Why Did the Van Gogh Brothers Write in French?

The Yellow House at Arles in letter 691, to Theo Van Gogh, September 1888. (Image courtesy of Christie’s and Wikimedia Commons.)

“The limits of my language signify the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne

Zundert. Borinage. Paris. Arles. Auvers-sur-Oise. These names boom through art history like reports from a distant cannon. When it was too dark to paint in them, Vincent Van Gogh read prodigiously and compiled a tremendous amount of personal correspondence. A few months before his death, he wrote to his sister that he had lost his facility in Dutch, and much of the famous correspondence to his brother Theo is in French. Many have thought about how his painting and mental disorder interrelate, but it’s also worthwhile to ask: How did his language and art interact? What about his language and mental state?

Vincent studied French in his teens and spent several years in Francophone regions of Belgium (Borinage and Brussels) before relocating to Paris, where he lived for two years before moving to Arles. Theo had been in Paris several years as well, so French wasn’t a novelty when their letters abruptly transitioned to that language. (When they were together they probably spoke Dutch, French, and a mixture of the two.)

Arles was where van Gogh took on French as his own language, and it was where his work exploded. He wrote Theo en français just after disembarking from the train; his brother replied in kind, and the seed was set. Vincent wrote more than 200 letters from Arles; the shortest was six pages. Many have embedded drawings, studies of works in progress — a continuation of the visual exploration of reality that dominated his daylight hours. The correspondence details Vincent’s creative process, the weather and wind, the wine and sunlight, his interactions with people around town — all things that were foreign, strange, and stimulating.

Recent studies in the neurolinguistics of multiple languages are remarkable when we apply them to van Gogh in Arles. In what has been called the “neural signature” of multilingualism, van Gogh would probably have had higher oxygen levels in certain parts of the brain and electrical activity in different lobes when using French. This translingual condition has been shown to influence higher cognitive functions like attention span, multitasking skills, and depth of concentration. These new ways of organizing his world in language had ties to what we see on his canvas: As writing and painting record philosophies, emotions, and the patterns through which we make sense of the world, in Arles we are seeing the French of van Gogh’s mind in colors and brushstrokes.

It’s clear Vincent could sense the extra stimulation and wanted to cultivate it. In the midst of a torrent of action on canvas, he wrote to his sister Willemien, “let me write to you in French, that will really make my letter easier.” Rather than change code, French allowed him to continue radical forms of thinking in an unabated sense, day (visually) and night (verbally).

Thinking in French may also have affected his mental state. “Patients appear less psychotic in a nonnative language,” says Vamsi K. Koneru, a specialist in acculturation and mental health. “Presumably the intellectual effort of expressing oneself in other languages assists with maintenance of a greater connection to reality.” In this sense, French could be calming for Vincent, “a coping mechanism to manage turbulent emotion and thought.” Koneru says that van Gogh’s linguistic transition “may be indicative that he found a greater ability to organize his thinking [in French] due to the necessity for higher cognitive engagement and focus” –  and that advanced cognitive engagement, precisely, fueled his art.

In a remarkably communicative letter, one of six he wrote in English, he called himself “a stranger” in his home country. In this context, engaging in French with his family was a transformative exercise. “As soon as I feel a bit of a Parisienne,” his sister-in-law Jo, Theo’s wife, replied in Dutch, “I’ll start writing in French.” Jo alludes to Vincent’s using French because he “felt” Parisienne — French, it seems, offered latitudes of meaning and feeling that Dutch could not.

In part through language, Vincent took on new ways of experiencing reality in Arles, and it was a holistic shift: He was creating himself anew — and even changed his name in the process. He wrote Theo unapologetically that “van Gogh” should no longer appear in relation to his work. Many notable figures changed their names at key moments in their careers — including Picasso, Conrad, and Napoleon — and while it may seem superficial, the self-nomenclature codified the profound transformation underway in his mind.

Ernest Hemingway believed taking on new cultural responsibilities (what he called “transplantation”) evoked new dimensions in literary creation: “With painters it goes even farther,” he wrote. “They often paint best something that is not their local place since with them language is not involved and it is the eye and not the ear that governs. Van Gogh came from the north to paint Provence” and he portrayed it “better even than Cezanne.” Subtly, though, language may indeed be involved. As Vincent wrote in English, the French air “clears up the brain and does one good – a world of good.”

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is an associate professor in the department of humanities at the University of Puerto Rico. His books include After American Studies (forthcoming), Hemingway’s Expatriate Nationalism, and Paris in American Literatures. His recent work has appeared in Modern Fiction Studies, Voces del Caribe, and The Minnesota Review.

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