Van Gogh: ‘It is Good to Love Thorns’

For the first time all the letters of Vincent Van Gogh have been collected and published in a 6-volume set. I’ve been interested in Van Gogh since my parents lived for a year in Nuenen, Netherlands, where Van Gogh painted The Potato Eaters. Below is an excerpt from one of Van Gogh’s letters and an article by Mary Tompkins Lewis from The Wall Street Journal on the new release of letters.

The Potato Eaters
The Potato Eaters

When one eats a crust of black rye bread it’s certainly good to think of the words ‘Tunc justi fulgebunt ut sol in regnum Patris sui’ (Then shall the righteous shine forth as the Sun in the Kingdom of their Father), or also when one very often has muddy boots or wet, dirty clothes. May we all at sometime enter into that kingdom which is not of this world, where they do not marry and are not given in marriage, where the sun shall be no more thy light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee, but the Lord shall be an Everlasting Light, and God our glory, where the sun shall no more go down, neither shall the moon withdraw itself, for the Lord shall be thine Everlasting Light, and the days of mourning shall be ended and God shall wipe away all tears from the eyes.

And so we can be leavened with the leaven of ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’, being what we are through God’s grace, having in the secret recesses of the heart the words ‘I never despair’ because we have faith in God. And then ‘Set your face as a flint’ are really good words in many circumstances, and also ‘be like an iron pillar or like an old oak tree’. It’s also good to love thorns, such as the thorn-hedges around the little English church or the roses in the cemetery, they’re so beautiful these days, yes, if one could make oneself a crown of the thorns of life, not for the people but with which one is seen by God, then one would do well.–Vincent Van Gogh


Over 800 letters written by van Gogh have survived, most of them addressed to his younger brother, Theo, an art dealer and an indefatigable source of support, and 80 others received from friends and family were saved by the artist. But while many of these letters had been published over the years, they hadn’t been approached in their entirety as the illustrious literary monument they are, or with the fullest sense of their import for his art and career. This has now become possible with the publication of all of the artist’s extant correspondence in Vincent van Gogh—The Letters, a richly annotated and illustrated six-volume compendium, and the launch of a related, scholarly and eminently searchable Web edition ( In tandem and in time, they will undoubtedly reshape the landscape of van Gogh scholarship and the image of the artist long held by the public.

In both versions of the text—the culmination of 15 years of research and edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker—each letter is newly transcribed (the originals are also captured in facsimile on the Web site), painstakingly retranslated without adornment or amendment, and in some cases redated in accordance with new research. A few letters, previously unknown or fragmented, are also added to the lot. They are accompanied by thumbnail reproductions, many in color, of every work of art van Gogh discussed in his incessant musings on painting, including his own. Brief sketches introduce each haunt of his short, peripatetic career, and every person, place or event mentioned even in passing is likewise explained in copious notes. Van Gogh was a voracious reader, and epistolary exhortations to friends to read his favorite authors peppered his writings. His countless literary references, which ranged from Homer to Zola, are also enumerated here in depth. Though no new attempt is made to interpret his work (a massive bibliography invites others to the task), one comes away astonished at the ardor and depth of van Gogh’s immersion into a cultural world we have long thought he knew only from a distance.–Mary Tompkins Lewis

Read Mary Tompkins Lewis’ whole article here. There’s also a lovely online slide show.

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