And (I) had them today, and gained such joy and insight and strength from them.
Rainer Maria Rilke to Clara Rilke, on van Gogh reproductions
On October 1, 1907, Rilke met an acquaintance of his, Mathilde Vollmoeller, a German painter. She had just returned from Amsterdam with a portfolio of van Gogh reproductions, which she lent to Rilke for a few days.
In this letter, he describes the portfolio, and I did my best to include all the paintings he mentions. Some of them were easy to find. In other cases, many of van Gogh’s paintings would fit Rilke’s description, so I had to choose one or two to bring you as close as possible to re-living Rilke’s experience face-to-face with van Gogh’s reproductions.
I split this letter in two, to give you more time with the paintings.
OCTOBER 2, 1907 (PART 1)
I spent a good, quiet hour: under the protection and in the feeling of yesterday’s letter from you, drinking my last sip of tea, face-to-face with the van Gogh reproductions.
We hadn’t gone through the whole portfolio yesterday, and so I was permitted to take them home with me, and now I have them to myself for a few days. And had them today, and gained such joy and insight and strength from them.
These are plain, not especially sophisticated but very appealing, reproductions of forty works, twenty of them dating back to the time before van Gogh came to France. Paintings, drawings, and lithographs, especially paintings.
Blooming trees (as only Jacobsen could do them),
plains in which human figures are distributed and moved about far and wide; and it still goes farther back behind them into the sheet and gets all bright at its farthest reach, as if continuing beyond the limits of the page.
Rainer Maria Rilke to Clara Rilke
STORYLINE: COLORS and Words
How implicitly obvious it is for Rilke that there is fundamentally no difference between art forms, between language and color…
Van Gogh does blossoming trees as only Jacobsen could do them (Jens Peter Jacobsen was a Danish poet and novelist, whom Rilke called him his “tutelary spirit” (Back to text)). Be it paints or words, they are but materials for an artist to re-enact reality.
In a sense, what Rilke is gradually learning in these letters is to do landscapes as only Cézanne could do them.
SEEING PRACTICE: VAN GOGH’S indescribable reality
A click on any (or all) of reproductions will bring you to the high-resolution versions on Van Gogh Museum website. You can then zoom in on the blossoms to see just how exactly they are done out of paint (a luxury Rilke couldn’t even dream about).
The more I look at them, the more I appreciate just how alchemy-like painting really is.