The 1923-1924 reprint of Brieven aan zijn broeder was sold out in November 1941. De Wereldbibliotheek had wanted to print a new impression then, but the war made it impossible. Although the publishers were given permission in 1944 for a reprint in an edition of 1,000 copies, they did not pursue it.110 After the war V.W. van Gogh conceived of a much more ambitious edition than the reprint proposed by the publishers. The books of letters up to the Second World War had contained either all the letters to one correspondent (Van Gogh to Theo, Bernard and Van Rappard, Theo to Vincent) or a miscellany of extracts; the centenary of Vincent van Gogh’s birth provided the occasion to bring together all the correspondence known at that time in a single edition. Vincent van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven in four volumes, a milestone in the history of the publication of Van Gogh’s correspondence, appeared between 1952 and 1954.111 This edition was translated in its entirety into English (1958), French (1960) and German (1965).112 These books became the essential point of reference for half a century of international Van Gogh research.
There were some substantial additions, including twenty-one mostly undated or incomplete letters and parts of letters from Vincent to Theo, mainly from the Nuenen period, and twenty-two letters to his sister Wil.113 V.W. van Gogh also managed to unearth a number of other previously unpublished letters.
5.1 Verzamelde brieven: the views of Vincent Willem van Gogh
In her edition of the letters to Theo in 1914, Jo van Gogh-Bonger said nothing about the way she perceived her task as the editor of the texts. Her son V.W. van Gogh had meanwhile developed ideas about this, and he provided an admittedly brief explanation of them in the anniversary edition he compiled. It emerges from the various prefaces and explanatory comments he included throughout the four volumes that he put the documentary nature of the edition first and left the ‘facts’ to speak for themselves, rather than add even more anecdotes or interpretations to the existing Van Gogh literature. In the preface to the first volume he wrote:
Now all the letters of Vincent van Gogh on which I have been able to lay my hand have been brought together. A number have been added to those in the published collections (letters to his brother Theo, to Emile Bernard and to Van Rappard). Some of them have never before been published (such as those to his youngest sister, which appear in the fourth volume). Others can be found in old newspapers, magazines and books, but only the initiated know how to find them. Parts of letters that have previously been omitted for one reason or another have also been included. In all cases the original language has been retained: Dutch, French, and in a few instances English. New illustrations have been added. The reproductions of others have been enlarged. They include fine drawings ...In conclusion, I wish to say that this edition is exclusively documentary in nature.114
This in fact says all there is to be said about what the edition contains and aspires to be. It does, though, unintentionally create the misleading impression that the letters are only those of Van Gogh himself, whereas the last volume also contained the letters from Theo to Vincent and a few from other correspondents like Van Rappard, Bernard, Wil, Signac and Russell.
In the short preface to the second volume V.W. van Gogh again made his intentions clear. ‘As in the first volume, a significant number of new ones [i.e. letters] and documents omitted from previous editions have been added. Vincent’s character must come to the fore in all respects.’115
As well as presenting the complete correspondence V.W. van Gogh also wanted to bring together all the available documents that were relevant to Van Gogh’s biography. He wrote in the first volume:
With a view to making the documentation on Vincent as complete as possible, the reminiscences of various people who knew him have been included. Most of them were published years ago, and are therefore known in their original form by very few people. In all cases the endeavour has been to include only that which is not rooted in fantasy.116
This can be read as a mission statement: V.W. van Gogh wanted to provide a counterweight to all the free interpretations, tall stories and myths about Van Gogh. He placed some of the additional items here and there between the letters to which they directly related, but the great majority of them were brought together at the end of the fourth volume.
V.W. van Gogh’s approach as a compiler was carefully considered, even though he did not address the fundamental editorial issue of the desirability and implications of this approach in the edition itself. A statement of principle of this kind was not yet a feature of the Dutch publishing culture, so that an explanation like the following, accompanying the Van Rappard letters in volume 4, is particularly clear evidence that V.W. van Gogh had thought about, in this case, the philological problems of editing:
The spelling of the letters to Van Rappard has been left much as it appears in the edition of 1937. In a rapid hand like Vincent’s, capital letters become ordinary letters, occasionally slightly larger than the others, but not always. Because of the speed, the punctuation marks have a tendency to become smaller or even barely visible. Someone like Vincent leaves capital letters and punctuation out because he is thinking so fast. Capital letters and punctuation have consequently been added in the letters to Theo where it seemed necessary for the convenience of the reader.117
V.W. van Gogh likewise recorded something of his thought processes in the introduction to the Bernard letters:
An English translation of Vincent’s letters to Bernard, edited by Douglas Lord [i.e. Douglas Cooper], was published in 1938. He revised the order and set out in an appendix the omissions and changes that were made in the original text of 1911 in order to expurgate it somewhat.The letters are reprinted here in their complete form (at least in so far as I have access to the material, since I do not own the originals).118
In the case of the Bernard letters, V.W. van Gogh had at least provided a concise explanation, but when it came to the presentation of the letters to Willemien – which saw the light of day for the first time in the Verzamelde brieven – he gave no elucidation whatsoever.
