The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

In the Goodreads challenge I am joining Mona Lisa in a race against the clock. It’s not going very well, I think and one of the reasons I quit the daily blogs is giving myself the time to do what I like best and that is finding a quiet spot somewhere and get lost in a book. When I read I read with all my heart. I like the public library. Not that the public libraries in the Netherlands are good (they are not), but at some floors it is quiet. And so I take my book there or my Ipet and spend a happy afternoon reading…

You might remember I lost the 1963 Goodreads challenge and was supposed to read “the Letters of Vincent van Gogh”, a selection of his letters published in 1963

It took me an awful long time to finish this book. Granted, it is a thick book, but I like thick books, more pages, the better. So why did it take me such a long time? It is a combination of two things really. One is I should not have read in in English as it it in Dutch for sale as well. In translation some of the feelings are lost I think. The second is I should never have bought an e-book. Pictures do look different on paper than on a screen. And I’m trying so hard to find excuses why I don’t care for this book. I feel a bit guilty, I should like it. I love art, so I should like this book. What is wrong with me that I don’t like it?

Admire as much as you can, most people don’t admire enough

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo, January 1874

 Maybe it is because the impressionists is not my kind of art. Manet is the only one I truly like. Gauguin is  hideous and still a close friend to Vincent van Gogh. “I have two beds, one for me and one for Gauguin if he stays over, van Gogh wrote in a letter.  Maybe it is because it is a selection of the letters and not all the letters. Maybe it is because all the letters his four year old younger brother Theo are not in the book, so the book is a one way conversation…

The letters

Some people think Vincent was a good writer too. To me he is not. His letters are full of references we do not know, endless talk of colours and details of his painting. But never about the man himself. In his best period in Paris where he made some of his most famous paintings I’m reading he moved in with Theo so obviously there was no reason to write. In the end where he admitted himself to a mental hospital because of his depression, the writings go on and on about:

“Hirschig is beginning to get a better idea of things, it seems to me. He has done a portrait of an old schoolmaster, who has given him a “well done”. And then he has some landscape studies which are almost the same colour as the Konings at your place. They may turn out to be just like these, or like the things by Voerman we saw together. Goodbye for now, keep well and good luck in business etc., remember me to Jo and handshakes in thought,
Ever yours,

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo, 24 July 1890

This is how the last letter in the book ends. Really.  On July 26th Van Gogh shot himself twice in the chest and died in his brothers arms a few days later.

As you can see, the original letters are lovely to look at. The handwriting in Dutch and French are sometimes hard to read, but so are my own handwritten letters. It is the never ending details about the painters or paintings I do not know (and do not want to know either for that matter) that made it so difficult to read.

Why go on? 

Why did you not put the book away and read another book, if you didn’t like it? you would ask.
Two reasons really. The first is there are some nice lines hidden between all those details and every day misery of his existence. I liked:

Ah, my dear brother, sometime I know so well what I want. I can well do without God in both my life and also in my painting, but, suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life – the power to create. And if, deprived of physical power, one tries to create thoughts instead of children, one is still very much part of humanity. And in my pictures I want to say something consoling, as music does. I want to paint men and women with a touch of eternal, whose symbol was once the halo, which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our colouring.”

Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo, 3 september 1888

So there are gems somewhere if you have the patience to find them. The second reason I wanted to read on was more mundane: I knew how his life ended so I wanted to know if it could be found in his letters as well.

I give the book a 2 out of 10 points. And I should have given more. Because I love art, even Van Gogh’s art. I love reading letters. And yet, I would not have been honest to give more points.

 I end this post, like Van Gogh did most of his letters:

With a handshake,


11 thoughts on “The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

  1. Hey Han…I have posted two new paintings. I have a little note below the link to my paintings that I update with the latest date. I have been sick but want to get back to my paintings…have 4 in progress at the moment. 😉

    Hugs and Blessings…


  2. Probably a wise thing, DF. I agree on the difference between Dead Trees and a white screen. Anyway, I did finish the book and go on to the next. I'm so curious what book Mona Lisa has chosen for next year!

    Thank you for your comment, DF, I appreciate it,


  3. Yes, well more stubborn, I think Appy. Have you ever read a book you desperately wanted to LIKE, because a friend gave it to you, or it had a special meaning because of the way it got into your possession, but you didn't like it one bit?

    Those were the letters of Van Gogh to me..
    Smile at my own foolishness,



  4. No, there were some comments about his moods, but too few, Mona Lisa, too few. Anyway the pictures of his sketches were nice.

    Handshake back to you,


  5. Pfft, huh? Good for you Cat, time is to precious to waste. But this post was to explain why I did read on and on and on.

    I agree with you about the liking or disliking of a painting just by what you feel with the painting, not who painted it. Speaking about painting, how is the painting going Cat?

    Thank you for taking the time to read it Cat,


  6. Good for you Leigh, and I feel the same about most books. But this was I book I really wanted to like, right until the end…

    Smile at own stubbornness,



  7. It's hard to skip through an ebook, paper works much better when you want to dig out those nuggets and not trawl through every word. The eye works better on paper and ebook devices are so new, I don't think our brains have worked out how to use them yet.
    Great perseverance, I don't think I'd have bothered.


  8. I admire you for your perseverence, Han. Although I don't read much – I can't set me to it – I too hate it to put aside a book I have started reading. But a book like this one, i wouldn't finish, I think.



  9. Han, what a wonderfull summary .I like your small extract from the book. Oh, Han, so many pages and have to fight through them .. well done.

    Så what is your answer to your last question? Could one feel the ending of his life from his letters?

    With handshake,
    Mona Lisa


  10. If I don't like a book, I will skip a chapter or two and see if it pulls me in…if it doesn't…pfft…I agree with Sunny…too many good books to waste my time with something I don't care for. I like some of van Gogh's paintings as well as Manet's and Gauguin's but at the same time, I don't like a painting just because one of their names is signed to it. Thanks for sharing your review of the book.

    Hugs and Blessings…


  11. You sound like my husband, he cannot stand to not finish a book, no matter than he hated every word of it. Not me, if I can't get into it in the first few pages, it's history. To me, there are too many good books just waiting for me to turn the page.


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