Dutch Courage: The letters of Vincent Van Gogh show a man who craved intellectual companionship

"The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to avenge myself by doing brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent." So wrote Vincent Van Gogh from Arles to his sister Willemien in September 1888, describing the exhilarating joy of painting sunflowers, the night sky, and the cottages and fishing boats of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

He had just painted a self-portrait "in ashy tones against a pale Veronese background", a subject chosen, he told his brother Theo, "for want of a model". He looks ill and ageing, his red hair receding, his face sunken (he had lost many teeth, probably through poor diet), his cheekbones gaunt and jutting, and his expression grim. Yet the brilliance of the colour and the intensity of the brushwork are vibrant with triumphant life. This portrait is but one example of the paradox of his laborious and painful struggle to emerge from the darkness to the light: an epic pilgrimage, tracked and documented by letters, letter sketches and drawings, many on show at the Royal Academy in London.

The mantra of his early years was a quotation from 2 Corinthians 6:10 - "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" - which is scattered through the first two volumes of this extraordinarily interesting correspondence, recently published by Thames & Hudson. Most of it is directed to his younger brother Theo, with whom he had a mutually supportive relationship. A cursory browse may give the impression that Vincent was always asking for financial help, for rent and materials (as he was), but a closer reading reveals deep affection, shared values, and a strong desire to cheer and help Theo through illness, career difficulties and sexual disasters.

At times Vincent wrote almost daily, describing his life teaching and preaching in England, and later his work in various unaccommodating lodgings in the Netherlands. The darkness drove him to read and to write, as he could not draw or paint in the long evenings. He wrote about his admiration for George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Keats, Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Another of his favourite quotations was Christina Rossetti's "Does the road wind uphill".) He also devoured Balzac, Hugo and, as they appeared, the novels of Zola and Maupassant. (Gauguin was to tell him he read too much.)

His letters at this period were enriched with sketches of men digging and sowing (after his hero Millet), of women miners carrying sacks of coal, of pollarded willows, of old men ("old orphans") sitting worn out by the fireside, of women peeling potatoes. It is a dark world of hard rural labour, in dark tones, sanctified in his own eyes by a sense of religious humility. He was moved by the old, the gnarled, the destitute, even by the broken-down cab horse, to which he often likened himself. The poor, he believed, would inherit the earth.

Vincent's father was a minister who came to disapprove of his son's unworldly biblical evangelism, and even more strongly of his relationships with women - first, his unrequited love for a widowed cousin, and then his attachment to Sien, a pregnant former prostitute, with whom he lived at The Hague from 1882-83 and who worked as his model. Models were expensive, as he mentioned throughout his career, but he preferred to work from them than from the imagination. (This was to become a subject of aesthetic debate with Gauguin and Émile Bernard.) His relationship with the only models that he could afford must have affected his artistic vision, and he writes about it with compassion, occasional irritation, and some distress. But when his strikingly powerful portrait L'Arlésienne (1888) was admired, he said: "praise the model, not the painter".

Sien was one of the few who posed naked for him, most memorably as "Sorrow", 1882: on the whole he preferred to paint people with their well-worn work clothes on, because, as he said, "that's how we usually see them". He looked after Sien (with Theo's support, and eventually his father's tacit acceptance) and her two children, and his heavily illustrated letters describing efforts to make his studio functional, homely and habitable are touching. So is his affection for Sien's baby: he sent a sketch showing the infant crawling across the studio floor (Adventurer sallying forth, 1883) to his painter friend Anthon van Rappard.

But life in The Hague was no domestic idyll. Van Gogh suffered from ill-health and acute intellectual loneliness, although he rarely indulged himself by complaining. His sense of unremitting purpose, his desire to learn, to teach himself to draw and paint better, were harsh masters, and as his relationship with Sien's mother deteriorated he found himself driven further into the darkness and wilderness. He went first to the bleak countryside of Drenthe, where he worked alone in all weathers, before returning to his parents' house at the end of 1884. His descriptions of his heroic efforts to come to terms with the darkness of his hereditary subject matter - gloomy, impoverished, sparse, Dutch - are heart-breaking. He strove to see the beauty of the peat, the gold in the black night, the dark-green soap and copper tints, the rich dark light of the cottage evening where the potato eaters sat, eating what they had sown and grubbed with their own hands, earth into earth. The Potato Eaters (1885) is the culmination of this sacrificial apprenticeship. It was an end and a beginning. Van Rappard disliked the painting, and said so in words that caused great offence. Van Gogh did not submit, but he did move on, by way of Antwerp and Paris, to the south, propelled by a stubborn, Panglossian faith. He was very fond of quoting Dr Pangloss.

The Van Gogh we know is the artist who emerged from this long trial into the glorious light of Arles, in 1888, where the letters of volume four begin. Here, despite the annoying mistral, all was almost for the best, in the best of all possible worlds. He had moved from coal to sun, from the willow to the cypress. Here were the new subjects that had been awaiting him: sunflowers, almond blossom, gardens, wheat fields, rivers, the blue Mediterranean, suns and stars; and a home of his own, in the Yellow House, with the bed and chairs and tables that have become so familiar to us. His neighbours, too - the Zouave, the Socratic postman, the postman's baby - have become our friends.

The correspondence charts Van Gogh's dream of a community of artists and his hope of intellectual companionship in this "halfway house" between northern Europe and Africa. There is nothing remotely crazy about these hopes. He had a strong sense of continuity, of the descent of true art from generation to generation, and far from wishing to break with the dead, he wished to continue in their footsteps: Rembrandt, Millet, Delacroix and Monticelli had gone before, and he and his comrades would carry on their work. It looked, for a while, as though this dream might come to be. Gauguin at last arrived from Brittany, and both men for a while painted at Arles at the height of their powers, Moreover, it turned out that Gauguin knew how to cook, so they could save money by eating at home.

But this idyll imploded with Van Gogh's first breakdown, provoked by we know not what joyful or terrible intensity of vision or experience. Gauguin departed, and Van Gogh moved to the asylum at Saint Paul-de-Mausole, where he humbly saw the best in his fellow inmates and continued to paint: irises, cypresses, olive groves, sunrises. The astonishing work of this period is the fulfilment of a life's courageous persistence. And we can see that some of his late works had been years in gestation.

Two subjects had long haunted him. One is the sower, inherited from Millet, who reappears in many guises and formats: an emblematic
figure of stooping labour and faith, sometimes against a darkening sky, sometimes in full sunlight. The other is the starry sky itself, a subject "always on my mind". He saw the stars as planets like ours, which we might reach in death. "Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star." There, he fancied, the great painters of the past might work on. He wrote to Theo: "The sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream." And so he lives on, in his starry habitation, still at work in our imaginations.

Margaret Drabble's memoir "The Pattern in the Carpet" is published by Atlantic Books (£18.99)
“The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and his Letters" opens at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, on 23 January
“Vincent Van Gogh: the Letters" is published in six volumes by Thames & Hudson (£395)

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power