Van Gogh Self-Portrait

Van Gogh: Artist and Prolific Letter Writer

by / 1 Comment / 229 View / November 24, 2011

Van Gogh was not only a master painter; he was also a prolific letter writer.  And for a graphologist that is akin to gold!

Here is a fascinating description of Van Gogh’s handwriting from an article issued by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Which incidentally I visited a few years ago – and was blown away by the truly stunning visual beauty and vibrant colours of Van Gogh’s paintings. If truth be told, I had never been a Van Gogh fan before – that is, until I saw his original paintings.

My interest in him as a painter changed from that day on and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I also developed an interest in his handwriting.

Here is one of Van Gogh’s letters:

Sample of one of Van Gogh’s letters:

Letter by Van Gogh

Letter by Van Gogh Amsterdam Museum

I have put together a few excerpts from a rather long article by the museum that gives a wonderful description of his handwriting.  It is from their article “Van Gogh as a letter-writer.”  And he was indeed a very prolific letter writer.

I couldn’t find any mention of the writer’s name  – but the article gives a very interesting description of his handwriting. Here it is:

Excerpts from: Van Gogh as a letter-writer

“His handwriting is not that difficult to read, particularly after one has got used to it. Comparison of the earliest letters with those from the French period show that it evolved from a rather stiff and school-boyish form into a more personal and distinctive one, as is the case with almost everyone.

This barely affected legibility, partly because he had quite an upright and open hand and usually wrote with a fine-nibbed pen.

The most difficult letters to read are those in which he resorted to a minuscule, cramped hand, with many words to the line and many lines to the page, which applies in particular to the Amsterdam letters.

As mentioned in the section on the nineteenth-century letter-writing culture, there were certain conventions that had to be observed, and the neatness of a letter was considered to have a bearing on the impression that the contents made on the recipient.

Van Gogh clearly took liberties in this respect. The letters are still neat in the years up to around 1875, but the more he began to distance himself from the prevailing conventions in his private life, the freer the appearance of his letters became.

The growing length of the letters forced him to use smaller handwriting, and he often placed additions in the margin or between the lines. He also crossed out many mistakes, which was rarely necessary in the earliest letters. It seems he became less concerned about the appearance of what he wrote.

Reading them is made more complicated by the fact that Van Gogh often wrote very long sentences and was very sparing in his use of punctuation, capital letters and the like. Sometimes he must have put his recipients severely to the test.

Van Gogh and his Expressive Emotions

One oddity about his writing that gives editors trouble is the way in which he emphasized words.

Not only did he underline them, as is customary, but if he wanted to give something added emphasis he underlined it again and again, up to four or five times.

This is mainly found in vehement passages written when he was clearly agitated. He often combined that technique with individual letters written larger or more thickly.

One of the most striking examples is the letter in which he complains to Theo about their father’s refusal to meet him halfway as regards living at home again in the parsonage in Nuenen.

He seems to have gone to considerable lengths to communicate his anger through his handwriting, although we must nevertheless assume that he was too emotional to spend extra time on it.

Quite often, too, Van Gogh emphasized the names of artists and writers and the titles of their works. His usual technique here was to modify his handwriting, either by writing the name or title in slightly larger letters or by making them more upright, looser and more widely spaced, comparable to the way in which block letters are used nowadays.”


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