Vincent Van Gogh’s image is cemented in our cultural memory. His letters complicate the view ~ The Washington Post

“Wheatfield with Crows,” by Vincent van Gogh, 1890. “I’ve painted another three large canvases,” van Gogh wrote to Theo van Gogh and Theo’s wife, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, in 1890. “They’re immense stretches of wheatfields under turbulent skies, and I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness. You’ll see this soon, I hope – for I hope to bring them to you in Paris as soon as possible, since I’d almost believe that these canvases will tell you what I can’t say in words, what I consider healthy and fortifying about the countryside.” (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation))
September 17, 2020


From “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” with Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, to “Pollock,” starring Ed Harris, Hollywood films on the lives of tortured artists have been catnip to the general public, and no artist has gained a larger share of attention than Vincent van Gogh.

Kirk Douglas, in 1956’s “Lust for Life,” cemented the prevailing image of the Dutch artist: a tortured genius, helpless in the grip of a vision that no one else could see. Douglas’s resemblance to van Gogh fixed the artist’s appearance in popular culture, and it is safe to say that today people with only a general knowledge of art can identify van Gogh from one of his self-portraits, thinking of him as the madman who cut off his ear.

The real man was much more complex, the son of a respectable pastor, well-read, fluent in three languages, who began his artistic career as an art dealer. His personality shines through in his letters, portions of which were being published within a couple years of his death in July 1890, widely believed to have been a suicide.

Compelling though he may have been, van Gogh was a difficult character to live with, and his appearance mirrored the turmoil within. “He had a facial tic, and his hands seemed to be in constant motion,” the editors write. “People were often afraid of him, because of his wild and unkempt appearance and his intense manner of speaking.” Some of that wild and unkempt appearance may simply have been a result of poverty, but there is no doubt that van Gogh’s conviction that he was always right could make him as tiresome as a half-inebriated and wholly opinionated cousin at a Thanksgiving table. His younger brother Theo performed miracles to support him and undoubtedly, upon dying, ascended to a well-deserved place at the right hand of God for resisting the temptation to strangle the painter on numerous occasions.

“The correspondence of the great artists and idealists in the history of Western Man is mostly about money,” wrote Kenneth Rexroth, including van Gogh in that number. Even in this brief selection of his letters, money, or the lack thereof, is a constant concern. “Oh, Theo,” he writes in 1883 from The Hague, “I could make much more progress if I was a little better off.” A recurring dream throughout the correspondence is a move to the country or, if he’s already in the country, to some other country setting where a studio will be much less expensive and the food nourishing and cheap.

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