The Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously said ‘Create, artist, do not talk!’ In his view, marble and paint were for artists and language was the province of writers and poets. Vincent van Gogh thought otherwise; in his letters to his brother Theo and to other artists he stressed that these two art forms were equal in terms of their power to evoke and express, to give form and substance to emotions and impressions. To him good art was literature, literature was art; shoulder to shoulder they would endure: ‘There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don’t you think, it’s as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing. There’s the art of lines and colours, but there’s the art of words that will last just the same.’ In these letters expressing his innermost thoughts, Van Gogh, the modern artist par excellence, unwittingly left a literary monument of his own. It can be said without exaggeration that this is the most impressive artist’s correspondence we know. These letters are unique in that they convey his personal ideas and recount his eventful life in vivid, unadorned language that lends them universal validity. Van Gogh had a passionate, almost fanatical temperament and expressed himself without reservation. It is the insight they give us into the development of a ground-breaking artist – a man who did not hesitate to reveal his most human side – that makes these letters so fascinating.
As soon as letters written by Van Gogh were first published – by his friend Emile Bernard in 1893, three years after the artist’s death – their quality was recognized, and they have become increasingly appreciated by a growing readership ever since. Over the years there have been many translations and collections, ranging from complete editions to selections and compilations, frequently reprinted to meet the continuing need of art historians, art lovers and the general reader to explore Van Gogh’s literary legacy.
It has been almost twenty years since the appearance of the last complete Dutch edition and more than fifty years since the publication of the correspondence in English, French and German editions, so it is high time that the letters were published again according to present-day standards in a form that answers modern needs and expectations. The edition presented here, however, aspires to be more than a reprint of the familiar corpus of letters. For the first time Van Gogh’s correspondence has been annotated with commentaries that clarify the historical context, thus closing for many readers the gap of some 130 years. The notes to the letters identify the hundreds of people who are mentioned, explain the background to events, and trace as far as possible the hundreds of books and magazines to which Van Gogh refers and from which he quotes. The dating of all the letters has been re-examined and in many cases corrected and, last but not least, the 2,000 or so works of art that Van Gogh discusses – his own and those by other artists – are identified and illustrated so that the reader has a complete picture of Van Gogh’s musée imaginaire. We can literally see what he saw, experience the way – as a young art lover and later as an artist – he learned from the art of predecessors and contemporaries. We see how his own art developed from its earliest beginnings, betraying few signs of talent, to the epoch-making work he produced less than ten years later. Van Gogh’s own commentary on this pictorial archive creates a marriage of word and image never before possible – a synthesis that significantly sharpens our perception and deepens our understanding of Van Gogh’s artistic and intellectual horizons.
This new and innovative edition of Van Gogh’s complete correspondence is the product of fifteen years of research. The Van Gogh Museum, which leads the field in Van Gogh research worldwide, holds over ninety percent of all the surviving letters, so it was obvious that the museum should take the initiative to produce a scholarly edition that makes these fragile documents available to all in a form faithful to their original content and appearance. The production of a scholarly edition calls for specialist methods and skills, and so in 1993 the museum contacted the Huygens Institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the national centre of excellence for textual research. The combined expertise of these two organizations guaranteed the best possible result, valid in both art-historical and scholarly terms.
The Van Gogh Letters Project began in November 1994 with a team of three researchers. The objective was to produce a fully annotated edition of the original letters accompanied by a new English translation so as to meet the demand for a reliable source edition and serve the needs of international readers and researchers. A core group (1994–1998) consisting of the editors Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten, Louis van Tilborgh and Dick van Vliet set out the basic principles and outlined the best way the project could be realized.
In 2004 the new media that had emerged in the 1990s and the rapidly changing role of the printed book in the scholarly world prompted a reconsideration of the way in which the letters, translations and commentaries should be published. After careful reflection it was decided that the new age called for a new approach. This integral scholarly web edition includes extensive notes, facsimiles of all the letters and search facilities. The book edition is based on this scholarly edition. Complete, in-depth and detailed, this unique combination meets the needs of lovers of Van Gogh and specialists alike.
Since 1994 the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute have made the best possible use of each other’s resources, and we are confident that the result far surpasses our expectations. The outcome enables us to share our labour-intensive research with a wider readership. Bringing together the expertise of the two organizations has led to publications which are innovative both as art-historical literature and as scholarly editions, thus punctuating the academic debate in the two disciplines. They are a milestone in the history of the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute.
