Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Letters

Andrew Motion in The Guardian:

Van_Gogh_Letter_from_Vincent_to_his_brother Michelangelo wrote some wonderful sonnets; Constable's correspondence has a fascinating tough-tenderness; most visualisers have, with varying degrees of success, tried to match words to their images. But Van Gogh's letters are the best written by any artist. Engrossing, moving, energetic and compelling, they dramatise individual genius while illuminating the creative process in general. No wonder readers have long since taken them to heart. No wonder, either, that singers have used them in their songs (“Starry Night”), and film-makers as the basis of their movies (Lust for Life). Their mixture of humble detail and heroic aspiration is quite simply life-affirming.

Received wisdom has it that the letters show Van Gogh as a tortured genius. Yet anyone who has actually read them (rather than watched the movie) will feel uncomfortable about this. There are, of course, harrowing stretches in which he frets about insanity, about poverty and about how others perceive him. But the great majority of them are impressive – even lovable – because, no matter how distressing their surrounding circumstances, they show an extraordinarily calm-sounding good sense and a beautiful directness in their account of complicated emotional states. This sense of balance, which frankly amounts to nobility, has been evident in all editions of his letters, ever since the first was published by his sister-in-law, Jo Bonger, in 1914. In this new edition it is even more vividly manifest.

More here. [A couple of weeks ago Morgan Meis and I saw some of the letters in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and some of the drawings in them are truly stunning. We agreed they were the best thing in the museum.]