Van Gogh worked alone for long periods and for much of his career as an artist, but it was not a self-imposed isolation. Although he disliked cliques and official bodies such as the Academy, he was always on the lookout for kindred spirits. He had a real need for an exchange of ideas, for discussing artistic problems and measuring his work against that of other artists, preferably in person but otherwise by mail. If he could speak to people face-to-face he obviously had less need to write. That was the situation when he was living with Theo in Paris where he was surrounded by artists he could talk to, and he wrote less and more briefly to Theo during the two months that he and Gauguin worked together in Arles. However, both in his personal contacts and exchanges of letters Van Gogh rarely succeeded in making the relationships flourish. As in his relations with his family, his friendships were not always proof against criticism and differences of opinion, and they often ended in quarrels.
The letters he wrote to artist friends form a separate group within the correspondence. In common with the letters to Theo, they contain a lot of information about Van Gogh’s use of materials, studio practice and sources of inspiration, and they are indispensable for a proper understanding of his development as an artist. And perhaps even more than the letters to Theo, these written discussions with colleagues give us an insight into his ideas about the art of the day and his own role in it. The nucleus of this part of the correspondence is formed by the letters he exchanged with the Dutch artist Anthon van Rappard (58 from Van Gogh and 1 from Van Rappard) and the French painters Emile Bernard (22 letters from Van Gogh) and Paul Gauguin (4 letters from Van Gogh and 16 to him). There are also a few surviving letters from or to other artists: John Peter Russell, Arnold Koning, Paul Signac, Charles Angrand, Horace Mann Livens and Eugène Boch (for the numbers involved see ‘Overview of all the letters’).
Van Gogh wrote many of these letters not just to exchange ideas but also with a view to collaboration. For instance, he suggested in his letter of the autumn of 1886 to Livens, whom he had got to know at the academy in Antwerp, that the latter should come to Paris, and offered to share living quarters and a studio with him. In Paris Van Gogh made friends with the young avant-garde artists Emile Bernard, Louis Anquetin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whom he involved in the exhibition he organized in the Grand Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet at the end of 1887. He tried to give firmer shape to his idealistic views of an association of artists after he left Paris. In February 1888, only just arrived in Arles, he was already making plans for a joint exhibition of the Impressionists in Marseille, and he wrote telling Bernard about the advantages and drawbacks of the south of France, so they had evidently discussed the idea of collaboration back in Paris. Not long afterwards he rented the Yellow House with the aim of turning part of it into a studio for himself and another artist, preferably Gauguin, and he came up with a strategy for getting him to come to Arles in which he also involved Theo and Russell. The purpose of his letters to the latter from this period was to persuade him to buy a painting by Gauguin to enable him to pay for his trip to the south. He repeatedly speaks of a shared studio in the letters to Bernard, and even in those to Gauguin after the disastrous end to their collaboration from October to December 1888.
Another reason for corresponding with artists was to propose exchanges of works. Here there were two objectives: to make his own work more widely known, and at the same time to put together a collection of modern art for Theo and himself. That was the object of the letter to Angrand.31 In the first one that he wrote to Koning in March 1888 (when Koning was living with Theo), which is now lost, he probably also took the opportunity of suggesting an exchange.32 When he was in Arles he arranged by mail for an exchange of self-portraits with Bernard and Gauguin, who were in Pont-Aven in Brittany, followed immediately by a second exchange with Bernard, Charles Laval, Henri Moret and Ernest de Chamaillard.33 He had started making exchanges on a modest scale while he was still living in Holland, when he and Van Rappard sent drawings and lithographs back and forth.
3.1 Anthon van Rappard
Van Gogh’s correspondence with Anthon van Rappard dates from 1881 to 1885 and thus covers almost the entire Dutch period, the first, crucial stage of Van Gogh’s career. After a difficult time of depression and poverty in the Borinage he had decided to become a draughtsman, and in November 1880 he moved to Brussels. There he met Van Rappard, a student at the academy, who later allowed him to use his studio. Van Rappard later recalled that first meeting: ‘I remember, as though it were yesterday, our first meeting in Brussels, when he came to my room at nine o’clock in the morning; how at first we did not get on very well; although we did later, after having worked together a few times’.34
Their relationship was based on their similar positions as artists just setting out on their careers, even though Van Rappard had started a few years earlier than Van Gogh and came from a very different background. During the Dutch period Van Rappard was the only artist friend with whom Van Gogh could discuss their calling at length, and the technical side of it in particular. Their correspondence began in May 1881, after Van Gogh’s return to Etten.
