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Cracker Barrel: Letters to Theo

A taste of Vincent Van Gogh's letters to a younger brother

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc. / PineandLakes Echo Journal

During this past winter’s depressing combination of below-freezing temperatures and COVID 19-induced seclusion, half ready to commit myself to a mental health facility, I stumbled upon a wonderful antidote to the blues of any sort.

It’s titled “The Letters of Vincent van Gogh,” first published in 1914, and includes more than 900 letters, more than 650 of which were written by Vincent to his beloved brother, Theo.

Theo was four years younger than Vincent and had a significant influence on his older brother’s life. His unfailing financial support, in the form of a modest but constant stream of money and art supplies, allowed Vincent to focus his energies upon his art.

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AUVERS-SUR-OISE, FRANCE - APRIL 24, 2017: The side by side graves of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and his brother, the art dealer Theodore Van Gogh (1857-1891). Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

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Of equal importance, Theo provided Vincent with ongoing encouragement and a sympathetic ear, often cheering his brother on through periods of depression and flagging confidence.

Theo was one of the few people Vincent could talk to and confide in, and the letters to Theo are one of the few sources of dependable information about Vincent’s life. Over three-quarters of the letters Vincent wrote during his life were to his brother, and it is largely thanks to Theo and his wife, Johanna, that the letters were kept and eventually published.

In addition to his practical help and encouragement to Vincent, Theo forged a successful career as an art dealer and was instrumental in raising public awareness of Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. In 1886, he invited Vincent to come live with him in Paris for a year, during which he introduced his older brother to Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Camille Pissarro and Georges Seurat.

Later, after Vincent had moved south to Arles, Theo persuaded Gauguin to join Vincent there.

It was in Arles that Vincent began describing his utopian dream of establishing a community of artists who would live together, work together and help each other. But the relationship he forged with Gauguin proved fraught with disagreements and only lasted a few months.

Van Gogh was an avid reader, as well as an excellent writer. In the scholar Jan Hulsker’s opinion, “Vincent was able to express himself splendidly, and it is this remarkable writing talent that has secured the letters their lasting place in world literature.”

Poet W.H. Auden wrote about the letters, “There is scarcely one letter by Van Gogh which I do not find fascinating.”

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Among the many observations Vincent communicated to his brother, the following few give us a sense of his inner life:

  • “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”
  • “Close friends are truly life’s treasures. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. With gentle honesty, they are there to guide and support us, to share our laughter and our tears. Their presence reminds us that we are never really alone.”
  • “If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”
  • “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
  • “At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly colored than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. It is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.”
  • “I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.”

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.

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