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Observations While Reading Vincent's Mail

By Stacey Wellman

There is an abiding question of whether or not we should be reading the private correspondence of famous people. We are always delving into other people's lives, and although I have no interest in ordinary gossip, I think it is valid to want to get to know someone we admire. Perhaps it's because we always learn something about ourselves along the way, and that's what we're really after.

These Van Goghs have finished their lives, and what we do cannot affect them in any way.

We want to get closer to them, especially Vincent, and so we read their mail.

Vincent was forever explaining his actions, as anyone who has read the letters knows only too well. Explaining again and again to his brother why he would not desert the woman he had rescued from the gutter, and why Theo should follow his example.

So we would explain to him, again and again if we had to, that we intrude on his life out of love and respect, not out of voyeurism. I do not believe that it should be for only cultural and academic values. To me, that is cold and intrusive. But for love, well that's a different thing. And I truly believe that Vincent would agree with me.

It seems that everyone wants a part of Vincent. Not just the paintings, or whatever representations of them that we can afford. The medical profession wants to diagnose his illness, if there really was one. Doctors want to find something medically wrong, because then he would belong to them. Investigators of the mind want to attach an analysis to everything he did or painted. We all want to find something that no one else knows, because it brings us closer to him. If we can find some little Truth about him that no one else has discovered, maybe we can be his best friend. It's a pleasant thought, but an idle one. As everyone knows, trying to be any kind of friend to Vincent was almost impossible.

So much of what we notice in the letters is due to the fact that we already know the story. In Letter 2, written to Theo from the Hague in December of 1872, Vincent says, "We must be sure to write to each other regularly." And we stop a moment, and think with a sigh, or a tear, or a little smile, that yes, indeed, they would write to each other so regularly that we who came after have the treasure of three volumes of letters.

And how strange it is to read these early letters when Vincent was so full of enthusiasm, wishing Theo well in his new venture as an art dealer. Short letters, with no need to plead for money, and as yet no awareness that he himself was an artist, not just a seller of art.

In Letter 4, in January of 1873, he says to Theo, "Do you know that they are going to build a large new museum in Amsterdam, instead of the Trippenhuis? I think it is right, for the Trippenhuis is small and many pictures are hung so that they can hardly be seen." How stunned he would be to find that there is such a place as The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. An entire museum devoted to himself. If we could take him there now, would his brain be able to deal with the concept? I see him walking around stunned, overwhelmed by all he has become to the world since he left it. And I think he would be happy that ordinary people can have an inexpensive print of one of his paintings. He wanted that.

Vincent always had the mind and heart of a painter, even before he started painting. In Letter 10, to Theo from London in July of 1872, he created a lovely image in words, "What pleasant days we spent together at The Hague; I think so often of that walk on the Rijswijk road, when we drank milk at the mill after the rain." We drank milk at the mill after the rain. I find myself stopping to envision the scene, like looking at one of the paintings, two good companions drinking milk at a mill, after a rain.

Something that I'm sure we all agree on is that the one artist who left us all these letters is the one who had the most to say.

There was an image that stopped me as I read it, and I wonder if I would have noticed it if I had never seen any of his work. It was in Letter 71, to Theo from Isleworth in July of 1876. Vincent said: "Your letter and the prints were a delightful surprise; they came this morning while I was busy weeding the potatoes in the garden."

How many of us would think to say in a letter, "I was busy weeding the potatoes in the garden." Maybe we would say, "I was watering my plants," but that hardly makes us one with the earth, as Vincent was always trying to do. But my observation was based of course on knowing the drawings that he would produce much later, showing men and women involved in tending the earth in various ways. People who seemed to be made of the very earth they tended, as he loved to describe them.

He was never really of the earth. And never really not of it. He was an ugly duckling who never found the other swans.

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