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October 9, 2009

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Letters show method in Van Gogh's madness

WHILE Vincent van Gogh has become almost as famed for his troubled mind as for his paintings, a new exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum seeks to remind us there was more method than madness to his style.

In honor of the publication of a new edition of all the artist's known correspondence, the museum has put more than 100 personal letters in which he discusses his craft on display alongside the actual paintings.

Museum Director Axel Ruger said the exhibit, due to open today, is arranged to make a visitor feel "as if you are being led through the collection with Van Gogh giving commentary on his own work."

Seeing the letters next to the paintings underlines Van Gogh's professionalism, which is sometimes overlooked amid his mental illness, his apparent amputation of his own left ear after a quarrel, and his suicide in 1890 at age 37.

In the letters, Van Gogh writes about both the philosophy of painting and the technical details.

"I'm working on those peasants around a dish of potatoes again," he said in a letter to his brother Theo on April 9, 1885, referring to one of his earliest masterpieces, "The Potato Eaters." The note also contains a sketch of the painting. Van Gogh said he felt there was "life" in the piece, which he started in the day and continued working on by lamplight on a large canvas.

"The beautiful effects of the light in nature require one to work very fast," he said, adding he didn't feel he could yet compare with 17th-century Dutch masters such as Rembrandt.

"At the point where I now am, though, I see a chance of giving a felt impression of what I see ... (but) never exactly - for one sees nature through one's own temperament."

The 820 letters span his start as a painter to his heyday in the 1880s.


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