There’s Nothing More Genuinely Artistic Than to Love People

Vincent van Gogh? Apocryphal?

siesta07Dear Quote Investigator: Vincent van Gogh was the boldest and most innovative painter of the 19th-century in my opinion. Here are two versions of a poignant statement that has been attributed to him:

There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
There’s nothing more genuinely artistic than to love people.

Would you please explore the provenance of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: This saying appeared in a letter dated September 18, 1888 written by Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in which the artist expressed heartfelt thanks to his sibling for kind financial support.

A splendid database of letters and translations is accessible through the website of the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam. The database even provides facsimiles of the original letters. The following excerpt in French appeared in the 1888 letter by Vincent. The translation into English was composed by the Van Gogh Letters Project. Boldface has been added: 1

Tu es bon pour les peintres et saches le bien que plus j’y réfléchis plus je sens qu’il n’y a rien de plus réellement artistique que d’aimer les gens.

You’re kind to painters, and be sure that the more I think about it the more I feel that there’s nothing more genuinely artistic than to love people.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1937 the author Irving Stone published “Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh”. Stone used passages from the letters of Vincent van Gogh together with his own words to depict the life of the famous painter. The following excerpt presented a slightly different translation of the key sentence: 2

You are kind to painters, and I tell you the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.

In 1961 a subset of the corpus of letters was selected by the poet W. H. Auden and published in English under the title “Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait: Letters Revealing His Life as a Painter”. The following translation of the key sentence was a bit different. Yet, the boldface segment was identical to the version above: 3

You are kind to painters, and I tell you, the more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.

In conclusion, the quotation in English is a reasonable translation of a statement written in French by Vincent van Gogh in 1888.

Image Notes: The Siesta (after Millet) by Vincent van Gogh circa 1890. French title La Méridienne dit aussi La Sieste (d’après Millet). Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Straw Hat 1887.

(Special thanks to Zero Dean and Carolynn whose inquiries and comments led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Great thanks to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for making available a wonderful research resource.)

Notes:

  1. Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 682, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Location: Arles, Letter to: Theo van Gogh, Date: September 18, 1888, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed vangoghletters.org on May 1, 2014) link
  2. 1950 (1937 Copyright), Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, Edited by Irving Stone, Section: Book IV: March 1886 to July 1890, Quote Page 401, Published by Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1961, Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait: Letters Revealing His Life as a Painter, Selected by W. H. Auden, (Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo dated September 18, 1888), Start Page 328, Quote Page 329, Published by New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, Connecticut. (Verified with scans)