Read Dear Theo by Vincent van Gogh Free Online
Book Title: Dear Theo|
The author of the book: Vincent van Gogh
Edition: Plume Books
Date of issue: September 1st 1995
Loaded: 2631 times
Reader ratings: 5.2
ISBN 13: 9780452275041
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 37.33 MB
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An extraordinary document! What other inner view of a great artist's creative processes and life do we have like this one? (The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini perhaps, but it is boastful precisely where Dear Theo is introspective, materialistic where Dear Theo is threadbare, highly social where Dear Theo is solitary.)
We bear with Vincent when he abandons an early attempt to enter the church, during which he becomes about as parable spewing and pious as any pastor one can imagine. Then as he turns away from his family--except for brother Theo, to whom these letters were addressed--and to the life of a solitary painter. We are with him as he studies under Anton Mauve at The Hague, as he learns and speaks at length about what he has learned about artistic technique.
We feel the heartbreak keenly when he is rejected by a cousin whom he wishes to marry, and during his subsequent emotional crises. When out of deep loneliness he befriends and falls in love with a pregnant streetwalker, who had been abandoned by her lover, I felt for him in his outcast situation keenly. His extended family is outraged. Nevertheless, he takes her in, changes her life, and makes both her and himself briefly happy. These particular passages touch on the hard lives of poor single women during this time of puritanically repressed society as nothing else I have ever read. In the meantime we get van Gogh's verbal descriptions of what he sees, and it's as if we're looking into one of his extraordinary paintings. For example:
I have attacked the old whopper of a pollard willow, and I think it is the best of the watercolors--a gloomy landscape, that dead tree near a stagnant pool covered with reeds, a car shed of the Ryn railroad, where tracks cross each other; the sky with drifting clouds, grey with a single bright white border, and depths of blue where the clouds are parted. I wanted to make it as the signalman in his smock and with his little red flag must see and feel it when he thinks: "It is gloomy weather today." (p. 141)
I like the way editors Irving and Jean Stone have cut the letters into a continuous manuscript, leaving out salutations and much mundane material. But there's a little problem in that there are few dates. One is never quite sure where one is chronologically. I think this could have been remedied by putting the month and year in the margin, much as Robert Graves did in I, Claudius. This would have left unimpeded the free flow of the "autobiography" as they call it, with some justification.
A few things about his painting. Because of his liaison with Sien, Anton Mauve ejected him from his studio and he did not learn to paint from Mauve. What a blessing this was for all of us, since he then had to virtually teach himself. This, I believe, is why his painting is so closely related to his drawing. His original drawings are often replicated in oil almost to the very penstroke.
What is called black and white is in fact painting in black--"painting" in this respect, that one gives in a drawing the depth of effect, the richness of tone value which must be in a picture [painting]. Every colorist has his own peculiar scale of colors. This is also the case in black and white; one must be able to go from the highest light to the deepest shadow, and this with only a few simple ingredients. (p.184)
In my view, if Mauve had taught him the standard techniques, there's a good chance, and he expresses a fear of this, that the paintings we would have today would be somewhat more conventional in execution. So losing Mauve as a mentor was enormously fortunate, though it did not seem so at the time.
Vincent's staunch romanticization of manual labor reminds me of the idiotic Soviet propaganda to come, though he has none of its strident militancy. He had no interest in politics despite the fact that he was miserably poor and living hand to mouth off of insufficient cash infusions from brother, Theo. Often he did not even have enough money for materials (paint, ink, paper, etc.). Imagine that! Vincent van Gogh sitting on his hands without even paper to draw upon!
As the early infatuation with Sien fades, he begins to see her for what she is--an uneducated woman who can't begin to appreciate his work; an illiterate woman whose brutish mother has instilled in her prejudices against all men as dirty rotten scoundrels and despicable violators of innocence. Ironically, it's her mother who seems to want her to return to her former position as breadwinner. Finally, after years of cohabitation, Vincent leaves Sien and her children, whom he loves, in The Hague, in part because the cost cannot be sustained by Theo. He has come to realize she is too far gone to "save," but this only after he has estranged many of his family members.
