The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters at the Royal Academy

Still-life around a Plate of Onions: Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

Self Portrait as an Artist by Van Gogh is a defining image of the modern artist. The blue smock and bright palette are shorthand for genius. The red beard hints at the wildness we expect from this self-destructive master.

But alongside this painting, the Royal Academy offers us Van Gogh in context as a hard-working technician, a deep thinker and a gifted writer, with a lot more to him than the stunt with the ear might suggest. 

This is thanks to more than 900 surviving letters, about 40 of which have made it into the brilliant show. Letter 400 contains another self-portrait of sorts. An ink sketch shows a dark figure straining at the horizon, dragging a gridded plough.

The artist must go about his work, he writes, “with a conviction that one is doing something reasonable, like the peasant guiding his plough or like our friend in the scratch who is doing his harrowing.” 

Throughout his life, Van Gogh used letters to plough ahead with his art. Struggles with perspective, ideas about colour and a love of Japanese art are all worked through in neat handwriting.

His methodical approach is not unlike the farmwork or weaving he observed during formative years in Etten in the Netherlands. He drew peasants for a while to the exclusion of all other subjects When friends criticized a major painting, he responded by stepping up his efforts to capture rural folk. 

At that time, drawing was not so far removed from the soil. Landscape Near Montmajour would have been made using pens cut from reeds. The range of strokes is breathtaking. No wonder he writes in praise of the reed quality near Arles in the South of France.

This is where he painted so many landscapes that would later dazzle the world. Yet Wheatfield With Reaper at Sunrise, Enclosed Field With Peasant and Wheatfields With Reaper all feature a lone, possibly self-referential worker out in the fields. 

Six volumes of published letters have inspired The Real Van Gogh and many different versions of the artist will emerge. Terminals in the reading room link to the excellent website, where you can harvest quotes on any theme you like.

“One must work as hard and with as few pretentions as a peasant if one wants to last,” contends Letter 823. With this book and show, Van Gogh’s popularity can only grow.

Written for Culture24.

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