Inside the mind of Van Gogh

The artist was a prolific letter writer who mused on subjects ranging from love and sex to depression and religion. Now, after painstaking translation, his correspondence is to go on display at the Royal Academy

When Vincent van Gogh abandoned his work as a Christian missionary in 1880 to take up the study of painting in earnest, he spoke of his desire to discover how artists of all mediums tried to communicate universal truths and, ultimately, in their own way, reach the divine. "To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces – that leads to God," he said. "One man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture."

As a master of post-Impressionism whose work influenced some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, it was not just through his painting that Van Gogh conveyed his genius; it was also through his writing. A keen, candid and remarkably expressive correspondent who regaled acquaintances with his views on love, religion and sex, he put pen to paper with the same creative vigour as he put paintbrush to canvas.

By the time he walked into a field in the town of Auvers-sur-Oise and shot himself in the chest, the 37-year-old Van Gogh had left behind a rich literary legacy that would, like his painting, outlive his short and tortured life.

Now, in the first exhibition of its nature and size to be staged in the country, the Royal Academy is planning to showcase dozens of his letters, some of which were previously unseen, in an attempt to convey some of the artist's most distinctive thoughts and preoccupations.

The exhibition, to be held in 2010, will be the culmination of years of research undertaken by three Dutch scholars who have translated more than 900 letters from French and Dutch into English and have made vital discoveries that shed new light on Van Gogh's psyche, his relationships, his pantheistic view of religion, his daily frustrations and the full extent of his mind-devouring depression.

Featuring a collection of correspondence between Van Gogh and those nearest and dearest to him, including his parents, sister Willemina, friends Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard and Anthon van Rappard, and his beloved brother Theo, the show will exhibit about 40 letters alongside dozens of paintings and drawings. From the delirious highs he experienced while engrossed in artistic creation, to the tidal waves of loneliness and depression that would eventually engulf him, the missives capture the emotional rollercoaster of Van Gogh's life, as well as revealing his favourite artistic methods and colour theories.

It will be the first show since 1968 to bring Van Gogh's letters to Britain in any significant quantity, and the first in this country of such scale. Hans Luijten, a specialist at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, who is co-editing the new translated letters, The Complete Correspondence of Van Gogh, said the volume would be published in 2009 in the original language alongside a parallel English translation based on a radical re-examination of the original manuscripts.

One of the most marked features of the older English translation, said Dr Luijten, was the "smoothing over" of some of the cruder elements of Van Gogh's writing. While he was a highly eloquent writer, said Dr Luijten, Van Gogh occasionally peppered his friends' correspondence with rather more base sexual vocabulary that was edited out of the older translations by the use of dots or gaps in an attempt to avoid offending readers' sensibilities. This new, rough, almost bawdy side to the man who painted the sky at night over Arles and the Provençal countryside with such unique sensitivity, has been reinstated for all to see in the latest edition.

In a letter written to Ms Bernard on 5 August, 1888, in which he divulged his theory of art and its relationship to sex, he wrote that the reason their contemporary Degas was able to excel at painting was that he was not as sexually driven and did not experience "hard-ons" .

"We assume from what he says that he thought if writers went to too many brothels, they would not be as productive as painters," said Dr Luijten.

Jennifer Jonkovich, curator at the Morgan Library, in New York, which owns 22 of Van Gogh's letters written to Ms Bernard, some of which are likely to be loaned to the RA show, said this translation revealed Van Gogh to be, at times, very in touch with the earthy aspects of human existence.

In the same letter in which Van Gogh referred to Degas, he also called Rubens a "fucker", referring to the connection between Rubens' famed virility and his role as an artist, said Ms Jonkovich. "Rubens, ah, there you have it, he was a handsome man and a good fucker," he wrote. "Courbet too, there health allowed them to drink, eat, fuck."

In another letter dated 20 November 1889, written when Van Gogh had admitted himself to a mental asylum at Saint Remy, near Arles, he described his depression to Ms Bernard in painterly terms. Having produced several drawings in the asylum's garden, he wrote that his choice of dark colours in recent works had been deliberate, stemming from "the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called 'seeing red'." In earlier translations, the words had been wrongly interpreted as 'black and red' ("noir rouge") instead of 'seeing red' ("voir rouge").

