What is so extraordinarily valuable about the hundreds of surviving letters that form the Van Gogh family correspondence, from the parents, sisters and brothers among others, is that they provide an explanatory context. The nineteenth-century letter-writing culture was characterized by a number of formal conventions and substantive features, many of which can be found in the letters of Vincent van Gogh.

2.1 The style and the subjects

It emerges from the large number of nineteenth-century books of etiquette and books with model letters, as well as from the correspondence of other people, that one was permitted to express oneself freely, informally and ‘naturally’ to family and friends. That can also be seen in the Van Goghs’ correspondence, which mainly comprises this category of so-called familiar letters. The style could be informal, and is sometimes decidedly lively. Corresponding was regarded as conversing at a distance, and so it is that one often comes across phrases like ‘I’ve just come to talk to you’. The more businesslike letters were addressed to people outside the family, and are immediately more formal.74
As early as the fourteenth century there was a growing interest in the classical letter-writing culture. The humanists published editions of correspondence, wrote many letters themselves and designed model letters. The handbooks described the various genres of letter, such as that between friends, and the different levels of style. Proverbs had a prominent place in the genus familiare (a letter intended for the private sphere), and someone like Erasmus recommended their use. Like an anecdote, literary quotation or pithy saying, they could enliven letters and make them more elegant.75 Such adornments continued to be part of the genre, and Van Gogh, too, employed these and other stylistic devices when composing his epistles. Mastering the art of letter-writing was considered to be an important social skill. It is for that reason that this form of socialization was encouraged at home and in school.76
The standard guidelines for a letter as formulated in nineteenth-century model books are reflected in those written by the members of the Reverend Van Gogh’s family.77 They adhered to the stylistic registers that went with specific circumstances, and generally worked through fixed sets of subjects. Needless to say, they tailored their letters to the recipient. Constantly recurring subjects are the weather and its effect on daily life, health and sickness, progress in school and at work, financial particulars (pay increases, windfalls and setbacks), festive or sad events within the family (birthdays, engagements, marriages, anniversaries and deaths), visits from and to other members of the family, friends and acquaintances, and there were exhortations to be godly in everyday life and to trust in God in times of adversity. These had all been stock subjects in the West European epistolary tradition for centuries.78

