Vincent van Gogh: The Letters Project

Nienke Bakker

Curator of Exhibitions

Van Gogh Museum Kantoor

Stadhouderskade 55 Postbus 75366 1070 AJ Amsterdam

www.vangoghmuseum.nl

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award 2010 - Research - Grand Prix


The Letters Project


ls"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.'

Vincent van Gogh to Emile Bernard, 19 April 1888

 

Introduction

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is one of the most important artists of all time. He left the world countless extraordinary paintings and drawings, and one of the most fascinating artist's correspondence we know. More than 800 of the 902 known letters from and to Van Gogh are held by the Van Gogh Museum, whose goal is to conserve them and make them available to the public.

From 1994 to 2008 the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Huygens Institute (part of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences) in The Hague conducted in-depth research on the letters of Vincent van Gogh within the so-called Letters Project. The results of these 15 years of in-depth study became publicly available in threefold in October 2009:

1. A freely accessible website, www.vangoghletters.org, with all the 902 letters from and to Van Gogh, complete annotations, new English translations, original versions of the letters and including including images of the authentic manuscripts, so people all over Europe and the rest of the world can benefit from it.

2. A complete illustrated and annotated book edition, Vincent van Gogh - The Letters: The complete, illustrated edition, is published in six volumes and three languages (Dutch, English and French), offering a comprehensive, up-to-date edition for an international audience that reflects the current state of scholarship in the field. For the first time, all the works to which Van Gogh refers are shown alongside the letters: not only the paintings and drawings on which he himself was working but also the works of art by others of which he wrote.
International audience:

3. The presentation in a special exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, where about 100 letters will be on display. This exhibition offered a multi-faceted and penetrating view of Van Gogh as letter-writer and artist. Quotations from his letters guided the visitor through his paintings and those of his contemporaries, offering insights into Van Gogh's views on art and the role of the artist and presenting a considerable number of original manuscripts of his letters.

Van Gogh's letters

The worldwide reputation of Van Gogh's correspondence (consisting of 819 letters by and 83 letters to Van Gogh) stems from its immense value as a document humain and from the wealth of biographical and art historical information it contains. The letters tell the story of Van Gogh's quest for his purpose in life, of the close ties with his brother Theo van Gogh (1857-1891), the only person who never gave up on him, of his sometimes troubled friendships and his need for recognition and, above all, of his passion for art and literature. For example, in his surviving correspondence, which spans from the earliest known letter (date from 29 September 1872) until the last one from a few days before his death on 29 July 1890, Vincent van Gogh mentions at least 150 authors and around 800 literary works. Also, 2000 works of art are mentioned.

Van Gogh was also a true European citizen avant-la-lettre, who lived in the Netherlands, England, Belgium and France. He wrote his letters in Dutch (they comprise about two thirds of the total) and in French. There are even a few letters written in English. Most of his letters were addressed to his brother Theo, but he also wrote to friends and fellow artists such as Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin.

Methods

The first phase of the research consisted of inventoring the sources and the secondary literature, and designing the project. All the original manuscripts were consulted; there are fourteen letters that are known or suspected to have survived which were unable to be consulted in the original.  The letters were literally taken over (the so-called transcription), with all the errors, deletions, additions and obscurities (for which signs and symbols were used by the researchers). The result was a diplomatic transcription that served as the basis for the reading text that would be printed, consequently a text ready for publication and without supplements.

As little as possible was changed in Van Gogh's language and spelling; errors and inconsistencies were maintained as long as the researchers could base themselves on the assumption that the reader would be able to understand Van Gogh's intentions. Items were only corrected or completed if the researchers had to assume that they would lead to misinterpretation.

For the biographical and art historical research, which occupied the first five years of the project, all relevant literature on Vincent van Gogh has been consulted and national and international research in libraries, museums and archives was done. The annotations give clarifications on the persons Van Gogh writes about, works-of-art of Van Gogh and others he mentions and backgrounds of situations. Furthermore the dates were once again identified, which is extremely important in order to be able to tell where the works-of-art date from.

The annotations are written for an educated readership, explaining typical Dutch, French or European customs and circumstances that could be unclear to an international audience. The primary aim of the annotations is to bridge the historic distance between the present reader and the author and recipients of the letters so that the text is comprehensible and readable.

The project tried clarify each individual letter as far as possible. Questions that recur over a period of time are treated as ongoing; rather than include a separate annotation each time, with a reference back to the first mention, we have placed these ls"ongoing topics' before the annotations. Physical descriptions of the letters (dimensions, writing material, type of paper, watermark and so forth) are given below every facsimile. The letters were re-dated. The date we give is that on which the letter was written, not when it was sent or received. Letters were sometimes written over a period of a few days, and were not necessarily posted immediately they were written. 

Results

During the project all letters were digitalized and where necessary paper-restoration was undertaken. Since all letters are now available through the internet, it will hardly -if not at all- be necessary to consult the originals of Van Gogh's letter in the future. The letters have been re-dated on grounds that are explained in full. This exercise has revealed countless discrepancies in earlier editions.

The Letters Project provides many clues about Van Gogh's place in the artistic an intellectual context of his time in both the Netherlands and France and give information about the materials and techniques of his paintings and drawings. We can also follow his admiration of a diverse range of painters. The importance of the exchange of letters with Gauguin and Bernard goes beyond the study of Van Gogh's life and work, for this was a key episode in art history. The friends'discussions about abstraction, colour, the use of imagination and abandoning realityin favour of suggestion and symbolism touch on the roots of modern art itself.