“One must never let the fire go out in one’s soul, but keep it burning.”
It’s taken me a couple of months to finish The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh but not because I didn’t like the book or it wasn’t interesting. On the contrary, I wanted to soak in as much of it as possible and I thought the best way to do that was take it a little bit at a time.
This is a wonderful collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, his confidante and art dealer, in which we are given a glimpse at one of the most important artists of all time. It is perhaps easy to think of him as a mad man but these letters collected from 1873 through 1890 reveal a sensitive man who wanted to devote himself to his art and suffered for it.
In the letters we are privy to what captures Vincent’s attention. His powers of observation and his burning desire to learn his craft. He is articulate and spiritual and has a lot of love towards his family. He was a man who aside from loving art also had a great love for animals, nature and books.
“Must I consider myself a dangerous man, incapable of anything? I do not think so. But the question is to try by all possible means to put those selfsame passions to a good use. For instance, to name one of the passions: I have a more or less irresistible passion for books, and I continually want to instruct myself, to study if you like, just as much as I want to eat my bread.”
How fascinating it is to see someone now considered a master to have had his moments of doubts, to talk about bettering his art and to analyze those masters of art before him and how he admired their work. He would often study paintings and be inspired by the color, the style and subject matter. He not only wanted to produce great art but he believed in art being important to life.
“How rich art is, if one can only remember what one has seen, one is never empty of thoughts or truly lonely, never alone.”
In particular I loved reading about his work process. He would persevere painting the same thing over and over until he felt he got it right. He didn’t often identify these drawings in his letters but in my mind I would wonder which now famous paintings he was referring to. One particular moment that I had to smile at was that he considered The Night Cafe to be one of the ugliest pictures he had ever done.
Perhaps the only parts of the book I didn’t enjoy were the short memoir written by his sister-in-law included in the beginning. That was very dry and just linear. A timeline and family tree would have been enough for me. And, I wish there had been more paintings included in the book, and in color.
Still this book is excellent. There is much more about his struggle with poverty, his associations with other artists, his love affairs, and of course his battles with mental illness but I think this collection really gives us the creative force that drove him. Vincent Van Gogh wanted to make drawings that touch people. If he only knew how much his paintings have gone for now then he would know he achieved his dream.
For me, one of my most favorite paintings has always been The Cafe Terrace at Night. What about you? Do you like his paintings or have a favorite?
This book counts as one of my reads for the Art History Reading Challenge. More updates on my reading challenges progress soon.