Brain Pickings

The Secret Museum: Van Gogh’s Never-Before-Seen Sketchbooks

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A bittersweet record of artistic genius and unlived dreams.

Given my soft spot for the sketchbooks of famous artists and private notebooks of great creators, I was delighted to discover that, unbeknownst to most, Vincent van Gogh kept one. In an 1882 letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “My sketchbook shows that I try to catch things ‘in the act.’” This private record of the artist’s genius, however, has remained obscured from public view. Thankfully, Molly Oldfield brings this hidden gem to light in The Secret Museum (public library) — the same magnificent tome that gave us the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was born — which culls sixty never-before-seen “treasures too precious to display” from the archives and secret storage locations of some of the world’s top cultural institutions.

At Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, Oldfield finds the artist’s seven surviving sketchbooks, only four with their original cover, meticulously stored in the prints and drawings archive. The early sketchbooks bespeak Van Gogh’s religious upbringing and how he transformed that spiritual intensity into a creative practice. Oldfield writes:

Van Gogh had been all set for a deeply religious life but, aged 26, he transferred his religious zeal to art. He decided to become an artist instead, as he felt he wanted to leave “a certain souvenir” to humankind “in the form of drawings or paintings, not made to comply with this or that school but to express genuine human feeling.”

He moved to a rural town called Nuenen to live with his parents and begin learning his craft.

The first sketchbook

Leafing through countless pages of his sketchbooks, Oldfield reflects on this record of the artist’s creative journey and the bittersweet memento the sketchbook provides:

The first sketchbook has a royal blue, marbled inside cover and an empty pocket at the back. The first image he sketched in it was a church in Nuenen. He later painted this church in View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen.

‘View of the Sea at Scheveningen’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1882

Curiously, the two paintings once hung in the Amsterdam museum but were stolen in 2002. It remains unknown where they are or who took them, and the pencil sketch from Van Gogh’s notebook endures as the only trace of the missing masterpieces.

‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

The remaining pages of the first notebook are filled with drawings of people and places, capturing rural life in Nuenen. The second sketchbook, with a black cover, continues with glimpses of Nuenen, then turns to Antwerp, where Van Gogh moved in November of 1885. It was there he developed his passion for Japanese woodblock prints. Soon, however, the artist — who had been sustaining himself primarily on bread, coffee and absinthe — fell ill and moved to Paris to live with his brother, beginning his third sketchbook — a rectangular giant compared to his previous pocket-sized books lined in linen — which he filled with drawings of Parisian people and museum sculptures, as well as the female nudes who posed for him. Oldfield marvels:

In one pencil sketch, I recognized the windmill at Montmartre — a rural village at the time — which appears in lots of his paintings. Also in this book are sketches of flowers, Theo van Gogh’s laundry list and a letter from Vincent to Theo written in chalk. There is only one stray sheet, which the artist tore out in order to write a note to his brother announcing his arrival in the city.

Still enchanted by the countryside, however, Van Gogh left Paris in 1888 and settled in Arles in the south of France. There, she met a thirteen-year-old girl named Jeanne Calment, who sold the artist colored pencils at her uncle’s shop. She described Van Gogh as “dirty, badly dressed, and disagreeable.” (Curiously, Jeanne outlived the artist by more than a century and died in 1997 at the age of 122.) Disagreeable as he might have been, however, Van Gogh felt lonely and aspired to create an artist colony in Arles. Eventually, Paul Gauguin joined him and the two artists lived together in the famed Yellow House, with a painting of sunflowers gracing Gauguin’s room.

Van Gogh's sunflower sketches from the final sketchbook

It was only in the final sketchbook — an elegant one with a linen jacket and a tie to keep it closed — that Van Gogh sketched the first versions of his iconic series Sunflowers. Oldfield laments:

Having never sold a painting in his life, at that moment, Van Gogh would never have conceived of a time when his sunflowers would be instantly recognized across the planet.

Van Gogh’s artistic dream, however, soon became a nightmare. Residents of Arles petitioned that he be evicted from the Yellow House on account of his madness and he soon moved into an asylum, where he continued to paint. In May of 1890, he left the clinic and move to the Auvers-sur-Oise commune in northwestern France to be close to his physician and his brother. Two months later, he shot himself, believing he was a failure and leaving behind his final sketchbook as the forlorn ghost of his unlived dream. Oldfield ponders:

There are two sketches of sunflowers in the final book. One shows 16 sunflowers in a vase; the other 12 stems in a vase. The drawings match up with two paintings that belong to the Van Gogh Museum; they have the same number of flowers in the vases. Perhaps he was sketching and remembering happier times.

[…]

I wonder, if he had known what would become of his paintings, would he have shot himself? And, if he had not, what other paintings might he have produced?

The Secret Museum absolutely fascinating in its entirety, featuring such rare cultural treasures as a piece of Newton’s apple tree painstakingly preserved at London’s Royal Society, an original Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum at New York’s Morgan Library, and Nabokov’s cabinet of butterfly genitalia held at Harvard.

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