4.1 Van Gogh as a literary man

Although Van Gogh could say that he simply wrote ‘just what popped into my pen’ (17), his letter-writing was not always just the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. There was sometimes a very definite calculation or strategy involved, and he adjusted his style in various ways, depending on his correspondent. In itself this is only natural, but with an eye to the cliché of Van Gogh as a nonconformist artist it can do no harm to point out that he often really did take notice of social conventions, and in certain circumstances was capable of putting himself in another person’s position instead of his own. He may have been egocentric, but he was certainly not unworldly.
In 1973, Hulsker was the first to focus attention on ‘Van Gogh as a writer’.40 His aim was to show that, on the evidence of the prose of the letters, that Van Gogh could have been a writer if he had not become an artist, partly in the light of his own words that if he did not succeed as a painter ‘I would either go into the business or I would write’ (710). Hulsker rightly concluded from this that Van Gogh was aware that he was skilled with the pen, but it is unlikely that he was thinking of such strictly literary forms as novels, short stories or poems, for as far as it is known he never tried to write any that would have given him sufficient confidence to try to make a living from his pen (whether or not those attempts survived).41 It seems more probable that he meant that he could devote himself to art criticism, just as ‘go into the business’ must refer to the art trade – the only ‘business’ of which he could claim to have the some understanding.
In his article, Hulsker first characterized the ‘letter style’, which he acknowledged was spontaneous but did not find well thought-out or harmonious. In exoneration he said that Van Gogh’s had ‘thrown [his thoughts] down on the paper in great haste and with inexplicable speed. ... The speed with which he wrote (it was generally done at the end of a tiring day filled with drawing and painting) often made him keep going off at a tangent. His fiery and headstrong character, which did not readily allow him to abandon an idea, was the reason why he so often lapsed into repetition and sometimes returned to an idea ad nauseam’.42 Now there are indications that Van Gogh sometimes wrote in haste, sometimes late at night, sometimes in a break between drawing or painting sessions, but the basis for Hulsker’s ‘inexplicable speed’ is not clear, and it is going a little too far to associate Van Gogh’s general letter-writing style with that. Too many of the letters are long, too considered in their reasoning and too regular in their handwriting. The many later additions and modifications point to some afterthought and care. There are, in other words, too few indications to picture Van Gogh at his desk, as is so often done in the movies, as a harried, obsessed man almost unintentionally slapping things down on paper (or on canvas, for that matter). It is true, though, that he could be stubborn, and Hulsker cites the striking example of the episode in Drenthe, when Vincent wrote his brother letter after letter trying to persuade him to become a painter.
Van Gogh could write very expressively and had a powerful ability to evoke a scene or landscape with well-chosen words. It is tempting to attribute that to his painter’s eye, but it was already patently evident in letters written before 1880. This is borne out by the brief description of a walk near Ramsgate,43 the slightly longer one of a journey from Oudenbosch to Zundert in April 1877,44 the impression of the naval dockyard in Amsterdam during a thunderstorm on an early June morning,45 and almost the entire letter of April 1879 from Wasmes.46 Nature and atmosphere play an important part in such passages, as does the humble existence of simple folk. Yet Van Gogh used normal, everyday language. He was not averse to some sentimentality, but there is no literary lyricism in his writing style.
The letter of 2 November 1883 in which Van Gogh describes his journey on a cart through the Drenthe countryside is often cited as a high point of his talents as a correspondent or prose writer.47 His pen was indeed inspired on that occasion, and his genuine enthusiasm for what he saw and experienced is palpable from his words and sentences. He describes a day starting in the early morning, and in a literary way superbly resolves the arc of suspense in the late evening. This was not Van Gogh’s usual style, however. He was studiously doing his best, and he succeeded. His underlying idea was to entice Theo with the idyllic beauty of the countryside and the fulfilment it could give an artist. This letter was part of the offensive mentioned above to persuade Theo to give up his fine career with Goupil & Cie and travel to Drenthe to become a painter himself. The brothers would form a team and do battle for the good cause as Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Jules and Emile Breton, Guillaume and Félix Régamey, and the Maris brothers had done. Of course this ran counter to any sense of reality or reason. It is clear from Vincent’s letters that Theo dismissed the idea and even, exceptionally, lost his patience, but Vincent stuck to it like a terrier. He used his most literary pen in that letter in order to lend force to his argument, and that is the background to the remark at the end, where he says that such a beautiful day was worth as much as an exhibition of masterpieces that Theo had written about.48

