In 1915 De Wereldbibliotheek – the firm that had published Brieven aan zijn broeder – brought out a small monograph on Van Gogh by the art critic Just Havelaar. He was an admirer of Van Gogh and presented the artist as an apostle and a hero, a solitary fighter and sufferer who ‘was keenly sensible of the truth of his century’. At the back of the book, as was common practice at the time, the publishers printed an advertisement for other works on their list. In this case, appropriately, it was for the three-volume edition of the letters. Interestingly, however, Havelaar asserted in his text: ‘His letters have been published: 652 letters, 1660 pages of letters: there are far too many, far too many that we could easily do without; and to make a book of these precious “letters” that will continue to live for posterity the three bulky volumes will have to be reduced to one.’76 Havelaar’s ‘less is more’ position avant la lettre was certainly not adopted in the decades that followed.
4.1 Occasional publications up to 1945
By about 1920 Van Gogh was recognized as an important artist not just by art experts and art historians but by a wider public in Europe and the United States. The Dutch and German editions of the letters to Theo were reprinted in 1924 and 1928 respectively. The letters to Bernard, published by Vollard in 1911, appeared in German in 1921.77 Britain made the acquaintance of the letters in 1913 by way of The letters of a Post-Impressionist, a translation of the selection that Margarete Mauthner had made for Bruno Cassirer; the English translation by Anthony M. Ludovici was based on the German.78 Ludovici’s translation was the basis for the first Japanese translation published in book form, which appeared in Tokyo in 1915. It was by the artist Shōhachi Kimura, who had published his translations of the letters in the journal Seikatsu from September 1913.79 The earliest Japanese translations of Van Gogh’s letters were published from February 1911 onwards in the magazine Shirakaba; the translator was Kojima Kikuo, who worked from the German version.80
Meanwhile, the story of Van Gogh’s life had captured a great many people’s imaginations; the fame and the myth of ‘Vincent’ grew and grew. The much-condemned little book of personal recollections by Van Gogh’s sister Lies of 1910 was published in a German translation in 1911 (by Piper, Meier-Graefe’s regular publisher) and in an English version in 1913.81 Following the lead of Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s biographical introduction, the first biographers emerged: Théodore Duret (Van Gogh, 1919, revised in 1924), Julius Meier-Graefe (Vincent, 1921), Gustave Coquiot (Vincent van Gogh, 1923) and Louis Piérard (La vie tragique de Vincent van Gogh, 1924).
Aside from the independent books and extensive publications in magazines and journals, letters from and to people other than Theo, Bernard and Van Rappard gradually began to surface. These ‘discoveries’ usually appeared in magazines and were rapidly disseminated to other countries by way of translations, reaching other parts of Europe beyond the west – the precise course of this process has by no means been mapped yet. With no pretensions to completeness, the publications that appeared up to 1945 aside from the autonomous editions are listed here in chronological order:82
- Van Gogh to Albert Aurier (letter 853), in Aurier 1893, pp. 265-268.
- Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin (letter 706), in La Rénovation Esthétique (September 1905).83
- Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin (letter 739), in Jean de Rotonchamps, Paul Gauguin 1848-1903. Weimar 1906, pp. 57-59.84
- Van Gogh to Anton Kerssemakers (facsimile, letter 491), in De Groene Amsterdammer, 14 April 1912, p. 6.
- Van Gogh to Horace Mann Livens (letter 569, facsimile), in Catalogue of the oil paintings and watercolours by Horace Mann Livens. William Marchant & Co. The Goupil Gallery, 5 Regent Street, London, S.W. February, 1914.85
- Van Gogh to Joseph and Marie Ginoux (letters 842, 851 (also facsimile), 871 and 883), in Coquiot 1923, pp. 221-226, 250-252. Coquiot also printed a facsimile of part of letter 756 to Paul Signac. (See also below, under 1936)
- Van Gogh to Octave Maus (letter 821), in Madeleine Octave Maus, Trente années de lutte pour l’art, 1884-1914. Brussels 1926, p. 100.
