A beautiful mind

A beautiful mind

Van Gogh’s letters, recently re-published after fifteen years of research, stand as a literary monument of an extraordinary artistic life. Art critic Martin Gayford reads between the lines of this fascinating record to introduce ‘The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters’, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these fragile letters alongside the paintings in the most important Van Gogh show in London for 40 years.


Early in 1891, a young Dutch woman found herself widowed. She had been married for less than two years, and she had a small child. Her husband had died under distressing circumstances while still in his mid-30s. He had left her a vast quantity of apparently unsaleable pictures executed by his eccentric older brother, and innumerable letters from the same difficult and also dead relation, whom she had met on only a few occasions.

Many women under such circumstances would have thrown the whole lot away, and started searching for a new spouse. Instead, however, she devoted herself to promoting the reputation of the pictures and publishing the letters – and of course, posterity is most grateful that she did, because she was Johanna, wife of Theo van Gogh and sister-in-law of Vincent.

This autumn a new edition of these letters is published by the Van Gogh Museum. The most accurately translated and fully annotated to date, it runs to five richly illustrated volumes plus a sixth one of commentary and is the product of fifteen years of scholarly work. It was worth the effort because Van Gogh’s 819 surviving letters are a literary monument, as extraordinary in their way as his achievement in painting and drawing. To many artists and art lovers this correspondence is sacred text: a bible of modern art, a record of a life lived that is as moving and eloquent as any ever made. Van Gogh cared so deeply about words, his own and others, that he wrote to Emile Bernard on 19 April 1888 (letter no 599 in the new edition of the The Letters): ‘There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don’t you think, it’s as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing.’

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