Library’s Letters Reveal The Real Van Gogh January 15, 2010 – Tags: books, Bookstores, Libraries, Reading / Literacy, Royal Academy Museum and Library, Van Gogh Museum and Library, Vincent van Gogh
Note the letter and the book. This painting is said to refer to Charles Dickens’ remedy against suicide: “A daily glass of wine, a piece of bread and cheese, and a pipe with tobacco.”
As a young man, Vincent van Gogh actually worked in a bookshop. Throughout his short life–he committed suicide at 37–he was a voracious reader. In the just over 900 letters of Van Gogh that still exist, over 150 authors are mentioned, and over 200 literary works. Van Gogh was fluent in French and English, as well as Dutch, and read widely in all three languages. French literary giant Emile Zola is mentioned 96 times in the letters, Victor Hugo is a close second with 62 references, and Honore de Balzac is brought up 35 times. English great Charles Dickens shows up 54 times, followed by George Eliot at 29, and William Shakespeare at 23.
Thanks to a terrific website created by the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute in The Hague, all of the letters are available online in the original text–some 300 in French and 600 in Dutch–with a side by side English translation, and an image of the actual manuscript, including sketches. There are also lengthy annotations and footnotes, provided by Van Gogh scholars Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker. Best of all, the letters are searchable by keywords. Searching the letters is like a treasure hunt: under the words “reading,” “books,” and “bookshops,” the following bibliophilic passages were happily discovered:
“There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don’t you think, it’s as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing. There’s the art of lines and colours, but there’s the art of words that will last just the same.”
“But what touches me in [Shakespeare], as in the work of certain novelists of our time, is that the voices of these people, which in Shakespeare’s case reach us from a distance of several centuries, don’t appear unknown to us. It’s so alive that one thinks one knows them…”
“So often, in the past as well, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me up and reminded me that there are good things in the world.”
“I have a more or less irresistible passion for books, and I have a need continually to educate myself, to study, if you like, precisely as I need to eat my bread.”
“I’m glad that you still have a passion for reading, that’s always good…”
“Have you read anything beautiful lately? Do make sure somehow to get hold of and read the books by Eliot, you won’t be sorry.”
“I’m not sorry not always to have money in my pocket. I have a great craving for so many things, and if I had money perhaps I’d quickly spend it on books…”
“I wish that everyone had what I’m gradually beginning to acquire, the ability to read a book easily and quickly and to retain a strong impression of it. Reading books is like looking at paintings: without doubting, without hesitating, with self-assurance, one must find beautiful that which is beautiful.”
Some scholars theorized that Van Gogh was a victim of hypergraphia, a kind a mania causing a compulsive need to write. Others have maintained he favored letter writing over conversation due to a short temper and an off-putting directness of speech. That, like many writers, he was better on paper than in person. Either way the end result is something today’s readers can be grateful for: we have the letters to show us the complexity of a creative, if troubled, mind.
One book-related section of the letters leaves a reader sadly contemplating what might have been. It is Van Gogh’s description of a painting never begun, a work that may be enjoyed only as an image conjured in the mind’s eye. It is tempting to say read it and weep, but let’s say read it and dream:
“I keep telling myself that I still have it in my heart to paint a bookshop one day with the shop window yellow-pink, in the evening, and the passers-by black. It’s such an essentially modern subject. Because it also appears such a figurative source of light. I say, that would be a subject that would look good between an olive grove and a wheat field, the sowing of books, of prints. I have that very much in my heart to do, like a light in the darkness. Yes, there’s a way of seeing Paris as beautiful. But anyway, bookshops aren’t hares, and there’s no hurry…”