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Van Gogh Letters Offer Insight Into Artist's Life and Work

Vincent van Gogh painted some of the most recognizable and most valuable paintings in the history of art, and he is often remembered in the context of being a poor and mentally ill eccentric. But a current exhibition in New York reveals a side of the Dutch artist seldom seen in typical van Gogh shows. It does so through words, rather than pictures. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.

Vincent van Gogh produced almost 900 paintings and over a thousand watercolors and drawings during his short life, but he was also an avid and prolific writer of long letters. He wrote more than 800 letters, the majority to his brother Theo. During the last two years of his life - years he spent in the south of France where he produced some of his most celebrated works - van Gogh also corresponded with poet and fellow artist, Emile Bernard.

In a show called "Painted With Words," New York's Morgan Library focuses on 20 letters van Gogh wrote to Bernard from 1887 to 1889. Curator Jennifer Tonkovich says van Gogh's words in these letters show a side of the artist rarely seen by the general public.

"He's much more frank. He talks about sexual activity and about his health and his diet, and artistic matters, and religious and philosophical issues. So the letters tend to be more open, more expressive, and the language is a little bit more immediate and less formal," she said.

Van Gogh met Bernard in Paris in 1886, and the two continued their friendship via correspondence when the Dutch artist decided to go south for health and inspiration.

While the whereabouts of the letters Bernard wrote to van Gogh are unknown, these letters from van Gogh are owned by a New York collector. They reveal a lively, intense and on-going dialogue between the two. In an English translation read by an actor in the exhibition's audio guide, we get a glimpse of the artist's mind.

"My dear old Bernard, I'm quite curious to know what you've been doing lately. I'm still doing landscapes - sketch enclosed. I'd very much like to see Africa as well. But I'm hardly making any firm plans for the future. It'll depend on circumstances. What I should like to know is the effect of a more intense blue in the sky…"

Tonkovich says the letters span the final years of van Gogh's brilliant yet psychologically troubled life, prior to his suicide in 1890 at age 37. She says that while there are passages referring to his illness, most of the writing is hopeful, logical and rational. In one letter, van Gogh refers to what will become one of his most famous paintings, "Starry Night Over the Rhone."

"I won't hide the fact that I don't detest the countryside, having been brought up there. Snatches of memories from old times… yearnings for that infinite. They still enchant me as before. But when will I do the starry sky then, that painting that's always on my mind?"

Tonkovich says van Gogh's letters are popular in Europe, and scholars cite them often, but the general U.S. public has not seen them. She says the show is an opportunity for the public to take the time to read his thoughts and see van Gogh's work, in his own words. "You can't have blue without yellow or orange, and if you do blue, then do yellow and orange as well, surely. Ah well, you'll tell me that I write you nothing but banalities. Handshake in thought, Ever yours, Vincent"

The letters in the exhibition are accompanied by paintings and sketches by van Gogh and Bernard. Curator Tonkovich says she integrated paintings and photographs, on loan from various institutions and owners, to better explain what the two artists were talking about in their letters.

She says van Gogh and Bernard mailed each other some of their paintings, and many of van Gogh's letters include sketches he drew next to his words.

Tonkovich says many visitors to the show will already know about van Gogh, but she hopes they will come to appreciate another side of the artist.

"We don't have to teach them who he is but we can say, 'You know van Gogh. Here's a side of him you may not know about.' This relationship with Bernard, and it's going to enrich your understanding and appreciation for the artist, and especially for his letters," she said.

The installation offers full translations of the letters which were written in French and have been promised to the Morgan by New York collector Eugene Thaw.

Although van Gogh calls his thoughts banal in one of the letters, banal is the last word that comes to mind when one thinks of van Gogh, and this exhibition is a dynamic show of words.