The Letters of Vincent van Gogh: A Research Comparison Analysis
Tomás Córdoba Marín
Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous Post-Impressionist artists that ever lived. His work is characterized by the extensive use of colors that appeal to the emotions of the viewer. He also was renowned for being an eccentric artist. Art historians and doctors have concluded that his mental health was tormented by schizophrenia. Art is said to be the expression of the self. It is extremely remarkable how an artist that went through so much pain in his life expressed his emotions in paintings that reflect the opposite. They are pure color ecstasy in motion. His use of color is so impressive, that it influenced many art movements following his death, including the Fauves and German Expressionists. Beautiful art can be created from pain.
This pain was often recorded in a journal where the artist depicted many scenes from his daily life. These records often included landscapes. In these journals, it can be seen how Van Gogh was tormented by his psyche. However, he also reflected on his never-ending love for art. Van Gogh sent the majority of these entries in the form of letters to his brother, Theo van Gogh. Theo was known to be the major economic support of his brother during his lifetime. Vincent only sold one painting in his life with Theo as the buyer. The majority of these descriptions were later recorded visually in his paintings. An interesting analysis can be made from this fact. How did Van Gogh’s paintings differ from his letters and journals?
To understand how a written record can differ from a visual one, it is pertinent to address the psychology of color. This field of psychology studies the influence of color in human emotions and behavior. This branch of psychology is still in its early stages but can be an amazing tool when it comes to analyzing the formal characteristics of a painting. It has been widely used throughout history by artists and marketing companies, but it has just been recently formalized as a field of study. In the psychology of color, each color is linked to a certain emotion or behavior. For example, the color red is associated with feelings of anger, passion, and lust. Following this pattern of the psychology of color, the first description in a letter (Figure1) for analysis is the following made by Van Gogh:
Foreground of green and pink grass, on the left, a green and lilac bush and a stem of plants with whitish foliage. In the middle, a bed of roses. To the right a hurdle, a wall, and above the wall a hazel tree with violet foliage. Then a hedge of lilac, a row of rounded yellow lime trees. The house itself in the background, pink with a roof of bluish tiles. A bench and 3 chairs, a dark figure with a yellow hat, and in the foreground a black cat. Sky pale green.
This letter refers to the painting The Garden of Daubigny (Figure 2). As it can be observed, Van Gogh is a master descriptor. The painting is remarkably similar to the description. This ability to portray landscapes so accurately from memory was only outmatched by his ability to communicate through color. However, this description differs in some respects from the painting. The first one is that Van Gogh describes the foreground as the green and pink grass. In the painting, it is clearly noticeable how the foreground consists of the much brighter house and sky. Van Gogh switched the traditional role of the foreground-background relationship by adding more color to the house and sky. This leaves the impression that the foreground is the house (that in a traditional color scheme would be the background). This shows how Van Gogh used color in order to change the perspective of his paintings without actually changing the composition. The second element that sets the difference between the written and visual descriptions is the dark spot in the painting. It is located on the left side of the painting among the trees. Van Gogh does not mention the inclusion of this spot but, ironically, is one of the most outstanding elements of the composition. If this is approached from the psychology of colors, it can be assumed that the inclusion of the dark blue spot can be associated with feelings of melancholy, depression, apprehension and fear. This can be interpreted as an inclusion of the memorial of the death of Charles-Francois Daubigny. Daubigny was a famous painter admired by Van Gogh and owner of the garden. The third difference from the letter is the color and shape of the cat. In the letters, it is emphasized that there is a black cat. In the actual painting the cat can hardly be seen. If the viewer is not paying enough attention, it can be confused as part of the grass.
The second letter to be analyzed is the one Vincent wrote in 1878 (Figure 3). The letter describes his famous view from his asylum in Saint Rémy. The famous view would later be interpreted into the painting, Starry Night (Figure 4), the artist´s magnum opus:
This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big. Daubigny and Rousseau did that, though, with the expression of all the intimacy and all the great peace and majesty that it has, adding to it a feeling so heartbreaking, so personal. These emotions I do not detest.
This letter is crucial because it reflects pure intimacy. The final sentence of the letter recognizes that the artist was settled in the asylum. The letter describes a morning star, Venus. The artist exaggerates the star immensely in the painting. He does not achieve this by exaggeration of size but exaggeration of color. The star is significantly whiter than the rest. Once again, Van Gogh achieved magnificent communication through the use of color. According to the psychology of color, yellow represents emotions of happiness. This color dominates the painting and it can be interpreted as Van Gogh´s happiness. It is often thought that Van Gogh took his time at Saint Rémy as if he were on a mystical journey. This letter does not differ in composition from the painting. The main difference is the exaggerated use of color in the painting. The colors are not described at all by Van Gogh in his letter, but are passionately portrayed in the painting.
Van Gogh was a great artist, and he not only achieved art through painting but also through his writing. They can be usefully compared, and the artist’s writing is very intentional. From the given descriptions, the reader can imagine exactly what the artist was seeing and living. The main aspect missing from the letters, as discussed above, is the accuracy of color. Van Gogh was much more expressive with his colors when it came to painting. This does not make his writing less enjoyable, but rather showcases Van Gogh’s facility for the use of color in order to express emotions. Reading the letters is an amazing experience that is enhanced by studying the paintings. It is always interesting to investigate what was going through an artist´s mind, which is crucial for a full comprehension of the art.
Figure 1: Van Gogh letter, 1890
Accessed April 13, 2018
Figure 2: Daubigny’s Garden,
Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Figure 3: Van Gogh letter, 1878
Figure 4: Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gogh, Vincent van and Anthony M. Ludovici. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.
Lawrence, Kan.: Digireads.com, 2010.
Heller, Eva, and Joaquín Chamorro Mielke. Psicología Del Color (Spanish Edition). Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2005.
Kleiner, Fred S. “Europe and America, 1870 to 1900.” In Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 833. 13th ed. Vol. 2. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.
Soth, Lauren. “Van Gogh’s Agony.” The Art Bulletin 68, no. 2 (June 1986): 301-13. Accessed April 13, 2018. doi:10.2307/3050939.
Fred Kleiner, “Europe and America, 1870 to 1900.” In Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 833. 13th ed. Vol. 2. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.
 Eva Heller, and Joaquín Chamorro Mielke. Psicología Del Color (Spanish Edition).
Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2005.
 Vincent Van Gogh, and Anthony M. Ludovici. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.
Lawrence, Kan.? Digireads.com, 2010.
 Van Gogh, 73.
 Soth, Lauren. “Van Gogh’s Agony.” The Art Bulletin 68, no. 2 (June 1986): 301-13.
Figure 1: Accessed April 13, 2018 doi:10.2307/3050939.
Van Gogh letter, Vincent van Gogh, 1890