2.1 Around 1890

The myth which holds that Van Gogh encountered nothing but misunderstanding during his life is as stubborn as it is explicable. But things are not as black and white as they are thought to be. The steps taken immediately after his death to publicize his work and publish extracts from his correspondence could never have been as successful as they were had they not been preceded by a number of different events. In January 1890 the avant-garde critic Albert Aurier published in his series of articles ‘Les isolés’, an article praising Van Gogh, in Mercure de France, a magazine read at the time by everyone with an interest in modern art.3 Emile Bernard said that he had shown Aurier the letters Van Gogh had written to him, and the sketches and the content had kindled the young critic’s enthusiasm.4 There can be no doubt that Aurier read the letters – the description of Van Gogh’s temperament in his Mercure article is couched in terms taken straight from one of them.5
When Vincent died, Theo wanted Aurier to have the honour of being the first to devote a lengthier publication to his deeply-mourned brother, and he told the critic that other writers had shown an interest – yet another indication that Van Gogh was no longer a complete unknown. Some six weeks after Vincent’s death, Theo wrote to his mother: ‘Last week we had a painter or a friend of Vincent’s to dinner three times, one was Aurier. He thinks he will be able to write a history of Vincent and promised he will often come to root around in his letters. He is someone who makes an extremely good impression. I’m still finding such interesting things in Vincent’s letters, and it would really be a remarkable book if people could see how much he thought and remained true to himself.’6
The writers of exhibition reviews pointed to the unusual aspects of Vincent’s work, sometimes dismissively, but most of the critics were at least intrigued, if not entirely won over.7 The letters of condolence Theo received after Vincent’s death also provide a considerable insight into his early reputation.8 Admittedly, the many compliments they contain might have been prompted in part by consideration for his bereaved relatives, but this apart there was also clearly a sincere regard for the artist.
After his brother’s death Theo felt that he had a mission to find understanding and esteem for his work in collaboration with a small group of sympathetic artists and critics, but his deteriorating health caught up with him. In October 1890, in the advanced stages of syphilis, he suffered a bout of severe mental confusion. He had to be admitted to an asylum, was transferred to a clinic in Utrecht and died in January 1891, just six months after his older brother. Jo van Gogh-Bonger was left a widow at twenty-nine with a small son, Vincent Willem, who had been named after his artist uncle barely a year earlier. Her life had been turned upside down in the space of two years. She left Paris, returned to the Netherlands and opened a guest house in Bussum to provide for herself and her child. She had the responsibility for a large collection of works of art and immediately resolved to continue Theo’s mission – to gain recognition for Vincent’s work. On 14 November 1891 she noted in her diary: ‘Besides the child he [Theo] has bequeathed me another task – Vincent ‘s work – to get it seen and appreciated as much as possible; keeping all the treasures that Theo and Vincent had collected intact for the child – that, too, is my work.’9 Soon after this she wrote, ‘now I’m going to start on the letters in earnest and diligently, before the summer rush begins, they have to be ready,’10 and set herself the goal of publishing Vincent’s letters to Theo. It was to take her until 1914 to achieve it.11 published Vincent van Gogh. Brieven aan zijn broeder.

