Ask Vincent

Vincent van Gogh was a prolific letter writer, and amid his musings on family relations, art and artists, and women, he dispensed solicited—and unsolicited—advice. In celebration of the exhibition Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, we offer some words to the wise, penned by the artist himself.

Dear Vincent:

I am embarking on a most exciting adventure–an attempt to climb Mount Everest. I have heard the siren call of the tallest mountain on Earth and feel I must heed it.

However, the journey is not without its dangers and many have perished in their quest to summit. I have a job and commitments and people who count on me. Am I being irresponsible?

Seeking Adventure

Dear Seeking Adventure:

Fishermen know that the sea is perilous and the storm fearful, but have never thought the perils reason enough for deciding to take a stroll along the beach instead. They leave that sort of prudence to those who relish it. The storm may come and the night may fall, but which is worse, the danger or the fear of danger? I would sooner have the reality, the danger itself. (1882)

Dear Vincent:

I recently graduated from college and am living on my own in the city for the first time. I have become great friends with my new roommates, but find I am regularly succumbing to their peer pressure. I work two jobs, but have a hard time turning them down when they ask me to meet them out for drinks that turn into dinner that turn into me stumbling home at 2:00a.m. I’m exhausted, but I love experiencing all the city has to offer and have a hard time saying “no” to my friends. Help!

Burning the candle at both ends

Dear Burning the Candle at Both Ends:

If one wears oneself out during these years then one won’t live beyond 40. If one conserves enough strength to withstand the sort of shocks that tend to befall one, and manages to deal with various more or less complicated physical problems, then by the age of 40 to 50 one is back on a new, relatively normal course. (August 4, 1883)

Dear Vincent:

I wrote to you previously with a broken heart. And while I’m still working through some issues, I took your advice and decided to get back out in the field. I joined Tinder and had a very promising first date last night! Will keep you posted on what happens. . .

Not Quite as Devastated

Dear Not Quite as Devastated:

It’s gratifying, isn’t it, when there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. (March 3, 1882)

Dear Vincent:

I have recently been reading Marie Kondo’s book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I agree with her about many things, but one thing that I can’t make sense of is her advice to give away books. My library means everything to me! Do you think one should get rid of one’s books or keep them instead?


Dear Cluttered:

I advised you to dispose of your books, and advise it still. Be sure to do it, it will give you peace of mind. But at the same time be careful not to become narrow-minded, or afraid of reading what is well written, quite the contrary, such writings are a source of comfort in life. (October 14, 1875)

Dear Vincent:

I just found out that my wife is cheating on me. I am torn between trying to salvage my marriage or cutting her loose and giving her the freedom she so obviously desires. Which would be the right choice?


Dear Adulterated:

If I were married to a woman and I realized that that woman was carrying on with another, I wouldn’t stand for any nonsense, but even then I wouldn’t forsake her before I had tried everything possible to bring her back. So you see what I think of marriage and that I take it seriously. (May 14, 1882) When you wake up in the morning and find you are not alone but can see a fellow creature there in the half-light, it makes the world look so much more welcoming. (December 21, 1881)

Dear Vincent:

Well, it’s that time of year again, and now that 2016 is about to be upon us, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for New Year’s Resolutions. I would love to read them!


Dear Resolute:

  1. If we want to live and work we must be very careful and look after ourselves. Cold water, fresh air, simple good food, decent clothing, a good night’s sleep, and no worries. (May 1888)
  2. No womanizing or living the good life whenever you feel the urge. (May 1888)
  3. Learn how to dance, or fall in love with one or more notary’s clerks, officers, in short, any within your reach—rather, much rather commit any number of follies than study in Holland. (ca. September 1887)
  4. Take as much spring air as possible, go to bed very early, because you must have sleep, and as for food, plenty of fresh vegetables, and no bad wine or bad alcohol. And very few women, and lots of patience. (May 20, 1888)
  5. You do very well to be reading the Bible. (June 23, 1888)
  6. You must try to acquire an iron constitution, a constitution that will allow you to grow old, you ought to live like a monk who goes to the brothel every two weeks—that’s what I do myself, it isn’t very poetic, but I feel it’s my duty to subordinate my life to painting. (June 23, 1888)
  7. Take baths. (July 25, 1888)
  8. Now, for those of us who work with our brains, our one and only hope of not running out of steam too soon is to prolong our lives artificially by observing an up-to-date health regime as rigorously as we can. I, for one, do not do all I ought to. (July 25, 1888)
  9. As for drinking too much . . . I have no idea if it’s a bad thing. Take Bismarck, who, think what you like, is very practical and very intelligent—his good doctor told him that he drank too much and that he’d been putting a severe strain on his stomach and his brain all his life. B. stopped drinking at once. He has gone downhill ever since and is still getting no better. He must be laughing up his sleeve at his doctor, whom, luckily for him, he did not consult sooner. (July 25, 1888)
  10. In the end, we shall have had enough of cynicism, skepticism, and humbug, and will want to live—more musically. (September 24, 1888)

Dear Vincent:

I've been reluctant to draw or paint ever since I was a little girl. On the one hand, my sister is highly gifted and any drawing I would make looked childish and lousy compared to hers. I must admit this could be truly discouraging, so I gave up the whole idea of becoming an amateur painter.

Time went by and I haven't even dared take up a pencil, let alone a brush. To make matters worse, I'm often in touch with great works of art, which I find amazing but also intimidating.

Vincent, I must confess something to you, though: as of late, I've had the compelling need to express my feelings through art. What would you suggest doing? Do you think it worthwhile to start taking art lessons at 54?


Dear Clumsy:

It’s not a bad idea for you to become an artist, for when one has fire within and a soul, one cannot keep bottling them up—better to burn than to burst, what is in will out. For me, for instance, it’s a relief to do a painting, and without that I should be unhappier than I am. (ca. September 1887)

The symbol of St. Luke, the patron saint of painters, is, as you know, an ox. So you just be patient as an ox if you want to work in the artistic field. (June 18, 1888)

Dear Vincent:

I am suffering greatly from a broken heart. I was unceremoniously dumped and then my ex took up with one of our mutual friends. It seems like she never even really loved me.

At this point, I feel like it might be easier to resign myself to an ascetic life. If I never open myself up to love, then I never have to deal with the inevitable hurt that comes with it, right?


Dear Devastated:

Love is the best and the noblest thing in the human heart, especially when it is tested by life as gold is tested by fire. Happy is he who has loved much, and is sure of himself, and although he may have wavered and doubted, he has kept that divine spark alive and returned to what was in the beginning and ever shall be. (April 3, 1878)

Dear Vincent,

My book club is looking for recommendations. Do you have any suggestions?


Dear Bookworm:

Be sure to get hold of the works of George Eliot somehow, you won’t be sorry if you do, Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Felix Holt, Romola (the life of Savonarola), Scenes from Clerical Life. (March 3, 1878)


Lead support has been provided by the Estate of Jacquet McConville.

Major support has been generously provided by Caryn and King Harris, The Harris Family Foundation; the Gilchrist Foundation; The Morris and Dolores Kohl Kaplan Fund; and Evonne and John Yonover.

Additional funding has been contributed by Constance and David Coolidge, the Mason Foundation, Charlene and Mark Novak, and the Comer Family Foundation.

Annual support for Art Institute exhibitions is provided by the Exhibitions Trust: Kenneth Griffin, Robert M. and Diane v.S. Levy, Thomas and Margot Pritzker, Betsy Bergman Rosenfield and Andrew M. Rosenfield, the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation, and the Woman’s Board.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

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