Van Gogh Letters Now Online

Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The Van Gogh Museum had released a complete online database of the artist's letters. The database includes translations of the texts and interactive footnotes. Be sure not to miss the quick guide containing easy-to-follow instructions on the many features of the database.

Van Gogh's letters show method, not madness

AMSTERDAM — While Vincent van Gogh has become almost as famed for his troubled mind as for his paintings, a new exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum seeks to remind us there was more method than madness to his style. In honor of the publication of a new compendium of all the artist's known correspondence, the museum has put more than 100 personal letters in which he discusses his craft on display alongside the actual paintings. Museum Director Axel Ruger said the exhibit, opening Friday, is arranged to make a visitor feel "as if you are being led through the collection with Van Gogh giving commentary on his own work." Seeing the letters next to the paintings underlines Van Gogh's professionalism, which is sometimes overlooked amid spectacular biographical details such as his mental illness, his apparent amputation of part of his own left ear after a quarrel, and his suicide in 1890 at age 37. In the letters — known from recent books and films — Van Gogh writes about both the philosophy of painting and the technical details. "I'm working on those peasants around a dish of potatoes again," he said in a letter to his brother Theo on April 9, 1885, referring to one of his earliest masterpieces, "The Potato Eaters." The note also contains a sketch of the painting. Van Gogh, who was influenced by the Impressionists, said he felt there was "life" in the piece, which he started in the day and continued working on by lamplight on a large canvas. "The beautiful effects of the light in nature require one to work very fast" he said, adding he didn't feel he could yet compare with 17th-century Dutch masters such as Rembrandt. "At the point where I now am, though, I see a chance of giving a felt impression of what I see ... (but) never exactly — for one sees nature through one's own temperament." The compendium includes all 820 known letters by Van Gogh, tracing his youth and late start as a painter to his spectacular blossoming in the late 1880s. "The number of letters isn't really unusual but the literary quality of the letters, that's special," said Curator Leo Jansen, one of three experts who spent 15 years on the project. "You literally can't find it in any other artist: he was painter and writer at the same time." Van Gogh's letters were previously translated to English in 1958. The new compendium includes 20 new letters as well as complete versions of some letters previously only published in part. More importantly, Jansen said, it gives more precise translations and includes reproductions of more than 2,000 paintings Van Gogh makes reference to. In all, it offers an unusually complete picture of the mental world of one of the world's great artists. For Van Gogh fans not interested in buying the 6-volume set, the entire compilation has been put online as a free, searchable database in French, Dutch and English — the three languages in which the painter wrote. The database includes images of the sketches contained within in the letters, which are often stunning in their own right. "Here's a sketch of the latest canvas I'm working on, another sower," Van Gogh said in a letter to his brother Theo, on Nov. 21, 1888. "Immense lemon yellow disc for the sun," he wrote. "Green-yellow sky with pink clouds. The field is violet, the sower and the tree Prussian blue. " Van Gogh goes on to specify that he planned to put it on a size No. 30 canvas, 91 centimeters x 72 centimeters (about 36 x 28 inches.) The drawing is easily identifiable as one of several versions of "The Sower" on display at the museum. Jansen said that letter is not at all unusual — Van Gogh often gave indications of the colors he planned to use, and sometimes went further in describing the effect he was chasing by using certain color combinations. Though Van Gogh was a social and financial failure, selling just one work in his lifetime, "he was not a hysterical, irrational man: he was very methodical," Jansen said. "He chooses his goal very carefully and works toward it step by step." The book and Web site were published on Oct. 6; the museum exhibition opens Oct. 9, 2009 and runs through Jan. 3, 2010.

---posted by JMB


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