An End to the Myth of the Tortured Soul

What was Van Gogh really like? A new exhibition brings us closer to the truth

Art Features Mental Illness
"The Sower" (1888)

In a career lasting no more than ten years,  Vincent Van Gogh produced about 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. He often painted quickly, almost feverishly, once writing that “the emotions are so strong that one works without knowing one works”. 

His best paintings were undoubtedly produced in the last 15 months of his life, which he spent in Arles, in the South of France, where he went to live in 1888, partly to recover his health after a breakdown in Paris and at nearby St Remy, where he spent a year in a mental asylum. During this intense period of prolific activity and increasing mental strain, Van Gogh managed to produce many of his best-known masterpieces. Indeed, in Arles alone he produced more than 200 paintings. It is a number that amounts to about a third of the total output of Paul Gauguin, his friend and fellow post-Impressionist. 

Among these 200 paintings are the iconic sunflowers, the simple straw-woven chair on which lay his comforting pipe and tob-acco pouch, the Night Café in the Place Lamartine in which the whole room looks as if seen through a drunken green and red haze and the walls appear to be collapsing inwards, his portrait of the matronly Madame Ginoux in her Arlesienne costume, its cloth intensely blue against the blazing yellow backdrop and The Sower, that bold, Japanese-print-inspired painting with its huge lemon-yellow sun and its Japanese-style tree. 

Many of these paintings can now be seen in an exhibition at the Royal Academy which attempts to separate the myth of the tortured genius from that of the thoughtful and dedicated artist he clearly must have been to produce such work, and in the sheer quantity in which he produced it. 

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters (until 18 April) features 65 paintings and 30 drawings, as well as 40 original letter-sketches that each refer to a finished work in the exhibition. In one letter-sketch on display, written to Théo, his younger, art-dealer brother and confidant, we see a detailed sketch of The Sower. Always keen to keep his brother informed of the paintings he was working on, Van Gogh adds a description of the colours he is using: “Here’s a croquis [sketch] of the latest canvas I’m working on, another sower. Immense lemon yellow disc for the sun. Green-yellow sky with pink clouds. The field is violet, the sower and the tree Prussian Blue.” 

The Sower (1888) is one of the best-known paintings in the exhibition. Painted after Millet, it is a work that ennobles the peasant’s humble toil. The younger artist sought to identify himself with the ordinary working man, for whom, since he believed fervently in “art for the people”, he himself laboured. “It has always been so much my desire to paint for those who don’t know the artistic side of a painting,” he wrote in a letter from 1889. 

The Sower is also inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, for, like many contemporary Parisian artists, Van Gogh was deeply influenced by that country’s art. Moreover, his decision to travel to Arles was not only for reasons of health, but because he believed that the light and the landscape of Provence might somehow resemble the light and landscape of Japan-a fictional, Western view of Japan that he’d often read about, since he had never actually been there. And for a depressive Dutchman, the idea of the light and warmth of southern France would have been exotic. 

In another letter-sketch sent to Théo, written while Van Gogh was convalescing in the asylum at St Remy, we see a reference to one of his series of intensely alive, monumental cypresses, whose swirling forms suggest the strong mistral winds of southern France. “The cypress is beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality.” 

The RA’s exhibition is the first major survey of Van Gogh’s work in the UK since 1968. It comes on the back of the Van Gogh Museum’s recently published re-translations of the letters in a six-volume edition from Thames & Hudson: annotations and footnotes are extensive (though even more so in the online version), previous expurgations have been reinstated and when a letter refers to a painting, sketch or lithograph the relevant image is illustrated next to the letter. 

Throughout the exhibition, it becomes clear that words are as important to Van Gogh as images. He was a naturally gifted writer, and the letters were a useful way of working out many of his artistic ideas. But the letters were also often his only means of successful communication with other people. Face to face, Van Gogh was hard work, and even his loyal brother despaired of long stretches in his exhausting company. When they lived together in Paris, Théo complained that after coming home from work, Vincent would talk incessantly about Impressionism, hardly drawing breath. He would even draw up a chair beside his brother’s bed and attempt to carry on the monologue through the night. 

That the letters were the product of intense loneliness is in no doubt, for when Van Gogh is actually living with Théo the writing ceases. But as soon as he is once again on his own they continue at a prodigious rate, often amounting to six pages of closely written text. 


“The Yellow House” (1888) 

In all, 819 letters written by Van Gogh survive, the majority of which were addressed to Théo, some to his younger sister Wilemien (Wil),  and others to a handful of artists, including Gauguin, with whom he lived in Arles for nine tempestuous weeks before Gauguin finally stormed out after a row, and Emile Bernard. The row precipitated a crisis: Van Gogh cut off the lobe of his left ear and presented it to a local prostitute in one of the nearby brothels he and Gauguin frequented. Horrified with this unusual gift, the prostitute, Rachel, promptly fainted.

