1.1 The background to this edition: the Van Gogh Letters Project

All the surviving letters written and received by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) are contained in this edition of his correspondence.1 Excepting only the digital form in which they are now being published, this is the continuation of a long tradition. The first broadly-conceived edition appeared in 1914, when Jo van Gogh-Bonger published Vincent van Gogh. Brieven aan zijn broeder in three volumes and opened up the nucleus of the correspondence to the general public. It was followed by translations and separate supplementary publications. In 1952-1954 all the correspondence known at that time was brought together by Jo’s son, V.W. van Gogh, in the monumental, four-volume work Verzamelde brieven van Vincent van Gogh. This in turn was translated into several languages, providing a further boost to the already increasingly international research into Van Gogh. In 1990 the Van Gogh Museum seized the opportunity presented by the commemoration of the centenary of Van Gogh’s death to produce a completely new edition that included finds made since the publication of the 1952-1954 edition. The approach, too, was new. No longer were the letters arranged by correspondent as – broadly speaking – they had been in the earlier editions, and each letter had a date derived to a significant extent from Jan Hulsker’s pioneering work in this area. Unlike its predecessors, however, this edition presented all the letters in modern Dutch, including those originally written in French and the few written in English; Van Gogh’s nineteenth-century spelling in the Dutch letters was modernized.
This meant that art historians and others with an interest in the subject who could not read Dutch had to rely on the translations of the 1952-1954 edition. However, it had by then become clear that the transcription left a great deal to be desired in many respects, as a result both of deliberate omissions of words and passages and of editorial errors.2 Calls for a new, faithful edition of the text, especially from members of the art history community, grew ever more insistent. Meanwhile, the now extensive field of Van Gogh studies had produced so much information about the artist’s life and work that notes to the letters had become an inescapable obligation if the publication was to be truly state of the art.
The Van Gogh Museum, which holds the great majority of Van Gogh’s correspondence, began to plan an edition of this kind soon after the centenary in 1990. The museum approached the Huygens Institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose forte is the scholarly publication of literary and historical texts. It was decided that the new edition should be directed towards an international readership and consequently that it would be published in English. Broadly it was to comprise the original texts of all the letters in the correspondence, a new English translation of them, notes to all the letters and an introduction. The elements making up the commentary to the edition (in other words the notes, introduction and other supplementary information) had to reflect the current position in international Van Gogh studies. At this stage it was thought that the work would run to some twelve substantial volumes.
It was initially estimated that it would take three people five years to complete the work. A steering committee was set up to monitor progress and authorize significant decisions that affected the handling of the text. Its members were the directors of the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute, curators from the Van Gogh Museum and a member of staff from the Huygens Institute.3 An editorial board was also established to assess the quality of the work and give advice where necessary; their expertise lay in Van Gogh studies and in Dutch and French literature, the other two important fields which the researchers would have to cover.4
The first six months of the project, which officially started in November 1994, were spent inventorying the sources and the secondary literature, and designing the project. The priority was to make a new reading text. All the original manuscripts in the Van Gogh Museum were consulted, as were those elsewhere when they were accessible; the result was a diplomatic transcription that served as the basis for the reading text that would be printed.5 This research occupied the first five years of the project. During this time more than twenty students on work placement assignments gathered material for the annotations, on which the researchers began after completion of the research into the text. This phase took another five years. Meanwhile a team of five translators, coordinated by an editor, had started to translate the letters into English. Once the annotation research had been completed, it took two years to edit the translations. After this the introductory chapters were written.
As we have said, the original concept was for a publication in book form, but as the project progressed this became less and less self-evident. By 2004 changes in the world of publishing and the rapidly growing potential offered by electronic media had caused the steering committee to reconsider, and it was decided to publish the large, all-encompassing edition digitally. This does greater justice to the immense volume of material and the complex of interrelated layers of information, and gives visitors to the site more options and more ways to use the edition. For the very significant numbers of people we believe would prefer to study or enjoy the letters by reading them in the ‘traditional’ manner, there is an accessible, fully illustrated print version, with brief notes; the content derives directly from the scholarly web edition. This six-volume edition appears – at the same time as the present web edition – in three languages: English, Dutch and French.

