Van Gogh's Letters Prove as Colorful as His Art

The brush strokes are bold, the paint is applied in heavy swirls, and the colors have a dramatic intensity rarely found in nature. Painted in 1889, a year before his death, Mountains at Saint-Rémy could only be the work of Vincent van Gogh, then a patient in a French asylum for the mentally ill. Given all we know about van Gogh, it's easy enough to see the masterpiece as one more product of a notoriously disordered mind.

Easy, but not necessarily right. In a letter to his younger brother, Theo, from the asylum, van Gogh articulately describes his deliberate approach to the work. "These are exaggerations from the point of view of the arrangement, their lines are contorted like those of the ancient woodcuts," he writes. He even flicks at the criticism he anticipates: "People will tell me the mountains aren't like that." And with a literary flourish, he describes the effect he's after: "I've tried to express the time of day when one sees the green beetles and the cicadas flying in the heat."

For all his troubles, van Gogh possessed a powerful intellect and self-awareness that he revealed as much in his writing as in his art. A prolific correspondent, his letters were collected last year into a new six-volume edition that rounds out his personality. Now a selection of those letters is on display alongside some of his finest paintings in the London Royal Academy's illuminating exhibition The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters. (A bank of computers in one gallery offers instant online access to the entire correspondence.) They present a painter's lucid, blow-by-blow report on his own progress up to the end of his life.

There is no doubt that van Gogh was driven. He could work at a pace that suggests manic intensity as well as spontaneity. In the last 70 days of his life, he produced more than 70 paintings. But what the letters frequently reveal is careful preparation; he painted with a speed derived from forethought rather than wild-eyed frenzy. His correspondence with Theo is scattered with sketches of proposed pictures, sometimes with color notations to give a better impression of the final work.

The broad outlines of his later years suggest the artist's struggles with mental illness: bouts of heavy drinking and brothel-going, poverty and isolation, his explosive reaction to light and color in Provence, his quarrel with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, self-mutilation—he presented his severed ear to a favorite prostitute—and finally his suicide at the age of 37. It all feeds the conventional picture of the artist as wayward genius.

But that's only part of the story. The artist that emerges in The Real Van Gogh is altogether more sophisticated and nuanced than the myth suggests, absorbed by his art yet open to other influences and capable of penetrating self-analysis. After all, van Gogh was a self-taught latecomer to painting who only decided to devote himself to art at 27, when he had already spent time as an art dealer, a trainee pastor, and a lay preacher. The early works in the exhibition, largely of Dutch landscapes and peasantry, as well as the accompanying letters, reveal a painter struggling with technique. As he admits to Theo, his lifelong supporter, perspective seems like "downright witchcraft."

Painting was never his only creative passion. Fluent in French and English, van Gogh steeped himself in the literature of the day. His letters make reference to more than 800 books and 150 authors. What he prized in writing was the same focus on everyday life that he sought in his own art. His favorite writers included Charles Dickens, Émile Zola, and Honoré de Balzac—all chroniclers of grim social conditions that van Gogh had witnessed. His enthusiasm for words spilled into his art. In one letter he remarks, "Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing to me." Sympathetic figures in his paintings are shown as sharing his taste; in his 1888 portrait of Madame Ginoux, dog-eared books sit on the café owner's table.

In some cases writing seemed as necessary to van Gogh as painting. Many of the letters—some running to 4,000 words or more—deal with the problems of day-to-day living, including the cost of furnishing his home in Arles, his desperate finances, and the state of his teeth. But van Gogh also liked to translate the visual image into words. In a letter to his sister Willemien, he describes the exact effect of his 1888 self-portrait, from the "stiffly wooden mouth" to the "unkempt and sad beard"; the palette he's using, he writes, runs from "lemon yellow to cobalt blue."

In fact, he ultimately ranks writing on a par with art. In a letter to his friend Émile Bernard, he says: "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 things?" The reward for meeting the challenge is posterity. As van Gogh writes, "There's an art of lines and colors, but there's an art of words that will last just the same." And as the Royal Academy demonstrates, they may best be appreciated side by side.