A challenge to myth of Van Gogh as lunatic genius

Letters that accompany the paintings at the Royal Academy s show reveal the painter as sensitive, well-read and hard-working Did Van Gogh ever come to Hampstead or Highgate? We don t know that he didn t, according to Martin Bailey, author of Young Vince

Letters that accompany the paintings at the Royal Academy's show reveal the painter as sensitive, well-read and hard-working

Did Van Gogh ever come to Hampstead or Highgate? We don't know that he didn't, according to Martin Bailey, author of Young Vincent, The Story Of Van Gogh's Years In England.

He says that letters to relatives and friends only provide a partial record of Van Gogh's activities but we do know he visited the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A, where he admired the Constables and probably knew some of his Hampstead views.

Indeed, in July 1873, soon after moving to London to work for an art dealer near The Strand, Van Gogh wrote to his younger brother Theo: "At first English art did not appeal to me; one must get used to it. Constable was a landscape painter who lived about 30 years ago; he is splendid."

The next month, Van Gogh moved to lodgings in Brixton from where he explored the city, especially its parks and museums, and the surrounding countryside, which he found beautiful. So he may well have ventured to the hill-top villages of north London to admire the vistas which Constable painted.

Van Gogh was a compulsive and eloquent letter writer who left a legacy of close to 1,000 letters giving insights into his work and beliefs. More than 35 of these fragile documents are the focus of the first major Van Gogh exhibition in London for more than 40 years, marking the recent publication of a five-volume set of his complete letters.

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The Real Van Gogh: The Artist And His Letters at the Royal Academy Of Arts presents around 65 paintings and 30 drawings with related correspondence. This exhibition challenges the myth of a lunatic genius with letters showing him to be a sensitive, well-read, determined and hard-working artist.

The letters, often with sketches of work in progress, are displayed with partial translations. Next to Cypresses (pictured) is the observation made to Theo about the tree he painted as a dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape: "It's beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk."

Van Gogh's letters reveal his rapid progress as a self-taught artist, from experiments with a perspective frame, through his immersion in colour theory and obsession with Japanese woodblock prints to the revelation of the landscapes of Provence.

The artworks chart his journey from grey beginnings in the Netherlands to an explosion of colour in the south of France.

Of special note are the letters and paintings related to Van Gogh's dream of founding an artists' colony, his "studio of the south". In 1888, he rented the Yellow House in Arles, where Gauguin joined him for two months. The collaboration failed, due to their temperamental and artistic incompatibility, and had a famously tragic sequel.

It was long thought that Van Gogh severed his ear-lobe and gave it to a prostitute for safe-keeping, shortly before being committed to an asylum for the first of several mental breakdowns which culminated in suicide. But last year, two German art historians claimed that Gauguin, a fencing ace, most likely sliced off the lobe with his sword during a fight.

Whatever the truth, the universal appeal of the bizarre episode of the bloody ear persists. At the time of writing, the latest addition to a blog about Van Gogh's letters is from Beano Bob who says "I once cut my ear while shaving. It hurt like buggery. I have every sympathy for Vince."

o The exhibition runs until April 18 at Burlington House, in Piccadilly. Open daily 10am to 6pm, until 10pm on Friday and 9pm on Saturday. Tickets are �12 (various concessions). Vincent van Gogh - The Letters: The Complete Illustrated And Annotated Edition is published by Thames & Hudson �395.