Diving into the van Gogh letters

Vincent van Gogh's letters have been playing on my mind since I finished his biography a few days ago. Steven Naifeh used a close reading to paint a rich portrait, the ups and many downs. But what else can we see?

It's staggering how many have survived. Almost 1000 van Gogh-adjacent letters have been translated and put on a website attached to the Van Gogh Museum. 659 of these are letters from Vincent to Theo. 83 are to Vincent. The rest are a mixture of senders and recipients.

Obviously many letters have been lost, but right there you get a good sense of the relationship. Theo apparently saved hundreds of letters from Vincent. And this was before van Gogh was van Gogh.

Charting the letters across time gives you another clue as to the relationship. Vincent van Gogh only really focused on becoming an artist in the early 1880s, which is roughly when the letters to Theo really takeoff. This is also when Theo began to financially support him.

The sudden dropoff in 1886 and 87 is easily explained - those are two years when Vincent lived with Theo in Paris. There wouldn't have been many letters exchanged (just 19 survive).

You can see a similar trend in the length of the letters. The length picks up as Vincent repeatedly meets failure in his worklife and turns to Theo for support. There's another jump around the time Vincent takes up art in the early 1880s.

The average length is truly amazing when you consider the number of letters being exchanged. It reminded me how often Naifeh describes Vincent as copying out poems and bible verses when in a particular pique and needing to convince.

His exhortations eventually broadened to include love and belonging, melancholy and longing—subjects that clearly haunted him in his deepening alienation. So intense was his passion to persuade that letters alone could not contain it. By early 1875, he had bought an album for Theo and began filling its blank pages with long transcriptions from the works by these and other writers, all in a tiny, neat, error-free script. When he had filled every page of the first album, he bought another one and filled it, too, copying by gaslight late into the night.

But what about the content of the letters? They almost all begin with some version of "my dear Theo" and often end with a "your loving brother". But I'm not sure if that quite captures the relationship.

I ran a simple sentiment analysis algorithm on all the letters to Theo. It analyses the words and outputs "positivity" on a scale from 1 to -1. 1 being positive and -1 being mostly negative.

As you can see, apart from a couple of outliers Vincent's letters are mostly in the middle. Neither overly positive or negative. But also not what I would expect from letters to a close family member.

There's an obvious flaw here in that the letters would have originally been in either French or Dutch, so I'm working with a translation. But this roughly fits with the vibe of Naifeh's biography.

I think that might be all we'll wring out of the letters for now. I was thinking about looking into the distribution of words - find out the major topics. But I suspect there will be a lot of noise. Maybe let the art do the talking.