We have written the annotations 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 annotations focus on filling any gaps in the knowledge of the readers of this edition.30 In writing the annotations we took account of what our predecessors have done with the letters.
The comments to the individual letters are of two kinds: information about the letter as a whole (dating, arrangement, whereabouts and so on; see Date ff.) and notes to specific aspects of the text of the letter. We have endeavoured to 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 ‘ongoing topics’ before the annotations (see Ongoing topics).
Physical descriptions of the letters (dimensions, writing material, type of paper, watermark and so forth) are given below every facsimile. We were unable to consult the originals of fourteen letters and have had to rely in these cases on a photograph, a photocopy or a transcription made by someone else. This is indicated in the information preceding the letter under the heading Source status (see Source status).31
The separate list Glossary of materials and techniques contains explanations of recurring concepts relating to painting and drawing, including the sizes of paintings, which are not always annotated.
General background information relevant to numerous letters, such as the nineteenth-century correspondence culture and the Van Gogh family relationships, is treated in the essays, where we also examine Van Gogh as a letter-writer and discuss his correspondents.
5.2 General commentary to each letter
The information relating to the letter as a whole is broken down into the following elements. Not all are relevant in every case.
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. In the absence of any other arguments we have taken the date of the postmark, when we know it.
It is likely that Theo discarded a great many of the envelopes in which the letters were sent. Had his widow Jo van Gogh-Bonger had them when she was preparing her edition of the letters, Vincent van Gogh. Brieven aan zijn broeder (1914), she would have had considerably fewer problems establishing the right order and the dates. When she gave an exact date we have usually followed her lead because we suspect that in these cases she did have the envelope with date stamps. We were able to check her dates in the seven cases where we have the postmarks relating to letters sent to Theo and she noted the date of the postmark correctly five times32 – in the other two cases she mistakenly used the date of the receipt postmark.33 We have consequently assumed that when she gives a date it is the date of the first postmark. Obviously letters were not always posted the day they were written. It may well have been the following day, or even a couple of days later, before they were sent. In some cases, therefore, we have given dates differing by one or at most two days from the dates Jo gave.
There are two letters to which Jo assigned dates that other sources prove to be incorrect.34 When arguing the case for a particular dating we have not taken account of dates she noted on the manuscript but did not include in the published edition.
Between 1850 and 1870 the Netherlands developed a modern postal system. Service improved rapidly in this period and the range of services expanded. Gradually the train and the steam tram replaced the much slower mail coach and barge. It is remarkable how quickly mail was delivered by the mid 1880s, even abroad. Vincent’s letters from the Netherlands usually reached Theo in Paris within one or two days. At that time there were several deliveries a day – even on Sundays. The parcel post made it simple for Van Gogh to send his drawings and paintings.
We know from the dates of the postmarks that letters and postcards could reach their destinations amazingly fast. A postcard from Vincent was postmarked Monday, 24 September 1883 in Hoogeveen, a remote backwater in Drenthe. The French postmarks show that this card was carried to Paris via Arras and reached Theo on Tuesday, 25 September.35
For the 1888-90 period we have assumed that letters between the South of France and Paris reached their destination within twenty-four hours, unless there was good reason to believe otherwise. This includes the periods when Van Gogh was in hospital in Arles and Saint-Rémy,36 although the possibility that the posting or receipt of letters were delayed cannot be ruled out.
When shipments of canvases and other supplies form part of the argument in favour of a particular date, we have assumed, failing other information, that transport between Arles, later Saint-Rémy, and Paris took four to six days; in one case it was only two days.
Where dates are not precise, but are the closest possible approximation to the date of writing, wherever possible we give two dates that can serve as definite points of reference. The day of the week is always specified. A period spanning more than two days is indicated by ‘between’.
When Van Gogh wrote at night he himself referred to it as ‘avond’ – evening. He headed letter 232, for instance, ‘Zondag avond’ – Sunday evening – but it soon becomes clear from the letter that it was actually one o’clock in the morning. For this reason we have dated letters that could, strictly speaking, have been written on two days (that is to say before and after midnight) to the evening.
A time span always includes the stated dates (in other words ‘between 23 and 26’ means 23, 24, 25 or 26). ‘On or about’ includes a day earlier and a day later (in other words ‘on or about 23’ means 22, 23 or 24).
The beginning of January is the first week of the month. Mid- January means the period covering the week before and the week after the middle (the 15th) of the month. The end of January is the last week of the month.
If the sequence of two letters cannot be established – for example when several letters were written on the same day – this is stated. When a letter from Vincent is the confirmation of receipt of the second of the three regular remittances Theo sent each month, which as a rule arrived on the 10th of the month, and there are no particulars to pinpoint the date more accurately, we have given the date as ‘on or about’ the 11th.37 One reservation is that it is not always possible to say how long Vincent waited before writing; further considerations are addressed in our explanation under Date. Needless to say we do not always adhere strictly to this template since Theo sometimes sent money at other times.38
5.2.2 Source status
Here we state the form in which we consulted the source text. This was usually the original manuscript, but in a few cases it was a reproduction or a transcription by someone else.
