Jansen, Leo, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, ed. Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters. http://vangoghletters.org/ 2009.


The web-based edition of Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters, first published in 2009, represents the labour of more than fifteen years in the service of a new edition of the painter’s correspondence. The plan to produce this edition of the Van Gogh letters was conceived in 1990, at the time of the centenary of the artist’s death. Initially imagined as a print publication, work began on the edition some four years later, through a collaborative effort between the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Huygens Institute in The Hague. It continued for a decade to the point at which the planning committee decided to publish the edition digitally. The letters are also available in a handsome illustrated six-volume edition whose content derives directly from the web edition, and is published in separate English, Dutch, and French editions. The online edition exploits the capabilities of the medium to present the texts of the letters in each of the three languages, though the language that is encountered throughout a general navigation of the site is English.


The scope of the web edition embodies a vision to comprehensively improve upon previous editions of Van Gogh’s letters: it contains all 902 surviving letters to and from Van Gogh, including letters found since the last major edition of letters, edited by Vincent Willem van Gogh (the artist’s nephew) and published in four volumes between 1952 and 1954. It also restores omitted material and corrects editorial errors from earlier editions, and exploits the fruits of an additional half-century of Van Gogh scholarship for its richly detailed annotations and contextual essays.


The edition demonstrates its evolution from previous collections of Van Gogh’s letters insofar as it includes not only all of the artist’s surviving letters, but also places the correspondence in its historical and artistic context. The scholarly commentary and annotations are impressively detailed and thorough, and the variety of options for viewing the letters in a parallel display identify the edition as determinedly scholarly in its focus. The general reader will not be alienated, however, as the basic display of the letters has an appealing simplicity and clarity, and the availability of images of the artworks that are mentioned in the letters is a feature which greatly assists the casual reader in understanding and appreciating the full import of the correspondence. However, the range and depth of additional features in the edition are clearly and unashamedly designed with the specialist in mind.


As far as textual matters related to the letters go, the edition aims to establish the text that was intended by the author, while hoping to retain some of the directness of the original documents; a directness which, coupled with the haste and emotion with which some of the letters were composed, often resulted in errors and departures from standard language use. There is a detailed section of the site that explains the principles and practices underpinning the transcription of the original documents and the editorial methodology that has produced the texts for the edition. This section is scrupulously detailed and editorially responsible, and has the added benefit (as the best textual essays do) of offering some fascinating insights into the writing style and compositional practices of the author.


Certain editorial acts signify the intent and reach of the edition: for instance, emendations are made in the reading text, but variants are not recorded in a systematic fashion: where they are of some importance, they are included in annotations. Consequently, this apparatus of the edition is unconcerned with presenting a variorum of the texts of Van Gogh’s letters and their various states of publication in the last century; nonetheless, this scholarship is not neglected, as a comprehensive essay on the publication history of the letters addresses such issues while positioning the current edition and its significance clearly within the chain. Consistent with the desire for immediacy, the level of emendation in the texts is not excessively intrusive: for example, the most frequent intervention in punctuation is the addition of missing commas and full stops (Van Gogh often neglected to include elementary punctuation), while manifest errors in spelling and grammar are corrected only where they might result in misunderstanding.


Two separate sections detail the methods employed in translation and annotation. The renderings of the texts in English, Dutch, and French are entirely new, being based on the new transcriptions; the annotations, which are composed for an »educated readership« are clear and concise, and primarily aimed at bridging the historical distance between the current reader and the correspondents in the letters.


The annotations to the letters aside, the edition’s objective of closing the gap between Van Gogh’s day and ours is evident in another set of essays that addresses the biographical and historical context of the correspondence, the identities of the correspondents, and the specifically epistolary nature of the edition: from the content and style of Van Gogh’s writings to examinations of the paper and ink user and the neatness of the author’s handwriting. All in all, the lengthy period of preparation of the edition is clearly evident in the scrupulous scholarly detail and quality of these essays, ably supplemented by the very useful cross-referencing to the letters and painting, and various other parts of the site, such as a concordance, bibliography, maps, and other reference resources. Some of the essays are quite long, and despite being divided into sections, might be more comfortably read in the printed edition; what the web edition loses in this regard is compensated for by the wealth and immediacy of the hyperlinking within these essays.


The editorial documentation and contextual essays can also be found in the printed edition of the Van Gogh letters, as indeed can the annotations to the individual letters. The benefit derived from reading the letters in the web editions lies not only in the speed and convenience of cross-referencing provided by embedded hyperlinks, but also in the parallel-display interface of the letters. Here, any two of a number of versions of the text of the letter may be displayed side-by-side: such versions include the letter in its original language; a translation of the letter; a facsimile of the original document; or a diplomatic text, which preserves the lineation of the original. There is a further option to open all annotations and artworks associated with a letter in the parallel display, rather than accessing them through the default setting of clicking on a marker within the text of the letter. The variety of display settings that are available is a great strength of the web edition, offering the user the opportunity to give prominence to their particular interests; in addition, the site provides the user with an option to print out the parallel-text display.


The site includes a relatively brief section of technical documentation which explains, in language that is relatively jargon-free and comprehensible to the non-specialist, the data components of the web edition. A single TEI-compliant XML document is devoted to each of the Van Gogh letters, its translation, annotations, and metadata, and a dedicated schema was created to validate such documents. A further section of the technical documentation briefly describes the architecture of the site, and details the software used in the creation of its various constituent parts. The technical documentation achieves a satisfactory degree of clarity and transparency, though some may object to its relative brevity: it is an inescapable fact that the web edition of the Van Gogh Letters will be of interest to the Digital Humanities community, in addition to Cultural, Literary, and Art Historians. Scholars with a digital inclination may be disappointed about the absence of more detailed technical documentation and the unavailability of source XML files for download.


To be sure, these are comparatively minor quibbles about what is a well-designed, easily-navigable, and visually pleasing resource. Scholars with an interest in the work of Van Gogh and his contemporaries are heavily indebted to the editors of this very fine edition.