Vincent van Gogh's
letters to his brother Theo

Self-Portrait: Paris: Spring-Summer, 1887

"If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story." -Hamlet

"How rich art is; if one can only remember what one has seen, one is never without food for thought or truly lonely, never alone."
Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo (15 November 1878)

 

"I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process."

"Now since I have seen the ocean with my own eyes, I feel completely how important it is for me to stay in the south and to experience the color which must be carried to the uttermost- it is not far to Africa."

 "Bedroom at Arles", Vincent van Gogh

"In my painting of the 'All -Night Cafe' I've tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, become crazy and criminal. Through the contrast of the delicate pink, blood red and dark red, of mild Louis-XV and Veronese green against the yellow-green and stark-blue tones- all this in an atmosphere like the devil's inferno and pale sulphurous yellow...I've tried to convey the sinister power of such a place."

"However, the painter of the future will be a colorist, such as has never yet existed. Manet was working towards it, but as you know the Impressionists have already got a stronger color than Manet. This painter of the future- I can't imagine him doing the rounds of the local dives, having false teeth and frequenting the Zouave brothel like me."

"I'm able to get by very well in life, and also with my work, without beloved God. But I, a suffering human being, can not survive without there being something greater than myself, which for me is my whole life- the creative power...I want to paint men and women with that certain eternal touch- an idea which the sacred halo embodied earlier and which we seek to express today through light and the palpitating movement of our colors...The love between a couple is expressed by the unity of two complementary colors, by their mixture and contrasts, by the secretive vibrations of similar tones; the intelligence of a forehead is portrayed by using a light tone on a dark background; hope by a star and a man's passion by a vibrant sunset."

"The more ugly, older, more cantankerous, more ill and poorer I become, the more I try to make amends by making my colours more vibrant, more balanced and beaming."

"It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill- it's a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I'm all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I'll always remain half crazy."

"Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it."

Perhaps it will seem to you that the sunshine is brighter and that everything has a new charm. At least, I believe this is always the result of a deep love, and it is a beautiful thing. And I believe people who think love prevents one from thinking clearly are wrong; for then one thinks very clearly and is more active than before. And love is something eternal--the aspect may change, but not the essence. There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as there is in an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and it was a good lamp, but now it is shedding light too, and that is its real function. And love makes one calmer about many things, and in that way, one is more fit for one's work."

Looking at the stars always makes me dream.  Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.

 

From Theo to his sister Elisabeth:

"To say we must be grateful that he rests--I still hesitate to do so. Maybe I should call it one of the great cruelties of life on this earth and maybe we should count him among the martyrs who died with a smile on their face.

He did not wish to stay alive and his mind was so calm because he had always fought for his convictions, convictions that he had measured against the best and noblest of his predecessors. His love for his father, for the gospel, for the poor and the unhappy, for the great men of literature and painting, is enough proof for that. In the last letter which he wrote me and which dates from some four days before his death, it says, "I try to do as well as certain painters whom I have greatly loved and admired." People should realize that he was a great artist, something which often coincides with being a great human being. In the course of time this will surely be acknowledged, and many will regret his early death. He himself wanted to die; when I sat at his bedside and said that we would try to get him better and that we hoped that he would then be spared this kind of despair, he said "La tristesse durera toujours" (The sadness will last forever). I understand what he wanted to say with those words.

A few moments later he felt suffocated and within one minute he closed his eyes. A great rest came over him from which he did not come to life again."

"As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed."

"I have drawn into myself so much that I literally do not see any other people anymore-- excepting the peasants with whom I have direct contact, since I paint them."

"I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream"

"I can't change the fact that my paintings don't sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture."

"What am I in the eyes of most people--a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person--somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then--even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum."

"It would be difficult for me to express all my thoughts about it. It remains a constant disappointment to me that my drawings are not yet what I want them to be. The difficulties are indeed numerous and great, and cannot be overcome immediately. Making progress is like miners' work: it doesn't advance as quickly as one should like, and also as others expect; but faced with such a task, patience and faithfulness are essential. In fact, I don't think much about the difficulties, because if one thought of them too much, one would get dazed or confused.

A weaver who has to direct and to interweave a great many little threads has no time to philosophize about it, rather, he is so absorbed in his work that he doesn't think, he acts: and it's nothing he can explain, he just feels how things should go. Even though neither you nor I would arrive at any definite plans, etc., by talking together perhaps we could mutually strengthen the feeling that something is ripening within us. And that is what I should like...

Of course my moods change, but the average is serenity. I have a firm faith in art, a firm confidence in its being a powerful stream which carries a man to a harbor, though he himself must do his bit too; at all events, I think it such a great blessing when a man has found his work that I cannot count myself among the unfortunate. I mean, I may be in certain relatively great difficulties, and there may be gloomy days in my life, but I shouldn't like to be counted among the unfortunate, nor would it be correct if I were.

You write in your letter something which I sometimes feel also: "Sometimes I do not know how I shall pull through.

Look here, I often feel the same in more than one respect--not just in financial things, but in art itself, and in life in general. But do you think it's anything exceptional? Don't you think every man with a little spirit and energy has those moments? Moments of melancholy, of distress, of anguish--I think we all have them to a greater or lesser extent, and it is a condition of every conscious human life. It seems that some people have no consciousness of self. But for all that, those who have it may sometimes be in distress, they are not unhappy, nor is the distress anything exceptional.

And sometimes there is relief, sometimes there is new inner energy, and one stands up after it; till at last, someday, one perhaps doesn't stand up any more, que soit, but that is nothing extraordinary, and I repeat, in my opinion, such is the common human fate."

"The Peasant", Vincent van Gogh


"The Peasant," "Bedroom at Arles," Vincent van Gogh
Paintings, 1996 Corel Corporation.
Self Portrait and certain quotes from the
 
The Vincent van Gogh  Gallery; See also: the van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; van Gogh's Letters; "Two Chairs 1888," by Blaine Greenwood;  "The Great Bear Walks." by Blaire Greenwood & The Blues

 

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