2.2 Letters within the Van Gogh family

Several of the Van Gogh children left home at an early age, which made it all the more necessary to write. Naturally, of course, this was prompted by the need to keep each other up to date with news of what was happening in their lives and, an added reason for the parents, to continue overseeing their children’s behaviour and choices. For example, the Reverend Van Gogh issued a stern warning to Theo, who was working in Brussels at the time, not to have anything more to do with a girl called Bertha Hamming: ‘I fear that she is on a bad path. Her reputation is not good in Breda either, and it seems that she is not allowed to come home, and roams around a lot. She might turn up in Brussels, but if this happens I seriously advise you to maintain a good distance. Try to be polite, but avoid going out with her’.79 One unmistakable motive was the wish to maintain and strengthen the family ties. This consolidating function is particularly apparent in the letters that were dispatched around Christian holidays and family birthdays.
The members of the family had letter-writing in their blood. They took it seriously, and also used the margins of many of the sheets. They were constantly hungry for news, and often when thanking someone for a letter they would ask them to write again soon. They reminded each other, probably unnecessarily, of upcoming birthdays.80 In the front of one of his notebooks Theo dutifully made a list of all the family birthdays.81 Barely an event took place that did not have people reaching for their pens. The frequency of the letters was high. It seems that the children told their parents of their doings on almost a weekly basis, and they replied with encouraging epistles.82 The Reverend Van Gogh wrote to Theo about Vincent at the beginning of April 1878: ‘We think it strange that we have had no letter from him, not even after his birthday. He doesn’t write as regularly as he used to. I do so fear that he feels very unhappy in himself, but what can one do about it?’83 A drop in frequency, in other words, was taken as an ominous sign.
The parents were constantly exhorting the children to keep in touch with one another. In August 1877, for example, Mrs Van Gogh urged Theo: ‘Do continue to write to him faithfully’.84 It can be deduced that under normal circumstances there was regular correspondence between the parents and their children, and between the brothers and sisters, not only from the many letters that have survived but also from the following remark about Vincent from Mrs Van Gogh to Theo: ‘We wrote at the usual time and in the usual way, as loyal as we could but not discouraging, but heard not a word’.85 When the Reverend Van Gogh died in 1885, the family lost one of the motive forces behind the correspondence.
Starting in June 1882, the contact between Theo and Vincent was structurally stimulated by the fact that Theo sent his brother money three times a month on average, generally enclosed with a letter, for which Vincent usually thanked him shortly afterwards. Contrary to what the above sighs from Mrs Van Gogh might suggest, Vincent usually reacted swiftly to what the postman brought.86 For him, letter-writing was a way of expressing his religious convictions, his views on art and his feelings. Writing met his need for self-reflection and for finding common ground.
Nevertheless, even he could not always find the right way of putting things. In April 1888 he was restless and uncertain about what he had written: ‘Writing to you in a calm frame of mind presents serious difficulties, yesterday I wrote some letters that I later destroyed’.87 In the last years of his life he tended not to mince matters in his letters, with the exception of those to his mother, which were always restrained.
Within the family, they forwarded each other’s letters, requesting that they be returned after reading, or be sent on to someone else. On 9 June 1875, the Reverend Van Gogh wrote frankly to Theo: ‘I long to write to you again. ... Yesterday evening (but this in strictest confidence) we had a strange letter from Vincent. It worries us somewhat, if only the heat and over-exertion haven’t over-excited him. I send it herewith, but send it back to me directly. We’ll try quietly to arrange for him to get his holidays a little earlier. I fear overstrain’.88 And later that month, on 28 June, he reported: ‘Yesterday afternoon we received the enclosed letter from Vincent. So he will remain in Paris for the moment, and is thinking of coming to Holland in the autumn. ... It seems to me that there is a friendly tone in Vincent’s note, that invigorates us a great deal, and in consequence we had a good afternoon yesterday’. By now Theo knew full well that his parents liked to receive invigorating letters.89
On more than one occasion Vincent sent letters on to Theo, one such being a typical epistle from Anthon van Rappard: ‘I’ve marked a passage in his letter – the one about painting like drawing’.90 His sister Willemien sent Vincent’s letters on to her friend Margreet Meyboom.91 She clearly admired Vincent’s way of writing and insights, and wanted to share them with her friend. Letters were often copied out as well, which is how we know the contents of the first letter that Vincent wrote to his parents from Ramsgate.92

2.3 Writing and sending

In general the letters were written on inexpensive wove paper with ink and steel pens, so-called dip pens.93 They were often taken up at the end of the day, when it was quiet and most social obligations had been fulfilled. Sunday, too, was a favourite day for writing. We know that in 1877 Van Gogh used a wooden table-top reading-desk. At their parents’ home letters were often written at table with other people around, which increased the opportunity to see what was being entrusted to paper. It was also common practice to read each other’s letters out loud, as was done in other families as well.94
In order to save on paper and postage, Mrs Van Gogh and Willemien wrote letters crosswise on more than one occasion. This manner of writing, which did nothing to improve legibility, was quite widespread in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.95 Letters from different members of the family were repeatedly sent off in the same envelope, or were written collectively in relay, with enclosures in the form of flowers, bits of seaweed or knitted socks. ‘It’s Anna’s birthday on 17 February. We’re writing to her on Monday with the half past one post. Do you want to enclose a note? But use thin paper,’ the practical Reverend Van Gogh wrote to Theo on 11 February 1875.96
Because the postal service became increasingly professional in the course of the century, with deliveries several times a day, it was possible for a letter from Holland to be in Paris within 24 hours. This is shown by the postcard that was sent from Hoogeveen on 24 September 1883 and was franked in Paris on the 25th.97 Telegrams were introduced in 1860, and postcards in 1870.98 Mail from Saint-Rémy to Paris also took a day.99 However, the fact that the system did not always work flawlessly is demonstrated by the postcard that took two days to reach the recipient within the Bouches de Rhône department.100 In Paris, letters could still be sent after ten at night in the 1880s.101
Sometimes Van Gogh wondered whether he had paid enough postage and, when sending consignments of paintings or drawings, whether he had chosen the right kind of mail. In Holland there was only one limitation as to what constituted a ‘letter’: a maximum weight of 1 kilogram. A parcel had a maximum of 25 cubic decimetres (25 litres) and 5 kilograms in weight (heavier parcels were called ‘freight’), with none of the sides longer than 80 centimetres. This was all laid down in the booklet with the rates for 1882.102 On occasion, Van Gogh merely rolled up his drawings and lithographs and put stamps on the roll. On the back of the drawing Churchyard in winter (F 1237 / JH 433) there is still a 5-cent stamp that was franked on 7 December 1883.103
Every now and then we learn something about the circumstances under which a person was writing, known as ‘writing to the moment’. For example, it is too dark to see properly, or the postman is due so the letter has to end hurriedly, or Van Gogh describes what he sees around him as he sits at a table in a café: ‘As I write, the little peasant who looks like a caricature of our father is just coming into the café’.104 It occasionally happens that a scribbled postscript in pencil was added, possibly in the post office, before the envelope was sealed.105

