Dutch Courage: The letters of Vincent Van Gogh

"The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to avenge myself by doing brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent." So wrote Vincent Van Gogh from Arles to his sister Willemien in September 1888, describing the exhilarating joy of painting sunflowers, the night sky, and the cottages and fishing boats of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

He had just painted a self-portrait "in ashy tones against a pale Veronese background", a subject chosen, he told his brother Theo, "for want of a model". He looks ill and ageing, his red hair receding, his face sunken (he had lost many teeth, probably through poor diet), his cheekbones gaunt and jutting, and his expression grim. Yet the brilliance of the colour and the intensity of the brushwork are vibrant with triumphant life. This portrait is but one example of the paradox of his laborious and painful struggle to emerge from the darkness to the light: an epic pilgrimage, tracked and documented by letters, letter sketches and drawings, many on show at the Royal Academy in London.

The mantra of his early years was a quotation from 2 Corinthians 6:10 - "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" - which is scattered through the first two volumes of this extraordinarily interesting correspondence, recently published by Thames & Hudson. Most of it is directed to his younger brother Theo, with whom he had a mutually supportive relationship. A cursory browse may give the impression that Vincent was always asking for financial help, for rent and materials (as he was), but a closer reading reveals deep affection, shared values, and a strong desire to cheer and help Theo through illness, career difficulties and sexual disasters.

At times Vincent wrote almost daily, describing his life teaching and preaching in England, and later his work in various unaccommodating lodgings in the Netherlands. The darkness drove him to read and to write, as he could not draw or paint in the long evenings. He wrote about his admiration for George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Keats, Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Another of his favourite quotations was Christina Rossetti's "Does the road wind uphill".) He also devoured Balzac, Hugo and, as they appeared, the novels of Zola and Maupassant. (Gauguin was to tell him he read too much.)

His letters at this period were enriched with sketches of men digging and sowing (after his hero Millet), of women miners carrying sacks of coal, of pollarded willows, of old men ("old orphans") sitting worn out by the fireside, of women peeling potatoes. It is a dark world of hard rural labour, in dark tones, sanctified in his own eyes by a sense of religious humility. He was moved by the old, the gnarled, the destitute, even by the broken-down cab horse, to which he often likened himself. The poor, he believed, would inherit the earth.

Vincent's father was a minister who came to disapprove of his son's unworldly biblical evangelism, and even more strongly of his relationships with women - first, his unrequited love for a widowed cousin, and then his attachment to Sien, a pregnant former prostitute, with whom he lived at The Hague from 1882-83 and who worked as his model. Models were expensive, as he mentioned throughout his career, but he preferred to work from them than from the imagination. (This was to become a subject of aesthetic debate with Gauguin and Émile Bernard.) His relationship with the only models that he could afford must have affected his artistic vision, and he writes about it with compassion, occasional irritation, and some distress. But when his strikingly powerful portrait L'Arlésienne (1888) was admired, he said: "praise the model, not the painter".

Sien was one of the few who posed naked for him, most memorably as "Sorrow", 1882: on the whole he preferred to paint people with their well-worn work clothes on, because, as he said, "that's how we usually see them". He looked after Sien (with Theo's support, and eventually his father's tacit acceptance) and her two children, and his heavily illustrated letters describing efforts to make his studio functional, homely and habitable are touching. So is his affection for Sien's baby: he sent a sketch showing the infant crawling across the studio floor (Adventurer sallying forth, 1883) to his painter friend Anthon van Rappard.

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