Immortal Words (Eileen Doughty)

Van Gogh’s letter

One page of a letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Émile Bernard, Arles, France, March 1888 (pen and brown ink). Note the words for colors in the sketch.

It is fairly well known that Vincent Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters, mostly to his brother Theo and some to fellow artist Gauguin. However he also wrote at least 20 to a lesser-known artist, Émile Bernard, 15 years younger than Van Gogh. They had met in 1886, and Van Gogh became his mentor. Most of these letters, along with related paintings, drawings, and watercolors by both artists were the subject of an exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City: Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Emile Bernard.

From the museum’s website (which also has images of some of the letters, and translations):

Van Gogh’s letters to Bernard reveal the tenor of their relationship. Van Gogh assumed the role of an older, wiser brother, offering praise or criticism of Bernard’s paintings, drawings, and poems. At the same time the letters chronicle van Gogh’s own struggles, as he reached his artistic maturity in isolation in Arles and St. Rémy. Throughout the letters are no less than twelve sketches by van Gogh meant to provide Bernard with an idea of his work in progress, including studies related to the paintings The Langlois Bridge, Houses at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries, The Sower, and View of Arles at Sunset.

These letters discussed artistic issues of interest to them both, what was going on in the art world, with other artists, and critiques of Bernard’s work. They were written toward the end of Van Gogh’s life, when his psychological situation was nearing his final crisis of suicide in 1890.

From a letter where Van Gogh is thinking of painting a starry night:

“…just as I shall paint a green meadow studded with dandelions, but how to arrive at that? … But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind? Alas, alas, it’s just as our excellent pal Cyprien says, in En ménage by J. K. Huysmans, the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed but which one doesn’t make. But it’s a matter of attacking them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel vis-à-vis the ineffable perfections of nature’s glorious splendors.”

From a review in the NY Sun:

Van Gogh’s letters, like his pictures, reinforce that art is visual, expressive, and intuitive; yet they also emphasize the fact that art is ordered, logical, and rational. The making of art, like the experience of art, is a titillation of the mind no less than the senses. Van Gogh’s writings cannot explain or replace the experience of his paintings and drawings; but there is something reassuring about the power of the artist’s word when, standing before a work of his art, words fail us.

How wonderful to read Van Gogh’s expressive thoughts on art and artists, breaking down our modern stereotype of him as the crazy man; to read his neatly-written cursive, and study his impromptu sketches on the cream-colored pages. How lucky we are that Van Gogh was a letter-writer, and that these bits of paper were saved and preserved.

In our internet age, we we share our words and our images with hundreds or thousands of others via email, websites, and blogs. What do we lose by not seeing the stream-of-consciousness handwriting of the artist, but only the generic black and white of a standard font, nicely sanitized by easy editing and spell-checking, displayed on a flat white screen?

Is information immortal? Paper decays or is thrown away, whole libraries sometimes go up in flames. Virtual information is lost when a hosting company closes without notice, technology changes, or a hard-drive crashes. In whatever way we share our ideas, they germinate somewhere out there, in ways and times we cannot foresee.

6 Responses to “Immortal Words (Eileen Doughty)”

  1. 1 terrygrant January 9, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    Years ago I read Vincent’s letters to Theo and was so moved by the struggle he lived that I think it forever destroyed any objectivity I might have had. More than any other artist I can think of, I cannot view van Gogh’s work without relating it to his life and the vulnerability revealed in his letters. I wonder if I would see it in his work had I not read his letters. I like to think it is there in the work itself, but the letters lend such poignancy.

  2. 2 june January 9, 2008 at 9:01 am


    I have to agree with your about the hand-writing — it’s the physical presence that so much other art conveys and that I love. Handwriting has a certain kind of history and mapping, but it’s also present, corporeal, handle-able.

    We often talk about the sense of tactility with quilt art, and I think that the physical presence is a good part of that sense. Even when people can’t touch it, they sense that it contains history.

    Oddly enough, we (or maybe just me) tend not to think of this with painting, but now that I’m painting, I have that sense of the history and presence of the act itself — not the image, but the brushes I used and the way the paint behaved (or didn’t) — the scrapings I found myself doing and the mess that occurred when I got too much mineral spirits in the paint.

    James Elkins has a great book called something like “What Painting Is” in which he talks about the act of painting and the materials — not the final product, but the fidgety brush strokes or the long smooshy medium-filled lines.

    Sorry to go on. I’m just agreeing with you and writing my morning meditation before I go off to smoosh some paint.

  3. 3 eileen doughty January 8, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    Ironically, Martine, I did not go to this exhibition myself, it was all courtesy of the Internet. Perhaps I could have seen Van Gogh’s letters in the museum catalog as an alternative to the Internet and being there in person. But you can only shell out so much money for catalogs and travel.

    And June, some of those political scandals were precisely because email records were “lost”, not available to read.

    The internet is certainly terrific for disseminating information. What I miss about hand-written letters is the expression from the variations in the handwriting. I was thinking about that when looking at an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon collection recently – Bill Watterson essentially shaped many of the words to add even more expression to his drawings. Emoticons just ain’t the same.

  4. 4 June January 7, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    I am reminded of the fear (or hope) that everyone had that paper would disappear completely as we all did our internet thing. And a bit later, that no one would write because of the ease of internet thingies. And a bit later that records would be lost because of the internet thingie. As we all know from reading various political scandals, records are not not lost, but now are searchable word for word, without having thousands of eyes scanning each page. And paper is being used at at least as great a rate as ever. And writing is more than ever all around us — think of all those blogs that people do that perhaps didn’t write more than a Christmas letter prior to blogging.

    I’ll admit that there’s a charm to the handwriting and to the physical fact of paper — it’s the charm of the actual thing as opposed to the virtual thing. And yet — we are only able to look at the facsimile of Van Gogh’s writing because of the internet.

    Such conundrums. I may be more worried about the excess of “publication” and writing available on the internet than I am about losing something because of the web. But that worry is, I suspect, from someone who resists reading on the internet, but has to anyway.

    Lovely post, Eileen. Thanks.

  5. 5 Martine House January 7, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    This must be an interesting exhibit and I envy you the proximity to all these events. I think it raises another question: as you mention, Eileen, most of our communications now occur through the internet and the majority of the people do not write letters anymore. When I see how much insight and understanding we got from letters written by artists or great minds (in every field, from visual arts to literature, music, science…) about their work or their private persona, I wonder how things are going to change in the next decades and how the lack of such letters or documents is going to alter the way we perceive the work we see around us and the biographies and commentaries written about these artists.

  6. 6 Joanna January 6, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Thank you for posting this information. I will have to check out this museum next time I’m in the city. I am a frequent vistor to the site and enjoy all the information you all provide.

    Many thanks Joanna

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