4.2 The recipient’s frame of reference

Another example of a strategic device is the invocation of famous names. Van Gogh sometimes did so openly by saying: if it was good enough for Millet it is good enough for me. But he could also be more subtle and indirect. In a letter to Van Rappard he criticized the Dutch artist Théophile de Bock, who was working in The Hague when Van Gogh was living there. Van Rappard had evidently compared De Bock’s work to that of Jacob van Ruisdael, but that was going a bit too far for Van Gogh. In addition, he made remarks about De Bock’s prosperous appearance. He had seen him on the street twice, ‘in fur coat, kid gloves &c. In short, like someone in extremely flourishing circumstances’ (325). Such an outward display was not to Van Gogh’s taste, but he then dropped the subject. Further on in the letter he suddenly asked Van Rappard whether he knew the portrait of the writer Thomas Carlyle, and went on to discuss his Sartor resartus, the essence of which he summed up as follows: ‘but it's true that he’s honest enough not to call the shirt the skin’. So under the guise of a digression on literature he delivered a parting shot to Théophile de Bock, as well as an indirect one to Van Rappard for praising him.49
The deployment of literature in the letters is an excellent illustration of how Van Gogh gained access to his addressee, as it were, by seeking out his or her frame of reference. This is less noticeable in the letters to Theo because the brothers had pretty much the same taste, and Vincent could assume that Theo was interested in the subjects he broached.50 But very early on, in the letters to Caroline and Willem van Stockum-Haanebeek, literature, and specifically poetry, is a way of making a point. In the first surviving letter to them Van Gogh copied out a long romantic poem by the Flemish poet Jan van Beers. He wrote that it appealed to him because the country life it described was ‘Brabant to a T’, and the fact that it is about an artist must have given it added charm for him. It has the flowery style and rather sentimental tone of literature mentioned directly or indirectly in other letters to the Van Stockums: Longfellow, Michelet, Brentano. The rather lengthy passage about Keats in the letter of 7 August 1873 and the copied poems ‘The eve of Saint Mark’ and ‘To autumn’ would also have been intended to impress this young Hague couple. Keats was not very widely known in the Netherlands at the time, as Van Gogh himself pointed out.
There are also examples of this device in late letters. In those to Willemien he wrote more about literature than to any other correspondent in that period. The reason was not just that he preferred to share his literary interests or knowledge with her but also because Willemien had literary aspirations. Her brother, who was himself an artist and had more experience of life, thus had the opportunity for an exchange of ideas that ran deeper than dutiful family correspondence. He writes about novels and poetry in almost all his letters to her, and is constantly making suggestions as to what she should read. It is also no coincidence that he drew a letter sketch for her of his painting Woman reading a novel, a work he did not actually like very much (720).
One of the few surviving letters to his mother also demonstrates this trick of adopting another frame of reference. Literature could hardly have been a shared interest of theirs, but when he thought that Mrs Van Gogh was getting too worried about Theo’s state of health he tried to divert her by mentioning a story that had nothing at all to do with his own literary interests and everything with his mother’s: an obscure provincial story by a now forgotten Dutch writer.51 This demonstrated not only his good memory but also his ability to choose his examples tactically.

4.3 Stylistic registers and tone

In addition to the subjects, the tone or style were also adapted to fit the recipient. In the letters to Anthon van Rappard one detects a class difference. It was not in Van Gogh’s nature, but he must nevertheless have been a little impressed by his friend’s aristocratic origins. The first letters are accordingly a little stiff and formal, and with a few exceptions the salutation is ‘My dear friend Rappard’, which is in a different register from the one he normally used.52
For Emile Bernard, with whom he had shared a taste of bohemian life in Paris, he adopted a bluff tone and no-nonsense language that are not found elsewhere in the correspondence. The friends were on familiar territory when speaking about prostitutes and visits to the brothel, the relationship between artistry and sex, and so on. Van Gogh had outspoken ideas on these subjects that were related to the health, physical care and food that an artist needed. These issues are one of the main threads in the correspondence with Bernard. He had been brought up in a Dutch clergyman’s tradition and tended by nature to argue and moralize, and the difference in age between them encouraged him even more to play the part of the older and wiser ‘brother’, the more experienced adviser and guide. At the same time, he admired the talent of the young Bernard, who had a nose for new developments and openings in art.
Almost the very opposite crops up from time to time in the letters to Paul Gauguin, the brother-in-arms in the struggle for the new art of whom he had been in awe for a long time, because he regarded him as the leader of the group. That respect reverberates in the letters, which are relatively short and in which he used the formal ‘vous’.53 It is inconceivable that he would have said to anyone else what he meekly wrote to Gauguin: ‘I find my artistic ideas extremely commonplace in comparison with yours’ (695).
When writing to the mayor of Nuenen he adopted an official tone that fitted his formal request for a passport.54 And when he wrote to Mr and Mrs Ginoux, who ran the Café de la Gare in Arles, he tried out a homely, friendly tone, as if not to disturb the small world of these older friends. In essence he did the same towards his mother in his letters from France. He only spoke of his own situation and his work in general terms, and when he was sick he tried to play it down and put her mind at ease. He broached a new subject each time, or asked after other members of the family. With Anton Kerssemakers he was a teacher with his pupil – friendly, but firm and speaking with authority.55

