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Van Gogh: A Man of Many Letters

Published 24 January 2010

We know him as the Dutch post-impressionist painter whose works of flowers, suns and starry nights are now worth millions, as the man who cut off his ear in a fit of despair, and as the man who killed himself in the same French field he was passionate about and had just painted. But that would be simplifying Vincent van Gogh.

Copyright Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, the title of a landmark new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, shows he was also a writer struck by nature, beauty and art. The artist’s correspondence, written in black ink and signed ‘Very truly Vincent’ in the same familial manner as he signed his paintings, is the focus of the exhibition.

Rarely shown due to their fragility, many were written in the last years of his life (1853-1890), Van Gogh’s letters give the public an extraordinary chance to see another side of the artist – his heartbreakingly beautiful thoughts. More than 35 original letters, written mostly to his art-dealer brother, Theo, as well as other family members and friends, will be on display alongside 65 paintings and 30 drawings that express the themes of his correspondence.

A sensitive man with thorny thoughts, Van Gogh was as expressive and eloquent in his letters as his paintings. “Find things beautiful, as much as you can,” Van Gogh advised Theo in letter no. 17, written in Jan. 1874. “Most people find too little beautiful.”

The sixth child of a Protestant family living in the Netherlands, Van Gogh lived in London in his twenties and worked as an art dealer before embarking on his own career as an artist at 27. In the decade that followed, he produced more than 800 paintings and 1,200 drawings.

The first major Van Gogh exhibition in London in over 40 years, the show features famous works including Self-portrait as an Artist (1888), The Yellow House (1888), Still-life: Drawing Board with Onions (1889), Vincent’s Chair with His Pipe (1888) and Entrance to the Public Park in Arles (1888). The exhibition is curated by Ann Dumas and is the result of 15 years of scholarship by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker of the Van Gogh Museum.

Copyright Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Based on insights drawn by their research, the exhibition challenges the idea that Van Gogh was simply crazy (he cut off part of his left ear after a fallout with friend and French painter Paul Gauguin, which was followed by recurrent bouts of mental illness, leading to his suicide) and reveals, through intimate letters offering sketches and descriptions of paintings in progress, an artist of intelligence and exception.

Josien Van Gogh, the great-great-granddaughter of Theo, told the BBC that it is a very important exhibition. “To combine the letters with the paintings is wonderful,” said Ms Van Gogh, who is also chair of the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation. “The letters tell us everything about Van Gogh. In his letters he is angry, he is happy, he is sad, he reads a lot. He talks about the weather, things he sees, people he meets, and I think you get to know the person very well.”

The Real Van Gogh is showing at the Royal Academy of Arts now until 18 April. The exhibition is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily with last admission at 5:30 p.m. except Fridays, when it’s open until 10 p.m. with last admission at 9:30 p.m. Admission prices are £12; £10 for registered disabled and 60 + years; £8 for NUS / ISIC cardholders; £4 for 12–18 years and income support; £3 for eight–11 years; seven and under go free. To book tickets in advance telephone 0844 209 1919 or visit www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Discuss the exhibition over a glass of wine and a three course dinner by taking advantage of the RAA and Fortnum & Mason’s dinner package, (£37, including exhibition admission). If you’re visiting the exhibition from out of town, stay overnight in London near the RAA at one of several hotels participating in special art packages. Details for dining and staying packages are available at www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Article written by Natalie Appleton.