Archive for January 20th, 2014

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Artists’ letters

This Research Point asks about van Gogh’s letters – how his words contribute to or complement viewing his work.

Vincent van Gogh: The Letters is an amazing resource on the Van Gogh Museum website – It holds 902 letters to or from van Gogh plus related material. You can see an image of the letter itself, the text and an English translation. There are editorial notes and links to images of particular works mentioned in the letters, plus a very good search engine and extensive cross-linking of material. It is extremely well designed and easy to use. You could get lost in there for days with every moment fascinating.

I used this resource while researching for my annotation of van Gogh’s Head of a peasant (see 25-Nov-2013). I was able to learn more about van Gogh’s intent in his choice of subject, use of colour, and composition in a later painting for which my focus work was a study. Other letters gave me insight into van Gogh’s ambitions in painting generally and about the conditions and concerns of his life such as money worries and plans for future saleable works. The facilities of the website also allowed me to identify related works.

During my own recent experiment with drawing a still life it was interesting to read van Gogh’s words about his work – “a large still life of potatoes — where I’ve tried to get body into it — I mean express the material. Such that they become lumps that have weight and are solid, which you’d feel if they were thrown at you, for instance.” (van Gogh, 1885).

As well as the advantages, there are limitations and dangers in relying too much on an artist’s own words.

For me the most interesting, the greatest art is more than the artist’s intentions. There is space for the viewer to be an active participant, to interpret and find their own meanings. Levels of ambiguity or mystery leave it open for us. As well as the meaning/theme/iconography of the work this could include the nature of the work itself. While researching for the next exercise I found “Even during Cézanne’s lifetime, fellow artists found ideas in his art that the painter himself did not intend” (Dean, p.5). If we are too conscious of the artist’s intentions it could make us miss or self-censor our own response the the art itself.

Doing annotations for this course I am learning to observe the work carefully, and also put it into context – political, artistic… While the artist’s own words should an important part of interpreting a work they must also be read in context – of the life and situation of the artist and of the wider use language and ideas which change over time.

An artist may miss-speak or a translation may be inaccurate. An artist may change their mind, for example in my research on Seurat I found Pissarro writing at one time as a staunch advocate, and a few years later disillusioned and disparaging (see 14-Nov-2013).

Modern artists artists are generally very conscious of self marketing and promotion. I don’t know the extent of such ideas in the past – van Gogh’s letters for example seem very genuine and un-self-conscious. Even so he wanted to gain support, to inspire confidence, to reassure… One can’t necessarily accept what is written at face value.

Finally while it can be fascinating and enlightening to learn more about an artist and their views, it can feed the modern cult of celebrity. Focus can shift to the man, his privations, his personal demons, his intentions, his theories… but in the end, the work’s the thing. True – but I’ve discovered that a book of the letters of Cezanne has recently been published. Irresistible.


Dean, C. (1991) Cézanne. London:Phaidon Press

van Gogh, V. (1885) Letter to Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, Sunday, 4 October 1885. [online] Available from (Accessed 19-Jan-2014).

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Artists’ letters
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Research Point: Artists’ letters


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January 2014

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