4.4 Argumentation: form is content

In his French period Van Gogh evolved a special rhetorical structure for his arguments. In several cases he sums up the points in support of his opinion, or steps in his reasoning, in separate paragraphs, which are thus not fully rounded assertions. The conclusion is then unveiled in the final paragraph. An example of this is the following passage in which Vincent tries to convince Theo, who had written to say that he sometimes had a feeling of emptiness, that as an art dealer and patron he was making a contribution to art that was as important as that of the artists themselves (letter 650). Having briefly sketched the lamentable position of most painters, he assures his brother:
‘Then remember that you do exactly the same work as these primitive painters, since you provide them with money and you sell their canvases for them, which enables them to produce others.
‘If a painter ruins his character by working hard at painting, which makes him sterile for many things, for family life, &c. &c.
‘If as a consequence he paints not only with paint but with self-denial and self-abnegation and a broken heart.
‘Not only are you not paid for your own work either, but it costs you exactly the same as this effacement of personality, half deliberate, half accidental, costs a painter.’
The first paragraph contains the essence of what Van Gogh wants to assert. In order to underscore this he supplies two arguments or conditions (paragraphs 2 and 3), and he closes with the inevitable conclusion, that he is in the right, which is meant to give Theo some consolation.56

4.5 Metaphor

Van Gogh quite often used metaphors when he had important views to defend or was caught up in an argument, and they could be very ingenious and to the point. ‘Very fine pens, like very elegant people, are sometimes amazingly impractical, and in my view often lack the suppleness or elasticity that most ordinary pens have to some degree’ (325).57 One famous anecdote of his relates to his parents taking him back into their home but treating him like a ‘shaggy dog’: ‘There’s a similar reluctance about taking me into the house as there would be about having a large, shaggy dog in the house. He’ll come into the room with wet paws – and then, he’s so shaggy. He’ll get in everyone’s way. And he barks so loudly. In short – it’s a dirty animal’ (413). The extension of this metaphor over several paragraphs makes this a poignant passage. One finds metaphors almost entirely in situations in which he finds himself in a tight corner and tries to mollify the recipient with figures of speech of this kind. In one or two cases he adds a comic twist and looks for an escape through humour, as when he is worried that Theo will not allow him to keep Sien and her child in the house. He urges Theo to think again at the end of an agitated letter: ‘Adieu, old chap, but before you strike the blow and chop off my head and Christien’s and the child’s too... sleep on it again. But again – if you must – then in God’s name ‘off with my head’. But preferably not, I need it for drawing. (And Christien and the child couldn’t pose without heads.)’ (227) Van Gogh was never a barrel of laughs,58 and certainly not in his Dutch period, so Theo may well have been surprised by this unexpectedly comical tailpiece.
Van Gogh had recourse to elaborate metaphors in his late letters as well. They could sometimes take on the air of a parable, which was undoubtedly a leftover from his early reading of and admiration for the words of Jesus.59 One example of this is the comparison of people’s inability to imagine life after death with the incomprehension of a salad grub that will one day change into a May bug, in other words begin a new life.60 A second example of such a metaphysically charged metaphor in a letter to Theo of early July 1888 is often quoted. ‘Painters – to speak only of them – being dead and buried, speak to a following generation or to several following generations through their works. Is that all, or is there more, even? In the life of the painter, death may perhaps not be the most difficult thing. For myself, I declare I don't know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream. Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France. Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones. To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot’ (638). In the case of literary-sounding passages like this, incidentally, it is quite possible that Van Gogh was deliberately or subconsciously echoing books he had read.
Van Gogh’s metaphors are not always as deep as the last example, but sprinkled throughout the correspondence there is a plethora of striking images and tropes. Yet in general it is precisely the direct and unadorned nature of his style that makes the letters accessible and invites empathy. He may have taken a romantic or idealistic view of reality from time to time, and had a turbulent spirit, but in his use of language and choice of words he was remarkably matter-of-fact.61 At the same time, he did not shy away from genuine sentiment when dealing with inner feelings, and it is that combination that often makes his utterances so pithy. A phrase like ‘Since I love “in reality”’ (181) is terse but charged with meaning. He could express sad feelings or observations in the most everyday words, which makes what he is saying all the more tragic. ‘It appears that I pick up filthy things and eat them, although my memories of these bad moments are vague, and it appears to me that there’s something shady about it, still for the same reason that they have I don’t know what prejudice against painters here. I no longer see any possibility for courage or good hope, but anyway it wasn’t yesterday that we found out that this profession isn’t a happy one’ (797).