Under this heading we give the present whereabouts of the sheets of the letter, including any relevant inventory numbers.
When letters consist of several sheets and it has not been incontrovertibly established which sheets belong together or what the original sequence was (the situation Jo van Gogh-Bonger faced when she wanted to publish the letters), there is a risk that sheets are put together incorrectly. In some cases we differ from previous editions; our arguments are set out under the heading Arrangement. One consequence of these changes is that letters which appear in earlier editions are missing from this one. This is because we have reordered the sheets and put them with other letters. For the changes and the new letters see The altered composition of the letters.
5.2.5 Ongoing topics
Various topics recur and continue through a series of letters, which may or not be sequential, and this gives rise to the risk of constantly repeating the same information. We have therefore elected to annotate such topics the first time they occur and in later letters to mention them under the heading ‘Ongoing topics’ before the annotations proper, with a reference to the letter in which the subject was first raised or annotated.
5.2.6 Additional details
Additional details include all the relevant questions not covered by the other categories, such as significant annotations in another hand, details of enclosures (other than enclosed sketches, which are dealt with in the annotations), doubts as to whether a letter is complete and the like. If the text was written on a postcard or lettercard, or an envelope has survived, the details of the postage stamps and postmarks are given here.39
The reading text and the English translation are accompanied by numbered annotations explaining references in the text. They relate to the titles of works of art and publications, important events, practices and customs, quotations, literary references, historical, topographical and geographical situations (see also ‘Maps and plans’), and the names of fictional characters and real people.40 The dates and a brief description of people mentioned in the correspondence are given thus (use mouse-over): ‘David Adolph Constant Artz (1837-1890), Dutch artist’. Where a name could relate to more than one person (as in Dupré or Maris), we give the full name in an annotation. Family relationships are given in a family tree.
The annotations are as concise and neutral as possible. The aim is to elucidate obscure references and improve understanding of the letters. We have drawn on the extensive Van Gogh literature and other literature, and on the surviving family correspondence that is held in the Van Gogh Museum (Family Records, abbreviated FR). Given the size of the body of literature on Van Gogh and his work it would have been impossible to cite all the publications in which an annotated subject is discussed; as a rule we refer to the most recent or most relevant work.
We have endeavoured to identify all the literary works that Van Gogh mentions, quotes from or refers to in some other way. Unless we can identify the edition he used, we refer to a standard edition or similar.
We have been cautious in identifying the sources of sayings or colourful expressions: the origin of a saying of this kind is only given if it is likely that Van Gogh knew it.
The note numbers run consecutively through the reading text; lettered notes (a, b, c, etc.) are used for annotations that relate solely to either the original text or the English translation. These are usually concerned with explaining grammatical problems or clarifying Van Gogh’s idiosyncrasies in the reading text, but may also relate to an alternative English translation or the like.41
5.3.1 The Bible and devotional texts
In the period before 1880 Van Gogh’s mind was very much occupied by the Bible and devotional texts. Quotations from and references to Scripture, on which he brought his own highly individual interpretation to bear, were extraordinarily numerous in his letters of this period; as far as possible we have identified the religious and biblical quotations or allusions in the annotations. We have not done this when the phrase was part of normal speech. More than once, for instance, Van Gogh wrote ‘Dat zij verre’ (‘Far from that’, ‘God forbid’); this is found in Genesis 18:25 and elsewhere in the Bible, but it was also an absolutely standard expression in the everyday Dutch of the time. We did not interpret such phrases as deliberate biblical allusions, and they are not annotated. Where we suspect that an allusion is intentional, we annotate it. Where quotations are not clearly defined in the reading text, we indicate where they begin and/or end.
In many cases Van Gogh altered a quotation to suit his own ends, either by omitting what was not relevant, or by embellishing or changing the text. He must also often have quoted the Bible from memory. Generally speaking he rendered the text fairly freely: he added words, changed the word order, and omitted or replaced words.
