5.1 Paper and ink

The words ‘Van Gogh’s correspondence’ immediately make one think of a book in several volumes, and with the appearance of this digital edition perhaps the computer screen will be added to that visual association in due course. But these, of course, are conversions from the original supports: the manuscripts, the sheets of paper written on with pen and ink or pencil. The regularity and clarity of the printed letters and the design essentially violate the manuscripts. Hulsker said of this: ‘To read Van Gogh’s letters in printed form is an unforgettable experience for most of us; seeing them in the original has an added emotional value which is difficult to describe’.66 That is absolutely true, and it remains true even after one has become acclimatized through years of research. But the levelling, reductive effect of print detracts not only from the ‘emotional value’. A typeface and the inevitable typographical regimentation mask all sorts of physical aspects of the original correspondence which are part and parcel of transmitting a message on paper and of the historical nature of documents. Even facsimiles, in printed67 or digital form, as in this edition, entail a loss of information.
The present method of storing the pages and modern ideas about conservation prevent us from viewing the letters as they were preserved by Theo. In her preface to the 1914 edition of the letters, Jo van Gogh-Bonger wrote: ‘When as Theo’s young wife I entered in April, 1889, our flat in the cité Pigalle in Paris, I found in the bottom of a small desk a drawer full of letters from Vincent, and week after week I saw the soon familiar yellow envelopes with the characteristic handwriting increase in number’.68 Only a few of the envelopes survive today.69 Jo probably threw all the others away herself, but almost certainly not before using them for the preparation of the first Dutch publication, Brieven aan zijn broeder (Letters to his brother), for she added a precise date in her own hand to several letters, which we can only explain by assuming that she used the postmarks on the envelopes.70
Van Gogh used various types of paper for his letters. In the early years it was usually of quite good quality, quite often laid paper, sometimes with a watermark, embossing or a watermark ruling. Occasionally he used the notepaper of Goupil & Cie, which had a letterhead (see, for example, letter 39). The different types alternated, and there was no one kind that was used uninterruptedly over a long period. In addition, there are examples of paper that was not intended for letter-writing but was used for lack of anything better, such as an envelope from one of Theo’s letters (750), and letter 92 from Isleworth, which was written on an examination form. This does not mean that Van Gogh did not care what kind of paper he used. This is clear from a remark in his letter of 19 May 1877: ‘Yesterday Uncle Cor sent me a batch of old paper, such as the sheet on which I’m writing to you. Isn’t it wonderful for doing my work on?’ (114). Unintentionally, this quotation reveals something about Van Gogh’s use of paper, and that is that good paper was not taken for granted. It was quite expensive, and laying in a stock of it was a painful expense for a fervent but penurious correspondent. Most of the letters written after 1880 are on not very de luxe to sometimes very cheap paper. One common type consists of fairly thin sheets of drab paper squared with a grid, the squares usually measuring 8 x 4 mm or 4 x 4 mm. Other types were also used in the Dutch period, but the letters written in France are mostly on this type of paper.
Van Gogh usually folded the sheets to form four pages,71 and used the entire sheet. If one sheet was not enough he would add a fresh half or whole sheet. In all there are some 1,200 surviving sheets making up 3,800 pages of letters. Letters covering one page or less are relatively rare.72 The longest letter (228) runs to 16 pages. The usual length was 4 pages, in the case of 390 letters, while the average length is 4.2 pages.
The thinness of the paper was important to keep postage down, certainly if a letter consisted of more than one folded sheet. At the same time, that is one of the reasons why the sheets are now so fragile, that and the fact that the paper has become brittle with age. This is particularly true along the central vertical fold of the sheet dividing it into four pages. The sheets are not too badly discoloured. They have darkened a little with age but have not suffered significantly as a result. Sad exceptions are the letters that were exposed to light for a long time in the past, some of which were probably framed and hung on the wall because of the sketches they contained. This applies to several sheets in the Van Gogh Museum, and also to a number in private collections.
Another threat is posed to the letters by iron-gall ink corrosion. In the period 1880-1885, in particular, Van Gogh often used iron-gall ink, which in the course of time reacted with water vapour in the air, with the result that the paper was literally eaten away by acid.73 The more ink that was used the stronger the reaction, which has led to the letter sketches, in particular, becoming extremely fragile. In some cases the process is so far advanced that the other side of the page has turned dark brown and made the text illegible, and a few sheets even have large holes in them.74
Fortunately, Van Gogh also used less harmful inks. Today the ink of most of the letters is grey or brown, but that says little about its original colour. A black ink can turn brown or greyish blue, and the same applies to dark blue ink. Truly deep black ink is now only found in a relatively small number of letters. Odd discolorations are found in several letters from Arles, where Van Gogh regularly used aniline ink. It was probably a deep purple in colour, and has now discoloured to violet, greyish blue or light brown, but so unevenly that while one part of a sheet is heavily discoloured the rest is less so or has retained its original colour.75
One striking feature of the manuscripts in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum is the presence of annotations made by people other than Van Gogh. Many of them relate to later publications, but some were made by Theo, who must have pored over the letters shortly after his brother’s death, and in particular those from the last period of his life. A few times he wrote ‘Lettre superbe’ in pencil, among others at the bottom of letter 823, the envelope of which has survived, on which there is another note by Theo consisting of the same words followed by ‘à reproduire presqu’en entière. Les oliviers’ (‘to be reproduced almost in its entirety. The olive trees’). At the bottom of letter 806 he wrote ‘Voir ce qu’il destine à Maman’ (‘See what he intends to give Mother’).76 And on the unfinished letter that Vincent had with him when he tried to commit suicide Theo wrote: ‘Lettre qu’il portait sur lui le 27 Juillet’ (‘The letter he had on him on 27 July’).77 It is conceivable that Theo made these notes in connection with his plans to have an article written about Vincent.78 There are also more prosaic notes on the letters, such as laundry lists, addresses and calculations.79
Other marks and notes are in the handwriting of Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Mention has already been made of the dates she added. In addition, the letters that she included in her 1914 publication were numbered by her in pencil, and it can be seen that some of those numbers were corrected one or more times.80 Of a totally different nature is the highlighting of particular passages, mostly in the Dutch letters, by the insertion of lines and square brackets in pencil. Many of them are passages that Jo van Gogh-Bonger omitted in her edition of the letters.81
There are also annotations of uncertain origin. There are lines in the margin marking the importance or special nature of a passage, or crosses that had a similar function. Sometimes the names of the subjects of Van Gogh’s works are repeated in the margin.82 In addition, some words and sentences are underlined, most of them pithy sayings or revealing personal remarks. When those underlinings are in pencil it is obvious that they were made by third parties,83 but some are in ink of a shade that cannot always be distinguished from Van Gogh’s, so it is not clear whether they were made by him or someone else. In previous editions these passages were always italicized, but in many cases we considered it unlikely that Van Gogh wanted to give the passage added emphasis by highlighting the beauty, profundity or particular interest of his words.84
There are also annotations and markings of various kinds on letters that are not in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum, such as those on the letter to Aurier (853), which are instructions for the typesetter for publication in Aurier’s Oeuvres posthumes (1893), and the lines surrounding a sketch and typesetting instructions on the letter to Bernard of 7 June 1888 (622), which relate to the inclusion of the sketch as an illustration in Bernard’s 1911 edition of Van Gogh’s letter to him.85