- Van Gogh to Arnold Koning (letters 618 and 740), in K. N., ‘Twee onbekende brieven van Vincent van Gogh aan den schilder A.H. Koning’, De Telegraaf, 28 and 29 November 1933.
- Van Gogh to Paul Signac (letter 756), George Besson, ‘Paul Signac’, Artistes & Cie. Notes sur la Vie Artistique 10, no. 96 (June 1930), pp. 249-251.
- Van Gogh to John Peter Russell (letters 598, 627 and 849), in L’Amour de l’Art, 19-7 (September 1938), pp. 281-286 and The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (September 1938), pp. 95-104.
- Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin (letter 695/687),86 in Claude Roger-Marx, ‘Lettres inédites de Vincent van Gogh et de Paul Gauguin’, Europe. Revue Mensuelle 17, no.194 (15 February 1939), pp. 163-174.
4.2 Publications in book form between the wars
4.2.1 Reissues and translations
Jo van Gogh-Bonger died in 1925. It gave her great satisfaction to know that her edition of the letters was reprinted in 1923-1924. Outwardly it did not differ from the first edition of 1914. In the very short ‘Preface to the Second Edition’, she wrote:
What I so fervently hoped for the first edition has come to pass: they have found their way into people’s hearts.The testimonials reach me from all parts of the world, how the pure humanity of the great artist touches, captivates and moves the readers of his letters.And thus will this second edition – which does not differ from the first in any respect – make new friends too.87
The publication of this reprint proves that there was still a demand for this edition, as the German reprint of Briefe an seinen Bruder in 1928 likewise demonstrates.88 This, however, did differ from the first edition: Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s introduction was followed by a second introduction, written by her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, the owner of the estate; it was a brief biography of his mother titled ‘Treue, Widmung, Liebe’, in which he focused on her efforts to promote Van Gogh’s work and letters. He also quoted from her personal correspondence and diaries.
Although V.W. van Gogh had assumed his mother’s responsibilities and duties (including the moral ones) a relatively short time before, his introduction to the German reissue was not his first foray into print: it had already appeared in 1927 under the title ‘In Memoriam J. van Gogh-Bonger. Loyalty, Devotion, Love’ in the first major English edition of Van Gogh’s letters. Jo van Gogh-Bonger had previously made a number of attempts to interest British or American publishers, without success.89 The English edition contained the letters up to 1886, in two volumes; two years later the letters from Van Gogh’s last years were added.90 This late crossing of the English Channel reflects the relatively late general appreciation of Van Gogh’s work in Great Britain. The first exhibition in which his work was prominently shown (and caused a good deal of controversy) was Roger Fry’s legendary Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which opened in the Grafton Galleries, London, in November 1910. It was not until 1923 that the Leicester Galleries staged the first solo exhibition.91
The English translation of the letters to Bernard, edited by Douglas Cooper, appeared in 1938. They were the last of the then known letters that had not been published in English, and their publication made one of the most important and attractive parts of the correspondence available to English speakers. The original edition by The Cresset Press in London was published simultaneously under licence by MoMA in New York, so that readers in the United States also had access to them.92
Cooper was the first person to approach the publication of Van Gogh’s letters in a scholarly manner. He used the original manuscripts, not the Vollard edition, and was the first to annotate the letters.93 He looked at the chronology with a critical eye and improved the order that Bernard had imposed in 1911.94 Cooper’s order was adopted unchanged in editions of Van Gogh’s complete correspondence, in which the letters were later given the distinguishing B number. This, and his improvements to the text editing, made his a groundbreaking edition in Van Gogh studies; it was an example that surprisingly few authors followed.95
The papers left by Douglas Cooper, which are held in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, reveal that he got in touch with Emile Bernard when he was preparing his edition. Although Bernard owned neither the title to the letters nor the copyright, he asked for and received 6,000 francs. He also demanded ‘by sentimental right’ that his ‘Préface’ to the Vollard edition should be included, but Cooper was not prepared to indulge him any further. He wrote of Bernard, ‘he is a very greedy and difficult person who is only interested in capitalizing all he can with regard to his now famous friends’, and described him as a ‘professional trouble maker’. The man who actually owned the copyright, V.W. van Gogh, gave permission for publication without requiring financial compensation; he simply asked for a few copies.96
4.2.2 New editions
By the early nineteen-thirties there was a growing realization that a cult had developed around Van Gogh, with all the uneasy feelings this engendered. A.M. Hammacher expressed them forcefully in 1931 in ‘Lusten en onlusten in den cultus van Vincent van Gogh’.97 The high point of this cult status, at least for the time being, was the publication in 1934 of Irving Stone’s Lust for life, the romanticized and dramatically overheated novel about Van Gogh’s life that was to have a defining impact on the general public’s image of the suffering artist. The successful film of the book made by Vincente Minelli in 1956 only served to reinforce this impression.
