The Writing of Great Artists: Delving into an Artist’s Mind

Vincent van Gogh, Noon: Rest from Work, 1890.

Wikimedia commons
Vincent van Gogh, Noon: Rest from Work, 1890.
What can we learn from their notes, letters, and formal publications?

What can we learn from their notes, letters, and formal publications?

Art Institute of Chicago. Joseph Winterbotham Collection. 1954.326.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887.

The gloomy circumstances Van Gogh described in his letters including his shocking poverty, exacerbated by his lack of food and the constant need for pigments and substrate to do his work. Through all of this, he never stopped painting.

 

Throughout human history, there are examples of artists who have also written about art.

Xenokrates of Sicyon, a Greek sculptor born around 280 BC, is considered one of the world’s first art historians. The painter Apelles wrote about technique in 332 BC. In sixth-century China, Xie He wrote Six Principles of Painting, in which the painter emphasized that ‘spirit’ or energy is of primary importance in painting. Tuscan painter and sculptor Giorgio Vasari published two editions of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550 and 1558. Though better known as a writer and historian today, Vasari’s artist background surely colored his descriptions of the life and work of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and many other Renaissance artists.

To read the writing of artists is to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of their work. It allows us to see their work on different levels, which can enrich and embolden one’s relationship with art. Perhaps the most famous artist who wrote prolifically was Vincent van Gogh. He wrote more letters than he produced paintings: approximately 2,000 letters and only 900 paintings. Today, his letters are read by many artists as an astute education to apply to their own work. Van Gogh wrote about color, composition, light and shadow, mediums, and the way he saw people and landscapes. These insights offer, for any reader, a primer on how to see more deeply and an understanding of the dedication and endurance that’s required to make important art.

Wikimedia Commons. Photo by user Szilas in 2013.

Letter written by Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in May 1890.

In the book Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait; Letters Revealing His Life as a Painter, selected by W.H. Auden, we have an in-depth look into Van Gogh’s process of painting, as well as his emotional and spiritual state of mind during the documented periods.

Color was of the utmost importance to Van Gogh, as is obvious in his paintings. In one letter to his brother Theo, the artist wrote, “Here the peasants’ figures are as a rule blue. That blue in the ripe corn or against the withered leaves of a beech hedge—so that the faded shades of darker and lighter blue are emphasized and made to speak by contrast with the golden tones of reddish-brown—is very beautiful…”

Van Gogh wrote about Delacroix, Millet, Corot, Breton, and many other artists of his time, expressing his support for the Romanticism of these painters. He wrote that they had, “imagination and sentiment,” and decryed the countering view of art critics at that time.

Again to Theo, he wrote, “I remember an expression of yours, ‘they were surprisingly gay.’ …If you become a painter, you will need to do this with this same surprising gaiety. You will need this to offset the gloomy circumstances.” The gloomy circumstances Van Gogh described in his letters includeding his shocking poverty, exacerbated by his lack of food and the constant need for pigments and substrate to do his work. Through all of this, he never stopped painting.

As far as we know, sculptor, painter, and architect Michelangelo created 182 complete works of art. His extant pages of notes, doodles, drawings, and even shopping lists give us a sense of his meticulous artistry. One list includes sketches of fish, bread, two fennel soups, a herring, anchovies, and small and large pitchers of wine. It is believed that these sketches were necessary as the boy who picked up his groceries was illiterate.

Michelangelo was also a poet. He wrote 300 sonnets. In one titled “On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel,” we learn how grueling it was for Michelangelo to spend four years painting the ceiling. And also, to our horror and dismay, what he thought about the work.

Published by Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.

Cover for a 2003 iteration of Sonnets of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo wrote 300 sonnets. In one titled “On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel,” we learn how grueling it was for Michelangelo to spend four years painting the ceiling.

 

The sonnet begins: “I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den –/as cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy, /or in what other land they hap to be –/which drives the belly close beneath the chin…” And it ends with the last stanza: “Come then, Giovanni, try/to succour my dead pictures and my fame;/since foul I fare and painting is my shame.”

Even though Picasso wrote copiously, an especially insightful and thorough view of his work lies in a book by Francoise Gilot, his lover for ten years and a keen artist herself. In 1964, eleven years after they had separated, she published Life with Picasso, with help from art critic Carlton Lake. Though Picasso tried to legally halt publication, he was unsuccessful. The book sold a million copies and was translated into many languages.

Letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 9 April,1885.
Wikimedia commons.

Letter from Vincent to Theo, written April 9, 1885. Features a sketch for the masterwork, The Potato Eaters.

Van Gogh drawing
The Met. Purchase, Fletcher Fund, William R. Drexler Sr. and Violet Drexler Bequest, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, and The Derald H. Ruttenberg Foundation, in honor of Nadine M. Orenstein and Charles and Jessie Price Gifts.

Vincent van Gogh, Burning Weeds, mid-July, 1883. Transfer lithograph with pen and ink. 7 1/4 × 11 9/16 in. (18.4 × 29.3 cm).

Michelangelo shopping list (left). One of Michelangelo's sonnets, this one features a caricature of the artist painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (right).
Wikimedia Commons. Casa Buonarroti, The Buonarroti Archive.

Michelangelo shopping list (left). One of Michelangelo's sonnets, this one features a caricature of the artist painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (right).

