A rare letter from Van Gogh on sunflowers will be exhibited
Van Gogh’s letters, the most important of all artists, are only very rarely shown in exhibitions. Almost all of them are in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and are hardly ever loaned out, for conservation reasons.
Anne-Marie Springer from Switzerland is one of just over a dozen private collectors who own a Van Gogh letter. His example should be included in a exhibition of correspondence from around twenty artists at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.
Springer’s letter, written by Van Gogh to his painter friend Emile Bernard, was sent from the south of France and is dated around August 21, 1888. It is striking to see how much the artist’s writing changes in this correspondence alone.
What makes the letter particularly noteworthy is that Vincent reveals his intention to produce a series of sunflower paintings to decorate the Yellow House in Arles.
Van Gogh begins by telling his friend of the landscape that was then on his easel (unfortunately this image is unknown and now lost): “I am trying to make dusty thistles with a great swarm of butterflies swirling above them . Oh, the beautiful sun here in the middle of summer; it hits you on the head and I have no doubt it drives you crazy. Now that I’m already like this, all I do is enjoy it.
He immediately told Bernard of his project: “I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen paintings by Sunflowers. A decor where hard or broken yellows will burst on varied blue backgrounds, from the palest Veronese to royal blue, framed by thin slats painted in orange lead. Kinds of stained glass effects from a gothic church. Ah, my dear friends, we crazy people still enjoy the eyes, okay?
Van Gogh began his series of Sunflowers Monday, August 20, 1888, two days after writing to Bernard. In just one week, he produced a series of four still lifes of sunflowers.
What began with a painstakingly observed painting of three sunflowers culminated in his latest masterpiece with fifteen vibrant blooms. The first two works in the series remain relatively unknown. three sunflowers has always been hidden in private collections and has never been exhibited in living memory. six sunflowers was destroyed in Japan during World War II.
The last two, fourteen sunflowers (with a turquoise background, now in Munich) and Fifteen Sunflowers (on a yellow background, now in London), became Van Gogh’s “signature” works.
Although Vincent failed to sell the Sunflowers during his lifetime, these are now his most popular paintings. They would never all go on sale, but the whole set – just a week’s work – would theoretically be worth well over a billion pounds.
In his August 1888 letter to Bernard, Van Gogh also speaks of two other paintings he had just completed. The first was a portrait of a peasant, Patience Stairs, with the artist explaining that he chose colors to suggest “the scorched air of midday harvest time in the scorching heat”. Van Gogh then added to Bernard, who was with Gauguin in Brittany: “You know what a peasant is, what is wild when you meet a thoroughbred.
Van Gogh also wrote of a river landscape, painted a few minutes walk from the Yellow House on the banks of the Rhone: “A man unloading a boat of sand. That is to say, there are two boats, purplish pink, in the green water of Veronese, with gray-yellow sand, wheelbarrows, boards, a little blue and yellow man. All seen from the top of a quay overlooking everything from a bird’s eye view. No sky.
Bernard ended up saving 22 letters he received from Vincent from 1887 to 1889. In the late 1920s, when he needed the money, Bernard sold them and they were acquired by Marianne de Goldschmidt-Rothschild, based in Paris, of the famous banking dynasty. She also owned an important painting by Van Gogh, L’Arlesienne: Portrait of Marie Ginoux (August 1888, now Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
German writer Harry Kessler recalled an occasion in 1929 when he saw the letters to Bernard in the Goldschmidt-Rothschild mansion, in a situation he found shocking: “After the meal, thirty [sic] Van Gogh’s letters, in a horribly ornate binding, were distributed with the cigarettes and the coffee. Poor Van Gogh!
It is not known when Goldschmidt-Rothschild gave away or sold the August 1888 letter, but it has separated from the others. In 2001 it was sold at auction in Paris, valued at around 450,000 francs (then £42,000 – prices for Van Gogh’s letters have skyrocketed since then). It was purchased by Anne-Marie Springer.
Springer had started collecting letters from historical figures after the birth of her daughter Zoé in 1994: “Like other mothers at such a time, I was asking myself all kinds of questions. What image of the world and of our society would she have growing up, what moral and intellectual values would I like to transmit to her, what ideals would she aspire to? Anne-Marie’s response is to start a collection of letters, first love letters, to pass on to her daughter.
Today, Springer has amassed more than 2,000 letters, from the 15th century to the 1970s. In recent years, she has taken a particular interest in the correspondence of painters. “In them, we find the genesis of their work, their secrets about material or creative difficulties and the encouragement given by their friends in response,” says Springer.
Other painters in the spotlight in the next Thyssen exhibition Letters from artists from the Anne-Marie Springer collection (30 May-25 September) include Cézanne, Degas, Freud, Gauguin, Kahlo, Léger, Manet, Matisse, Monet, Pissarro, Rousseau and Schiele.
Other Van Gogh short stories:
• Henk B., implicated in the theft of two Van Gogh paintings, was found guilty of another art crime. According to Dutch legal procedure, his surname is not published in the Netherlands. On Tuesday he was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing Monet’s waterscape Voorzaan and Westerhem (1871) from the Zaans Museum in Zaandam, just north of Amsterdam. Last August, he took the painting when the museum opened. Despite gunshots, members of the public intervened in front of the museum and recovered the Monet.
In 2002, Henk B. was involved in the theft of two works from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. At Vincent’s Sea view in Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation leaving the Reformed Church of Nuenen (1884-5) were finally recovered near Naples in 2016.
• An example of Van Gogh’s engraving Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet (June 1890) is on sale at the Tefaf New York fair (5-10 May), with Kasmine Gallery. Although around 80 impressions of the print survive, it is highly sought after. The Kasmin version, printed by Dr. Gachet’s son or his printer Eugène Delâtre, is priced at $240,000.
Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh finale: Auvers and the artist’s rise to fame (Frances Lincoln, 2021, available in the UK and WE). He is a leading Van Gogh scholar and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019).
Bailey has written a number of other bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in the UK and WE), Southern Studio: Van Gogh in Provence(Frances Lincoln 2016, available in the UK and WE) and Starry Night: Van Gogh in the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and WE). whiskey cream Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and WE) provides insight into the artist’s life. The Illustrated Letters of Provence by Van Gogh has been reissued (Batsford 2021, available in the UK and WE).
• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: email@example.com. Please note that it does not perform authentications.
Read more on the Martin’s Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.