V.W. van Gogh was faced with the problem of the different languages in a single edition. As we have seen, in the preface to the first volume he explained his decision to respect the original languages used by the correspondents. This had evidently provoked reactions from readers, for in the last volume he wrote:
There have again been requests from various quarters to translate the letters written in French into Dutch. However, it is doubtful whether there would then be many more readers. That the greater part of the text is in Dutch obviously bars access to foreigners. This is a pity for the general reader, who will have to wait and see whether there is ever a translation he can understand. In the first place, though, there must be an edition with the original text, in whichever language it was written; only then can we look further.119
We owe to his determination on this point the fact that his book was until now the only edition in which all the correspondence available at the time was printed in the original languages.
5.2 Design of the edition
The Verzamelde brieven begins with what can in fact be described as a reprint of the edition of the letters from Vincent to Theo. They take up the first three volumes. Clarifications by Jo van Gogh-Bonger, such as the occasional footnote and brief introductions to each new period, were retained, as was the original numbering; new additions were given the number of the previous letter with the suffix a, b, c and so on. What is new, however, is that from the start of Van Gogh’s career as an artist (beginning with his time in Brussels) V.W. van Gogh quotes by way of ‘documentation’ passages from literature that had meanwhile been published. Rather oddly, he numbered this background information, which he added at the end of each period, by using the letter numbers plus the suffixes referred to above (a, b, c and so on). A case in point comes after the last letter from Brussels, where he quotes extensively, under number 143a, from Louis Piérard’s La vie tragique de Vincent van Gogh and prints two letters that he had received containing information about the period in question.120 The last letter in the Paris period is followed, under numbers 462a to 462e, by extracts from letters that Andries Bonger wrote to his parents from Paris, a number of passages from Gustave Coquiot, Vincent van Gogh, a passage about Van Gogh from A.S. Hartrick’s autobiography and a quotation from the catalogue of the Van Gogh exhibition at Bernheim-Jeune’s in 1901.121
Volume 4 contains the other correspondence and a lengthy documentation section. Here V.W. van Gogh introduced the numbering with identifiers for the different correspondents (the initial letters of their names) that has since become standard in the literature. He printed Van Gogh’s letters to Van Rappard, to Willemien and to Bernard, and Theo’s letters to Vincent; and reproduced commentaries in the publications from which they were taken. The Van Rappard section concluded with some additional information that V.W. van Gogh had gathered (R58a and R58b). In the section containing the letters from Theo to Vincent, the last of which was T41, V.W. van Gogh did not use T41a, b and so forth for the added documentation at the end, as one might have expected from the system he used elsewhere, but gave each item a new T number. There were, and this is indicative of his involvement in his father’s personal history, no fewer than sixteen of them (T42 to T57).
The next section in volume 4 was devoted to ‘Some additional information about different periods of Vincent’s life’. It contained a real miscellany of information, ranging from memories of Van Gogh that had been published in newspapers, magazines and books to notes compiled by V.W. van Gogh specifically for the edition containing facts and conjectures about the most diverse aspects (biographical and otherwise) of the lives of his uncle and his father, Vincent and Theo.122 By adopting this broad-brush approach V.W. van Gogh, who wrote that he had used the newspaper cuttings his mother had amassed, went a long way towards achieving his goal of making the publication ‘documentary in nature’.123
The last section of the book was ‘The lineage of Vincent and Theo van Gogh’, a family history that V.W. van Gogh compiled from data collected by other people. He had not done any new research of his own, so he based his account on published material, other people’s genealogical research and a handwritten family history by Maria Johanna van Gogh – Mr van Gogh’s sister Mietje.124 The Verzamelde brieven ends with an index of names covering the four volumes.
Although V.W. van Gogh thought that ‘an edition like this is too voluminous for a wide readership’,125 it evidently met a need in the Netherlands. The market was clearly not soon saturated, since the edition was reissued as early as 1955 – this time with the four volumes bound into two. Two reprints followed in 1973 and 1974, again in two volumes.
5.3 The impact of Verzamelde brieven: new additions
5.3.1 Various publications
V.W. van Gogh’s edition represented the pinnacle of knowledge about the letters at that time. It was a rich source for decades of Van Gogh research. As the counterpart to J.-B. de la Faille’s oeuvre catalogue (published in 1928 and revised in 1970), it can unreservedly be described as the most important Van Gogh source of the twentieth century.
