Van Gogh’s Inspirational Quotes

From the National Gallery.
From the National Gallery.

‘Ever Yours’ is a one-volume selection of Van Gogh’s letters (drawn from the six-volume original published by the Van Gogh Museum back in 2009), translated from Dutch and French by a bevy of translators. The letters are accompanied by a general introduction, historic family photographs, and reproductions of 87 actual pages of letters that contain sketches by Van Gogh. It’s not just art lovers who will find the book inspiring. Van Gogh struggled with a sense of purpose, depression, loneliness, making a living and with his own belief in art all his life, and was unremittingly frank about his struggles in his letters to his brother Theo. This will have important lessons (or warnings or resonance) for all creative people.  There are some comments in the introduction which show this volume is far from ‘hero-worship’: ‘He was almost always convinced he was right, and this made him quite tiresome.’ But his work ethic and the breadth of his interest in art, literature and other people, his enthusiasm for always learning something new are all astounding.

LettersVGThis is a book to treasure and turn to again and again. Like with Virginia Woolf’s diaries, there will always be a gem to discover, a crumb of encouragement, something to keep you going even in the darkest days, although neither Vincent nor Virginia could find that for themselves.

I have a definite belief as regards art… which also means that I know what I want to get in my own work, and that I’ll try to get it even if I go under in the attempt.

For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone… it is a succession of little things that are brought together.

So often, in the past as well, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me up and reminded me that there are good things in the world.

The Sower, from Wikiart.
The Sower, from Wikiart.

Life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one things and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain. It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people… but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely … in the world.

Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or a lamp post, whether of stone or iron, so that I can’t do without them without perceiving and emptiness and feeling their lack…

Vincent's room in Arles,
Vincent’s room in Arles,

It is often impossible for men to do anything, prisoners in I don’t know what kind of horrible, horrible, very horrible cage… You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel I know not what bars, I know not what gates – walls… And the prison is sometimes called Prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance… mistrust…

I shall love her so long
That in the end she’ll love me too.
The more she disappears, the more she appears.

You will understand what I tell you, that to work and be an artist one needs love. At least someone who strives for feeling in his work must first feel and live with his heart.

Orchard with flowering peaches, watercolour from Wikipedia.
Orchard with flowering peaches, watercolour from Wikipedia.

…sometimes I grew so impatient that I trampled on my charcoal and was wholly and utterly discouraged. And yet, a while later I sent you drawings made with chalk and charcoal… all the same I had taken a step forward. Now I’m going through a similar period of struggle and despondency, of patience and impatience, of hope and desolation. But I must plod on and anyway, after a while I’ll understand more about making watercolours. If it were that easy, one wouldn’t take any pleasure in it.

I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter.

Starry Sky, from
Starry Sky, from

However, paintings come off better if one takes care of oneself and keeps well. But for you, for your work, for your whole life as well, you mustn’t have too many worries.

… I wouldn’t wish for a martyr’s career in any circumstances. For I’ve always sought something other than the heroism I don’t have, which I certainly admire in others but which, I repeat, I do not believe to be my duty or my ideal… Every day I take the remedy that the incomparable Dickens prescribes against suicide. It consists of a glass of wine, a piece of bread and cheese and a pipe of tobacco… I try not to forget completely how to jest, I try to avoid everything that might relate to heroism and martyrdom, in short I try not to take lugubrious things lugubriously.







15 thoughts on “Van Gogh’s Inspirational Quotes”

  1. I’m glad you’ve written about this book, Marina. I think I’ll have to get it at some point (it’s a good one for the Christmas/birthday present lists). I recall seeing some of VG’s letters at a Royal Academy exhibition a few years ago…heartbreaking stuff.

    I wonder about the nature of creativity, the tension between passion and obsession, whether there is often a darker element that has to be managed or suppressed. It came to mind as I was reading Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn (inspired by the music and passion of Bix Beiderbecke), and your first quote hints at it too.

    1. I remember seeing that exhibition at the Royal Academy – it included his sketches and paintings too, didn’t it? It was my older son’s first introduction to Van Gogh and he instantly ‘clicked’ with him (he was about 7-8 at the time).

  2. I’ll be adding it to wishlist too – thoughtful review Marina… Do like the quote about finding good in a bookshop!

    There’s a relevant article in Guardian just today about creativity & darker elements:

    New study claims to find genetic link between creativity and mental illness… Hopefully this is the link: to clipboard

    1. I could have transcribed half the book, but some of the quotes were really too long to include. Just aiming to give you a taster (and also chose some of the less well-known ones).

  3. Oh, Van Gogh is one of my very favourite artists, Marina Sofia! I really do like the idea of getting some more perspective on him (if you’ll forgive the pun) through letters and so on. This certainly does sound like one of those books you treasure…

    1. You’d love this book then, Margot! And much easier to carry around than 6 volumes…. You also discover surprising things about him, like his period of religious obsession and wanting to become a priest, which was dropped quite rapidly once he discovered his passion for art.

  4. This is a book that I will be buying for a present for the artist in my life – it sounds fascinating and there is something about this man that is very compelling so with the additional viewpoints I’m sure this will be a much loved book – thanks for sharing.

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