Van Gogh’s letters are crucial for the knowledge about his life and work that has been accrued over more than a century. They help us to arrange the oeuvre in chronological order and to understand the artistic ambitions that lay behind it, and it is with that in mind that they have been endlessly consulted and interpreted in many catalogues and other publications. The letters also give an insight into the artist’s driven personality and some of his trials and tribulations. Biographers have made intensive use of them, and still do. They also contain essential pointers to Van Gogh’s intellectual development, both in the important 1870s and during his career as an artist. A synthesizing intellectual biography has yet to be written, but substantial steps towards one have been taken in recent years.
The priceless data in the letters on all kinds of subjects form a network within which the significance of a letter or passage cannot be seen in isolation from the whole, while one has to oversee the whole in order to weigh the detail. There is much that is not what it appears to be, and in most cases this means that much is more than what it appears to be at first sight. ‘Writing is actually an awful way to explain things to each other’, Van Gogh wrote to his brother.99 That sounds paradoxical, coming from someone with such an obvious epistolary talent. But he could know that better than anyone else, and for the readers and students of his letters it is a warning to be careful about interpretation and exegesis.