Men setting up Picasso paintings in the Stedelijk Museum, 1967; Jack de Nijs / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
© National Archives of the Netherlands. Photo by Nis, Jack. the / Anefo. via Wikimedia CommonsCollection. 920-1093.

Photo of an installation at Stedelijk Museum, 1967. Image features Picasso's Interior with a Girl Drawing (Paris, February 1935).

Archives of American Art-Philip Guston WPA mural
Photo by David Robbins. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Philip Guston sketching a mural for the WPA Federal Art Project at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Celia Paul
Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery.

Celia Paul, Painter and Model, 2012 (left). Celia Paul, My Mother with a Necklace, 1982 (right).

It is strange that Picasso had such an adverse reaction to the book, as Gilot does not focus so much on his temperamental character or betrayals, but more on his work. She is thorough in recounting how he worked, as she spent years by his side in the studio at his request. Over a period of one month, Gilot watched him paint her portrait, which came to be known as La Femme-Fleur. “When daylight began to fade from the canvas,” she wrote, “he switched on two spotlights and everything but the picture surface fell away in shadow.” She adds that he told her, “‘There must be darkness everywhere except on the canvas, so that the painter becomes hypnotized by his own work…as though he were in a trance. He must stay as close as possible to his own inner world if he wants to transcend the limitations his reason is always trying to impose on him.’”

Gilot also methodically recounts conversations between Picasso and Matisse, as the two artists often exchanged work. In one discussion, Matisse said, “It’s very difficult to understand and appreciate the generation that follows…as one goes through life, one creates not only a language for himself, but an aesthetic doctrine along with it…”

Published by University of California Press.

Cover for Conversations with Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations.

Picasso responded, “I don’t care if I’m in a good position to judge what comes after me. I’m against that sort of stuff. As far as these new painters are concerned, I think it’s a mistake to let oneself go completely and lose oneself in the gesture.”

Later, during the same discussion with Matisse, Picasso said, “I don’t try to express nature; rather, as the Chinese put it, to work like nature. And I want that internal surge—my creative dynamism—to propose itself to the viewer in the form of traditional painting violated.”

Published by NYRB Classics.

Cover for Life with Picasso.

Even though Picasso wrote copiously, an especially insightful and thorough view of his work lies in a book by Francoise Gilot, his lover for ten years and a keen artist herself.

 

Picasso said to Gilot after this visit, “It’s the way he uses color. In Matisse’s work, when you find three tones that are put close to one another—let’s say a green, a mauve, and a turquoise—their relationship evokes another color which one might call the color. This is the language of color.”

Another prolific artist-writer is Philip Guston. He has written extensively about his work, as well as delivered many lectures and interviews which are recorded in the documentary-esque book, Conversations with Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations.

Covering the years from 1944 to 1980, the book includes Guston’s observations about his work, the art world, other artists, and his views about making art. Self-taught, he was friends with many Abstract Expressionists during the blooming period for such art in New York City. He said his ‘real companions’ were Rilke, Kafka, Schopenhauer, and Baudelaire. Guston was well-read, smart, aware, opinionated, and always alert to the shifting tides of the art world. His influence is still far-reaching. Throughout his many years making art, Guston continually pushed his work beyond the boundaries of what was in fashion at the time. He wrote: “When I work, I am not concerned with making pictures, or with what the work will look like, but only with the process of creation.”

Published by NYRB Classics.

Cover for Self-Portrait.

The book includes several conversations with the art critic, Harold Rosenberg. This included one in which Guston said to him: “My quarrel with much modern painting is that it needs too much sympathy. The fascination of certain great paintings of the past is that they don’t care about the sympathy you have for them. All the art lovers in the world could march off a cliff and they would still be there.”

Guston’s admiration for Piero della Francesca’s paintings is also featured and insightful. About Francesca’s The Flagellation, Guston wrote, “Possibly it is not a ‘picture’ we see, but the presence of a necessary and generous law.” Guston calls Francesca “a messenger from all time come to the earth.”

The painter, Celia Paul, has recently given us two well-written and insightful books about her work, her process of painting, and the almost-severe dedication to her practice. In Self-Portrait, 2019, and Letters to Gwen John, 2022, Paul wrote about the difference, for her, between painting and writing. “By writing this… I am my own subject just as much as in my painting ‘Painter and Model’. By writing about myself, I have made my life my own story… I have chosen to use words, rather than paint, because words can communicate more directly. The hermetic language of painting necessarily keeps its secret: its power remains mysterious.”

Reading the words of artists allows us to delve deeper into their minds and the mystery of art. It would be a gift if we also had writings from the likes of Piera della Francesca, Johannes Vermeer, Francisco Goya, and many other artists.

Other recommended books by artists:

Elaine de Kooning, The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism Selected Writings, 1994, George Braziller, Inc.

David Hockney, The Way I See It, 1993, Chronicle Books.

Sally Mann, Hold Still, 2015, Little, Brown and Co.

Robert Motherwell, The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, 1999, U of CA Press

Rackstraw Down, In Relation to the Whole/Three Essays from Three Decades, 2000, Edgewise Press.

About the Author

Dian Parker

Dian Parker’s essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She ran White River Gallery in Vermont, curating twenty exhibits, and now writes about art and artists for various publications. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. To find out more, visit her website

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