Vincent Volume I
Several months ago, I indulged myself with the three volume book of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. I’ve about finished the first volume and thought I’d share some of my thoughts.
These books were compiled by his sister-in-law. What she must have thought as her husband supplied Vincent with basic living expenses and art supplies on a monthly basis for years can only be imagined. And then she painstakingly organized the letters—mostly undated—and promoted his artwork after his death. She may have not had a choice as her husband died shortly after his older brother Vincent so it may have been an economic necessity. Plus she had a house full of drawings and paintings. The letters were written in several languages; Vincent spoke Dutch but also wrote in French and English and a lot! He was also a voracious reader. The series is about seven inches thick and contains only a few tantalizing pictures.
I suppose I’d always thought that Vincent had been rather naïve artistically, working through several careers until his mental problems caught up with him and took up painting as a means of therapy.
While his father was a well-established minister, the other family career was art dealer/gallery owner. Vincent was named after one of his uncles, a prominent art dealer. His first job was in an art gallery where he looked at prints of artwork on a daily basis. He was hopelessly useless at this job, spending most of his time day-dreaming and it wasn’t long before he was sent to England to try working for another gallery—but not family associated. This, too, was a failure and he spent a year or so teaching school in England. He wasn’t very good at this either; and so he decided to enter the ministry. Although he claimed to study hard, he had no talent or patience for the book learning necessary and spent most of his time giving away all his clothing to the poor.
His parents retrieved him from time to time and he lived in a back shed on their property; much to the dismay of the parishioners as he was rather unkempt and prone to taking long walks—just looking! Twenty mile walks to see a particular city—just because he heard it was charming was nothing out of the ordinary. He also fell in love with several women; unbeknownst to one of them and unappreciated. Although charming at times, he was given to bursts of rage and in general was one of those persons we cross to the other side of the street instead of meeting.
However, he worked hard at drawing and painting. He worked from live models, choosing ordinary working people. Describing what he saw and how he tried to draw or paint his subject seemed to be as important as the actual artwork. He was particular about the supplies he used; requesting supplies of Ingres Paper as it was the most responsive to his needs. Marketing his work so he could become self-sufficient through his art was a pervasive theme.
About halfway through the first volume, I was a bit weary with his requests for money. I wished I had the letters from his brother in response to his requests. I wondered why he was not appreciative and receptive to the established artists who reviewed his work and offered suggestions (most of which he ignored).
And then I began to see beyond the daily need to survive and his interest in color and interpretation of life. A few painters/artists focused on common man; Millet being a favorite of Vincent. But most were formal and it is not hard to see why he would have difficulty associating or learning from them. In the true tradition of art, new advances occur with rejection by the established form.
At the end of volume One, he is experimenting with lithographs and sending the results to his brother for review and critique—always with the idea of salability. Without a direct taskmaster, he seemed to set up a daily routine of long walks to refresh his eyes, reading, letter-writing and drawing/painting. If his brushes were no longer functional, he applied paint directly from the tube! He experimented with throwing milk or water on his drawings and re-working them in pencil and then crayon—always trying a new method to get the results he wished. Photography is intriguing; he wonders if a photograph of his drawing could be made and the print made a variety of sizes so as to be more salable.
Volume Two is next; at this point Vincent is supporting a woman and her two children (not his) and had planned to marry her despite his family’s objections. She keeps house for him and poses for him on occasion as do the children. A few drawings are included; Vincent draws on his letters to illustrate certain points; he sends samples of his work to his brother and then requests them back so he can study them and use them as models for paintings.