Complete translations in several languages came on to the market much more quickly than they had after the publication of Brieven aan zijn broeder in 1914. Interestingly, the three-volume English edition, The complete letters of Vincent van Gogh, published by Thames and Hudson in London in 1958, included several new additions to the corpus. As the foreword to this edition states, it contains five letters published for the first time, all from Vincent to Theo: letters 48, 51, 687,126 714 and 722. There was also – as well as a facsimile, which had already been published in V.W. van Gogh’s edition – the text of a postcard from Van Gogh to Kerssemakers (letter 491).127 In the same year a licensed edition was published in Greenwich, Connecticut, by the New York Graphic Society.128 The translations into Italian published in 1959,129 French in 1960,130 and German in 1965131 incorporated these additions.
Aside from the new material that art historians now had at their disposal in several languages, in the years that followed Verzamelde brieven stimulated the publication of other newly discovered correspondence; time and again it appeared that there were still more letters from and to Van Gogh to be rescued from oblivion. Below we give a short list – again with no pretensions to completeness – of the various new letters that surfaced up to the publication of the complete Dutch edition, De brieven van Vincent van Gogh, in 1990, which was another step forward in this respect.
- Van Gogh to Eugène Boch (letter 693), in J. B. de la Faille, ‘Een onbekende brief van Vincent’, Kroniek van Kunst en Kultuur 14-3 (1954), pp. 52-54. This letter was discovered in time for it to be included in volume 4 of the reprint of Verzamelde brieven in 1955, as an appendix (pp. 371-372), and in the Italian and French translations referred to above.
- Van Gogh to Anton Kerssemakers (letters 478, 498, 511 and 518), in Museumjournaal 13-3 (1968), pp. 175-178. This publication also contained the text of letter 491, which was printed in facsimile only in Verzamelde brieven; the text was also printed in the translated versions. Hugo van der Perre had produced a description of the letters in 1961.132
- Van Gogh to Michiel de Zwart (letters 315 and 412), in Ben Moritz, ‘Two unknown letters’, Vincent. Bulletin of the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh 2-4 (1973), pp. 25-28.
- Van Gogh to Johannes van Hombergh (Mayor of Nuenen) (letter 573), in Tralbaut 1975.
5.3.2 Facsimile edition, 1977
The publication of the monumental Verzamelde brieven did not mark the end of V.W. van Gogh’s efforts to open up documentation.133 In the nineteen-seventies he set himself the task of publishing in facsimile all Van Gogh’s late letters in French in the Van Gogh Museum134 The de luxe two-volume edition, Letters of Vincent van Gogh 1886-1890, came out in 1977.135 It was bound in coarse linen (a reference to artist’s canvas), the two volumes came in a slipcase and the edition comprised 485 hand-numbered copies.
The short ‘Preface’ by Jean Leymarie in volume 1 is written in an unabashedly lyrical tone;136 the closing sentence is typical: ‘His letters, restored here to their full subtlety, shine with the same lyric splendour as his pictures’.137 This is followed by V.W. van Gogh’s introduction explaining the motivation for the edition, which was made primarily for conservation reasons:
Vincent van Gogh’s letters are known to all lovers of art. They have appeared in several languages, and in many editions. What then is the purpose of reproducing so many of van Gogh’s letters in facsimile?Although the words may have become familiar, the original letters housed in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, are frequently consulted by researchers. Partly this is because the very handwriting provides a key to the artist’s complex personality. Never less than clear, it still reflects the inner turmoil which fired his creativity. Partly it is because many of the letters are works of art in themselves. They were laid out with the greatest care and precision; many carry sketches of paintings then in progress which have subsequently become the very foundations of modern art.Access to the originals now has to be restricted in the interests of preservation. They were written on cheap paper, and although in surprisingly good condition they have become brittle with age. They will survive only if facsimiles can be used instead.138
In the twenty-odd years between this and the previous edition V.W. van Gogh’s tone had become considerably more relaxed and personal; he would not have permitted himself the appreciative remarks about the artistic importance of the letters in the early nineteen-fifties.
His argument for a facsimile edition – the vulnerability of the manuscripts – is wholly understandable. On the other hand, it is then not clear why the letters from earlier periods, in any event from Van Gogh’s years as an artist in Holland, were not also produced in facsimile and thus made available to researchers. As well as Vincent’s letters to Theo, the edition contained the letters to other people in the period in question – to be precise to Willemien, or to Willemien and Mrs van Gogh together, to Mrs van Gogh alone, to Eugène Boch and to Isaäcson. All the letters were arranged in chronological order.
The exclusive character of the book, the limited edition in which it was printed and the fact that, with a few exceptions, these were letters in French meant that the facsimiles never reached a wide readership. Nonetheless some researchers certainly derived great benefit from them. Among them was the Van Gogh specialist Ronald Pickvance, who only ever worked from the facsimile edition, never from the printed texts.