One recurring theme is magazine illustrations, which both of them collected. Van Gogh made lists of new ones he had acquired, sent duplicates to Van Rappard, who had started collecting them on his advice, and described how he pasted them onto sheets of paper to make them easier to handle and insert in portfolios arranged by subject or the artist’s name.35
Van Rappard’s birth into an aristocratic family and his contacts in academic art circles made him in a sense part of the establishment that Van Gogh disliked. However, there were important similarities in their views, as Van Gogh wrote: ‘People strengthen each other when they work together, and an entity is formed without personality having to be blotted out by the collaboration. ... We don’t actually work together, but we have similar ideas about many questions’ (305).
A difference of opinion in 1885 brought an end to their correspondence and friendship. Van Gogh found Van Rappard’s harsh judgement of his lithograph after The potato eaters so hurtful that he sent the offending letter back. It is for that reason that it has survived and that we are able to read Van Rappard’s devastating critique: ‘You’ll agree with me that such work isn’t intended seriously. You can do better than this – fortunately; but why, then, observe and treat everything so superficially? Why not study the movements? Now they’re posing. That coquettish little hand of that woman at the back, how untrue!’36
But Van Gogh would not have been Van Gogh if, two months after returning the letter, he had not picked up his pen once more to write a rejoinder.37 In what turned out to be his final letters to Van Rappard we see him defending his convictions with all his usual passion and stubbornness. Although he eventually accepted Van Rappard’s criticism, or rather put it aside, and wrote to Theo saying that ‘the quarrel is wholly made up’ (529), their relationship soon petered out. Van Rappard later said that the cause of their estrangement was ‘a misunderstanding I have often regretted’.38 Van Gogh’s departure for Antwerp in November 1885, and then on to Paris three months later, made the distance between them even greater, and later neither of them evidently felt the need to get in touch again.
3.2 Emile Bernard
Van Gogh’s friendship and correspondence with Emile Bernard were in some way comparable to those with Van Rappard. In the two years that Van Gogh lived in Paris he spent a lot of time with Bernard, who was 15 years younger. They painted together, helped each other with contacts, and exhibited together. After Van Gogh’s departure for Arles they conducted a lively correspondence and kept each other abreast of what they were doing through letter sketches and drawings. The difference in their ages prompted Van Gogh to play the part of the older and more experienced adviser. This exchange of letters also petered out after an artistic difference of opinion, however, but this time it was Van Gogh who was the merciless critic.39
Writing about their meeting in 1890, Bernard said that he saw Van Gogh ‘for the first time in Cormon’s studio. ... Then at Tanguy’s shop, that fervent little chapel whose old priest has the kindly smile of misunderstood honesty. When he [Van Gogh] emerged from the back shop, with his high, broad forehead, he was so striking I was almost frightened; but we soon made friends’.40 This took place in the spring and autumn of 1886 respectively.41 It was through Bernard that at the end of 1886 Van Gogh got to know Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin better, whom he must already have met at Cormon’s. In the course of 1887, Anquetin and Bernard ostentatiously rejected the Neo-Impressionism of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, but Van Gogh was keen that the painters of the ‘petit boulevard’ should work together.42 In the earliest surviving letter to Bernard, of around December 1887, he accordingly takes him to task for refusing to exhibit with Signac.
The letters testify to Van Gogh’s approval of his friend’s work, and they exchanged drawings and paintings on several occasions.43 The intensity and liveliness of their epistolary contacts also emerges from Bernard’s characterization: ‘I replied to him no less lengthily, also filling my letters with sketches of my canvases in progress. We had formed this plan of drawing as one writes, and with the same fluency as would a Hokusai or an Utamaro’.44
They wrote to each other almost continuously between March and October 1888, but after Van Gogh’s letter of 1 or 2 November of that year, when Gauguin was staying with him in the Yellow House, the correspondence ceased for almost a year. Van Gogh’s fluctuating mental health and his disappointment over the failure of the collaboration with Gauguin must have played a part, and there is no reason to assume that there was any change in his friendly feelings towards Bernard. After that break of almost a year the correspondence resumed in October 1889, and Van Gogh was as involved in his friend’s doings as ever. But in his very last letter to him in November 1889 he was so dismissive of Bernard’s paintings that he must have killed any desire on the latter’s part to carry on writing.
Although no more letters followed, the friendship was not over. They did not get the opportunity to revive it, though, for when Van Gogh returned to the north in May 1890 Bernard was not in Paris, so they were unable to meet while Van Gogh stayed there on his way to Auvers-sur-Oise.
3.3 Paul Gauguin
The surviving correspondence between Van Gogh and Gauguin covers the period March 1888 to June 1890. The letters to Gauguin are different in tone from those to Van Rappard and Bernard. They are less direct, more formal, and emanate a palpable respect. They largely deal with the same topics discussed in the letters to Bernard of the same period (health, the direction that modern painting should take, the progress of works), but Van Gogh is not so free when addressing Gauguin. The latter’s letters display a similar reserve, although that does not alter the fact that they had a great deal of respect for each other.
