Vincent Van Gogh: a life in letters || Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen & Hans Luitjen

You can’t have too much Van Gogh, can you? Can you? Let’s leave that there and acknowledge that, for a man as complex as Vincent, his own words add considerably to our understanding of his work. As well as simply talking about his life, he was eloquent on the creative process itself. Artists, who mainly think visually, do not often write well – frequently either too much or too little, but our man was a deep thinker and a good analyst. Perhaps that was his trouble.

Even at over 400 pages, this is only a selection, but the editors (who are the team behind the full 6 volume edition of the letters for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) have been careful to make it representative. They also include manuscript reproductions as well as sketches and paintings that make this relevant to any study of Van Gogh’s art which is, after all, what we should be most interested in. The result is immediately accessible for anyone with maybe only a passing interest – specialists will probably have sought out the full canon anyway.

Sensibly, the arrangement is chronological, but also related to location, so that a connection with the artist’s often complex living arrangements is possible. Any temptation to try to introduce themes is sensibly avoided. Each section is introduced with a summary of that stage of Van Gogh’s life, his relationships and where he was in his artistic development. Once again, the more general reader is catered for and no detailed background knowledge is assumed.

The result is an effective and readable autobiography raisonné which is just learned enough to be authoritative without being indigestible for the audience it’s aimed at.

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