Quotations are consequently often not literal. We have tried to identify the Bible or Bibles Van Gogh must have known over the years; in his day there were various different Dutch and French translations of the Bible in circulation and it is evident that he must have owned or at least been familiar with a number of translations and editions. In the light of some striking variants, such as Heer rather than Heere; den zoon haars schoots instead of den zoon haars buiks (Isaiah 49:15), in geen ding achterlijk – the Dutch Authorized Version has in geen ding gebrekkelijk (James 1:4) – and Daar is een vriend die zich vaster klemt dan een broeder instead of Daar is een liefhebber (Proverbs 18:24), we can infer that Van Gogh had an edition published by the Nederlands Bijbelgenootschap. The last example only appears in editions published from 1871 onwards.42
He also used earlier versions. This is clear from the passage he quoted from Acts 20:37-38 (the structure of the sentence, quoted in letter 87); the word ‘heerlijkheid’ in Isaiah 60:19, the phrase ‘Allen die u lief hadden’ in Jeremiah 30:14 (in letter 89) and the word ‘anderszins’ in John 14:2 (letter 90). In these cases, the versions of the text correspond with editions published by the Nederlands Bijbelgenootschap, printed by Metzler & Basting in Amsterdam in 1866 and 1869.43
A book of psalms that belonged to Van Gogh has also survived: Het boek der psalmen, nevens de Gezangen bij de Hervormde Kerk van Nederland in gebruik .... Amsterdam-Haarlem-Groningen 1849. There are two pencil sketches on the (former) flyleaf. Bound with it is Evangelische gezangen, om nevens het boek der psalmen bij den openbare godsdienst in de Nederlands Hervormde gemeenten gebruikt te worden ..., also dating from 1849.44 Van Gogh also owned Recueil de psaumes et cantiques à l’usage des églises réformées (1865), in which he marked some seventy passages.45
There are variant texts in Van Gogh’s quotations from the Bible and from hymn books that occur more than once. While this might indicate that they derive from a specific source or translation, we have been unable to trace them to a particular edition. One such is the recurrent variation on Luke 23:46, ‘in Uw handen beveel ik mijn hart’, instead of mijnen geest.46 Clearly he may have based his quotation in such cases on translations other than those we consulted. We did not attempt to trace all the versions Van Gogh might possibly have known.
In this edition we always refer in the case of the Dutch to the Statenvertaling (SV), which sometimes differs in numbering from the King James Version (KJ), which we used as the reference for the English, and the Sainte Bible (SB), which we used for the French. The (minor) differences in numbering between them are stated in the annotations.
Van Gogh’s letters are full of literary and other quotations. If he has used them to suit his own purpose or amended them somewhat (the term for this is ‘internalized’) – these can be inversions, changes to personal or possessive pronouns, the omission of (context-dependent) clauses or sentences – we regard them as ‘virtually the same’ and give the text on which he based the quotation without comment, albeit with the indication ‘cf.’. We have only noted the variations when there is a significant shift in meaning.
Van Gogh’s quotations have been collated with the source texts as far as possible. Where the meaning differs from the source text, we give a brief note or a list of anomalies in the annotation. For example: ‘See P.J. de Béranger, Oeuvres complètes. 4 vols. Paris 1834, vol. 1, p. 303. With the following variants:
2 Dit la vierge ] Moi, dit le soeur
3 Préparé ] Distillé’
The letter text is given first; the version in the source follows the ] symbol.
Punctuation differences are so numerous and tell us so little that we have taken no account of them.47
5.3.3 Letters from others
The letters published here were originally part of a network of correspondence involving dozens of people. By the nature of things, there are frequent references to other letters but the great majority of these are lost. We only provide an annotation to a reference to letters from other people when the letters have survived. This avoids repeated comments to the effect that the letter in question has not been traced.
5.3.4 Van Gogh’s works
Works by Van Gogh mentioned in the letters have been identified as far as possible. If there is a consensus on the identification in the Van Gogh literature, we give the title and the numbers in the oeuvre catalogues by Faille and Hulsker.48 For instance, Still life with cabbage and clogs (F 1 / JH 81). Problematic or disputed identifications are discussed in an annotation.
We see no point in attempting an identification where Van Gogh refers to ‘work’ in a more general sense, as in ‘I’ve been doing a lot of studies from life recently’.
Works that cannot be traced are described as ‘not known’. If it is certain that a work no longer exists (for example if we know that Van Gogh destroyed a work), it is described as ‘lost’.
5.3.5 Works by other artists
Works of art by other artists that Van Gogh mentioned in his letters have also been identified where possible. We were not always able to identify the precise form in which he knew a work. He may, for instance, have referred specifically to a lithograph after a painting, whereas we have been unable to find one. If, in such a case, we know the painting, we have used this as the illustration. The converse also occurs. In a number of cases it is not possible to tell which version of a work he meant.
5.3.6 The estate
Works and documents described as ‘in the estate’ or ‘in the family correspondence’ (Family Records, abbreviated FR) are all in the Van Gogh Museum collection, as is the large collection of prints, including numerous magazine illustrations, that was once part of Van Gogh’s own collection. To distinguish them from the many prints we traced in publications, print collections and so forth, the inventory numbers of the prints in Van Gogh’s own collection are marked with an asterisk (*) in the annotation.
Documentation includes fragments, complete letters and testimony that clarify aspects of the correspondence but are not directly related to specific questions in the letters and consequently cannot be included in the annotations.