Behind that ugly outward face lay van Gogh’s resolute schedule of artistic self-education – he would reason out each procedure in a letter as he executed it, giving 19th-century art theory a test report. But behind that, the correspondence pivoted on a deeper contradiction. Artists – pre-eminently Millet, the great programmatic painter of 19th-century peasantry, the compassionate visionary who ‘reopened our thoughts to see the inhabitant of nature’ – were founts of self-will, imbued with genius: if that art theory had Realist trappings, its core was wholly Romantic. Having studiously admired that role from without, he had now taken it to heart. But the same picture-trade education also told him that what mattered was the market-worthy product, not the producer. In that light, how could he hold his head up, at once unemployable and unsaleable, a puppet on a remittance? What did this inner authorial voice amount to, first whispered into his ear by his brother?I am trying to analyse why the second and third sections of this six-volume set contain some of the most uncomfortable reading I can remember undergoing. ‘If it’s at all possible send me another 10 francs, say. A week’s work depends on it.’ ‘I promised to pay my landlord 5 guilders … I hope you’ll send me what I so greatly want.’ ‘In a few days, you understand, I’ll be absolutely broke’. That juncture was one that nearly all the letters, however long, eventually came round to. Was it – so both writer and reader must have wondered – what all the verbalising eventually boiled down to? Was the driven man of vision no more than a beggar with an act? And therefore, since the mirage of commercial viability – ‘It won’t be long before you no longer have to send me anything’ – never seemed to draw any closer, Vincent flailed.
Julian Bell in the LRB on the new translation of Van Gogh's letters.