From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Horace Mann Livens
Date: Paris, September or October 1886
Private collection. Sold at auction, Sotheby’s London, 7 December 1995.
Various dates have been suggested for this letter in the past. One important reason for the attention devoted to it in the Van Gogh literature is that the dating is a factor in establishing the period when Van Gogh worked in Cormon’s studio. There are essentially two possibilities: the letter was written either in autumn 1886 or in autumn 1887. Van Heugten places the letter in the period ‘summer-autumn 1887’, primarily on the basis of two similar subjects touched on in a letter from Van Gogh to his sister Willemien written at that time (letter 574): his intended departure for the south of France, which was to happen the following spring; and the use of colour in the landscapes he made at Asnières. Van Gogh did indeed go to Arles in the spring of 1888, and the Asnières landscapes mentioned in the letter to Willemien do date from the spring and summer of 1887, so that the letter must certainly have been written after that. We believe, however, that the present letter contains indications that point to the autumn of 1886; in other words the similar subjects are in fact different.
Van Gogh writes that since he has been in Paris he has thought about Livens, whom he met at the Antwerp Academy in January-February 1886, very often, even ‘almost daily’ (l. 96). It would seem unlikely that his thoughts would have turned to his former fellow-student at the Academy quite so often after a year and a half in Paris; the same applies to the period of time within which asking to be remembered to four other students is still plausible (l. 94). Van Gogh’s account of what he has been up to would moreover be very perfunctory were it to relate to what he had been doing in Paris for a period of a year and a half; by the autumn of 1887 he was acquainted or friendly with a number of avant-garde artists, he had exhibited on various occasions and even organized exhibitions himself. Japanese prints were a major element of his artistic preoccupations, and in 1887 his view of modern art was so much broader that he is much less likely to have referred to Degas and Monet, as he does here in ll. 36-37, than to Signac, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bernard. The fact that he gives himself and Livens a chance of joining the colourists also tends to place the letter in 1886 rather than 1887. It gives the distinct impression of being a report of a much shorter stay in Paris.
What Van Gogh says about painting numerous flower still lifes tallies with what we know of this period (in other words March 1886 - autumn 1886): from the summer of 1886 until mid-September this was one of his main subjects. Several pictures of the windmills in and around Montmartre are candidates for the landscapes with ‘frank’ colours (ll. 61-62). He could moreover have simply meant here that he had started to work in a more colourist manner, and he does not necessarily have to have had specific works in mind. By the ‘two heads’ he may have meant two self-portraits (see n. 7). And on top of all this, he does not reckon himself to be one of the Impressionists (l. 34) – he would certainly not have said that in 1887.
This leaves us with the trip to the south; it emerges from a letter Theo wrote to his mother in February 1887 that Vincent had already started to think about this in the winter of 1886-1887 (see n. 10).
As far as Van Gogh’s time in Cormon’s studio is concerned, this dating means that he must have gone there very soon after his arrival in March, as Van Tilborgh also argues (cf. n. 14).
See cat. Amsterdam 2001, pp. 21-23, Van Tilborgh 2007. The literature reference in exhib. cat. Paris 1988, p. 398: B. Welsh-Ovcharov, ‘Vincent to Livens, when and why?’, Vincent van Gogh’s letter to Horace Mann Livens. London 1987, turns out to be an unpublished typescript (according to an e-mail received from the author in 2004).
The letter is written in English. There are two publications specifically devoted to it. The first is Adriana R. Salem, ‘Van Gogh in Paris’, Harvard Library Bulletin 6-1 (Winter 1952), pp. 137-141. She erroneously assumed that the letter had not been published before, however it had already appeared in facsimile in 1914 in Catalogue of the oil paintings and watercolours by Horace Mann Livens. William Marchant & Co. The Goupil Gallery, 5 Regent Street, London, S.W. February, 1914. The text was also printed in the columns of The Sunday Times on 17 February 1929, p. 14 (edited by E.V. Lucas).
A.M. Hammacher wrote a short essay on this letter, ‘Van Gogh in Paris in 1886. His letter to Livens about his initial orientation in the Parisian art world’; it was printed on a sheet published in a folder together with four slides of the letter (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000).