Now he moves to the countryside around Drethen (Netherlands) known for its exceptional natural beauty. At once the reader senses how much freer he is, unfettered. He grows almost sunny as he begins to assimilate the landscape and its inhabitants, the shoreline and canals--he rides barges through the very heath--the unusual local dress, the strangely cave-like cottages which are masterpieces of housekeeping and comfort inside.
When he moves to Arles in 1888, he becomes truly proficient as a painter. His industry is astounding. "Night Cafe" for instance was done in three consecutive nights. His "Sunflowers," a series of canvases, took about ten days. Often he would complete a canvas in a single day. His prose becomes chattier, livelier. He finishes the Rulin Family portraits, countless landscapes which must be worked on in the grip of the terrible regional wind, the mistral. There is much planning for the arrival of Gauguin, much discussion of starting a Southern School of sorts for the jaded artists of Le Petit Boulevard (the impressionists generally). But when Gaugain comes, after a few weeks of productive work, Vincent cuts off part of his ear and offers it to one of the sex workers in the local brothel who faints. He is later found by the gendarmes back at his house unconcious from loss of blood. Thus begins van Gogh's decline and it's one of the saddest, most heartbreaking prose sequences you'll ever read. Manic Depression is the disease and at the time there was no treatment; there wasn't even a reliable diagnosis. He was treated for epilepsy which he decidedly did not have.
The thoughts of suicide he mentions to Theo must have been terrifying for the younger brother. Yet he has always been financially dependent on Theo and the time is fast approaching when he will no longer allow himself, especially in the grip of his illness and with all the new costs of his care, to remain a burden. Throughout there has always been the hope that the paintings would eventually sell. They never do. And then he becomes all too aware of the dichotomy between starving, living artists like himself, and the recently dead artists whose work goes for great sums. He must have felt on some level that he'd be better off dead, especially since his demise would be such a relief to Theo, who had married and started a family. It's hard not to read the final pages as valedictory. Two days after the last letter Vincent is dead by his own hand. Theo survives him by a mere six months.
By all means read it, but be prepared to bleed.
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Read information about the authorVincent Willem van Gogh, for whom color was the chief symbol of expression, was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland. The son of a pastor, brought up in a religious and cultured atmosphere, Vincent was highly emotional and lacked self-confidence. Between 1860 and 1880, when he finally decided to become an artist, van Gogh had had two unsuitable and unhappy romances and had worked unsuccessfully as a clerk in a bookstore, an art salesman, and a preacher in the Borinage (a dreary mining district in Belgium), where he was dismissed for overzealousness. He remained in Belgium to study art, determined to give happiness by creating beauty. The works of his early Dutch period are somber-toned, sharply lit, genre paintings of which the most famous is "The Potato Eaters" (1885). In that year van Gogh went to Antwerp where he discovered the works of Rubens and purchased many Japanese prints.
In 1886 he went to Paris to join his brother Théo, the manager of Goupil's gallery. In Paris, van Gogh studied with Cormon, inevitably met Pissarro, Monet, and Gauguin, and began to lighten his very dark palette and to paint in the short brushstrokes of the Impressionists. His nervous temperament made him a difficult companion and night-long discussions combined with painting all day undermined his health. He decided to go south to Arles where he hoped his friends would join him and help found a school of art. Gauguin did join him but with disastrous results. In a fit of epilepsy, van Gogh pursued his friend with an open razor, was stopped by Gauguin, but ended up cutting a portion of his ear lobe off. Van Gogh then began to alternate between fits of madness and lucidity and was sent to the asylum in Saint-Remy for treatment.
In May of 1890, he seemed much better and went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise under the watchful eye of Dr. Gachet. Two months later he was dead, having shot himself "for the good of all." During his brief career he had sold one painting. Van Gogh's finest works were produced in less than three years in a technique that grew more and more impassioned in brushstroke, in symbolic and intense color, in surface tension, and in the movement and vibration of form and line. Van Gogh's inimitable fusion of form and content is powerful; dramatic, lyrically rhythmic, imaginative, and emotional, for the artist was completely absorbed in the effort to explain either his struggle against madness or his comprehension of the spiritual essence of man and nature.
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