4.6 Candid and to the point

Van Gogh usually wrote only if he had something to report or request, and he never beat about the bush. There was always something at stake, and he always pitched his demands high. He drags his addressee to the subject and does not bother with trifles. These characteristics are a major part of the graphic, sometimes startling effect of the letters. Van Gogh very rarely uses a higher idiom or intellectual terms, and when he has to he makes his excuses for doing so.62 The reader’s involvement is increased because he addresses the recipient with ‘ge’ or ‘gij’ (the familiar form of ‘you’), which creates the suggestion of a dialogue, a conversation. Unintentionally, writing to the moment also enlivens the correspondence by involving the reader in the situation when Van Gogh was actually writing, as in a letter to Van Rappard of September 1882 to which he added in a postscript: ‘When I had finished my letter, I went out and came back with another pile of illustrations, namely old Hollandsche Illustraties, so I can add some duplicates to this batch. First 3 very beautiful Daumiers. 1 Jacque. If you have them already, please return them when you get the chance’ (267). Or to Willemien in June 1888: ‘If I didn’t write to you quickly this Sunday morning while the canvases I’ve begun are drying a little in the sun, I would wait even longer to answer your kind letter’ (780).
One aspect that certainly plays a role in the effect that the letters have on the reader is of a very different order but should not go unmentioned, although it is more psychological in nature and is felt rather than being demonstrable. It is the human side of Van Gogh, which he often reveals very succinctly through his direct, unadorned way of writing. On the one hand he can be full of compassion for others and take genuine pity on poor or unfortunate souls. Nowhere is there an indication that he advocated social change. It was a simple fact that some people had hard lives, and he was very sorry for them. On the other hand, he revealed his own vulnerability on many occasions by expressing ideals, by getting into arguments, and by sharing with the reader his outrage, his disappointment, his melancholy, and later his mental illness. In the isolation that he inevitably created through his difficult character, everything became a battle with the world around him and with himself. It is true that his tenacity can cause irritation as much as respect, but there is a tragic element to it that is disarming. It is Van Gogh’s talent as a writer that makes that possible.
Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s saying, ‘the style is the man himself’, is certainly true when it comes to Van Gogh. Lines from the letters chosen at random immediately reveal his pen and his spirit. His strong, sometimes stubborn personality manifests itself to the reader in every passage. The letters and the man are one. It was said above that Van Gogh was aware of his verbal talent. One can wonder whether he took it into account, or even intended that his letters be published one day. We do not believe that he did. Admittedly, he advised Theo to keep letters from artists (589), but he meant artists’ letters in the true sense of the work: an artistic exchange of ideas. It is possible that he felt that his own letters to Gauguin and Bernard fitted in that category to a certain extent, and he knew that his friends showed each other the letters he had written to them. He himself said that he was keeping the letters he received from Bernard.63 Van Gogh’s weakness for the letter as a source of inspiration is also clear from his interest in literature that brought an artist closer to him, such as biographies with extensive quotations from letters, diaries and accounts of studios.64 But nowhere is there any indication that he had the ambition, even secretly, for his letters to make a contribution to the genre. The reverse is more probably the case. All that counted was art, and art had to speak for itself. Even if his work was the cause of interest in himself, as in Albert Aurier’s review in the Mercure de France in January 1890, he scuttled back into his shell as fast as he could.65 The publication of his letters would have been incompatible with that.