5.3.3 Letters from Gauguin to Van Gogh
Douglas Cooper’s English edition of the Bernard letters in 1938 was the first example of a scholarly edition of Van Gogh’s letters. He was way ahead of his time. As he was again in 1983, when he edited an edition of the letters from Paul Gauguin to Van Gogh and to Theo and Jo van Gogh-Bonger in the Van Gogh Museum collection: Paul Gauguin, 45 Lettres à Vincent, Théo et Jo van Gogh.139 Among them were no fewer than fifteen previously unpublished letters received by Van Gogh: 581, 586, 646, 675, 688, 692, 734, 737, 817, 828, 840, 844, 859, 884 and 892.
The relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin is one of the most famous in the history of modern art, and it is extraordinary that Gauguin’s letters to Van Gogh had never been published before. True, partial facsimiles of a few letters140 were published in 1975 (and that was none too soon), but Cooper was the first to make a thorough job of it. To some extent his work can be seen as a supplement to the facsimile edition. But whereas that edition printed the letters without any commentary or explanatory notes, at most a number and pagination – as if to let the letters speak for themselves – Cooper provided a great deal of additional information. The edition opens with a chronological overview of all the letters it contains, a brief bibliography and a lengthy introduction about the relationship between Gauguin and the Van Gogh brothers. These are followed by the forty-five letters, first those to Theo, then those to Vincent. They are presented in facsimile (black and white) and in a line-by-line transcription. The transcription is accompanied by marginal notes providing art historical and biographical background information and arguments in support of the dating. At the end of the book there is a ‘Chronologie de la correspondance’ listing all the letters known to have been exchanged (in other words both the extant letters and the ones that have not survived).
5.4 Jan Hulsker
An irony of history is that none of the important editions of Van Gogh’s correspondence is associated with the name of the man who was most influential in research into the letters in the second half of the twentieth century: Jan Hulsker. A Dutch scholar, his work on a film on Van Gogh in the early fifties sparked a fascination with the artist’s letters. From then on he worked tirelessly to systematically order and date Van Gogh’s correspondence. He was driven by an ambition to place as many facts as possible about Van Gogh’s life in the right context. V.W. van Gogh granted him the privilege of examining the family documents before they went to a public collection, and this enabled him to devote himself to studying the letters.
Several times Hulsker published previously unknown documents that threw new light on important events and circumstances in Van Gogh’s life, among them four letters from Roulin to Van Gogh (and five from Roulin to Theo),142 the letters Rev. Salles and Dr Peyron wrote Theo from Arles and Saint-Rémy, and the passages about Vincent in the correspondence between Theo and his parents.143 Van Gogh door Van Gogh. De brieven als commentaar op zijn werk was a groundbreaking work for the identification of the works mentioned in the letters and for their dating.144 This book, claimed Hulsker in his foreword, ‘incorporated every mention in the letters of paintings, drawings and lithographs [Van Gogh] was planning to make, was working on, had sent or had something to say about in some other connection’.145 The letter sketches were reproduced and the arguments supporting the dating of the letters were set out. Hulsker’s dating of the letters – various suggestions for changes by subsequent researchers notwithstanding – is still the foundation underpinning the biography. It was Hulsker’s misfortune that Van Gogh door Van Gogh was only published in Dutch (all the passages in French were translated too): had the book been translated into English, his work would have achieved much broader international recognition a good deal earlier.146
Art history was not Hulsker’s field; the letters were the beginning and end of all his publications. His profound knowledge of Van Gogh’s life enabled him to produce several standard works, including the documentary biography of Vincent and Theo (Lotgenoten. Het leven van Vincent en Theo van Gogh, published in English as Vincent and Theo van Gogh. A dual biography)147 and the catalogue of all Van Gogh’s works, published for the first time in 1977 and reprinted in 1996 with countless additions and corrections (The new complete Van Gogh: paintings, drawings, sketches). In his own field, the letters, he edited one book that has been reprinted many times, the selection Een leven in brieven (1980),148 which has been the introduction to the letters for many tens of thousands of Dutch-speaking readers.
It goes without saying that we have made full use of Hulsker’s work in the present edition. In the early years of the research work we corresponded with him about various details and problems relating to the correspondence, particularly to do with identifications of works of art and the dating of letters. Hulsker had a habit of committing all the new ideas that occurred to him to paper and sending them to the staff of the Van Gogh Museum. His notes proved invaluable in the research into drawings, paintings and letters. Much of his work on the letters found a place in the last major edition of Van Gogh’s correspondence, which appeared in 1990 on the occasion of the centenary of Van Gogh’s death. In their notes to readers, the editors Han van Crimpen and Monique Berends-Albert wrote that in the ‘analysis of the content’ ... Jan Hulsker ‘undertook groundbreaking work and greatly enhanced his reputation. We have taken every advantage of this author’s advice in preparing the present edition.’149