van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
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Vincent's food preferences

Van Gogh's relationship with food was complicated. Like his fellow Protestants, he equated virtue with abstinence from luxury. This held especially true for food, which he often reduced to its essence, "bread." For Van Gogh, bread was pure nourishment or fuel, much like potatoes were the essence of sustenance in his painting The Potato Eaters. Here, the potato eaters enacted a Biblical imperative that was dear to Van Gogh, and which he often quoted in his letters: "In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat thy bread." As a painter he could honor the working class, whom he considered to be more honest than high society: "I have wanted to give the impression of a way of life quite different from that of us civilized people." To earn your bread meant to make a living, or rather to sustain yourself through your own efforts. To Van Gogh, who was supported largely by his family, in particular by his brother Theo, the mandate to pay his own way was a painful reminder of his shortcomings in that regard. His failure to earn his own bread his own livelihood, in effect was a constant source of worry, irritation, and guilt.

Van Gogh had a certain talent for suffering. Although he did his best to make money by selling his work, he felt compelled to defend himself against attacks from an art dealer: "I work as hard as I can and 1 do not spare myself, so I deserve my bread and they ought not to reproach me with not having been able to sell anything up to now." The only way out of this moral dilemma was to stint even more on food and other everyday necessities. For someone of Van Gogh's frugality, this was not a hard task. He even derived some pleasure from it. (When he was a preacher in Cuesmes in the Borinage, Belgium's mining district, he reported that he mainly lived on "dry bread and some potatoes or chestnuts." Only every now and then did he enjoy "a better meal in a restaurant whenever I can afford it.")

Often, he was able to distill virtue from necessity as he saw it. Shortly before, in Nuenen, he had been living in a barn that doubled as a studio. Buying painting supplies nearly depleted his finances, but he exulted in the simplicity of his lifestyle, exclaiming that he was "sick of the boredom of civilization .... One may sleep on straw, eat black bread; well, one will only he the healthier for it."

Nevertheless, even Van Gogh realized that virtue could lead to excess. While studying in Antwerp during the winter of 1885, he complained to Theo about his self-imposed frugality: "Do you know, for instance, that in the whole time I've had only three warm meals, and for the rest nothing but bread? In this way one becomes vegetarian more than is good for one." After several days of fasting, he again wrote: "Perhaps you will not understand, but it is true that when I receive the money my greatest appetite is not for food ... but the appetite for painting is even stronger." He spent almost all his money on models: "All I have to live on is my breakfast served by the people I live with, and in the evening for supper a cup of coffee and some bread in the dairy, or else a loaf of rye bread that I have in my trunk." Even in Aries, Van Gogh saved on food when other priorities presented themselves. On October 8, 1888, he had just begun to make his yellow house habitable: "I had a meal this afternoon, but tonight I will have nothing to eat but a crust of bread. And all that money is spent on the house or on paintings." There is something ostentatious in Van Gogh's repeated demonstrations of simplicity. Apparently he felt the need not only to live this way, but also to report on it in detail, as if he wanted to make clear to Theo that he was doing his utmost in exchange for the money Theo sent him.

The Bible provided Van Gogh with another familiar admonishment: "Man can not live by bread alone." In his early years, Van Gogh put it in a purely Biblical context, but gradually this saying adopted a slightly different meaning. "Not by bread alone" could imply that one should strive for higher goals in life, such as art or literature.

With Van Gogh, what held for real life also held for painting. The still lifes of food that he made while living in Holland featured food from "the good earth," grown and harvested by common folk. For this artist, ethics and aesthetics were inseparable. For example, his painting of cabbages and clogs from 1881, or baskets of potatoes from 1885 celebrated an ethic also found in his drawings and paintings of men working in the fields. These paintings were never exercises in the rendering of texture, substance, or body movement. As Van Gogh once remarked: "His bald head, bent over the black earth, seemed to me full of a certain significance, reminiscent, for instance, of 'thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy brow."

In Paris in 1886-87, Van Gogh continued painting still lifes. For one thing, he hoped to produce something salable, and he also specifically chose subjects that challenged him. With flowers he expanded and brightened his range of colors, whereas fish gave him the opportunity to match his loaded brush against the shimmering surfaces of his subjects. Toward the end of 1886, he began to show interest in avant-garde painting, which can be detected in his paintings over the next year. He also became keenly interested in the pictorial possibilities of Japanese prints, which he saw at Siegfried Bing's shop in Paris. From these prints, Van Gogh developed a feeling for pattern, which manifested itself in asymmetrical, risque compositions, and interplay of subject and background. At the end of that year in 1887, Van Gogh's intense concern with avant-garde use of pure, unmixed color led to striking personal results. Here, one can perceive for the first time his great and original contribution to modern art. (A glance back to his first effort at cabbages, some six years earlier, is sufficient to realize that Van Gogh had reinvented his art.)

