By far the majority (651 out of 819) of Van Gogh’s letters are addressed to Theo, his brother and maecenas. The earliest known one dates from 29 September 1872, just after the 15-year-old Theo had spent a few days in The Hague with his brother, who was four years his senior. Three months later, Theo went to work for the Goupil branch in Brussels, and they began writing to each other regularly. It is due to his letters to Theo that we have such good picture of the period before Vincent decided to become an artist, the years 1873-1879, when he lived in 12 different places.
Van Gogh became estranged from his parents and Theo when he was living in the Borinage (December 1878-October 1880). The brothers lost touch with each other for a year, and Vincent’s reason for picking up his pen again was above all a practical one. Theo had sent him some money, and he felt obliged to respond (letter 155). Theo had made the initial suggestion that he become an artist, helped him think of training opportunities, and put him in touch with useful people whenever he could. Van Gogh’s career as an artist thus became the brothers’ joint project, and it was formalized in 1881 when Theo undertook to support him financially. From then on the stream of letters gathered pace, for Vincent always had to confirm receipt of the money Theo sent. He also valued this intensive written contact because he could discuss things with Theo, who got to see all his work and, as an art dealer, knew what he was talking about.
In addition to being a sounding-board for artistic questions, Theo served as a confidant and adviser on matters concerning the family and love affairs. When he disagreed with Theo, as well as in his conflicts with others, Vincent inundated his brother with page after page of arguments designed to prove that he was right and to explain his position, as in the letters of 1881 about his love for his cousin Kee Vos and the family’s interference. Theo, in his turn, tried to rein him in and make him see sense, which did not always go down well.
Since most of Theo’s letters to Vincent are lost, it sometimes seems that the correspondence between the brothers was one-sided, as if the good-natured Theo was always simply around to come to the aid of his impulsive and headstrong brother and received little in return. The surviving correspondence of Theo with other people shows that the opposite was the case. His letters to Jo, in particular, are very revealing about his strong attachment to Vincent. A week after Vincent mutilated his ear and was admitted to hospital in Arles, for example, he wrote: ‘You know, don’t you, how much he has meant to me and that it was he who fostered and nurtured whatever good there might be in me. Even if we had lived together, I would have been very happy if he had long remained that same adviser and brother to me, and to you too, in the fullest sense of the word, from a distance or close by. That hope has now vanished and both our lives are the poorer for it, but it goes to show yet again that one must rely on oneself.’1
The time that the brothers lived together in Paris (1886-1888) was a turning point. It was often fraught with friction, but in those two years they grew even closer together. That there were many battles before they reached that stage is clear from Theo’s very frank letter to Willemien of March 1887: ‘There was a time when I loved Vincent very much and he was my best friend, but that’s over now. It seems to be even worse as far as he is concerned, for he loses no opportunity to let me see that he despises me and that I inspire aversion in him. This makes it almost intolerable for me at home.’2 Soon afterwards, though, things took a turn for the better, and Theo was able to send Willemien more reassuring news about living with Vincent.3
Their relationship had changed when Vincent left for Arles in February 1888, as is very clear from their correspondence from then on. There were no longer any heated exchanges or differences of opinion, but instead mutual understanding and a joint struggle for ‘the art of the future’.4 Theo had cautiously started exhibiting works by avant-garde artists in his Boussod, Valadon et Cie gallery in the second half of 1887. Vincent’s drive and enterprise dragged Theo into projects promoting the new art, not all of them successful, and Theo clearly admired his brother’s energy. Van Gogh’s artistic development had taken flight in Paris, and by now Theo had absolute confidence in his work. This made their relationship more evenly balanced for Vincent, who had the feeling that at last his paintings were measuring up to the financial support he received from his brother.
Theo usually enclosed a letter with the money that he sent about three times a month.5 Only 39 of his letters to Vincent have survived, 37 of them from the period 1888-1890, and 2 earlier ones which have been preserved because Vincent wrote his replies on the same sheets.6 The correspondence between the brothers in the last two years of Vincent’s life is almost complete, with only two or three of Theo’s letters missing between the end of April 1889 and July 1890.7 We can now keep close track of the dialogue, whereas previously we only knew what Theo wrote indirectly – either from Vincent’s letters or sometimes from the family correspondence.
2.2 The parents
Very few of the masses of letters that Van Gogh must have written to his parents have survived: six from 1876-1883 (five to his parents and one to his mother and Theo) and eleven from 1889-1890 (eight to his mother and three to her and Willemien).
