In addition to his many remarkable paintings and drawings Vincent van Gogh left behind a fascinating and illuminating body of correspondence. Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, published this winter, includes a broad selection of 265 letters (from a total of 820 in existence), that focus on Van Gogh’s relentless quest to find his destiny, the close bond with his brother Theo, his fraught relationship with his father, his innate yearning for recognition and his great love of art and literature. The correspondence not only offers detailed insights into a complex and touching inner life, but also re-creates the world in which he lived and the artistic avant-garde that was taking hold in Paris. The letters are accompanied by a general introduction, historic family photographs and reproductions of 87 actual pages of letters that contain sketches by Van Gogh. Selected from a critically acclaimed 6-volume set of letters published by the Van Gogh Museum in 2009, Ever Yours is an essential new book on Van Gogh’s life and world.
‘There is scarcely one letter by Van Gogh which I, who am certainly no expert, do not find fascinating.’
– W.H Auden
To celebrate this new publication, we are sharing an excerpt from one of Van Gogh’s letters. This letter was written in September 1888, in Arles, around the time Van Gogh was completing Cafe Terrace at Night, one of his most famous works, the composition of which features in the letter. An intriguing glimpse into the creative process of a true genius, read on to discover the cultural and literary influences behind the painting.
‘I started this letter several days ago, up to here, and I’m picking it up again now.
I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a cafe in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the facade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which take on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green. I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straight away. It’s quite true that I may take blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges. I’ve also done a new study of myself, as a study, in which I look like a Japanese. You never told me if you had read Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami and what you now think of his talent in general. I say this because the beginning of Bel-Ami is precisely the description of a starry night in Paris, with the lighted cafes of the boulevard, and it’s something like the same subject that I’ve painted just now.
Speaking of Guy de Maupassant, I find what he does really beautiful, and I really recommend that you read everything that he’s done. Zola – Maupassant, De Goncourt, one has to read them as thoroughly as possible in order to get a reasonably clear idea of the modern novel. Have you read Balzac? I’m reading him again here.
My dear sister, I believe that at present we must paint nature’s rich and magnificent aspects; we need good cheer and happiness, hope and love.
The uglier, older, meaner, iller and poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant colours, well arranged, resplendent.
Jewellers are old and ugly too, before they know how to arrange precious stones well. And arranging colours in a painting to make them shimmer and stand out through their contrasts, that’s something like arranging jewels or designing costumes.
You’ll see now that by regularly looking at Japanese prints you’ll enjoy making bouquets even more, working among flowers. I must finish this letter if I want it to go off today. I’ll be very happy to have the photograph of our mother that you mention, so don’t forget to send it to me…
I kiss you affectionately, and Mother too.