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Letters Paint Nuanced Picture of Van Gogh

Many people think of Vincent Van Gogh as an extraordinary painter who ended up in a sanitarium, mutilated himself and committed suicide. But a new exhibit, Painted with Words at the Morgan Library in New York City gives a more nuanced portrait.

The exhibit is based on 20 letters Van Gogh wrote to his artist friend Emile Bernard in 1888 and 1889. It was the period Van Gogh did his best and most famous work in the south of France.

Von Gogh met Bernard in Paris — he was 15 years older than Bernard. But it was not until two years later, when he arrived in Arles in the south of France, that he began a correspondence with his artist friend. These letters — newly acquired by the Morgan Library and available to the public for the first time — are filled with advice, thoughts about life and the theory of color.

Take this one, for example.

"I am still doing landscapes, sketch enclosed. What I should like to know, is the effect of a more intense blue in the sky. You can't have blue without yellow or orange. And if you do blue, then do yellow and orange as well," the painter wrote.

A number of the letters include beautiful sketches. In one, Van Gogh draws the famous bedroom in the yellow house; in another, a sketch of a sower in a field. Jennifer Tonkovich is curator of the department of drawings and prints at the Morgan.

"You see what he underlined, what he has emphasized," Tonkovich says. "He is crossing out things, he is always trying to cram more in.... He really has an expansiveness, when he is really excited and trying to emphasize something."

Artist and Critic

Van Gogh also gives surprisingly frank critiques of other artists. He calls Degas a little lawyer who does not have sex often, which is why his paintings are so aloof. Cezanne's stroke, he says, is sometimes awkward, and Van Gogh is convinced it is because Cezanne's easel wobbles in the wind. But Van Gogh writes that he has learned how to secure his easel in the ground. The letters, Tonkovich says, show you someone finding a successful way through daily struggles.

"You get a sense of his life and also of him as a physical being, him carrying heavy things out into the field, having to stake his ease, dry the paints in the sun," she says.

Besides the letters, the exhibit has paintings by Van Gogh and Bernard. Van Gogh writes about painting a bridge over a wharf — The Langlois Bridge — and includes a sketch. Across the room, you can see Bernard's version of the same scene.

Struggling with a Starry Night

At several points, Van Gogh writes about his desire to do a starry, night sky, "just as I shall paint a green meadow studded with dandelions," he writes, "but how to arrive at that?"

"But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that's always on my mind? Alas, alas, it's just as our excellent pal Cyprien says, in En ménage by J. K. Huysmans, the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one's bed but which one doesn't make. But it's a matter of attacking them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel vis-à-vis the ineffable perfections of nature's glorious splendors."

Of course, Van Gogh eventually overcomes these problems and goes on to paint some of the most celebrated night scenes in the history of art.

The Painted with Words exhibit gives you a picture of Van Gogh far different from the legend.

"These are not the letters of someone crazy," Tonkovich says. "While he did have these episodes of illness, he was a very rational, lucid, intelligent thinker. And that comes through the letters and also people are also surprised that his handwriting is so legible."

We all like to believe in myths and legends, Tonkovich says, but this exhibit shows the struggles of a man deeply exploring nature, thought and color. It's a more balanced picture.

This small, but choice, exhibit runs through Jan. 6.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career