There are no longer any of the letters from the parents to Vincent, but we can get a good idea of their contents from the surviving correspondence of other members of the family. Like the letters that his father and mother wrote to Theo, those to Vincent would undoubtedly have been full of good advice and the latest news about the doings of their family and friends.8
Vincent’s early letters are full of veneration for his father, the Reverend Van Gogh, in whose footsteps he wanted to follow. But in later years he had a difficult relationship with his father, and there were times when they were simply not on speaking, or indeed writing terms. After the Reverend Van Gogh’s death in March 1885, Vincent moved out of the parental home for good, and six months later left the Netherlands altogether and had no contact with home for a long time. In a letter of August 1886 to a female friend, his sister Willemien gave her view of Vincent’s relations with the rest of the family. ‘His disappointments often embittered him and made him not a normal person. That was a difficult thing for my parents, who could not always follow him and often misunderstood him. My father was a stickler for the proper form, and he never concerned himself with all that; naturally that often caused clashes, and neither of the parties readily forgot words that were spoken in anger. So for the last eight years Vincent had been a problem to many people, and because of the outward appearances they all too often forgot the great deal of good that was in him. The last few years he worked at home with us; after my father’s death Anna thought it would be more peaceful for Ma if he were not to live at home any longer and contrived that he left us. He took that so badly that we have heard nothing from him since then and we only know about him through Theo.’9
Van Gogh reopened the correspondence with Willemien, who was living with their mother, when he was in Paris, and towards the end of his life he began picking up the threads with his mother again, writing to her from the south of France from time to time. The recurrent attacks of his mental illness left him isolated and discouraged, and his letters to his mother and Willemien betray a nostalgia for Holland and his youth. Shortly before his death he wrote: ‘I often think of you both, and would very much like to see you again’, but it was not to be.10
No letters have survived between Vincent and his brother Cor, 14 years his junior and the baby of the family. However, Vincent would undoubtedly have received a note now and then from ‘little brother’ of the kind that Cor wrote to Theo, with news about his rabbit and the presents he had been given on the feast of St Nicholas.11
Cor was, in his own words, ‘a bad letter-writer’, and later had very little contact with his eldest brother.12 In October 1888 he wrote tellingly to Theo ‘in fact you’re my only brother’.13 Vincent regularly asked after him in letters to his mother and Theo, and he sent him ‘an extremely warm-hearted letter’ when Cor was staying with Theo and Jo in Paris prior to leaving for South Africa.14 It seems that this was the last sign of life between the two brothers.
When he was young Van Gogh spent a lot of time with Anna, who was two years younger than him. Not one of his letters to her has survived, and the only known one from Anna to him is a short note of December 1875 that she wrote in Welwyn in England.15 We know that Vincent wrote letters to her from London in 1874 because she quotes from them when writing to Theo.16 Those quotations and other remarks about Vincent in Anna’s letters have fed speculation about the love he supposedly felt for the daughter of his London landlady. It is very much the question whether he did, but it is certainly clear from Anna’s letters to Theo that Vincent took her into his confidence.17
Later in 1874 Anna lived with Vincent in London for several months, but it was not entirely a success. She complained in a letter to Theo that Vincent was too quick to judge people and then tossed them away like ‘a bouquet of wilted flowers’.18 And by August 1878, when she was preparing for her marriage to Joan van Houten, there was little left of their former attachment. ‘Vincent is more of a wooden lion than ever and is very annoyed at the preparations. For Pa and Ma’s sake I hope so much that this thing in Belgium will succeed, but I fear that his extreme obstinacy and lack of human understanding won’t do him much good in his new situation.’19 The breach caused by Anna forcing Vincent to leave the house after their father’s death was never healed. In Saint-Rémy, significantly, he wrote about paintings that he wanted to make for ‘the two sisters’ (Willemien and Lies). Only in letters to his mother did he ask after Anna and her children occasionally, more out of politeness than anything else.
There are several mentions in the family correspondence of the period 1874-1877 of letters between Vincent and his middle sister Lies, of which there is now no trace. In 1880 she became a lady’s companion to the Du Quesne family in Soesterberg, and Vincent saw little of her after that. They did exchange books occasionally, and she let him read her poems.20 Vincent probably knew nothing about her affair with Mr Du Quesne and the birth of their illegitimate child in France in 1886. Shortly before his death she sent him a letter through Theo.21
In the last years of his life Van Gogh was above all close to Willemien, his youngest sister. In 1881 he wrote that he was ‘now corresponding continuously with our sister Willemien’ (187), but no letters from that period have come down to us. All that we have is a note that she wrote to Vincent and Theo in 1875, when she was 13 years old.22 When Van Gogh moved to Nuenen in 1884, the brother and sister had the opportunity to get to know each other better, despite all the tensions within the family. As a result, Willemien was the only sister with whom Vincent had a good relationship, although in 1885, after a quarrel over their father’s will, he wanted nothing to do with her either for a while. Around 22 May of that year he told Theo that ‘I foresee that the characters of the 3 sisters (all three) will get worse not better with time, and to me at least they’re utterly disagreeable as it is. You remember with how much warmth I wrote to you about Wil when Ma was ill. Well now, it’s been such a short burst – and it’s frozen again’ (506).
