Van Gogh Painted With Words Review: Masterstroke

April 4, 2010 by  
Filed under - Home, Reviews

VAN GOGH – PAINTED WITH WORDS: Monday 5th April, BBC1, 5.10pm ALERT ME

Every birthday it gets a little bit harder to find a famous person who amounted to nothing when they were your age.

Bill Gates founded Microsoft aged 20. Boris Becker won at Wimbledon when he was 17. Mozart penned his first symphony aged just eight.

Refreshing then (and a relief for procrastinators everywhere) that the world’s most famous artist, Vincent Van Gogh, took a long time figuring out what to do with his life.

He started a career in an art dealership but was fired. Then he decided he wanted to be a teacher (and moved to Brixton, then Kent) but couldn’t find steady work. Next he studied to become a clergyman but flunked his exams. In fact he failed at pretty much everything he did, until he picked up a pencil and started sketching.

Van Gogh: Painted With Words tells the story of these early struggles and his later limited success in the artist’s own words, selected from the 902 letters written from Vincent to his brother Theo.

The siblings started their correspondence in their teens and maintained it through family fall outs, Vincent’s poverty and the mental disorder that would end his life at 37.

Narrated by Alan Yentob, the letters are voiced by actors to brilliant effect. Benedict Cumberbatch takes the role of Van Gogh and gives a great performance; it’s uncanny how alike they look. Other actors take on the roles of Van Gogh’s brother and fellow artists, every word spoken taken from the letters between them.

With such a colourful life and canvasses it would be difficult to make the story of Van Gogh’s life dull. This is a man who shamed his family by falling in love with at first his cousin, then a pregnant prostitute decades his senior. He would often be stopped by police for fondling women and following them home and is probably best known for chopping off his own ear. But the stories are really brought to life by the cast who give real character to the famous names.

He was truly mad but truly talented too. He died penniless with his paintings after numerous spells in the local asylum. Only after his death did he achieve the recognition he deserved, which is of bittersweet comfort to the rest of us. A brilliant documentary about a brilliant and troubled mind.

Gillian Melling says:

I take exception to the term ‘truly mad’ to describe ANYBODY! This is a victorian expression and is not valid in this day and age, for any audience. Van Gogh was a truly gifted artist who clearly had emotional issues, but could not be described in this Dickensian manner. I believe that this gives an incorrect and damaging portrayal to younger people of a man who struggled to marry his emotional difficulties with his love of life and family and produced some of the world’s most beautiful and stirring pieces of Art.

Peter says:

The letters are also available online at

Cassandra says:

Brilliant performance about a brilliant man; shame that in Britain Van Gogh would have been given an IPP (imprisonment for public protection; a form of indeterminate sentence)and find it hard to see or experience much else locked away for a lot of his young life. This would be based on what he did but also what he might do; he would have to prove that he was not ‘dangerous’, and based on a rigid risk assessment (for our society cannot tolerate risk, can it?) would find it hard to ever be released.

His mental illness would be probably be treated for a short time in prison, but he would not be sent to a hospital as his solitcitors would argue that he was bad and not mad as it supposedly easier to be released if this is the case! Vincent Van Gogh would be prisoner number etc expected to take course after course of offender treatment often waiting for years to actually get on the course as they are run with a small number of inmates at a time and not held in every prison. Once he had completed a course he would be told he needed to do another one, and another one, and another one, etc., etc., etc.!

If Vincent Van Gogh’s life proves anything to any of us now it ought to be that risk is a chance we must take as a society as he did with his own life. Without risk we are suspended in a static universe without brilliant startling light. Who wants to live in concrete compression forever?