Discoveries have also been made of previously unknown letters written by the painter during his youth. One such correspondence is a letter of condolence which Van Gogh wrote to a family friend while in Amsterdam where he was undertaking the study of theology at the age of 24. "We can see from this letter how Van Gogh thought at this time, how he knew what to say to console a grieving father but also that he was deeply involved with all kinds of religious texts at the time," said Dr Luijten.

Research also revealed the worries of Van Gogh's parents over his lack of a proper career and how "angrily" he responded to their concern. "We get lots of insights by looking at 100 family correspondences, by his parents and sisters. What his parents thought of him gives us a different perspective on how his family worked, how his parents were concerned about him getting a good profession and they tried their utmost to help him but he interpreted it very differently, like an angry young man," added Dr Luijten.

Some of the other letters reveal Van Gogh to have been influenced by the literature he was reading, including English writers such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as the French novelist Emile Zola. Dr Luijten said one of the most fascinating discoveries was how influential the written word was to Van Gogh's artistic vision.

"He was very much influenced by some literature. He read the biography of the French painter Jean Francois Millet written by Alfred Sensier, and in that, he finds confirmation on what kind of artist he wants to be," said Dr Luijten.

Van Gogh, ever the insecure and obsessive perfectionist, was also eaten up by a self-doubt that would at times explode on to the page with a force that shocked his readers. Discussing his own work's shortcomings in immense detail in letters to Theo and Bernard, he was his own worst critic. In one letter, he sketched a couple heading towards a drawbridge – an illustration of a painting he was working on at the time. But the artist later attacked it with a knife in a fit of rage, partly destroying it and leaving only a remnant of the work behind.

Dr Luijten said that, contrary to the popular belief that Van Gogh was a romantic artist who worked primarily with his emotions, the letters revealed how he was "well aware of every step, that he spent a long time refining things, and giving a drawing a conclusion which he would sometimes write in the margins or at the bottom of a letter as an idea."

"A lot of people thought he just threw it all on the canvas but if you look at the manuscripts of his letters, you see him adding things and giving a painting a conclusion. He was well aware of his artistic ambition and what he wanted to achieve," he added.

Two years before his suicide on 27 July 1890, Van Gogh not only produced some of the most significant paintings of his career, often at a rapid, feverish rate, but also began writing compulsively to Theo, penning eloquent, sometimes twice daily missives in which he described his increasingly fractured state of mind.

In the final letter he is believed to have written to Theo, around 10 July 1890, he described three paintings he was working on, the last he ever undertook. In the correspondence, he wrote about his psychological fragmentation, as if to forewarn them of his own death. "I still felt very sad and continued to feel the storm which threatens you weighing on me too. What was to be done – you see, I generally try to be fairly cheerful but my life is also threatened at the very root and my steps are also wavering."

But later on in the letter, his tone switches to one of hopefulness when he begins to talk of the restorative force of nature captured in his paintings. "There – once back here I set to work again – though the brush almost slipped from my fingers but knowing exactly what I wanted, I have painted three more big canvases since.

"They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.

"I hope you will see them soon – for I hope to bring them to you in Paris as soon as possible, since I almost think that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, the health and restorative forces that I see in the country."

Just 19 days later, Van Gogh lay dying in his little room at the Ravoux Inn with Theo by his side. The darkness which had threatened his sanity for so long, and which had fed his work with an unparalleled intensity throughout his career, had finally conquered him. But his spirit, as captured in both his painting and his letters, lives on.

Letters from a troubled mind

On sex

"What do you say that Degas has trouble getting a hard-on? Degas lives like a little lawyer, and he doesn't like women, knowing that if he liked them and fucked them a lot, he would become cerebrally ill and hopeless at painting. Degas' painting is virile and impersonal precisely because he has resigned himself to being personally no more than a little lawyer, with a horror of riotous living." – to French painter Emile Bernard, 5 August 1888

On depression

"You'll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called 'seeing red'." – to Bernard, 20 November 1889

On sadness

"I still felt very sad and continued to feel the storm which threatens you weighing on me too. What was to be done – you see, I generally try to be fairly cheerful, but my life is also threatened at the very root, and my steps are also wavering." – to Theo, 10 June 1890

On imagination

"I sometimes regret that I can't decide to work more at home and from the imagination. Certainly, imagination is a capacity that must be developed and that enables us to create a more exalting and consoling nature than what just a glance at reality (which we perceive changing, passing quickly like lightning) allows us to perceive. – to Bernard, 12 April 1888

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