Something momentous is about to occur in the Van Gogh galaxy. His history is about to be retold at its Big Bang level. The world is about to have unveiled for it, with much international trumpeting, a gigantic new translation of his complete letters. Unedited. Uncensored. The truth. Ah yes, the letters. As if being the painter of scores of masterpieces that scorch themselves onto your retina were not enough, Vincent was also a marvellous writer. More than 900 missives by him are known to survive, most of them in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum, where they form — let me take a deep breath here — the greatest cache of writing about art left behind by any artist. They really do. There are other artists, of course, who wrote good letters, and other artists who were fine writers. Have you read Michelangelo’s sonnets? Superb. But Van Gogh differs from the rest in the sheer copiousness of his outpourings.

Between September 1872, when he wrote the first letter to his brother to have survived, and July 1890, when he wrote his last — found in his pocket, covered in bloodstains, after he shot himself by a chateau wall near Auvers-sur-Oise — Van Gogh was an obsessive correspondent. Most of these letters were to Theo, his younger brother, an art dealer, who supported Vincent financially and fraternally for the whole of his career. Without Theo, Vincent could not have happened: there would have been nothing to live on and nobody to talk to.

Their extraordinary correspondence — intense, relentless, gossipy, wheedly, utterly fascinating — is the main ingredient of the letters. Theo died a few months after Vincent. From syphilis. They are buried side by side in Auvers in a grave covered with Vincent’s favourite plant: ivy. (The sunflowers are our preferred taste, not his.)


Waldemar Januszczak
The London Times