We feel the heartbreak keenly when he is rejected by a cousin whom he wishes to marry, and during his subsequent emotional crises. When out of deep loneliness he befriends and falls in love with a pregnant streetwalker, who had been abandoned by her lover, I felt for him in his outcast situation keenly. His extended family is outraged. Nevertheless, he takes her in, changes her life, and makes both her and himself briefly happy. These particular passages touch on the hard lives of poor single women during this time of puritanically repressed society as nothing else I have ever read. In the meantime we get van Gogh's verbal descriptions of what he sees, and it's as if we're looking into one of his extraordinary paintings. For example:
I have attacked the old whopper of a pollard willow, and I think it is the best of the watercolors—a gloomy landscape, that dead tree near a stagnant pool covered with reeds, a car shed of the Ryn railroad, where tracks cross each other; the sky with drifting clouds, grey with a single bright white border, and depths of blue where the clouds are parted. I wanted to make it as the signalman in his smock and with his little red flag must see and feel it when he thinks: "It is gloomy weather today." (p. 141)I like the way editors Irving and Jean Stone have cut the letters into a continuous manuscript, leaving out salutations and much mundane material. But there's a little problem in that there are no dates. One is never quite sure where one is chronologically. I think this could have been remedied by putting the month and year in the margin, much as Robert Graves did in I, Claudius. This would have left unimpeded the free flow of the "autobiography" as they call it, with some justification.
A few things about his painting. Because of his liaison with Sien, Anton Mauve ejected him from his studio and he did not learn to paint from Mauve. What a blessing this was for all of us, since he then had to virtually teach himself. This, I believe, is why his painting is so closely related to his drawing. His original drawings are often replicated in oil almost to the very penstroke.
What is called black and white is in fact painting in black—"painting" in this respect, that one gives in a drawing the depth of effect, the richness of tone value which must be in a picture [painting]. Every colorist has his own peculiar scale of colors. This is also the case in black and white; one must be able to go from the highest light to the deepest shadow, and this with only a few simple ingredients. (p.184)In my view, if Mauve had taught him the standard techniques, there's a good chance, and he expresses a fear of this, that the paintings we would have today would be somewhat more conventional in execution. So losing Mauve as a mentor was enormously fortunate, though it did not seem so at the time.
I recommend my method of reading the book. Every time a drawing or painting is mentioned in the book I can Google it in an instant. So I am in a sense reading this extraordinary illustrated version of the book that doesn't exist. No matter how minor the drawing, it's probably online. Also, during the 1980s I saw a massive show of Vincent's work in Washington DC. That experience with the originals has been helpful, too.
Vincent's staunch romanticization of manual labor reminds me of the idiotic Soviet propaganda to come, though he has none of its strident militancy. He had no interest in politics despite the fact that he was miserably poor and living hand to mouth off of insufficient cash infusions from brother, Theo. Often he did not even have enough money for materials (paint, ink, paper, etc.). Imagine that! Vincent van Gogh sitting on his hands without even paper to draw upon!
As the early infatuation with Sien fades, he begins to see her for what she is—an uneducated woman who can't begin to appreciate his work; a funtionally illiterate woman whose brutish mother has instilled in her prejudices against all men as dirty rotten scoundrels and despicable violators of innocence. Ironically, it's her mother that seems to want her to return to her former position as breadwinner. Finally, after years of cohabitation, he leaves Sien and her children, whom he loves, in The Hague, in part because the cost cannot be sustained by Theo. He has come to realize she is too far gone to "save," but this only after he has estranged many of his family members.
Now he moves to the countryside around Drethen (Netherlands) known for its exceptional natural beauty. At once the reader senses how much freer he is, unfettered. He grows almost sunny as he begins to assimilate the landscape and its inhabitants, the shoreline and canals—he rides barges through the very heath—the unusual local dress, the strangely cave-like cottages which are masterpieces of housekeeping and comfort inside.
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