Vincent van Gogh: renowned for his Potato Eaters, his Starry Night and his pricey Sunflowers paintings, but also for his long struggle with depression (that cut-off ear!) and subsequent suicide. A painter not merely known for his art. So much even that in 1935, when the Museum of Modern Art hosted the first exhibition of his work on American soil, the artist and prankster Hugh Troy made the somewhat cynical assumption that many of those who flocked to the show were actually more intrigued by the lurid details of van Gogh's life than by his his bold style and vivid palette. So he cobbled up an 'ear' from chipped beef and sneakily mounted it in a small blue velvet display case above a card reading: 'This was the ear that Vincent van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, 24 December 1888.' Troy's case was duly found by gallery staff and, prominently displayed, soon became a major crowd puller. Which in turn allowed Troy to examine Van Gogh's works in peace. QED.
But of course there's more to this Dutch painter than tales of extraordinary madness and self-mutilation. More than his art even. Because Van Gogh was also an avid writer of letters. Letters of which the content ranged from the mundane to musings on art. And not just the visual arts. In the recently published Van Gogh. A Literary Mind, Wouter van der Veen notes that in the painter's surviving correspondence at least 150 authors and around 800 literary works are being mentioned. The lettters are such an important mirror of Van Gogh's daily life and artistic opinions that Irving Stone based his biographical novel Lust for Life (which in turn provided the bedrock for the eponymous MGM film with a suitably red-haired Kirk Douglas as the painter himself - the ear incident can be seen here) largely on the letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo.
Last week, after fifteen years of intensive research carried out at the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Instute in The Hague, the complete Van Gogh correspondence appeared in French, Dutch and English. An edition covering 6 volumes with 819 letters written by Van Gogh and 83 sent to him.
Van Gogh certainly knew his way around a brush, but he also had ample penmanship. Illustrating his letters with sketches and drawings, he reflected on the work of various and very diverse artists, and did so with great gusto. In this edition of his correspondence, each work of art he mentions gets a picture as well, which amounts to a vast number of c. 4,300 reproductions. Thus the reader also gets a peek at the works that inspired the master.
There's more than the books however. At www.vangoghletters.org one can browse through the letters themselves and their annotations. Facsimiles, sketches and all the trimmings are included in this state-of-the-art biographical and art-historical treasure trove.
Van Gogh - The Letters (edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten & Nienke Bakker) can be ordered from Amsterdam University Press.