In rapture at one of the first reviews of his paintings, Van Gogh described the critic’s writing as “a work of art in itself” in a tightly packed two-page letter to its author, Albert Aurier. “I rediscover my canvases in your article, but better than they really are – richer, more significant,” Van Gogh wrote.
Containing many references to those who had inspired the artist and littered with indications of his tortured soul, the letter, written on February 9 or 10, 1890, had long been at the top of the Van Gogh Museum’s list of correspondence it wished to recover, theguardian.com wrote.
On Thursday, after securing it at auction last month, receiving a donation to cover the full €107,900 sale price from the Hong Kong tycoon Cheung Chung-kiu and his wife, Cecilia, the museum in Amsterdam was finally able to put the letter on public display for what is believed to be the first time.
Having passed through the hands of private collectors around the world, the letter had been purchased in 2007 by the murky Aristophil investment scheme, the world’s biggest buyer of historical manuscripts, before an auction where the Van Gogh Museum had hoped to secure it.
It was only after Aristophil’s bankruptcy, and the arrest of those who ran it on charges of fraud, including Gérard Lhéritier, known as the man who turned paper into gold, that the coveted letter finally emerged back on the market in Paris.
“The great thing about it is that as far as we know it has hardly been shown in public. So this is the first time, we expect,” said the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho.
“It was on top of our list because it is such an important letter. Most of the letters on our wish list have sketches on them. This one has not, but the content of it is so moving and rich that we thought we should pursue it.”
Aurier, who was also a poet, had seen two Van Gogh exhibitions before writing in the January 1890 edition of the Mercure de France magazine a piece entitled Les Isolés in which he claimed that what characterized the artist’s work was “excess, excess in strength, excess in nervousness, violence in expression”.
“In his letter Van Gogh is trying to level with Aurier in the use of his language,” De Carvalho said. “He is very happy to have this review and he writes to his brother Theo, at the same time, that it is like getting a golden medal at the Salon if he were more a more traditionalist artist. He asked his brother to share the review with all his friends and artistic colleagues.”
But De Carvalho said the essence of Van Gogh’s letter, written less than two years after he had cut off his ear following a passionate row with his fellow artist Paul Gauguin, was that Van Gogh did not feel worthy of the praise.
She said “He feels like it is too much attention for him individually and he is so indebted to other painters such as Gauguin and more obscure ones such as [Adolphe] Monticelli, and he wants to stress that it is not an individual achievement but that he is standing on the shoulders of others.”
The letter explains some of Van Gogh’s working methods, and the emotions he felt when painting. “He is thinking of giving Aurier a painting as a gift and he says: ‘You have to wait for the study to dry for a year.’ It makes you think: How thick is the paint?”
Having lived and worked in Britain as an art dealer, Van Gogh also writes in his letter that “the most astonishing Monticellis have been in Scotland and England”, and implores the art critic to view them.
De Carvalho said “It is a misconception that he wasn’t valued during his lifetime because at the end he was getting quite well known in certain artistic circles but he found that somehow hard to deal with. So there is a lot of mixed emotion. He is proud but also feeling that he is not there yet, not yet deserving of the praise.”
Van Gogh died five months later from a shot to the stomach in an apparent suicide.