Van Gogh's letters

Who wrote this letter?
And to whom?
This is the earliest surviving letter from Vincent van Gogh.
He wrote the letter to Theo, his younger brother.
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Slide 1: Tekstslide
Art and designEnglish+3Lower Secondary (Key Stage 3)Upper Secondary (Key Stage 4)

In deze les zitten 17 slides, met interactieve quiz en tekstslides.

time-iconLesduur is: 15 min


After a brief introduction to the correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo, the students write letters about their own art works.


General learning objectives
- The students will be introduced to Vincent van Gogh's letters.
- The students will write letters describing their own drawings or paintings.

Materials required
- For each student: an art work made by the student (or a photo of one)
- Writing paper
- Pens
The writing assignment can also be done on a computer.
At the end of the lesson, tell the students where they can find the assignment, or hand out print-outs of the assignment.

Optional variations
1. The assignment can also be done during class. Keep in mind that at least 50 minutes of class time is required.
2. You can make the writing paper look old by dyeing it in coffee or strong tea. If you have the students write rough drafts of their letters first, then they can write the final drafts on the 'antique' paper with dip pens and India ink.
3. Hang up all the drawings and paintings described. Read a few of the descriptions anonymously. Can the students figure out which art work matches each description?

Background information
Vincent van Gogh was a prolific letter writer. In an era without telephones or the Internet, writing was the only way to communicate with faraway friends and relatives. Much of our knowledge about Van Gogh and his work comes from the letters he wrote and received. His younger brother Theo played an important role in preserving those letters: from 1872 onwards he saved all the letters that Vincent sent him, more than 800 over a period of eighteen years.

Onderdelen in deze les

Who wrote this letter?
And to whom?
This is the earliest surviving letter from Vincent van Gogh.
He wrote the letter to Theo, his younger brother.

Slide 1 - Tekstslide

Start the lesson with the questions under the question mark icon. The answers are under the icons in the lower right corner.

Vincent van Gogh sent this letter in September 1872. It is the earliest surviving letter that he wrote: letter 001.

How many letters from Vincent have been preserved?

Slide 2 - Quizvraag

Play the quiz with the group. Then tell the students that these 820 letters are not the only ones Vincent wrote. There must have been many more. More than 650 of the surviving letters are to Theo. It's thanks to all those letters that we know so much about Vincent.

Slide 3 - Tekstslide

Vincent lived in an age before telephones and computers. After he and his brother Theo grew up and left their parents' home, the only way they could communicate was by letter.

(In these photographs Vincent is younger than Theo: 19 years old. This is the last known portrait photo of Vincent.)

Slide 4 - Tekstslide

In his letters to Vincent, Theo wrote about working as an art dealer in Paris. He often sent money, so that Vincent could spend his time drawing and painting and had no need for any other job. This is a French 100-franc note.

Slide 5 - Tekstslide

In his letters to Theo, Vincent's topics included his health and the paintings he was working on. He often included sketches of the paintings.

Question: Does anyone recognise the painting he sketched in this letter?

> The Potato Eaters, 1885

Letter 492

'… I'm working on those peasants around a dish of potatoes again.'

Slide 6 - Tekstslide

Vincent wrote this letter before he completed the painting.

Slide 7 - Tekstslide

Vincent did not only want to show that he could make a large painting with figures. For him, the painting also had a message. He wanted to show his respect for the hard lives of the peasants. (next slide)

'These folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and - that they have thus honestly earned their food.'

Slide 8 - Tekstslide

Letter 497

Was Vincent able to communicate his message? If so, how?

Slide 9 - Tekstslide

Have some students give their answers, and then discuss the question with the class.

Slide 10 - Tekstslide

Then go back to the earliest surviving letter from Vincent to Theo.

Slide 11 - Tekstslide

Using the reproduction and the translation on the website, discuss the different parts of a letter.

Slide 12 - Tekstslide

This letter is damaged, but from what we know about Vincent's other letters, we can be fairly sure that the salutation was 'Waarde Theo'. On the web page for this letter you can see two columns. On the right is the original Dutch: '[Waarde] Theo' (with square brackets because the word is missing). On the left is the English translation: 'My dear Theo'.

What salutation might Vincent use in our time?

How does Vincent's letter end (in the English translation)?
'Regards from the Haanebeeks and the Rooses. Ever, Your loving Vincent'.

Slide 13 - Tekstslide

To see the answer to the question under the question mark, you can click on the icon in the bottom right corner.

(The Haanebeeks were relatives of the Van Goghs; Vincent stayed with the Roos family when he lived in The Hague.)

Write a letter describing your own painting or drawing.

Slide 14 - Tekstslide

Deze slide heeft geen instructies

Write a letter describing your own painting or drawing.

Sections: salutation – introduction – body – closing
Describe and identify:
- what it is – the scene, the technique (drawing, painting, or something else?) and so on
- what colours you used
- what your work of art is about
- how you made it..
Also include a sketch of your art work in your letter.

Slide 15 - Tekstslide

Now give the class any other information they need to do the assignment. You can tell them who to write the letter to, or you can let them choose for themselves. You can also tell them when the assignment is due (or how much time they have, if they are doing the assignment in class).

Slide 16 - Tekstslide

Finally, hand out the writing paper and tell them where to find the instructions for the assignment.
How did it go?

Slide 17 - Tekstslide

Discuss with the group how the assignment went. Ask: Who wants to read their letter?