was in reaction to what Bernard wrote. The latter certainly had a share in the ideas that Van Gogh expressed in his letters, which were so characteristic of his idealistic vision of the future: striving for brotherhood and collaboration between artists; the hope of a ‘renaissance’ in painting as a counterweight to the ‘decadence’ that he saw around him; the physical and psychological sacrifices that the artist had to make for his art. If the picture of the romantic artist is confirmed anywhere, it is in this part of the correspondence.

2.7 Literature

Much of what applied to Van Gogh’s approach to art is equally true of literature. That is consistent, in view of the last passage cited above and a remark like ‘one has to learn to read, as one has to learn to see and learn to live’ (155). And despite his assertion that he had ‘a more or less irresistible passion for books’ (155), it was once again more than a passion, however deeply felt. Literature stimulated his individual development and the evolution of his view of the world. Ultimately, Van Gogh used literary works to seek a confrontation with the author. He described himself to his sister Willemien as someone who ‘read[s] books to seek in them the artist who made them’ (804).
Broadly speaking, Van Gogh’s way of reading was a reflection of his personal development, which again goes to show how much life and literature were intertwined for him. The letters prior to 1874 do not reveal very much. The most important event was his discovery, probably in 1873, of Jules Michelet, and in particular of his popular didactic treatise L’amour, from which he copied out a passage for Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek and for Theo. In this book, Michelet proclaimed a moral lesson about love between a man and a woman which may not have run counter to general Christian values but which did reject the authority of ecclesiastical institutions, be they Catholic or Protestant. The emancipation of Van Gogh’s taste and views must have begun at this time. We are badly informed about what he read and admired in his youth, although it can be assumed that he was shepherded into safe Protestant and Victorian pastures by his parents. He was familiar with the work of the clergymen-poets who were such a feature of the Dutch literary scene at the time, of whom the most popular was P.A. de Génestet. We learn more about Van Gogh’s favourite literature not from the letters but from two albums in which he copied out poems and prose fragments for Theo and the painter Matthijs Maris.28 If we can assume that he copied what he himself liked, it can be seen that in the years around 1873 he was particularly fond of French and German romanticism. The poetry albums contain work by Autran, Sainte-Beuve, Lamartine, Heine, Goethe and Uhland. In London, where he went to live in June 1873, he soon got to know the works of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, passages from which he copied out in his letters. Theo could not speak English at the time, but when he started taking lessons at the beginning of 1876 it was not long before he received a present from his brother: ‘Herewith the book by Longfellow, it will no doubt become a friend of yours’ (72). Vincent also discovered Charles Dickens in this period, and he remained a loyal reader of his work for the rest of his life.
As Van Gogh began taking more interest in religion so he became more moralistic, and the same applied to what he read. He anathematized Michelet, and urged Theo to do the same and only read the Bible. George Eliot, and more especially her Scenes of clerical life, was still acceptable, and he raved about John Bunyan’s A pilgrim’s progress. In his Amsterdam period, Thomas a Kempis’s De imitatione Christi, the Oraisons funèbres by Bossuet and Fénelon’s Télémaque were among his favourites, and he even intended copying out the first of these in its entirety in French. After the failures in Amsterdam and the Borinage, Van Gogh took stock of his position. A casual remark in the important and revealing letter of June 1880 reveals how he did so: ‘On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed’ (155, emphases added). So he was not marking time or idling, as his family accused him of doing, but was reading and studying in order to discover where his calling lay. That explains why so much literature is mentioned in that letter. Michelet is back in favour again, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s cabin), Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare and Aeschylus.
This was the baggage that he took with him when he signed on for a career as an artist. He regarded Michelet and Beecher Stowe as modern authors, although the novels by them that he admired the most were already 20 to 30 years old. However, according to him this modern literature could serve a function as the Bible had previously done, and perhaps even better.29 Shortly afterwards he encountered the truly modern literature of his day: the naturalistic novels of Emile Zola, of whom he became a fervent admirer and champion. He then read everything by the great French novelist that he could lay his hands on, and read the new novels the moment they appeared. Zola was more than a favourite author. He was a role model, for he described life in the Paris slums and the mining villages with unflinching realism. It was also Van Gogh’s aim to depict directly what he saw around him: agricultural labourers, a weather-beaten old man, women mourning or working, a soup kitchen, a tree, dunes and fields, boats on the beach. He also read Zola’s essays on art in Mes haines, and as an artist fully agreed with the Frenchman’s famous definition of the concept of art, which he paraphrased to Theo: ‘One sees nature through one’s own temperament’ (492).
Now moralism and literary naturalism are two concepts that are difficult to reconcile, so one wonders whether Van Gogh’s taste in reading changed in the early 1880s. It turns out that it did, at least in so far as he gradually abandoned highly moralistic literature, not to mention religious works, and steered a more literary course. He did, however, cling on to the earlier works in which he found a generally humanist view of life that he continued to cherish. And above all, literature was something that provided him with support, something that could serve as a compensation and comfort to counterbalance the many setbacks in his life. Precisely because he had turned his back on dogmas and prescriptive systems of living or thought, he could find himself in a naturalism in which they were absent, or at least not omnipresent. So recognition remained the keyword, and as a result literature continued to be a lifeline.
Van Gogh also read works by other exponents of naturalism and became more a reader of works written in his own day, and here there are two things that strike one. In the first place, he rarely writes about contemporary Dutch authors or books; almost everything that he read was French. Secondly, poetry, which had a prominent place in his reading when he was younger, faded into the background. This is all the more remarkable in that the 1880s were an exciting time for lovers of poetry, with its mixture of Parnassians, decadents and rising symbolists, with the attendant discussions in the literary periodicals. There is not a trace of this in Van Gogh’s letters, not even after he had lived in Paris. The reason is not hard to find. For him, a poem’s value lay in its realistic content (actual or imagined). A refinement of sensory perceptions, synaesthesia, the use of the imagination, suggesting instead of naming, let alone pure poetry, were all wasted on him. He preferred to regard the characters in novels as real figures, and saw himself or his brother in the actions of Zola’s fictional Octave Mouret. One typical example of this is his reaction to a poem by Bernard about the prostitutes in Paris, to which he objected because the description did not match nightlife as he himself had experienced it.30
Van Gogh’s reading habits did not change much after he left for Provence, but there was a new component in his taste that had been missing before: humour and satire. He been disappointed by life in the artistic world of Paris, and when he began suffering mental breakdowns in Arles he felt a need for satire and irony to counterbalance the ravages of daily life. He compared the sombre naturalist Richepin with the ironical Guy de Maupassant and concluded: ‘I much prefer Guy de Maupassant to Richepin, for being more consoling’ (707). It was that consolation that he sought in his last years, and he used literature (and art) to find it. He employed not only light-hearted works like Maupassant’s Bel-ami and Alphonse Daudet’s Tartarin novels to make his existence bearable, but also Shakespeare’s dense history plays: ‘It’s so alive that one thinks one knows them and sees it’ (784). It is no less typical that he fell back on the works of Charles Dickens that he had read so many times when he was younger. The familiar things of the past had to help him keep going when his faith in society and in himself as an artist was faltering. Anyone who wonders whether art and literature have any importance will find a resounding yes in Van Gogh’s letters.