2.2 Publication of the first extracts: Netherlands 1892-1893

Jo van Gogh-Bonger had opened her guest house in Bussum, a village in the attractive surroundings of the region known as Het Gooi (not far from Amsterdam) where several Dutch artists and writers lived or spent part of the year. Among the people she got to know were the artists Jan Toorop and Richard Roland Holst, and the psychiatrist and writer Frederik van Eeden. She also had regular contacts with the artist and critic Jan Veth, who was married to her old school friend Anna Dirks. Although Jo found that Van Eeden and Veth were initially lukewarm at best about Van Gogh’s art, she insisted that they should also take notice of his letters. Here she met with a degree of success.12
Richard Roland Holst was the first person to make real use of the direct access he had to Van Gogh’s letters. He was one of the organizers of the Van Gogh exhibition that ran in the Kunstzaal Panorama (Amsterdam) from 17 December 1892 to 5 February 1893.13 He produced a Symbolist print inspired by Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for the cover of the accompanying catalogue, and among the works listed he included four brief quotations from the letters, all taken from the later letters in French.14
With the inclusion of quotations from the letters in his catalogue, Roland Holst was the first person to publicly establish a connection between Van Gogh’s work and his letters, but it would have reached a small and almost exclusively Dutch audience. This changed in August 1893 when longer extracts appeared in the Dutch-language Belgian avant-garde magazine Van Nu en Straks.15 The young artist Henry van de Velde, the editor responsible for the design of the journal, in consultation with the editor-in-chief August Vermeylen, chose passages from nine letters in Dutch and four in French. He preceded them with an introduction in which he explained the editors’ intention in simple and unmistakable terms: ‘to establish a memorial to praise Vincent van Gogh’. Van Gogh’s work had been exhibited at the Salon of Les Vingt in Brussels in January 1890 and in February 1891, and now, yet again, Belgium proved more receptive than any other country to the controversial Dutchman.16
The passages for Van Nu en Straks were selected to reflect and underline the magazine’s progressive artistic and social ideology: it was time for a new, modern art that derived from and served the people, but without sacrificing the artist’s individuality. There were considerable parallels with the Arts and Crafts movement, and the magazine’s aesthetic typography and design was a manifestation of this.17 There were illustrations of three landscape drawings and a portrait of Van Gogh by Horace Mann Livens, whom Van Gogh had got to know in the months he lived in Antwerp. Vignettes by the Dutch artists Johan Thorn Prikker, Toorop and Roland Holst accompanied the text.
Van de Velde was greatly impressed by Van Gogh’s work at the exhibition at Les Vingt in Brussels in 1890. He was to visit Jo van Gogh-Bonger at home in May 1894.18 Vermeylen went to see her in December 1892 to discuss the publication of extracts of the letters in Van Nu en Straks.19 Jo, for her part, must have seen this as a great opportunity, for when the batch of letters and drawings she sent to the editors went missing she immediately sent others.20

