CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

De noodzaak tot schrijven: de brieven van Vincent van Gogh

The necessity of writing: the letters of Vincent van Gogh Exhibition: 28 June - 6 October 2002


Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten

From the museum website

These world-famous auto-documents will be examined in light of one of the most extensive research projects the museum has ever undertaken: a new edition of the artist’s complete correspondence.
Vincent van Gogh was an ardent letter writer his whole life. Of the circa 2-3,000 once-extant letters more than 900 have been preserved. They provide profound insight into a fascinating life and have been an important source for understanding the artist and his work for generations of readers, art lovers and art historians. Visitors to the exhibition will get to see not only a selection of the letters themselves, but also the chance to take a behind-the-scenes look at the research being undertaken for the new edition.

From the museum press release

With original letters from Van Gogh, documents, family correspondence, books, prints, magazine illustrations, photos, drawings and paintings.

The Van Gogh Museum exhibition in the summer of 2002 focuses on the letters of Vincent van Gogh. These world famous documents will be presented from the perspective of one of the most extensive research projects the museum has ever undertaken: the new edition of the complete correspondence of the artist that is to be published in 2008.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was an avid letter writer. He was constantly putting ideas to paper in missives to his brother Theo (1857-1891) and various artist friends. Moreover, the assistance he received from his brother led him regularly to reach for his pen. For Van Gogh writing was a necessity.

The exhibition is built up around the themes that form the basis of the research project. One or more original letters from each period of Van Gogh’s life has been selected to illustrate the kind of problems and questions that the editors faced. For example, the changes in Van Gogh’s handwriting resulting from his altering moods and the occasionally almost indecipherable deleted words and sentences. Some surviving unposted letters also contain valuable information, adding further to our knowledge of Van Gogh.

The researchers have identified around 1,200 individuals mentioned in the letters – varying from friends and relatives to famous or now almost forgotten artists. The hundreds of prints and illustrations cited by Van Gogh, offer an insight into his artistic preferences and sources of inspiration. They have been traced in print rooms and libraries in the Netherlands and abroad. Various new discoveries are featured in the exhibition alongside the letters in which they are mentioned.

Van Gogh had been an ardent reader since boyhood. The editors have attempted to trace the original sources of the numerous literary references that litter the artist’s correspondence. These range from contemporary local newspapers, to the Bible and the novels of Dickens and Zola. Interesting combinations of these references are also featured.

Van Gogh regularly drew sketches in his letters to illustrate a drawing or painting he was working on to Theo or a fellow artist. These represent a magnificent complement to his artistic oeuvre. For this show a number of exquisite examples have been selected, including the famous sketch of Starry Night on the Rhône from a letter to the Belgian painter Eugène Boch.

Ink rot, a chemical process for which no remedy has yet been found and which occurs when iron-gall ink consumes and eventually creates holes in the paper, is illustrated with a number of pertinent examples. The destruction is most dramatic wherever Van Gogh used copious amounts of ink, as in the sketches in his letters.

The exhibition also features a number of letters written to Vincent van Gogh, among them some from his brother Theo and from artists such as John Peter Russell and Paul Gauguin. In all around eighty letters to Van Gogh have survived. Thirty-seven of Theo’s letters from the years 1889-1890 remain, as against two from the early years.

To introduce the exhibition a selection of objects from the Museum of Communication in The Hague are presented to illustrate the nineteenth-century postal service. On show in the corridor of the exhibition wing are a postman’s uniform of 1878, a nineteenth-century letterbox, a dot stamp and circulars (with the contemporary rates).

The necessity of writing is compiled by Dutch literary scholars Leo Jansen and Hans Luijten of the Van Gogh Museum, the leaders of the research project. The design of the exhibition is by Peter de Kimpe and Tessa van der Waals.

Van Gogh’s correspondence probably comprised thousands of letters. Because he did not always have a permanent address and often also destroyed his letters, less than half of the original corpus has survived. Most of the more than 900 remaining letters are conserved at the Van Gogh Museum. They represent one of the most inspiring collections of artistic correspondence and form an essential source for our knowledge of the life and work of Van Gogh. Because of their frailty and sensitivity to light they are only rarely exhibited.

For some years, the Van Gogh Museum has worked closely with the Constantijn Huygens Institute in The Hague (part of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen) on the most complete edition of the letters ever published. This will be the first time that the letters are presented entirely as Van Gogh wrote them, i.e., in the original language (Dutch and French) with all his errors and (all) amendments. Each letter has also been translated anew into English and provided with extensive biographical, literary as well as art and cultural historical notes (also in English). The new edition is expected to appear in 2008.


Brochure bij de tentoonstelling De noodzaak tot schrijven. De brieven van Vincent van Gogh (zomer 2002), 48 p. In Engels als The necessity of writing: the letters of Vincent van Gogh.