However, they got in touch again when Vincent was living in Paris. In the autumn of 1887 she wrote him a letter and enclosed a short story she had written, and although he opened his reply with the words ‘although for my part I so detest writing these days’, he was clearly pleased to exchange ideas with her.23 His letters to her are more light-hearted than those to Theo, and occasionally he even cracked a joke. He also gave her advice about love: ‘No, my dear little sister, learn to dance or fall in love with one or more notary’s clerks, officers, in short whoever’s within your reach; rather, much rather commit any number of follies than study in Holland’ (574). He hoped that she would marry an artist, and tried to pair her off with Joseph Isaäcson and Emile Bernard.24
The letters to Willemien are particularly valuable for the many observations about matters to do with life and being an artist. All of them date from the last three years of his life, during the second 18 months of which he was plagued by mental breakdowns and lost faith in his ability as an artist. He evidently felt fairly free when writing to Willemien, which allowed him to embark on long explanations and often give free rein to his thoughts. Consequently, the letters to her are an important reflection of Van Gogh’s views about life and death, illness and health, art and the practice of art. He displayed his earlier uncompromising stance in his letters to Bernard of the same period, but he dropped his guard with Willemien and allowed her to see his vulnerable side.
In all there are 21 known letters to Willemien, as well as one that was never sent (RM19), and three to her and their mother jointly, all of them written between October 1887 and June 1890, and there are no indications that there were ever any more. It seems, then, that from 1887 on Willemien kept all the letters she received from Vincent. She also let other people read them. For instance, she sent the Paris letter mentioned above (574) to her friend Margreet Meyboom. Vincent’s first few letters to Willemien were written in Dutch, but he then switched to French. Willemien herself always wrote in Dutch.25 Apart from the letter that she wrote as a young girl in 1875, not one of her letters to Vincent has survived, not even those of 1889-1890, unlike the ones that Theo wrote in that period.26
2.7 The uncles
The young Vincent probably wrote polite letters from time to time to the two uncles who had such a powerful influence in the Van Gogh family: the art dealers Cornelis Marinus (‘Uncle Cor’ or ‘C.M.’) and Vincent van Gogh (‘Uncle Cent’). One such written to Uncle Cor in March 1877 was in Theo’s estate, and was thus probably never sent.27 However, there would never have been an intense correspondence with either uncle. Uncle Cent concerned himself with his nephew’s future, and arranged for him to go and work at Goupil’s. In the spring of 1877 Vincent also consulted him over his plan to study theology, but his uncle disapproved of the idea and told him ‘that he thought it unnecessary to continue the correspondence, that he cannot help me in this matter’ (111). None of these letters have survived.
Initially Vincent had greatly admired both uncles, but as time passed that changed into exasperation with their narrow-mindedness and prejudices – largely the same accusations that he levelled at his father. Vincent was still fairly charitable in his letters to Theo about Uncle Cent’s disparaging remarks about his love for Kee Vos in 1881, but when this uncle, like the Reverend Van Gogh, Tersteeg and Mauve, condemned his cohabitation with Sien a year later, Vincent did not conceal his contempt, and wrote that ‘Uncle Cent, is someone with whom I have been on bad terms for many years on account of numerous things’ (235). That that did not change is clear from the fact that he was not mentioned in his uncle’s will.
It was little better with the other uncle. When Van Gogh started out as an artist in The Hague he made an appeal to Uncle Cor, who gave him a sympathetic hearing despite the fact that they had had words in the past.28 In the spring of 1882, Uncle Cor twice commissioned him to draw series of views of The Hague, but they had a row when ‘C.M.’, as Vincent invariably referred to him at the time, had been ‘disagreeable’ about the drawings (362).29 Their argument was resolved to some extent due to Theo’s intervention, but relations had cooled, and from then on Vincent approached his uncle through Theo. He nevertheless carried on trying to interest him in his affairs. There is a letter of August 1885 in which he offered him a few studies in exchange for some picture frames, and as late as February 1890 he asked Theo to tell Uncle Cor about his work by sending him an article about it that had just been published.30