1.2 The nature and purpose of this edition

In traditional scholarly publishing terms, this web edition is a study edition.6 That is to say it is intended for Van Gogh specialists, art historians and literary scholars studying Van Gogh’s letters or work, and students of art history, the history of literature and allied disciplines. Of course the internet is an open medium accessible to anyone, but the decision to produce this as a scholarly edition implies that the level of the content of the textual apparatus is tailored to students and people with an academic background.
One result of this decision is that the volume of material that can be presented is less of a consideration than it would have been had the editors chosen to press on with a traditional book edition. It has meant that we have been able to include not only complete facsimiles, but also the texts of Van Gogh’s letters in a parallel reading text version that retains the line breaks of the originals, a reading text version with continuous text, and a new English translation that renders the meaning of the original as faithfully as possible and is consequently not literary or interpretive.
The commentary, and in particular the annotations, is as complete as possible and as exhaustive as we felt was necessary to clarify the content of the letters – sometimes in a very nuanced or detailed manner – for modern readers. For the first time we have substantiated the dating of each letter and, if necessary, explained the arrangement (the sequence of pages or combination of sheets) of the letter in question; we have included in our research the correspondence of members of Van Gogh’s family, most of which is held in the Van Gogh Museum, and cited or incorporated all the relevant passages; and we have as far as possible identified Van Gogh’s literary and visual sources and illustrated all the works of art that could be traced. Needless to say we have availed ourselves of insights and suggestions in the published works of leading Van Gogh researchers, most notably Jan Hulsker, Ronald Pickvance, Roland Dorn, Louis van Tilborgh, Sjraar van Heugten, Marije Vellekoop and Ella Hendriks.
The twofold objective behind all this was to publish Van Gogh’s letters as he wrote and intended them, and to place the correspondence as a whole in its historical context. The introductory chapters likewise serve this purpose.

1.3 The definition of a letter

Editors of letters have to reflect on what precisely they mean by the term. In a voluminous correspondence there are always papers that depart from the standard form, which can be broadly described as having a salutation at the beginning and a signature at the end; between these is the principal text running over one or more sheets, and there may be one or more postscripts. The great majority of the letters in Van Gogh’s correspondence conform to this general pattern, but there are exceptions, such as unfinished letters, letters copied out by Theo and letters on unusual supports.
We endorse the definition of a letter formulated by Marita Mathijsen in De brieven van De Schoolmeester and, slightly amended, in her editing handbook Naar de letter: ‘A letter is a text which aims to maintain or establish contact between the writer and an identified person or number of persons with whom he or she has a connection and which is not intended in the first instance for publication or reproduction. Use of the direct form of address is typical, as is the presence of a salutation and a signature. The text is meant to be sent or given to the person to whom it is addressed.’7
Regarded in this light, the dedication note that Van Gogh wrote in a sketchbook for Betsy Tersteeg comes into the corpus, as do Theo and Jo’s engagement and wedding announcements and the card announcing the birth of their son Vincent Willem.
In addition to letters that are recognizable as such, we have several loose elements that were probably once part of a letter but which we have been unable to place. We have not classified loose sheets like these, along with a number of unsent drafts of letters – twenty-five manuscripts in all – as separate letters. They are included under the heading ‘Related Manuscripts’.8
When a letter was put aside, then continued or added to later and sent as a single entity, we have regarded it as one letter, regardless of the presence or absence of formal elements (particularly blank areas on a page, salutation and signature) that could lead to a different conclusion. One example of this is letter 732, in which Van Gogh concludes his missive and then says he wants to add something. He does not open the following passages with a new salutation but he does sign again at the end, in other words for the second time in the letter.
Letters written by more than one person are considered to be one letter if it is clear that the intention was to write jointly from the start.9 Letter 199 – this is a letter from Theo (letter 197) on which Vincent jotted down his reply – is a different matter: there is no question of a joint letter in this case.