Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Theo and Vincent

Letters between Theo and Vincent very poignantly express their intimate relationship, and can be read as being autobiographical. The only reference to these letters, was the scene where Theo is reading his most recent correspondence received from Vincent and over reacts to his wife’s question about what Vincent has written, telling her that letters should be private. Ironically in fact if Johanna  van Gogh Bonger had not compiled all of these letters, very little would be known about Vincent and Theo. The vital role she played in this fact was not portrayed in the film. It was at least refreshing to hear the actress who played Johanna, her authentic Dutch accent, as opposed to Paul Rhys’s, very English accent.

That said, I have to say Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas was overacted however I can make allowances because of this being a very early film done in the 1950s and based on Irving Stone's book. I had higher expectations for the 1990 Altman film, which I was disappointed in. The production of the movie, Lust for Life is more factual and focused on Vincent the artist as opposed to the his mental illness. If anything it was entertaining, not what can be said of Vincent and Theo.

Vincent’s letters were accompanied often with drawings which could have been referenced to in the film. Instead one was left with scenes of Vincent being tormented mentally much of the time while painting.

There was little emphasis on Theo’s instrumental contribution to introducing to the public Dutch and French contemporary artists, and the fact that Theo was Vincent’s only confidant and who fastidiously kept every letter. Theo was what van Gogh scholar, Arnold Pomerans and editor of, “ The Letters of Vincent van Gogh  states, “ Theo was the kind of man who saved even the smallest scrap of paper.” These letters are considered by Pomerans as being “ World Literature.” Vincent was a voracious reader, reading such writers as Zola, Balzac, Voltaire, Flaubert, Michelet, and novels by Bronte. Dickens, Keats poetry and George Eliot.

In both movies I have seen about Vincent van Gogh his death is always as a result of suicide however strong indications in the biography written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith say it is very likely Vincent was shot by a young 16 year old boy Rene Secre’tan who tormented Vincent and carried an antique pistol given to him by his father, which he would use for shooting birds, rabbits and squirrels. Gaston his younger brother was kind to Vincent and wanted to learn to paint from him.
Rene, along with his brother Gaston left town with their father immediately after Vincent was shot where he was painting in the field. A gun was never found nor was Vincent’s art supplies.
Letters to and from Vincent suggest that in spite of the difficulties Vincent experienced he would not commit suicide because it was illegal and because his religious beliefs. However this does not rule out that his mental illness may have caused suicidal thoughts which he may or may have not acted upon.

Below I have compiled some of the letters to Theo, I found online, that express Vincent's thoughts and feelings about himself and art.

  In my opinion, I am often rich as Croesus--not in money, but (though it doesn't happen every day) rich--because I have found in my work something which I can devote myself to heart and soul, and which inspires me and gives a meaning to life.

            Of course my moods change, but the average is serenity. I have a firm faith in art, a firm confidence in its being a powerful stream which carries a man to a harbor, though he himself must do his bit too; at all events, I think it such a great blessing when a man has found his work that I cannot count myself among the unfortunate. I mean, I may be in certain relatively great difficulties, and there may be gloomy days in my life, but I shouldn't like to be counted among the unfortunate, nor would it be correct if I were.

            (from Letter 274 to Theo from the Hague, 11 March 1883)

I mean that in your capacity of expert, you, just as the painters themselves - in theory even better than they, because you have to give advice and to speak about pictures in the making - must know certain rules about colours and perspective. Excuse me, but what I say is true, that this will perhaps be of more practical use to you than you may suppose, and would raise you above the ordinary level of art dealers - which is necessary, for the ordinary level is below the mark.

From my own experience I know pretty well what art dealers do know and what they don't.

I believe they are often taken in, and put over deals which they later regret, just because they know too little of how a picture is made. Well, but I know that you are already taking pains, for instance by reading good books like Gigoux's.

Study that question of the colours, etc., carefully. I try to also, and I will gladly and thankfully read whatever you may find concerning it too. At present I am busy putting into practice, on the drawing of a hand and an arm, what Delacroix said about drawing: “Ne pas prendre par la ligne mais par le milieu.” That gives opportunity enough to start from ellipses. And what I try to acquire is not to draw a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head, but the general expression. For instance, when a digger looks up and sniffs the wind or speaks. In short, life.

It may be politic to keep what one feels to oneself, but it has always seemed to me that serenity is a duty, especially for a painter - whether people understand what I say, whether they judge me rightly or wrongly, is neither here nor there as far as I am concerned, as you once pointed out to me.

How rich art is; if one can only remember what one has seen, one is never without food for thought or truly lonely, never alone.

Vincent van Gogh to Theo
15 November 1878


That head of his has been occupied with contemporary society's insoluble problems for so long, and he is still battling on with his good-heartedness and boundless energy. His efforts have not been in vain, but he will probably not live to see them come to fruition, for by the time people understand what he is saying in his paintings it will be too late. He is one of the most advanced painters and it is difficult to understand him, even for me who knows him so intimately. His ideas cover so much ground, examining what is humane and how one should look at the world, that one must first free oneself from anything remotely linked to convention to understand what he was trying to say, but I am sure he will be understood later on. It is just hard to say when.

Theo van Gogh to Jo
9-10 February 1889

"Real painters do not paint things as they are... they paint them as they feel them to be."

Vincent van Gogh

" I will paint the most simple, the most common things."

Vinceny van Gogh


Jackson Chronicles said...

A delightful surprise to discover your blog after watching a children's film about Van Gogh yesterday. Serendipity! The film was called Almond Blossoms based on the O'Henry short story, The Last Leaf.

I won't spoil the story by telling too much. Here is a link to my library's description of the movie: http://www.aadl.org/catalog/record/1329278

A delightful engaging very short video.

I'll return again to read your blog. So much here to savor.

Unknown said...


Thank you very much for stopping by and for your comments. I will definitely watch The Last Leaf. Thanks for the link!