Preview – YOUR LOVING VINCENT – The letters of Van Gogh in Amsterdam

At the Van Gogh Museum    9th October – 10th January.

Vincent van Gogh was not only a talented artist, he was also an avid letter writer. His letters provide an intimate insight into his thoughts and feelings. Due to their fragility, the letters rarely go on public display. The exhibition Your loving Vincent: Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters offers visitors the unique opportunity to view some 40 of Vincent van Gogh’s fascinating letters, displayed alongside famous works such as The Potato Eaters (1885), The Bedroom (1888) and The Sower (1888).

Concurrently with the exhibition, the Van Gogh Museum is launching new episodes of the letters podcast (in Dutch), recorded by poet Ester Naomi Perquin, performer Huub van der Lubbe and author Abdelkader Benali.

Dutch and English versions of a new anthology of Van Gogh’s 76 greatest letters have been published to mark the exhibition. Compilers Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten edited the internationally acclaimed six-part edition of Van Gogh’s correspondence, published in 2009.

Personal and compelling
The Van Gogh Museum is home to the majority of the 820 letters written by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), most of which were to his brother Theo. The letters are a significant means of gaining a better understanding of the man behind the artist. In a personal and compelling style, Van Gogh writes not only about his paintings – and those of other artists – and his artistic ambitions, but also about his vision of life and death, his loneliness and his need for love and friendship. These are subjects with which we can all identify.

Looking over Vincent’s shoulder
Due to their fragility and sensitivity to light, the letters are rarely exhibited. The exhibition ‘Your loving Vincent’: Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters features a varied selection of letters, combined with paintings and drawings by the artist. Van Gogh often added sketches to his letters of paintings and drawings he was working on, or of works that he had recently finished. In the exhibition, these letter sketches are displayed alongside the eventual works, so it is almost as if visitors are looking over the shoulder of the artist.

The exhibition features some 40 letters, all from the Van Gogh Museum collection. 21 paintings and drawings from the museum’s collection are also on display, as well as two paintings loaned from private collections: Landscape with Leaning Trees (1883) and Field with a Ploughman (1889). This is the first time that either painting has been exhibited alongside the letter containing the corresponding sketch.

New acquisition
The letter acquired by the Vincent van Gogh Foundation for the museum last June will go on display for the first time at the Van Gogh Museum during this exhibition. Van Gogh wrote the letter together with Paul Gauguin in 1888. The two artists take turns to report to their artist friend Emile Bernard on their time at the Yellow House in Arles, where they painted together and discussed their vision of modern art and the role it would play in the future. This is the only letter that Van Gogh ever wrote together with another artist.

‘There’s the art of lines and colours, but there’s the art of words that will last just the same’.   Vincent van Gogh

Artistic quest

The exhibition uses Van Gogh’s letters to introduce the story behind his art and the close relationship with his brother Theo, from the first to the very last letter. They reveal Van Gogh’s artistic quest, his preference for art that showed the unpolished side of life, his big dreams and the struggle with his illness. Visitors to the exhibition can also listen to recordings of several of the letters, such as the poignant letter that Van Gogh wrote shortly before deciding to become an artist, and in which he desperately wonders where his life is headed: ‘I, for one, am a man of passions, capable of and liable to do rather foolish things for which I sometimes feel rather sorry’. In another letter, Van Gogh touchingly describes his home life with Sien, a former prostitute, and her two children.

Many of the selected letters contain exquisite sketches. A notable inclusion in this exhibition is the painting Peasant Burning Weeds (1883), jointly acquired with the Drents Museum last year, which will be exhibited alongside the letter in which Van Gogh sketches the work and explains what he is looking to achieve: ‘so that it conveys more of the vastness of the plain and the gathering dusk, and the small fire with the wisp of smoke is the only point of light’.

Highlights from the collection, such as The Potato Eaters, the paintings of blossoming orchards and The Bedroom, are displayed together with the sketches of the works that Van Gogh enclosed in his letters: ‘I had a new idea in mind, and here’s the croquis of it. […] This time it’s simply my bedroom’. The letters that Van Gogh wrote during his time at the asylum allow visitors to share his sorrow and agonising insecurity during this difficult period: ‘That’s why I’m not yet at the point where I ought to leave here soon, I would still have melancholy for everything. And it’s even only in these very last days that the repulsion for life has changed quite radically. There’s still a way to go from there to will and action’.

Final letter
It goes without saying that Vincent’s final letter to Theo is also on display, in which he writes: ‘As for myself, I’m applying myself to my canvases with all my attention’. The earlier, unfinished version of this letter, which Van Gogh had on him when he shot himself in the chest on 27 July 1890, is also on display in the exhibition.

Modern-day letters
The Van Gogh Museum invited people from all around the world to submit their dearest letters, offering them the opportunity to have their letters exhibited next to Van Gogh’s. The finest submitted letters are on display in the exhibition; sent from countries including Kosovo, the US and Israel, and addressing lost love, reclaimed friendship and lots more. These modern-day letters show how the profound value of ‘old-fashioned’ writing, receiving and keeping still applies today.