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After more than 1,500 pages of Vincent van Gogh's letters, most of them addressed to his younger brother, Theo, a reader is exhausted by the struggles, arguments, and ultimate suicide of the creator of some of the most coveted paintings on earth, and yet elated by the triumph of art and family devotion over constant sorrow.
However depressing the life of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), his struggle is continually redeemed by lucid, analytical observations on art and artists as disparate as his black-sheep friend Gauguin, Manet, Degas, Japanese prints, and even the American illustrator Howard Pyle. He retains a touching certainty that his early hero, Millet, whose pictures of peasants so moved him, will prove to be the precursor of all that is progressive in art.
This three-volume, boxed set is a replica of the one originally published in 1958 by the New York Graphic Society, a translation from the Dutch of letters painstakingly ordered and preserved by Theo's young widow, Jo, in the early part of the 20th century. It would have benefited from annotations reflecting recent van Gogh scholarship and theory, but nonetheless it remains a remarkable collection of documents, including Jo's well-known memoir and family history. The early drawings are shockingly clunky, without a hint of grace or confidence. This awkwardness never disappears entirely, but evolves into an aura of hard-won authenticity, as if van Gogh were continually grappling with some fundamental, but ineffable, truth.
The symptoms of madness, "an illness much like any other," alienated Vincent from everyone around him. Even his aging parents, he wrote, "feel the same dread of taking me in ... as they would about taking in a big rough dog."
"How much sadness there is in life," he wrote to Theo. But he found the antidote: "The right thing is to work." Work he did, with astonishing single- mindedness. He mercilessly demanded supplies and continual financial aid from his brother, and although we think of their relationship as a perfect union, Vincent wrote with occasional anger, impatience, or even cruelty, once coldly assessing Theo's personality: "The bright side of your character is your reliability in money matters."
There is a tremendous dramatic tension in the third volume of letters, as we see the artist leap ahead in skill and insight, knowing all the while that this is a life that does not go all the way. This collection requires, and rewards, a devoted reader.