Research of this duration involving two institutions and a production phase of almost two years inevitably concerns a great many people. It is impossible to do justice to them all here; they receive the praise that is their due in the Acknowledgements. Nevertheless, we should like to spotlight some of the main players because of their special role in the project. As the current directors of our organizations, we should like to begin by thanking our predecessors, Professor R. de Leeuw in the Van Gogh Museum and Professor H.T.M. van Vliet and Professor H. Braakhuis in the Huygens Institute. They took the brave decision to embark on this project, and to continue with it when it became apparent that the original estimate of five years was woefully inadequate. During his time as director of the Van Gogh Museum, John Leighton stood firm and saw to it that the move towards new publishing forms was carefully prepared. If these men had been less steadfast, the project would never have seen the light of day.
Reaching an international readership is wholly dependent on excellent translations. We have been fortunate in securing the services of a team of eminent translators to English. Our thanks go to coordinating editor Michael Hoyle, responsible for the English manuscript, and the distinguished translators Sue Dyson, Imogen Forster, Lynne Richards, John Rudge and Diane Webb.
An editorial board made up of Professor M. van Buuren, Dr R. Dorn, Professor R.E.O. Ekkart, Emeritus Professor J.D.F. van Halsema, S. van Heugten, Professor A. Kets-Vree, Dr L. van Tilborgh and Emeritus Professor E. van Uitert supervised the progress of the project. From the perspective of their different academic disciplines they monitored the quality of the scholarly apparatus, directed the research and made their knowledge available, particularly in such important phases as setting up the research and establishing the appropriate structure for the editions. They also read the manuscript or parts of it with a critical eye – a considerable drain on their time but of immense benefit to the researchers. We are deeply indebted to them for their contribution. The same unreserved praise goes to Chris Stolwijk, Head of Research at the Van Gogh Museum, and to Annemarie Kets-Vree, Deputy Director of the Huygens Institute, who both supervised the project, and to Marije Vellekoop, for her contribution to the research.
The Letters Project received a great deal of assistance from other bodies as well. We are particularly grateful for the financial – not to mention moral – support we received from the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, which has given the museum the vast majority of the letters on permanent loan. Furthermore, we are deeply indebted to Pieter and Françoise Geelen of the Turing Foundation, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Linea d’Ombra, the International Music and Art Foundation, Shigeru Myojin and Sherif Nadar, the Orentreich Family Foundation, Ernst Nijkerk (for the donation in memory of Inge Nijkerk-von der Laden), Rabobank, Samsung, KPN, Noortman Master Paintings, Bob P. Haboldt, Colnaghi, the City of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Partners and the Mondriaan Foundation for their extraordinarily generous financial support, which underpinned the whole project and made the print and web editions possible. The contribution and expertise of Metamorfoze, the Nationaal Programma voor het Behoud van het Papieren Erfgoed (National Programme for the Preservation of Heritage Works on Paper), in association with Pictura Imaginis and Kleurgamma BV, enabled us to convert the whole of the letters collection into digital form.
In conclusion, we should like to express our sincere gratitude to the many colleagues in both our organizations who contributed to the research and to the production of the publication for longer or shorter periods. They are mentioned by name in the Acknowledgements; we confine ourselves here to thanking them wholeheartedly for the part they played, be it in the spotlight or behind the scenes.
Our special thanks go to all the institutions and private individuals who so generously made image material available, particularly the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo.
Finally, it would be seriously remiss not to mention the three editors of this edition, who deserve our great respect and deep admiration for their achievement. Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten have devoted fifteen years of their professional lives to the project. Starting with a blank canvas, they designed and carried out the research, conceived the plan for the editions, and supervised other colleagues and students who contributed to the project. Held in high esteem internationally, they have brought their knowledge of the letters and of Van Gogh’s life and work and their scholarly passion to bear on this edition. For the last seven years the team has included Nienke Bakker, whose familiarity with Van Gogh’s letters of the 1888–1890 period and command of French are outstanding. Over the years the authors have shared their knowledge with colleagues in the Van Gogh Museum and in the international world of Van Gogh scholarship, making an essential contribution to the museum’s reputation as an international research institution.
We trust that countless readers all over the world share our gratitude to the editors and to all those who have made this superb edition possible.
Director Van Gogh Museum
Director Huygens Institute KNAW