A Letter From Vincent

Over the course of his life, Vincent van Gogh wrote many letters. Of them, 903 of them survive to this day, and can be seen in various galleries and museums around the world.

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GUGG_Letter_to_John_Peter_Russell

ABOVE: Letter to John Peter Russell, 1888, Reed pen and ink on wove paper, 8 x 10.4 inches, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

The surviving letters of Vincent van Gogh provide an interesting glimpse into his life and work. Here is one he wrote to his friend and painter Émile Bernard on Thursday, April 12, 1888:

My dear old Bernard,

Thanks for your kind letter and the croquis of your decoration included with it, which I find really amusing. I sometimes regret that I can’t decide to work more at home and from the imagination. Certainly — imagination is a capacity that must be developed, and only that enables us to create a more exalting and consoling nature than what just a glance at reality (which we perceive changing, passing quickly like lightning) allows us to perceive.

A starry sky, for example, well — it’s a thing that I’d like to try to do, just as in the daytime I’ll try to paint a green meadow studded with dandelions.

But how to arrive at that unless I decide to work at home and from the imagination? This, then, to criticize myself and to praise you.

At present I’m busy with the fruit trees in blossom: pink peach trees, yellow-white pear trees.I follow no system of brushwork at all; I hit the canvas with irregular strokes which I leave as they are, impastos, uncovered spots of canvas — corners here and there left inevitably unfinished — reworkings, roughnesses; well, I’m inclined to think that the result is sufficiently worrying and annoying not to please people with preconceived ideas about technique.

Here’s a croquis, by the way, the entrance to a Provençal orchard with its yellow reed fences, with its shelter (against the mistral), black cypresses, with its typical vegetables of various greens, yellow lettuces, onions and garlic and emerald leeks.

While always working directly on the spot, I try to capture the essence in the drawing — then I fill the spaces demarcated by the outlines (expressed or not) but felt in every case, likewise with simplified tints, in the sense that everything that will be earth will share the same purplish tint, that the whole sky will have a blue tonality, that the greenery will either be blue greens or yellow greens, deliberately exaggerating the yellow or blue values in that case. Anyway, my dear pal, no trompe l’oeil in any case. As for going to visit Aix, Marseille, Tangier, no fear; if I were to go there, though, it would be in search of cheaper lodgings, &c. Otherwise, I’m convinced that if I worked my whole life, couldn’t do as much as half of all that is characteristic of this town alone.

By the way, have seen bullfights in the arenas, or rather, simulated fights, seeing that the bulls were numerous but nobody was fighting them. But the crowd was magnificent, great multicoloured crowds. One on top of the other on 2, 3 tiers, with the effect of sun and shade and the shadow cast by the immense circle. Wish you bon voyage— handshake in thought, your friend

Vincent

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