I would like to point out, to begin with, that this review concerns the 2009 Dutch language edition, which appeared a few weeks earlier than the French and English ones. Van Gogh's letters have always drawn attention. Emile Bernard started publishing letters in France in 1893, Cassirer did the same in Germany 10 years later, first in a magazine, in 1906 also in book form. Three volumes of letters to his brother were published in book form in 1914 by Theo's widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger. But the edition from which later ones descend, was published in Holland between 1952 and 1954. It contained some 650 letters, all of them published in the original language in which they were written, 6 in English, about 300 in French, and the rest in Dutch. In 1990 in Holland there was published a 4-volume Dutch language cloth edition, normal book size, in sunflower yellow of the collected letters of Vincent Van Gogh. The edition counted 2254 pages and 908 letters, with French and English letters translated. As far as I know these volumes have never been published in English or any other language. The edition showed all the sketches mentioned in the text. But although heavily annotated, many things mentioned in the letters remained obscure, while the chronology was sometimes dubious.
Now, in the beginning October 2009, has appeared, in Dutch, French and English a new 6 volume edition which contains 902 letters, 819 by Van Gogh himself, of which 658 to Theo, plus 25 so called documents, which consist of letters that remained unfinished, incomplete or were never sent. It has been estimated that about 290 letters written by Van Gogh are missing, and that he must have received another 550 that have been lost as well; which means that there must have existed a grand total of about 1750 letters, sent as well as received by him. The new edition publishes 819 letters written by Van Gogh himself, and 39 left of the many ones written by his brother Theo - all except two dating from the last two years - and by other artists, like Gauguin (16), in total 83. The large format edition is extensively annotated, printed on great looking paper, and shows literally everything mentioned in the letters itself, every painting, every sketch, every scribble, (always in full color if available), and that on the same pages as the letters themselves, which saves a lot of leafing. It explains every name mentioned. I bought the books in Amsterdam and had to carry home 15 slipcased kilos. Volume six contains no letters, but extensive essays on the translations, on the genealogy of the family Van Gogh, a list of correspondents, a 12 page biography, a 10 page chronology, a list of technical terms, a bibliography, and (very useful) 25 maps of places where Van Gogh lived or stayed. Finally there is a 20 page list of all the works by Van Gogh mentioned in the letters, a separate 20 page list of all the sketches, and a 36 page register of works by other artists (painters, writers, etc), and finally registers of places, and persons. The layout looks wonderful, and was made by Wim Crouwel, who is an excellent Dutch designer.
Some minor gripes? Yes. Like I said, Van Gogh wrote 6 of his letters in English, and more than 300 in French (which he started doing the minute he arrived in Paris in February 1886), and I was sorry to see that the originals had not been included in the Dutch language edition. The only other quibble I had is the rather cheap looking carton (paperboard) exterior of the books. For the price I paid (325 euros, after January 395 euros) I would have preferred linen.
Complete and expensive as it is, this may not be everyone's cup of tea, especially since the complete edition will be available for free on internet. Yet, for people interested in Van Gogh this edition is of course a must-have. Weird as he is now and then, a zealot and a preacher if ever there was one, irritating in his strong opinions, always trying to convert, and convince others of his personal ideas, and one who must in modern eyes have had something of a tramp, covering enormous distances on foot, and not being very particular about his personal hygiene, always craving for attention and admiration, but also utterly modest and heartwarmingly sympathetic, called to painting late in life, never satisfied with what he is doing, always telling Theo that his paintings are not yet finished, he is also a great writer, who without practically any schooling wrote a very vivid Dutch, fluent French and good English. Naïve and confused as he sometimes is, he can also be quite shrewd. It is my belief that Van Gogh's letters will always remain a fascinating artists biography, which are on a par with his paintings. And although he may, in time to come, lose something of the reputation as a painter he is enjoying now, I am convinced that the letters will always remain a great document humain, just like those of Flaubert, or Casanova's Memoires, albeit of course in a very different way. A lot of money, certainly, but well spent.