2.3 Mercure de France 1893-1897

The series of extracts from the letters that Emile Bernard published in the Mercure de France from April 1893 onwards, a project that continued with some interruptions until August 1897, was of inestimable importance in the generation of interest in Van Gogh as an artist and certainly in his letters as an eminently readable personal testimony.21
After Jo van Gogh-Bonger went back to the Netherlands,22 it was Bernard who shouldered Theo van Gogh’s task in France and tried to bring Vincent’s work to the attention of the public. Jo’s brother Andries was also involved in the early years, but his role was confined almost wholly to providing practical support for Jo, at least in so far as tensions between the pair permitted.23 In September 1890 Bernard had helped Theo to stage an exhibition in Theo and Jo’s apartment in the cité Pigalle, and as early as the summer of 1889 he had tried to champion Van Gogh’s work while the artist was in the asylum in Saint-Rémy. He sent a brief review to Albert Aurier, editor of the magazine Le Moderniste. Bernard’s contribution was not published; a few months later Aurier’s own article appeared in Mercure de France.
Bernard first published on Van Gogh in 1891, in the series Les hommes d’aujourd’hui (‘Men of Today’).24 In April 1892 he organized an exhibition at Galerie Le Barc de Boutteville in rue Le Pelletier in Paris, where sixteen paintings and a number of drawings were on show for a month.25 The collection had been in Paris for some time after Theo’s death, and he urged Jo van Gogh-Bonger to leave it in France because he believed that this would best serve the interests of Van Gogh’s reputation.26
Bernard was one of those who appreciated early on that the letters could help make Van Gogh’s artistic aspirations understandable. But he also recognized their intrinsic value as documents humains, and believed that a wider public might be interested in them. In the article in Les hommes d’aujourd’hui he observed that an edition of the letters he had received from Van Gogh ‘would have novelty and appeal’. By publishing excerpts from the letters, as he later explained, Bernard wanted ‘to try to make Vincent appreciated by revealing his spirit, his struggle, his life. There was nothing more powerful than his letters. After reading them, you would doubt neither his sincerity, nor his character, nor his originality; you would find everything there.’27 The first four instalments, which appeared monthly from April to July, were taken from Van Gogh's letters to Bernard himself, who wrote in the introduction to the April issue: ‘He was the noblest human character one could meet: frank, open, alert to the possible, with a certain trace of comical mischievousness; an excellent friend, an implacable judge, utterly without egoism or ambition, as his so simple letters show, in which he is as much himself as in his countless canvases.’28
Bernard devoted a great deal of time and thought to the modest editing he had to do for the Mercure publication. A passage in a letter to Andries Bonger of 31 December 1892 gives us an insight into his difficulties: ‘I copied out part of the letters, it’s very time-consuming and fiddly work. I am often forced to complete unfinished sentences and to follow ideas through impenetrable mazes. At other times it’s as clear as water from a spring. What do you think of this idea, for example: Luther is the great light of the Middle Ages. Luther in the Middle Ages and an assertion of that kind, that could damage Vincent... Should such things be included? Tell me frankly what you think.’29 Bernard, as this reveals, wanted to protect Van Gogh from his supposed mistakes or exaggerations, and in the Mercure version he consequently replaced Van Gogh’s ‘Middle Ages’ with ‘the Renaissance’.30
Bernard selected five main themes from the correspondence: seventeenth-century Dutch painting, new painting, descriptions of Van Gogh’s work and progress, Van Gogh’s reactions to Bernard’s work, and his views on religion and society. The instalments were illustrated with works by Van Gogh, mainly letter sketches and drawings.
On a later occasion – the publication of the integrated version in 1911 – he wrote that in selecting the extracts he had refrained from including personal issues relating to himself or other people. ‘Rather than publishing all of them straightaway, it was necessary, so to speak, to extract only their essence, so that the desired goal might be attained through cautious contact between the public mind and Van Gogh’s mind. In publishing these fragments in the Mercure de France, I therefore took the position of reproducing nothing that could wound through coarseness of language, crudity of expression, of publishing nothing relating to myself, of giving only the initials of friends involved in our lives in those days.’31 And the extracts, presented in a fairly random order, do indeed reveal little if anything about private circumstances or intimacies; the scabrous tone in some of the letters is also avoided. Bernard did dare to include the following line: ‘Painting and loving women are not compatible; and that’s what’s really damned annoying’. However, the original text was a good deal earthier: ‘Painting and fucking a lot are not compatible; it weakens the brain, and that’s what’s really damned annoying’ (letter 628). Another and perhaps more insidious form of this exercise of discretion is that he twice edited out Signac’s name because there was bad blood between them.
The letters to Bernard were followed by excerpts from letters to Theo: nine instalments in the period August 1893 to February 1895, with a final flourish delayed to August 1897. Bernard was also responsible for this series. He had borrowed the letters from Theo’s widow, who also paid for the plates for the illustrations to the letters, as her account book reveals.32 On 28 June 1896, when Bernard, who was in Cairo at the time, mailed back these letters, he wrote to her: ‘pray God that they may be published properly one day, in their entirety’.33
The Mercure publications had the desired effect. In the first place they brought Van Gogh’s letters to the attention of the magazine’s international, modern-minded readership, among them artists and literary figures, art lovers and collectors. The prestige of the magazine meant that the letters were also mentioned in articles and magazine reviews in the European press reporting on special events in the art world.34 This brought the letters to a still wider public in a very short time. The extracts in the Mercure were rapidly translated into other languages. The poet Johannes Jørgensen, for instance, published several letters to Bernard in the Danish magazine Politiken.35 A full bibliography of letter translations in this period does not exist, but there can be no doubt that translations of the Mercure letters were also published elsewhere. They certainly were in Germany.