Van Gogh and Gauguin must have met in Paris in November or December 1887.45 Gauguin had returned in the middle of November after a six-month stay in Panama and Martinique. They may first have met in the Boussod, Valadon & Cie gallery that was run by Theo. Gauguin must have been there before 6 December to discuss exhibiting his work in the gallery.46 However, it is also possible that they got to know each other at the exhibition that Vincent organized in the Grand Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet in November-December 1887. Gauguin is known to have visited it, and he exchanged work with Van Gogh because of it.47
Gauguin’s reputation had undoubtedly gone before him, and Van Gogh must already have known quite a bit about him before they met. Although Gauguin found it difficult to sell his work, he was already a well-known figure in the Parisian avant-garde in 1886. He had taken part in the Impressionists’ exhibitions, had worked closely with Camille Pissarro and was a friend of Edgar Degas. The stories about the bohemian who had abandoned his job, his wife and his children in order to become an artist, and had left for the tropical island of Martinique in search of a new way of painting, must have appealed to Van Gogh. Gauguin, in his turn, was in urgent need of contacts among the avant-garde, because as a result of his quarrel with Pissarro and the Neo-Impressionists he had few friends left. Getting to know Vincent, and Theo in particular, who took work of his on commission and exhibited it, and even bought a painting for his own collection, was therefore just what he needed.48
The friendship with Gauguin did not yet amount to very much when Van Gogh left Paris, unlike that with Bernard. Gauguin went to Brittany at the end of January 1888, but since they did not tell each other about their travel plans it appears that they did not see each other very often.49 There was no question of them being a trio with Bernard at that time, on the contrary, Van Gogh later recalled that ‘last winter Bernard was still trying to pick a quarrel with Gauguin’.50 The trio only came into being, at a distance, when Bernard called on Gauguin in Pont-Aven on Van Gogh’s advice in the summer of 1888. The two of them then worked intensively together, showed each other Vincent’s letters to them, and at his request painted portraits for an exchange.51
When Van Gogh received a letter from Gauguin in Arles at the end of February 1888 complaining that he was on the rocks, Vincent immediately began making plans to help him out of trouble. At the end of May he suggested to Theo that they should get Gauguin to come to Arles in return for financial support.52 He himself was longing for company, because his limited contacts with artists and amateur artists there were not providing him with the ideas and inspiration he needed.53 He wanted to found a colony of painters with Gauguin, and breathe new life into the art of the south.
Gauguin was initially rather lukewarm about the plan, but undoubtedly soon realized that it did offer him a way out of the impasse he was in, and that it would be a means of strengthening his ties with Theo and thus with the art trade. When he finally arrived in Arles at the end of October, Van Gogh’s expectations were high. The two months they lived and worked together have been discussed at length by many commentators, and it ended dramatically.54 Van Gogh cut part of his ear off in a fit of madness and was admitted to hospital. Gauguin decided to return to Paris as soon as possible. They resumed their correspondence a few weeks after the drama had occurred. Despite Van Gogh’s disappointment at Gauguin’s departure, the tone of their letters continued to be friendly, but it was more reserved than ever. They continued to address each other with ‘vous’, as they did before they worked together.55
The note that Van Gogh wrote to Gauguin immediately after leaving hospital sounds cordial enough,56 but his letters to Theo show that he was very disgruntled with Gauguin and reveal how hurt he was by his hasty departure from Arles. He compares him with Bompard, a character in Daudet’s Tartarin de Tarascon who lies to his friend and betrays him, and recommends that Theo read the book if he wants to know ‘how things happened’ (736). Tellingly, in his next letter he asks Gauguin if he has read Tartarin by now, but then immediately adds: ‘The imagination of the south creates pals, doesn’t it, and between us we always have friendship’ (739).
Their friendship did indeed survive the dramatic turn of events, as demonstrated by the paintings that Gauguin received from Vincent via Theo and the few letters that have survived from 1890, in which they cautiously explore the possibility of a new collaboration.57 Around 7 July 1890 Gauguin told Theo: ‘I have had 2 quite calm letters from Vincent, which I enjoyed’. Van Gogh told him in one of them that he was planning to visit him and Meijer de Haan in Brittany. It was the last time that Gauguin heard from him; Van Gogh died three weeks later. Gauguin wrote to Bernard: ‘However sad one is at this death, I do not really lament it, because I foresaw it and I knew the suffering of that poor boy, battling his madness. Dying now is great good luck for him, it means the end of his suffering, and if he ever returns in another life he will reap the rewards of his good behaviour in this world (according to the law of Buddha). He took with him the consolation that he was not forsaken by his brother and was understood by some artists’.58