Yet even during his slow and horrifying mental disintegration, words somehow continue to sustain him. No other artist has ever produced such an intimate record-eloquent, revealing and often desperately moving- of his life and his thoughts about art. He vividly “paints” his descriptions with an artist’s eye before he ever puts brush to canvas. On first arriving in Arles, he writes a letter to Théo, describing his surroundings thus:

I notice some magnificent plots in red earth planted with vines, with mountains in the background of the most delicate lilac. And the landscape under the snow with the white peaks against the sky as bright as the snow was just like the winter landscapes the Japanese did. 

One learns time and again that both words and images fuelled Van Gogh’s imagination equally. “Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me.” And then, echoing this sentiment, “One has to learn to read, as one has to learn to see and learn to live.”

Van Gogh was a voracious reader-fluent in Dutch, French and English. He read all of Dickens in English (Hard Times was his favourite), he was particularly moved by Shakespeare’s history plays, and he loved Flaubert and Maupassant. Indeed, he was extremely knowledgeable about much of the French fiction of his day. In addition, he learned a great deal about Japan from the fiction of Pierre Loti, particularly his bestselling Madame Chrysanthème, the basis for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Van Gogh identified particularly with French naturalist writers, and was inspired by Zola’s depiction of Parisian life, reading all 20 novels in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. “[They] paint life as we feel it ourselves, and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell the truth,” he wrote to Wil in 1887. 

Although Arles was once the capital of Gaul, in the western Roman Empire, Van Gogh was interested in none of its history. Instead, it was here that he wrote something of his mission statement to paint the here and now and the everyday. Unlike Gauguin, who declared that he sought only to paint his visions and his dreams, Van Gogh wanted to paint life as it was happening around him: “The zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going to their first communion…the priest in his surplice who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the absinthe drinkers…” 

Although Van Gogh’s art was firmly rooted in realism (Dutch realism and the slightly sentimental, slightly moralising French realism of Millet; Italian art didn’t get a look-in) there was an overwhelmingly romantic strain underlying this realism: Van Gogh believed fervently that paintings should concern themselves predominantly with stirring up powerful emotions, that colour, expressive in itself, could convey such emotions, and that accurate draughtsmanship was secondary. His visual metaphors were simple and powerful. Even the roots of a tree in sandy soil could “express something of life’s struggle”.

However, as well as telling us so much of Van Gogh’s artistic processes, the letters can show just how exasperating he could be. Many of them open and conclude with pleas to Théo for money. Théo was not only the respectable art dealer brother who was his constant confidant, but also the person who provided his brother with the monthly allowance that enabled him to pursue his single-minded ambition. At one point, Van Gogh had the gall to reproach his long-suffering brother for being like the unimaginative and narrow-minded businessman in one of Zola’s novels. And to people who were not even related to him, he could certainly be direct to the point of rudeness. In one long letter, he criticises the Symbolist Emile Bernard because his paintings rely too much on what isn’t there for the eye to see. Not surprisingly,  Bernard remembers Van Gogh as “vehement in discourse, interminably explaining and developing his ideas.” 

Even Théo, writing to Wil, declares: “It appears as if there are two different beings in him, the one marvellously gifted, fine and delicate, the other selfish and heartless.” 


Ennobling the peasant’s toil: Van Gogh’s “The Sower”

The letters reveal that Van Gogh was not altogether the sensitive dreamer of popular myth. There was certainly something of the innocent soul about him, but he was also clearly irascible, brusque and plainly irritating. This is one side of Van Gogh that dedicated readers of the letters will always have known about, of course, but with the new translation we get closer to Van Gogh’s real voice and tone and to his sometimes more meandering thought processes: the new translations don’t finish off his sentences, or they include previously censored material. 

But on only one occasion does the intermittent mental instability really show itself. In the last letter before that ear-cutting crisis at the end of 1888, Van Gogh describes a visit with Gauguin to a gallery at Montpellier: “Gauguin and I talk a lot about Delacroix, Rembrandt & c. The discussion is excessively electric. We sometimes emerge from it with tired minds, like an electric battery after it’s run down.” Two lines down he continues: “Rembrandt is above all a magician and Delacroix a man of God, of God’s thunder and bugger off in the name of God.” 

This nonsensical description of Delacroix has been reinstated in the new translation. But these glimpses into a mind that is clearly deranged are rare. The letters on the whole reveal a lucidity and rationality that show us the diligent and productive artist he remained for much of his life. 

This is the premise of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, and it goes far to remedy the myth of the mad genius known, for many, only  for the cutting-off of his earlobe and a vase full of sunflowers. Upon such things are entire reputations built.