2.4 Germany in the first decade of the twentieth century

While Belgium was one of the first countries where Van Gogh’s work achieved recognition among a small avant-garde circle, it was also appreciated by progressive art lovers and connoisseurs in the artistically turbulent Germany of the turn of the century.36 In both cases the focus was on the innovative work of Van Gogh’s French years, and again the recognition was supported by publications: the majority of the correspondence that had meanwhile become available dated from the same period.
The name Cassirer is involved in the early dissemination of Van Gogh’s name in Germany in two ways. In 1898 the cousins Paul and Bruno Cassirer established an art gallery and publishing house. They parted company in 1901, and from that moment on Paul, the art dealer, was one of the driving forces behind the spread of Van Gogh’s work in Germany, while Bruno, the publisher, did the same for the letters.37 From 1902 Bruno Cassirer published the magazine Kunst und Künstler; edited by the critic Emil Heilbut; it focused on fine and applied art.38 In the 1904 and 1905 issues he published a series ‘Aus der Korrespondenz Vincent van Goghs’ – German translations of extracts of letters that had been in Mercure de France and Van Nu en Straks. They were illustrated with letter sketches, drawings and paintings.39
Kunst und Künstler reached the specific group of people interested in art, but in 1906 Bruno Cassirer built the bridge to a much wider, more general readership by collecting the translated letters in a separate book, Vincent van Gogh, Briefe, which was essentially an anthology of the (late) correspondence. The edition contained twelve illustrations of works and was edited by the translator Margarete Mauthner, who was also a collector and owned several drawings and paintings by Van Gogh – all from the artist’s period in the South of France. More than ten reprints appeared in various forms (differing numbers of illustrations, de luxe or cheaper book designs and the like).40 Bruno Cassirer and his publishing activities thus made a considerable contribution to the letters’ fame in Germany, the country where Van Gogh struck the greatest chord in the decades after 1900.41

2.5 Netherlands, 1905: letters to Anthon van Rappard

Van Gogh’s letters to Emile Bernard, an artist’s letters in the true sense, are a sampler of Van Gogh’s thinking about life and art in the last years of his career as an artist. The equivalent in the early years are the letters he wrote in Dutch to Anthon van Rappard, who like Van Gogh was searching for his place in the art world and seeking the same sorts of subjects, such as labourers and farm workers, even though his social background and his art training could not have been more different.42 .
It is conceivable that the series of Mercure publications prompted the idea of publishing the letters to Van Rappard, who died in 1892.43 They appeared in 1905 in the second year of publication of Kritiek van Beeldende Kunsten en Kunstnijverheid. The monthly magazine printed a selection of the Van Rappard letters in every issue that year, occasionally accompanied by a brief discussion of Van Gogh. The August issue was actually devoted to him in its entirety and included a lengthy overview by Albert Plasschaert, the magazine’s senior editor. The letters were not illustrated.
More widespread recognition of Van Gogh’s work came about later in the Netherlands than in other countries, even though exhibitions had been staged in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague soon after his death. In contrast to the situation in Germany, it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Dutch part of his oeuvre that won the greatest acclaim. Many early works that had never been exhibited before were shown at three sensational exhibitions in 1903 at the Kunstzalen Oldenzeel in Rotterdam.44 The publication of the Van Rappard letters in Kritiek van Beeldende Kunsten en Kunstnijverheid coincided with an important moment in the Dutch reception of Van Gogh – the major retrospective in the summer of the same year in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. There were some 450 works on show, both drawings and paintings, most of them from Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s collection. The introduction to the catalogue was written by her second husband, Johan Cohen Gosschalk, who also quoted from the letters and printed a series of excerpts at the back of the book.45