1.1 Introduction

Ever since Vincent van Gogh’s letters became widely known with their first publication almost a century ago they have garnered the interest and admiration they deserve. They were eagerly seized on as a rich source of information about Van Gogh’s gripping life story and exceptional work, and there was broad recognition of the intrinsic qualities of his writing: the personal tone, evocative style and lively language. The combination of these factors prompted some people who were in a position to know to accord the correspondence the status of literature. The poet W.H. Auden, who published an anthology with a brief introduction, wrote: ‘there is scarcely one letter by Van Gogh which I, who am certainly no expert, do not find fascinating’.1 Jan Hulsker, for decades an authority on Van Gogh’s correspondence, unreservedly placed the letters on the level of world literature: ‘Vincent was able to express himself splendidly, and it is this remarkable writing talent that has secured the letters their lasting place in world literature, quite apart from their importance for the study of his life and work. ... In many letters his emotions and beliefs are expressed so strongly and convincingly that a “real” writer could hardly have improved upon them’.2 Of course, qualifications like this are in part personal, but if, under the essence of literature, one understands that it expresses the generally valid through the specific, the condition humaine, then it cannot be denied that Van Gogh’s letters are indeed highly literary.

1.2 A new edition

Vincent’s correspondence falls into two parts: the letters he wrote himself – 820 in all, 651 of them to his brother Theo and 7 to Theo and his wife Jo – and those he received – 83, including 39 from Theo and 2 from Theo and Jo.3 Although they make for sizable volumes in print, these numbers are by no means exceptional. To put them into perspective, Delacroix’s surviving correspondence comprises 1,500 letters, Monet wrote more than 3,000, while the correspondence of the artist James McNeill Whistler consists of no fewer than 13,000.4 Voltaire, finally, wrote around 20,000 letters to more than 1,700 people.5 This is not to say that these numbers show that Van Gogh was only a modest correspondent, for at one time there were undoubtedly more letters, both from and to him.6
The correspondence has certainly given rise to its fair share of publications. The most substantial portion, the letters to his brother Theo, was published in three volumes in the Netherlands in 1914. The years 1952-1954 saw the publication of a four-volume edition incorporating the other correspondence that had been published in the interim, and this was followed in 1990 by another four-volume edition supplemented with new discoveries. The letters were soon being translated into other languages.7 All these publications were intended for a wide readership and were not burdened with extensive textual or content-related elucidations, and the rationale for changes to the manuscript source text in the published version was only cursorily explained, if at all. However, writings which have proved their worth over a long period of time, as Van Gogh’s correspondence certainly has, deserve a more scholarly edition. This is what Jan Hulsker envisaged when he wrote in 1987: ‘An ideal edition of the complete letters is still not available. Such a publication would have to be more accurate in rendering the texts, the letters would have to be placed in their correct order in the light of the most recent research, and it would have to be annotated, however sparingly’.8 The gauntlet thrown down by Hulsker was picked up at the beginning of the 1990s by the Van Gogh Museum. As the centre of knowledge about the work and life of Van Gogh, and as the curator of the world’s largest collection of his paintings and drawings, as well as of the bulk of his correspondence, the museum launched the Van Gogh Letters Project in 1994. It was to be a joint venture with the Huygens Institute for text editions and intellectual history, and the fruits of its labours are gathered together in this new edition.9
Hulsker undoubtedly thought that his ‘ideal edition’ would take the form of a book, but leaving aside the difference in medium, our edition is broadly what he envisaged: a publication of all the known letters from and to Vincent van Gogh based on a close examination of the manuscripts and supplemented with explanatory notes. The text is presented in the original language and spelling, as well as in an English translation. As far as the annotations are concerned, we have gone considerably further than Hulsker’s ‘sparingly’, because we have tried to add all the information to the letters that present and future generations might need in order to understand what Van Gogh and his correspondents mean and to what they are referring. This mainly concerns the identification of individuals, of works of art by Van Gogh and other artists, of books and magazines. Wherever possible we identify the origin of allusions to (explicit or otherwise) or quotations from novels and poems, the Bible, publications of art criticism or art history, and other reading matter like newspapers and periodicals. Contemporary circumstances and events relating to biographies, cultural history and art history are also explained. These were either known or self-evident to the correspondents, but outsiders lacked the background to understand them – and that certainly applies to readers more than a century later.
All this information is contained in the annotations to the letters. In addition, the lengthy study of the manuscripts and the literally countless investigations conducted in the most varied fields for the annotations, yielded more general insights. These are presented in this introduction. They also relate to the subjects discussed in the letters, to the historical context in which they were written, and the circles in which Van Gogh moved. As such they supplement the annotations, but adopt a wider perspective. However, it is not just a question of the referentiality of the letters. One can also detect patterns and tendencies in Van Gogh’s way of writing and in his treatment of the manuscripts and texts as letters. Attention is drawn here to the most important of these.