Wednesday, 8 August 2012

One Starry Night I read this book.

I was recommended "The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh" by a close friend as an insightful read into the life of one of the greatest artists to have lived. Vincent Van Gogh wrote thousands of letters in his lifetime, most notably to his brother Theo Van Gogh whom he was very close to in childhood. This could be because his mother Anna Van Gogh was also an avid letter writer, or it could be due to the fact that he led a lonely and solitary existence as an artist and letter writing was an outlet of conversation with his family.

For those of you who don't know a great deal about Van Gogh, but perhaps recognise his famous paintings, I would highly recommend this book of letters as an intimate introduction to his life story. Critics have formed their own opinions of him over the years and so you will find many biographies of his life and critical examinations of his work by art critics. Even if you choose to read one of the biographies, I would recommend reading these letters as well, as they are the best resources we have to examine his life because of the autobiographical and highly personal nature.

The tragedy of the life of Van Gogh is that his art was not recognised until after his death, and he went through life suffering on account of what he thought were failures on his part to match the standards of his predecessors. We learn through his writing what a productive life he had after choosing to become an artist and he writes to Theo with extra details and notes on his studies as well as providing us details of his religious and emotional turmoil.

He suffered through his life with mental illness, eventually dying a premature death by suicide at the age of 37. He recounts long episodes of religious fanaticism to Theo imploring him to read the Bible more closely, possibly a product of his upbringing by a pastor father.

Emotional problems he suffered were possibly as a result of poor health and an unhealthy lifestyle, with drink, the local brothel and little food featuring heavily on his agenda. He was always short of money and as a result was often writing to Theo requesting funds, with the understanding that Theo, as an art dealer, would benefit once he made a breakthrough as a painter.

He fell in love more than once and these episodes were described to Theo, and we can see on paper feelings he had towards his parents after falling out with them over his girlfriend Sien. Sien was a pregnant prostitute who he fell in love with and supported for a period of time. However, this relationship was doomed to fail as Sien and Vincent inevitably fell out over the lack of financial support amongst other things. Vincent's parents were outraged at his lifestyle, having already gone down in their esteem with his peasant like lifestyle, and subsequently cut him off from the family.

Vincent loved more than anything to produce artwork with the subject of the commoner as the main feature. He wanted to portray the peasant lifestyle in his work, and the pains of humanity. This theme comes through in his letters as he writes to Theo explaining how he made extensive drawing studies in the fields of the French countryside.

A little known fact is that he studied drawing for years before finally moving on to painting. This delay could have been a result of lack of finance, a fact which comes through strongly in his letters as he talks of his financial struggles. Once he had adopted paint as his preferred medium he would work continuously, becoming excited at the results he saw, and this is what resulted in those last six years of highly productive work, forming his modern reputation as a genius.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh provided me with a with an in depth look into every aspect of his life, professional and personal, and sparked an interest in his artwork, causing me to visit the Van Gogh Gallery in Amsterdam and get a lot more from his work than I would have without having read intimate details of his life. I felt like I could understand his work more and related each piece of work to a period of his life as written about in the letters.

The book features snapshots of the art to complement the text and copies of the letters in Vincent's handwriting complete with doodles and illustrations. Obviously these are in the original Dutch but they provide you with the original article and complement the English translation as the letters refer to drawings.

The book is a deceptively long book as I found myself wanting to look into every last detail of the artist's life as a result of reading it. I have read other books about the artist since, notably "The Yellow House", an in depth account of the time when Van Gogh shared his house in Arles with Paul Gauguin in an attempt to set up an artist's colony in the south of France.

This book is a powerful insight as it contains personal accounts of life and the personal reflections of Vincent Van Gogh making these letters an invaluable resource when we look at the life of the artist.
I suppose the one drawback is that you do not get an account of his earlier life at home, as he was living with his family so did not need to write to them. However, I would consider this not a bad thing, as the letters focus on the period of life we are most interested in when he is working on his great works of art. It would be useful to see some personal autobiographical sources from his younger years but we have other sources we can consult to see what effects his upbringing and education had on his art.

The letters track his downward spiral into mental illness with his letters to Theo becoming saturated with desperation and despair.

As with most Penguin classics, if you buy this version you get an analytical introduction and notes on the text. (Which are both worth the read!)

I was hooked by this book from start to finish and I would highly recommend "The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh" for those interested in reading more about the best artist that lived. I would recommend it to you even if you do not have a strong enthusiasm for art, as this book will change your opinion on a lot of things! If you are interested in art then this is an essential read.

You can buy this book from Amazon if I have interested you, at a discounted price of £8.39 though the book is to be found for £11.99 in bookshops such as Waterstones.

Five stars from me.

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