The letter, a condolence note that was recently found and authenticated, was written in 1877 by artist Vincent Van Gogh and is the only known reference to a Van Gogh family tragedy, reports Reuters.
But one thing in particular has stunned the experts.
First, some background: Historians have long speculated that Van Gogh was a "replacement child" for his parents, who lost an infant boy at birth on March 30, 1852. They named the stillborn child Vincent. One year later to the day, another boy was born whom they also named Vincent. He grew up to become a world-renowned artist. Very little is actually known about the family tragedy or how it affected Van Gogh as a child or an adult. Until now.
This newly-found condolence note was written to Hermanus Gijsbertus Tersteeg after his 3-month-old daughter died. Tersteeg was the manager of an art gallery in The Hague where Van Gogh had previously worked. The letter was written in black ink on two sides of a single page and included lengthy quotations from the Bible. The long missive reads much like a sermon--at the time, Van Gogh was preparing to study theology--and broke just about every etiquette rule of the day for such notes, which were typically brief with a few well-chosen, comforting words.
The English translation from the Dutch in which Van Gogh wrote about his brother's death:
My father has also felt what you will have been feeling these past days. I recently stood early one morning in the cemetery in Zundert next to the little grave on which is written: Suffer the little children to come unto Me, for of such is the kingdom of God. More than 25 years have passed since he buried his first little boy there.
But there is one thing about the letter that has stunned experts: the passionless tone. It is this tone--bereft of much feeling--that seems to contradict theories by some of Van Gogh's biographers that he may have suffered from alienation as a "replacement child," reports Reuters. "There has been much speculation about the effect this event must have had on Vincent--the inevitable trauma of being the 'replacement child' and the influence this supposedly had on the development of his personality," Jansen and two colleagues wrote in a paper published by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in which the letter is now on display. They concluded, "There is nothing to indicate that Van Gogh dwelled excessively on the event; on the contrary, he attaches to it no personal emotion or recollection."
Reuters notes that although Van Gogh was a serious artist, he only sold one work in his lifetime. Depressed, he sliced off an earlobe in 1889 after an argument with French artist Paul Gauguin. A year later he shot himself and died two days after the incident.