Vincent van Gogh - Portrait of an Old Man with Beard 1885

Portrait of an Old Man with Beard 1885
Portrait of an Old Man with Beard
Oil on canvas 44.5 x 33.5 cm. Antwerp: December, 1885
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Thursday, 22 June 1882.
My dear Theo,
I received your letter of 12 June with the 50 francs enclosed in good order, and thank you sincerely for them. I haven’t replied before because I didn’t know what course my illness would take — it hasn’t improved as quickly as the doctor thought. I’ve now been here for over a fortnight and have again had to pay for a fortnight in advance, although if all goes well I’ll be allowed to leave in a week or 10 days and will then get part of my money back. This morning I spoke to the doctor and asked him if there was a complication that might become serious. No, he said, but the message was still rest and stay here. The treatment didn’t stop at instillations: he’s been rummaging about inside the bladder with a catheter, which isn’t particularly enjoyable.
But it might perhaps be good for a great many people if they underwent this from time to time, because it’s a preventive measure for troublesome conditions that develop very, very slowly. But I assure you that I long dreadfully for a little greenery and some fresh air, for a thing like this makes you very weak and faint. I can’t draw because I must lie still almost continuously, although I have tried a few times; it makes me too feverish. I can read but I’ve run out of books. Anyway, it will come to an end, so I must be patient.
Sien is in Leiden, but I won’t hear any news of her until she has given birth. What does what we men have signify compared with the terrible suffering that women must endure in childbirth? They are our masters when it comes to suffering pain, but in other things we are the winners. Until the last day she was here she visited me regularly and brought me a little smoked meat or sugar or bread, which is now finished, leaving me feeling very faint. But now I’m so sorry that I can’t in turn give her a tonic in Leiden, which she’d certainly welcome, for what you get there is only weak fare. I find it such an odd feeling not to be able to do anything and to watch the days passing so emptily. Sometimes I think I can do this or that, but find I’m too weak.
It pleases me greatly that you saw something in the drawings I sent — I laboured so hard on them, and on those for C.M. as well, in those last days when I felt so much more pain and anxiety than here. For the worst was before I came to this hospital, long before.
And now I must tell you that I’ve had a letter from Rappard. Of course I had immediately returned the 2.50 guilders, and after that I received a reply from him in which he repeats what he said about my drawings in the studio, namely that he enjoyed them and found them sympathetic, mainly because of the conception, the sentiment and the intention. He suggested that if I had something similar I should send it to him, because he thought he could find a customer for it. You do understand that what I want most is for people to enjoy my work; that gives me such pleasure. For it’s so disheartening and stifling and crushing if you don’t even occasionally hear: this or that is right and felt and meant. It’s so exhilarating when you see that someone really does feel something of what you’ve tried to express. He was also pleased by a few nude studies.
This is the first time for several days that I’ve sat up, and as I write I feel some life stirring. If only I were cured! If only I could settle myself as I need, how I would love to do some studies here in the wards. I’m now in a different ward with beds or cots without curtains, and especially in the evening or at night there are curious effects. The doctor is just the way I like, absolutely not Blom Coster. He resembles some heads by Rembrandt, a fine forehead and a very sympathetic expression. I hope to have learned something from him, in the sense that I hope to deal with models rather as he deals with patients, namely tackling them firmly, setting them shortly and sharply in the precise position required. It’s extraordinary how patient he is when rubbing, massaging and manipulating the sick himself in various ways. He’s far stronger than an orderly, and has the knack of allaying their embarrassments and positioning the people exactly as he needs them. There’s an old man who would make a superb St Jerome. A thin, tall, wiry, brown and wrinkled body with joints so outstandingly clear and expressive that it makes one sad not to have him as a model.
I can well imagine that Heyerdahl is delighted by such a payment. Now I must inform you that Pa visited me the first days that I was here, although very briefly and in great haste, and I wasn’t really able to talk about anything. I would rather he had visited at another time, when it could truly have been of more good for both of us. Now it was very strange for me, and seemed more or less like a dream — as does this whole business of lying here being ill.
I’ve seen no one apart from Sien, her mother and Pa, which is in fact all for the best, though the days are rather lonely and melancholy. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that life is now considerably more sombre and lonelier than, for example, when I first visited Mauve last winter. It gives me a stab of pain and an anxious feeling each time I think of it, even though I try to chuck the whole thought of it overboard as useless ballast.
I heard from the orderly that Breitner was discharged a few days ago.
I believe that here in this class the doctor gives shorter shrift than in the more expensive ones. So much the better.
Perhaps here they’re less hesitant about inflicting a little pain on the patients than in the higher wards, and more ready, for example, to stick a catheter in someone’s bladder without a lot of ‘good manners’ or compliments. Well, all the better in my view, and I repeat it’s as good here as in the 3rd-class waiting room. If only I could work! But I must take things as they are. I have a book by Dickens and my perspective books.
I hope you’ll write again. You know the address is:
Municipal hospital, Brouwersgracht
4th class. Ward 6, No. 9
Adieu, a handshake in thought, and many thanks again for your loyal letter and the enclosure. I wish you well, and believe me
Ever yours,
I believe that when Sien had to go I became too nervous and then broke down, but there are times when one can’t always remain cool-headed. She’s lying there so alone, and I would so like to go there because these will be frightening days for her.