The canvas has an idiotic stare

It’s Vincent van Gogh’s birthday. Or rather, it would have been, had he not died long ago. But you get the idea. The letter below can be found in Letters of Note: Art, a gorgeous little book which I love with all my heart, and beneath it can be found a brief but magnificent excerpt which can’t be found in the book, but which I love just as much. Don’t miss it. The Letters of Note newsletter is free to read, but you can support it by becoming a paying subscriber, for which you will receive additional ‘members-only’ emails. Or you could donate. Thanks!

It wasn’t until his 30s that Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh found his calling as an artist. Born in Zundert on 30th March 1853, his early years saw him flit from job to job, his only real focus being a deepening dedication to religion, and in 1879 he took a missionary post in Belgium whilst living in squalor. His family, who had supported him for years, were losing patience; at one point his father tried to have him committed to an asylum. In 1881, with financial backing from his younger brother, Theo, Vincent began to paint, and for the remainder of his life spent much of his time creating the work for which he is now known. In 1884, aged 31, he wrote this letter to his brother.

My dear Theo,

Thanks for your letter, thanks for the enclosure. Now listen here.


I tell you, if one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes. To be good — many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm — and that’s a lie, and you said yourself in the past that it was a lie. That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t’.

Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing, any more than on a blank canvas.

But however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that, in short, breaks, ‘violates’ — they say.

Let them talk, those cold theologians.

Yours truly,



I already told you last spring. Eat well, do your military drill well, don’t fuck too hard; if you don’t fuck too hard, your painting will be all the spunkier for it.

Vincent van Gogh | Letter to Émile Bernard, 5 Aug 1888