The letters are usually studied mainly as documents describing a historical reality: Van Gogh’s life and the works that he made. But the fact that they make for such fascinating reading is partly due to the way in which he gave shape to those testimonies to his search for a goal and to a multifaceted world of ideas. Without a gift for words, Van Gogh’s account of his trials and tribulations would have been nothing more than a litany of hope and struggle. It seems paradoxical, but his extremely personal correspondence rises above the purely individual and as a result has the universality of all great literature. This warrants a brief discussion of Van Gogh’s use of language, which has received little study until now, despite the acknowledged literary status of the letters.31
One factor that definitely played a part in his use and command of language, and one that deserves further study, is his upbringing in the Protestant tradition of the word. The frequent and intense use of the Bible and the ubiquity of psalms and hymns made him familiar with pious talk and nourished his feeling for language and idiom. It was only natural that he larded his letters with biblical quotations during his religious period. Many of them he copied out, but he undoubtedly cited the others by heart.32 He always had a Bible in his room after he left his parents’ home.
That same family background would have contributed to the clergyman’s tone he sometimes adopts when he starts moralizing or feels that he has his back to the wall in an argument. For example, he condemned Anthon van Rappard’s work for the artists’ society in his native Utrecht with the words: ‘The more menus and decorations for festive occasions you make, even if they’re pleasing and good, the less you’ll be able to remain in agreement with your artistic conscience’ (284). Although he could be very enthusiastic towards Van Rappard, he often showed him his pedantic and nagging side, so it is not surprising to read that Van Rappard was already calling him a ‘headstrong person’ early on in their correspondence (178, 188, 190).
Up until 1886 Van Gogh wrote almost all his letters in Dutch, and thereafter almost always in French. The ratio of Dutch to French is roughly 2:1.33 His French was very good, thanks to his contacts with Francophones and his reading. He regularly came into contact with it from the age of 16, not just from what he read but also in the daily business of the art trade. French was the language of the upper classes in Holland, and in addition The Hague was the political, diplomatic and cultural capital of the Netherlands. It stands to reason that he took French lessons for his work, or was obliged to take them.34 Moreover, he spent a total of a year in Paris while working for Goupil & Cie, and was almost three years in Francophone surroundings in the Borinage and Brussels. After spending a further two years living and working in Paris (1886-1888), he consequently told his sister Wil, to whom he had previously written in Dutch: ‘If you’ll let me write to you in French, that will really make my letter easier for me’ (670). He and Theo also corresponded in French, and the letters that he later wrote to his mother show that he had lost his facility with Dutch. They are wooden and less fluent.35
So the answer to the frequent question as to why, as a Dutchman, he corresponded in French even with members of his own family is simple: with his keen sense of language he had been surrounded by French for so long that he had largely lost his feel for Dutch, and found French easier. That does not mean that his mastery of his second language was complete, far from it. Many people who are not French can envy him his fluency, but an analysis of his use of conjugations and stylistic registers shows that he often made mistakes.36 Emile Bernard preferred to overlook these imperfections, realizing that the importance of the letters was on a higher plane. ‘The errors in his French, his constant use of ici, mais, cela, en tant que quant à, maintenant, etc. Those heavy, childish, foreign turns of phrase, in which the meaning nevertheless comes through, that language, full of flashes of tenderness, grace and kindness, which sometimes seems to take wings and sometimes wallows in the coarseness of the Paris studios or the slang of its drinking-dens, that language, I say, will have every excuse and every sympathy, because, despite the ruts into which it falls, the floods of alcohol in which it is submerged, the realist prose that sullies it, it suddenly emerges into a meadow full of sunshine and flowers, a silent town on which a starry sky looks down, an unknown world in which Christ’s words ring out, and where art’s symphonies resound. … So what does it matter if his style is not correct, it is alive, and we will do well to make allowances and to pay it careful attention, as when we become aware of superior beings who cannot speak our language.’37
Apart from the change of language, another striking aspect of the letters is that after around 1875, when they are more personal in purpose and content, Van Gogh took far more liberties with his spelling and punctuation. In the ‘neat’ early letters he took as much care over this as over his handwriting, but he soon dropped many of the conventions. Spelling mistakes or shifting spellings were not uncommon in Dutch at the time, and they cannot be judged in the light of present-day rules, which are laid down by the government. Up until 1870 Dutch schools taught the Matthijs Siegenbeek spelling, and that is what Van Gogh must have learned first. This was followed by the spelling of Matthias de Vries and Lammert te Winkel, and this is what he largely followed in his letters. Now and then he slipped back into his old habits, such as the use of ‘g’ instead of the newer ‘ch’ (for example, ‘gezigt’ instead of ‘gezicht’).38 But he also made genuine spelling mistakes, such as ‘nog’ for ‘noch’ ‘knechs’ for ‘knechts’, ‘slechs’ for ‘slechts’ or ‘onmiddelijk’ instead of ‘onmiddellijk’. One standard error in his French was the spelling ‘fonds’, with the incorrect ‘s’.
The most distinctive feature of the letters is the cavalier attitude towards punctuation: full stops, commas, apostrophes and accents. The first two were often omitted, which can lead to considerable confusion when trying to untangle some of his long, meandering arguments. Against that, he often used a dash to separate parts of a sentence, much as commas, semicolons and full stops are used nowadays. He regularly left out apostrophes, but sometimes used them in ways different from the norm, in both Dutch and French. He could write the word ‘thuis’, for example, which is a conflation of ‘te huis’ (at home), which he also clearly interpreted in that sense, as ‘t’huis’ and as ‘’thuis’. The definite article ‘het’ can legitimately be shortened to ‘’t’, but Van Gogh occasionally omitted the initial apostrophe or put it in the wrong place as ‘t’’. In French he sometimes omitted the apostrophe when the vowels in the definite articles ‘le’ or ‘la’ had to be elided. Generally, too, the hyphen is missing in compound French words like ‘peut-être’. Among the typical examples of Van Goghian French are ‘néamoins’ instead of ‘néanmoins’, ‘d’avantage’ instead of ‘davantage’ and ‘à faire’ instead of ‘affaire’.
Finally there is his use of capital letters. In many instances where capitals are called for he quite often used lowercase, be it for personal names, place names, the beginning of a sentence or the titles of works of art or publications.
So Van Gogh often wrote without what one could call a ‘mental spelling check’, which was not uncommon in personal correspondence of the period. Evidently he simply could not be bothered, and found the form secondary to the content. This is confirmed by the fact that all the aberrations listed above are also found in passages that he copied out from printed publications. That he did not copy slavishly or automatically, but was very well aware of the way in which he used his quotations, is demonstrated by the minor or more radical changes that he introduced in order to fit the quotation into his context or bend it to suit his needs. This took the form of substituting the singular for the plural or vice versa, omitting irrelevant passages, a virtual disregard of new paragraphs, and so on. However, he was as cavalier as ever when it came to spelling.39