2.4 Confidences

Despite the many first-person documents that we have by Van Gogh and his family, it would be a mistake to think that we now know most of what there is to know. There is a lot in them, admittedly, but there was definitely a lot that was not said as well. Moreover, the boundaries of what was considered confidential in the nineteenth century were different from now. People were fairly reserved in what they wrote, and when it was something really personal it would have been communicated face to face. Writing from Haworth on 23 January 1844, Charlotte Brontë confessed to her friend Ellen Nussy: ‘When do you think I shall see you Ellen – I have of course much to tell you – and I daresay you have much also to tell me, things which we should neither of us wish to commit to paper’.106 The caution is palpable.
Vincent, too, had a certain diffidence towards Theo, especially when it came to love affairs. ‘Of course I speak of these intimate matters (which incidentally I regard as so intimate that I would not speak of them without a special reason) only because I see this resemblance between your patient and mine then’.107 For a long time it was uncertain whether Theo was or was not going to marry his girlfriend Marie, who was sick. ‘I read what you write about your patient with interest. I understand that you’re in two minds over the matter of posing a certain question – which I shan’t further define here.’108 He is referring to a proposal of marriage, of course, and although part of the letter is clearly about that, he dare not commit the words to paper.
This changed when Van Gogh was in Arles. Then he wrote frankly about his constant battle with the demands that life made of him, about visiting brothels and about Theo’s illness. He comes up with a way of saving time, and then it seems that he does not care any more and is completely open about it: ‘But open letters if any come for me, because you’ll know sooner what’s in them if you do that and that will save me the trouble of telling you what’s in them. This goes once and for all.’109 He is not in the least bit cautious about entrusting his own feelings to paper, and when he is angry, disappointed or depressed he comes right out and says what is bothering him. And he expected Theo to confide in him too.
If one looks at the totality of Van Gogh’s correspondence it can be seen that it conforms in part to the epistolary customs of his day. This can be demonstrated by a comparison with the letters of such people as the civil servant Johan Willem Anton Naber, the writer Gerrit van de Linde, known as ‘The Schoolmaster’, the draughtsman Alexander Ver Huell, the writer Johannes Kneppelhout, the painter Gerard Bilders, the brothers Paul Hubrecht and Ambrosius Hubrecht, and the socialist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis.110 They too interweave colloquial speech, reflections on what the correspondents had read, dealing with disappointments in life, descriptions of day-to-day worries and motivations, and confirmation of the calming effect of smoking. Some of them do have more expressions and quotations from classical literature that one would associated with university students. The content of Van Gogh’s letters, self-evidently those from the last ten years of his life, are utterly unique in the urge he had to testify to the pursuit of his goal to be an artist, for which nothing was allowed to stand in the way and which had to be set down in words at all costs.