Snow was again falling outside the window as I woke up yesterday. Perhaps this is why something colorful caught my eye on the book shelf: Van Gogh: Letters from Provence (selected by Martin Bailey, Collins and Brown, 1990). Yes, I decided, today I would take a trip to the south of France and bathe in the sun palette of Vincent Van Gogh.
I bought this book a few years ago and had only flipped through it. But something nudged me to read it carefully. Once absorbed into the correspondence so thoughtfully presented by the editor, I could not leave Van Gogh's words until the final letter was written, folded into a shirt pocket, and taken to that God-forsaken wheat field.
Some things I learned:
All of Van Gogh's greatest paintings were created within the last three years of his life (in his final 18 days, he finished 11 paintings...11!) It was a phenomenal rate of work. If you read his letters, his mental state was so frail at times, I don't know how he channeled the strength.
His brother Theo was one of the most supportive brothers ever to be documented.
Van Gogh's letters are fluid and descriptive even as he dips in and out of illness. He sees the world of color vividly. Here is an example from a letter to Theo, describing a canvas he is working on:
The town is blue and violet, the gas [house light] is yellow and the reflections russet-gold down to greenish-bronze. On the blue-green expanse of the sky, the Great Bear [star constellation] sparkles green and pink, its discreet pallor contrasts with the harsh gold of the gas.
Van Gogh copied several of his paintings, to make duplicates to sell and give away, an interesting discovery, as I think of these masterpieces as being singular.
The wealth of personal story these letters record... if texting had been around then, we would not have anywhere near the detailed insight into his inner struggles. Imagine:
Theo: U OK?
He certainly would not have been able to paint without writing the letters; they were a spiritual life-line. Theo often sent financial support in letters, as well.
The book comes, of course, to it's sad finale. Van Gogh, after struggling probably all his life with mental inbalances, shot himself at age 36. What a collection of work he left us with though, pieces that turn white into gold, night into day, winter into spring. I don't think I'll view a Van Gogh again in the same way.
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