Thank You for Your Letters, Vincent Van Gogh

I became acquainted with Vincent Van Gogh when I was 12 years old, and he became a reliable friend of a sort. I am a native of Chicagoland, growing up in a northwestern suburb of Chicago, about 30 miles from the city. Our town was easily and splendidly connected to Chicago’s city center by the Northwestern Railroad (now Metra) train line. This train system allowed us to easily toggle back and forth between the gritty, mesmerizing experiences of one of the world’s great cities, and a rather idyllic, peaceful small-town existence.

We lived near downtown Palatine, which sprang up along the Chicago rail lines in the 1800’s. Walking to the train was a pleasant experience, including walking over Salt Creek, my elementary school playground, and through some Victorian era neighborhoods. The train station was modest and a bit dingy, but the commuter train could get you to downtown Chicago for a very fair price and in one hour’s time. The trains were clean and safe for anyone to ride, so even as teenagers, we felt no concerns about going downtown by ourselves, without our parents.

One of my favorite places to visit in Chicago as a teenager and young adult, was the famed Art Institute. I was raised in a home where the arts were deeply appreciated and respected. My mother studied art for a short time at the Art Institute and my father, a professional commercial photographer, studied at the Illinois Institute of Design. Not surprisingly, they encouraged us to go to museums, learn about history and enjoy all the fine arts.

I remember being drawn to Vincent’s paintings in the gallery of post-impressionist art at the Institute and each time I returned to the museum, I would revisit them. I liked the unfettered, joyful, and loose style of painting that Van Gogh is known for and his use of color. He made art look easy, even though it wasn’t, of course. The colors and brash brush strokes he used suggested that a person of great passions was behind it all. To me, they reflected the deep sensitivity of the man who created them. I wanted to know more about the person responsible for these intense creations—something more than the grisly fact that he had cut off most of his ear and tried to give it to someone during a tragic mental breakdown.

One day, as I was browsing through the museum gift store, I noticed a book that piqued my interest. It was a compendium of hundreds of Van Gogh’s letters—those written by him, mostly to his brother Theo. I leafed through the pages and was immediately drawn in. I knew that reading this book would tell me so much more about the man than a dry, one-dimensional history of his life. I bought the book and spent that summer reading it.

After reading his letters, I had a much greater sense of the man’s interests, idiosyncrasies, feelings, challenges, and passions. It seemed to me that he had a fated journey that demanded he create, no matter the personal costs. I tried to understand the obsessions that would have driven someone to live such an unconventional, poverty-stricken, difficult life. His letters offered many insights and helped to increase my appreciation for the sacrifices he made so that the rest of us could gaze at his remarkable art for centuries to come. His words imitated his art in many ways. There is a warmth, depth, and passion to both. What surprised me most that many of his letters were so relatable, including his concerns for family members, money problems, the need to plan holiday visits, trying to procure basic art supplies, etc.  

I think it was in my late teens, after having read this book, that I became more interested in biographies and autobiographies. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say. And the letters of famous people offer deep truths about their authentic selves. To this day, reading these genres of non-fiction reward me time and time again. Real stories about real people never cease to fascinate me and create a sense of awe and wonder about what the human being can do and create–even in the direst of circumstances.

Lessons from the Past

People that have lived before us offer endless lessons we can incorporate into our own lives. Beyond the simplistic, thumbnail sketches we are taught in schools about the most famous figures in history, letters allow us to see them as whole people who have the same complexities, flaws, and imperfections that we do. As a result, we can find them to be much more relatable characters that have something to teach us. Their own written words often tell the most compelling stories of all.

For example, I encourage everyone to read the letters of our foremothers and forefathers and be inspired. Take the letters of Abigail and John Adams and find out what these two people sacrificed in their personal lives for the idea of a democratic nation. Perhaps we would be less apt to take it for granted. Or the letters of Abraham Lincoln. If you want a lesson in human decency, integrity, and compassion, these lovely relics of his life model behaviors and empathy we need now more than ever.

And so, to Vincent Van Gogh (and all the others) , we thank you for your prolific letter writing activities. Over 800 of Vincent’s letters still exist. And to Theo, his brother, we are deeply indebted to you as well for saving and preserving them for posterity. One hundred and fifty years later, we still read, enjoy, find enlightenment, and learn from all of them.  

Letters are some of our greatest treasures. Won’t you leave your share for the next generations?  

*Portrait Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait, 1887. Joseph Winterbotham Collection.