By the time Van Gogh left behind Parisian refinement for the countryside around Arles, he was glad to recover the simplicity of rural life: "What a mistake Parisians make in not having a palate for crude things... for common earthenware .... I am returning to the ideas I had in the country before I knew the Impressionists." In Arles, it became apparent that nature had supplanted the Bible as Van Gogh's inspiration, personified, in particular, in the sun and the endless blue sky: "When you are well, you must be able to live on a piece of bread while you are working all day, and have enough strength to smoke and to drink your glass in the evening, that's necessary under the circumstances. And all the same to feel the stars and the infinite high and clear above you. Then life is almost enchanted after all. Oh! Those who don't believe in this sun here are real infidels." In the late summer of 1888, color contrasts began to obtain an emotive power that spoke of Van Gogh's own perceptions of reality. By now, complementary colors even invested inanimate objects with personal meaning and feeling.

During his voluntary confinement in the SaintRémy asylum, Van Gogh again seemed to challenge his own past in new still lifes that displayed his recent stylistic conquests in compositions of geometrical simplicity. These icons of rural life probably coincided with his renewed interest in Millet, whom he revered as a painter of rural life par excellence. Around this time, he began to copy a series of prints after Millet.

During his stay in the south, sanity of mind and body became a concern of the artist's. The desire for good food became synonymous with care for his mental health. "Sanity," a recurring word in his letters, meant not only bodily or mental health, but also healthiness from an artistic or moral point of view. The first task was to have a healthy body.

In Arles, Van Gogh tried to restore his energy by improving his eating habits. Because he suffered from stomach problems, he tried to persuade restaurant owners to prepare special food for him, such as strong brew, but he met with little success: "It's the same everywhere in these little restaurants. But it is not so hard to boil potatoes. Impossible. Then rice or macaroni? None left, or else it is messed up in grease, or else they aren't cooking it today, and they'll explain that it's tomorrow's dish, there's no room on the stove, and so on. It's absurd, but that is the real reason why my health is so low." Once he found a new and better restaurant to have his meals, Van Gogh felt his health improve immensely: "My blood circulation is good and my stomach digesting."

In the Saint-Rémy asylum, Van Gogh felt that a good appetite and regular meals could help to improve his sanity in all respects. In the first days of September 1889, following a major attack, he started to eat his way back to sanity. Apparently Dr. Peyron, who treated him there, had prescribed that he eat as much as he could. Van Gogh admitted that it did him well: "Just like I swallow my food with greed nowadays, I long to see my friends back and the northern countryside." But he soon got the impression he was overdoing it, since how much did a painter need anyway: "I don't see any advantage for myself in gathering enormous physical strength, because it would be more logical for me to get absorbed in the thought of doing good work and wishing to be an artist and nothing but that."

After a few months, he was able to see his friends back in Paris and to return to the healthy Auvers countryside. When Johanna, Theo's new wife, saw her brother-in-law for the first time, she was surprised by his looks. After reading Vincent's letters and hearing her husband's reports about the numerous attacks that Vincent had suffered, she had expected an emaciated figure, but there he was, "a sturdy, broad-shouldered man with a healthy color." And she thought, "He is completely healthy, he looks much stronger than Theo." (Indeed, Theo was suffering from syphilis, which eventually afflicted his mind.) Theo's health, plus that of the new baby, was worrisome, so it is no surprise that Van Gogh encouraged them to come and live in Auvers. Dr. Gachet not only gave the artist advice to improve his eating habits, but also recommended that a "father and mother must naturally feed themselves up." By this the doctor meant "2 liters of beer a day, etc."

In the meantime, Van Gogh had been painting at Dr. Gachet's house, which pleased him enormously. The artist was less happy, however, about the multicourse meals he was invited for once a week. Apparently Dr. Gachet, like his colleague from Saint-Rémy, believed that good food in large quantities was essential for maintaining good health. A game of politeness resulted in a situation that neither party desired or enjoyed. "For me it is pure vexation to eat there in the evening or afternoon, because the good man goes at great lengths in order to prepare meals of 4 or 5 courses. This is not only for me something dreadful, because he certainly has no strong stomach himself. What prevented me from commenting on it, is that it reminds him of the days of yore, when extensive meals were served in the family circle, something that is after all not unknown to us."

At Dr. Gachet's home, Van Gogh was a polite guest, just as he was a pleasant boarder at the Auberge Ravoux. One can imagine, though, that the simple food served in the auberge was something of a relief for the artist. As for Dr. Gachet, he could hardly believe that Van Gogh could be housed and fed for a mere three and a half francs a day.


57 "I have wanted... people. Letter 404.

57 "I work as hard... now." Letter 175.

58 "a better meal... afford it. Letter 138.

58 "sick of the... for it." Letter 413.

58 "Do you know... one." Letter 440.

58 "All I have.., trunk." Letter 442.

58 "I had a meal... paintings." Theo Waarde, 1888, 703 [546] [F].

60 "his bald head... brow." Letter 277.

60 "What a mistake. . . infidels." Letter 520.

62 "It's the same... so low." Letter 480.

62 "my blood circulation... digesting." Letter 613.

64 "I don't see... that." Theo Waarde, 1889. 806 [607] IF].

64 "He is completely ... Theo." Van Gogh-Bonger, introduction.

64 "For me it is... to us." Theo Waarde, 1890. 881 [638] [F].

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