5.2 Neatness and handwriting

As mentioned in the section on the nineteenth-century letter-writing culture, there were certain conventions that had to be observed, and the neatness of a letter was considered to have a bearing on the impression that the contents made on the recipient. Van Gogh clearly took liberties in this respect. The letters are still neat in the years up to around 1875, but the more he began to distance himself from the prevailing conventions in his private life, the freer the appearance of his letters became. The growing length of the letters forced him to use smaller handwriting, and he often placed additions in the margin or between the lines. He also crossed out many mistakes, which was rarely necessary in the earliest letters. It seems he became less concerned about the appearance of what he wrote. This would not have bothered Theo and friends like Van Rappard and Gauguin, even though they wrote neater letters.86 However, in those cases where the relationship to the recipient was more distant, Van Gogh must undoubtedly have surprised his addressees more than once with his unconventional way of writing.
His handwriting is not that difficult to read, particularly after one has got used to it.87 Comparison of the earliest letters with those from the French period show that it evolved from a rather stiff and schoolboyish form into a more personal and distinctive one, as is the case with almost everyone. This barely affected legibility, partly because he had quite an upright and open hand and usually wrote with a fine-nibbed pen. The most difficult letters to read are those in which he resorted to a minuscule, cramped hand, with many words to the line and many lines to the page, which applies in particular to the Amsterdam letters. Reading them is made more complicated by the fact that Van Gogh often wrote very long sentences and, as noted above, was very sparing in his use of punctuation, capital letters and the like. Sometimes he must have put his recipients severely to the test.
One oddity about his writing that gives editors trouble is the way in which he emphasized words. Not only did he underline them, as is customary, but if he wanted to give something added emphasis he underlined it again and again, up to four or five times. This is mainly found in vehement passages written when he was clearly agitated. He often combined that technique with individual letters written larger or more thickly. One of the most striking examples is the letter in which he complains to Theo about their father’s refusal to meet him halfway as regards living at home again in the parsonage in Nuenen. He seems to have gone to considerable lengths to communicate his anger through his handwriting, although we must nevertheless assume that he was too emotional to spend extra time on it.88 A second example is the way in which he tried to convince Theo that he was not acting lightly by living with Sien and was arguing ‘in damned earnest’. He wrote this, in English, in very large letters indeed, and underlined it for good measure with a paintbrush dipped in ink.89
Quite often, too, Van Gogh emphasized the names of artists and writers and the titles of their works. His usual technique here was to modify his handwriting, either by writing the name or title in slightly larger letters or by making them more upright, looser and more widely spaced, comparable to the way in which block letters are used nowadays, such as ‘Bing’ in letter 637, the words ‘si nous ne savons que faire’ in letter 655, the word ‘Tournesols’ in letter 667, or the classical epitaph that he quotes in letter 753.
One last noteworthy feature is that Van Gogh’s handwriting was often not constant within a letter. In his later years there were two variants: a sloping, cursive hand, and one that is more upright and open. He often managed to keep to the hand with which he had opened the letter, but the letters in which the variants occur are by no means the exception. Sometimes one and the same page shows changes in the ductus (the rhythm, angle of slope and compactness of the handwriting) and in the spacing of words and lines. This could indicate that Van Gogh broke off writing and returned to the letter later, even it was only to pause for thought. Moreover, the letters themselves tell us that he composed them in stages between making drawings or paintings. In a few cases it can be assumed that the weak light of the lamp at night combined with the alcohol he had drunk were the cause of his handwriting getting larger and broader.90 The opposite of this nonchalance, and a mark of respect for his recipient, is his letter to his mother of July 1889 (788). He opted for a neat and almost stiff, mechanically penned hand in order to make the letter as easy as possible for her to read. Once again, though, we see several changes in the ductus, and Van Gogh would not have been Van Gogh if he did not write increasingly freely towards the end of the letter, switching to his normal handwriting.