Van Gogh: Willows at Sunset

Painting, Oil on Cardboard

Arles: Autumn, 1888

When I was researching our previous posts on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters I came across an impressive site,  Vincent Van Gogh, the Letters ( that contains the surviving correspondence from throughout his life. The site, and its content, has been prepared by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The level of detail is phenomenal and, being completed in 2009, it is to be presumed that the translations are of the highest quality.

Main Page (

On the home page of the site you can navigate and access Van Gogh’s letters by a number of categories. At the top left, clicking ‘The Letters’ will lead to a chronological listing of all the letters. To the right of that, you can access letters by period, correspondent, by place, and with sketches. Below, for example is a portion of the page that is reached by clicking ‘The Letters’.

Clicking on a particular letter will bring up the true genius of the site – the main screen is divided into two vertical panes, independent of each other, and containing the same six tabs at the top of each:

1. Original text – the original digital text in Dutch

2. + line endings – the original digital text in Dutch with original line endings (numbered)

3. Facsimile – a scan of the original letter – clicking on it will bring up a zoom-able enlargement

4. translation – a digital English translation of the letter – clicking on links within the letters will open a new ‘letters’ page for a name as well as other resources related to the link you have clicked

5. notes – extensive notes as indicated, and numbered, in the text of the letter (you can also bring up the notes in the white space between the two panes by clicking on the numbered notes in the digital text)

6. artwork – thumbnails of any artworks mentioned in the text of the letter that you are reading. Clicking on a thumbnail will bring up a new window with an enlarged JPG copy (roughly 500px x 600px depending on original).

Below is a screenshot of a letter page with the left pane tab set for ‘translation’ and the right pane tab set for ‘artworks’ – between the two panes can be seen one of the ‘notes’. Near the top is all info related to the letter and its chronological number. Towards the top right you can navigate forward and back of the current letter as well as search or print the current letter.

The site’s content is also available in book form – “6 hardback volumes, each 30 x 25 cm, slipcased, 2,164 pages, over 4,300 illustrations” – at £450.00 (+/- $720.00 US) it could not be seen as a bargain but would still be coveted.

The only suggestion that I could make to broaden the sites utility (and Van Gogh’s appeal) would be for the museum to put together an e-book of the letters so that they could be read on today’s e-readers (and my netbook) – EPUB format would be best for this as it is open source – and for any, and all, links within that are clicked to open a browser on the museum’s site to deliver the additional content.

This would not harm sales of the printed edition, and might even increase interest in it, and it would certainly serve society well by making Van Gogh’s writing, and his life story, more accessible to the masses. We don’t often think of Van Gogh as being a great writer – it was a surprise to me to find that he was – and his lessons in art and colour would be invaluable to artists today. Some of his philosophical musings are as beautiful as his art and an e-book (either cheap or free) would be a wonderful tribute to a great man who never had very much money that would help to ensure that he is not forgotten for another 100 years.