22.214.171.124 Letters from Theo to Vincent
V.W. van Gogh’s attitude, from the moment he took over the torch from his mother, can perhaps be interpreted as a deliberate reaction against this phenomenon of popularization and mythologizing. For the rest of his life he concentrated on collecting facts and documents about and associated with Van Gogh.
As early as 1932 he made his first public contribution to this by publishing his father’s letters to his uncle in the years 1888-1890: Théo van Gogh, Lettres à son frère Vincent.98 Eleven hundred copies were printed.99 All the forty-one letters it contains date from the last two years of Van Gogh’s life. They were printed in French, the language in which most of them had been written,100 and they included the letters that Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Theo’s young wife, wrote to her brother-in-law Vincent. It is the largest group of surviving letters from a single correspondent to Van Gogh.101 These previously unknown letters obviously provided important additional information about Van Gogh’s letters and his work (and about their dating), but it was also the first time that the public had been able to form a real impression of the sort of man Theo was, and the kind of brother he was to Vincent. Suddenly the relationship between the brothers was thrown into much sharper focus and Vincent’s tone, attitude and opinions in his letters to Theo could better be put into perspective. While the edition was in some sense V.W. van Gogh’s homage to his father, he must also have wanted to honour his mother, for he opened the book with an account of her life.102
126.96.36.199 The letters to Anthon van Rappard in book form
The second important autonomous publication during this period was not actually a first, although it appeared to be so to a general international readership. In 1936 Van Gogh’s letters to Anthon van Rappard, the Dutch counterpart to the Bernard letters, under the title Letters to an artist. From Vincent van Gogh to Anton G.A. Ridder van Rappard 1881-1885, translated by Rela van Messel, were published by The Viking Press in New York. Walter Pach wrote the introduction.103 Op 11 September 1936, the publisher’s representative B.W. Huebsch sent V.W. van Gogh ‘a copy of the limited edition’.104 These letters had already been published in 1905 in the Dutch magazine Kritiek van Beelden Kunsten en Kunstnijverheid, but given its limited circulation and the fact that the letters were printed in the original Dutch, they were not accessible to the now international readership of art historians and art lovers. V.W. van Gogh was initially not impressed by the translation, which was consequently ‘revised carefully’.105 There was no information about Van Rappard in the introduction – an extraordinary omission.
The American edition of the Van Rappard letters was followed in 1937 by a Dutch one: Brieven van Vincent van Gogh aan Anthon G.A. Ridder v. Rappard 1881-1885. The owner, Johan de Meester’s widow Annie de Meester-Obreen, and V.W. van Gogh were both convinced that there had to be a Dutch edition.106 The publisher, yet again, was De Wereldbibliotheek, which could by now justifiably be described as the Van Gogh family publisher.107 The book was a relatively lavish production, with generous typography and illustrations of letter sketches and works by Van Gogh, Van Rappard and even a few other artists. The sequence of the letters was different from that in the American edition. The Dutch edition probably amounted to 2,152 copies.108 The advertisement for other works at the back of the book announced that the second edition of Brieven aan zijn broeder was available for f 10 and the edition of Theo’s letters to Vincent for f 2.50 (bound).109