To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 14 November 1885.
My dear Theo,
I came across the following sentence that you’d underlined in the article on Chardin in De Goncourt’s book. After speaking about painters being badly paid, he says: ‘What to do, what to become. He must abandon himself to the inferior occupations or die of hunger. The first course is adopted’. So, he goes on to say, aside from a few martyrs, the rest ‘become fencing masters, soldiers or comedians’.
That really has remained fundamentally true. Seeing as you’d marked the above, I considered it possible you might want to know what I intend to do next, especially since I’ve just informed you that I’ve given notice on my current studio.
The present day isn’t entirely the same as Chardin’s, and nowadays there are a few things that are hard to argue away. The number of painters is much greater.
Now it immediately makes a fatal impression on the public if a painter ‘does something on the side’. I’m not at all above that in this respect, I should say keep on painting, make a hundred studies, and if that’s not enough, two hundred, and just see if that doesn’t get you over ‘doing something on the side’. Then accustoming yourself to poverty, seeing how a soldier or a labourer lives and stays healthy in wind and weather with the ordinary people’s food and dwelling, is as practical as earning a guilder or a bit more a week. After all, one’s not in the world for one’s comfort and doesn’t have to be any better off than the next man. Being better off helps hardly at all — after all, we can’t hold on to our youth.
If that were possible — but the thing that really makes one happy, being young and staying so for a long time — well, that isn’t here — that isn’t even in Arabia or Italy, although that is better there than here.
And for my part, I’m of the opinion that one has the greatest chance of staying strong and renewing oneself — in today’s third estate. Anyway. So I’m saying that I seek to find it in painting, without ulterior motives. But — I’d do well, I think, to bear portrait painting in mind if I want to earn. I know it’s difficult to please people with a ‘likeness’, and I dare not say beforehand that I feel sure of my case. I certainly don’t consider it altogether impossible, though, because the people here will be much the same as people elsewhere. Well then, the peasants and the folk from the village aren’t mistaken and promptly say, even contradicting me if I say they’re wrong, that is Renier de Greef, that’s Toon de Groot and that’s Dien van der Beek &c. And sometimes even recognize a figure seen from behind. In town, the bourgeois folk, and certainly no less the tarts, no matter who they are, always value portraits. And Millet — discovered that ship’s captains actually ‘respect someone for it’ if he can do that (those portraits are probably intended for their mistresses ashore). This hasn’t been exploited yet. Do you remember this in Sensier? I’ve always remembered how Millet kept himself going in Le Havre this way.
Well roughly, my plan is to go to Antwerp — I can’t possibly calculate the ins and outs beforehand.
I’ve come by the addresses of 6 art dealers, so I’d want to take something with me and further, as to the work, I plan to paint a few views of the city as soon as I get there — reasonably large — — and show them straightaway too.
In other words concentrate everything on doing something there. And going there poor, at any rate I can’t lose much.
Now as regards here — I know the area and the folk too well and love them too much to believe I’m going for good. I’ll see about renting a place to store my things, and then I’m also covered should I want to leave Antwerp for a while — or should become homesick for the country.
As for ‘doing something on the side’ — right from the outset Tersteeg, for instance, nagged me about it. And that was nagging, whatever else one may think of Tersteeg. Those who talk about it the most aren’t at the same time able to explain precisely what. And as to that, in order to clear the whole thing up in my case — if I did ‘something on the side’, then the only thing would be that, if I knew either dealers or painters, I would possibly do something with paintings, for instance by going to England for them &c.
Things like this, which are obviously directly related to painting, are an exception, but otherwise, as a rule, a painter must be wholly a painter. Don’t forget, either, that I’m not cut out to be a melancholic. The nickname I have around here is generally ‘the little painter fellow’, and it’s not entirely without a measure of malice that I’m going there. I’ve also thought of Drenthe, though, but as more difficult to bring about.
That would be good, though, should my work from the countryside be liked in Antwerp. If the things from here were liked, either now or later, then I would continue with them, and vary them with similar things from Drenthe.
But the issue is that I can only do one thing at a time, that if I’m engaged in painting peasants, I can’t occupy myself with business in town. The present moment is ideal for breaking away, since I’ve had trouble getting models and am going to move in any case. As to that, it’s to be expected that there would never be an end to it in this studio right next door to the priest and the sacristan. So I’m changing that.
But anyway, it doesn’t make an absolute impression on people, and by renting another room and letting things lie for a few months, the intrigue will lose a great deal of its force. Wouldn’t it be best if I could spend the next couple of months, December and January, there? In Amsterdam I lodged in a soup kitchen for 50 cents; I’d do the same there, or better yet reach agreement with some painter or other to be allowed to work in his studio. There’s another reason, too — that it’s not absolutely impossible I might find an opportunity somewhere to paint from the nude.
They wouldn’t want me at the academy, nor probably would I — but — with a sculptor, say, there must surely be a few living there, one might readily find some sympathy. It goes without saying that people with money can get as many models as they want, but it’s a difficult matter without it. All the same, there must be people there who use nude models and with whom one could split the cost. I need it for many things.
I received your letter while I was writing to you. I’m willing to go to Van de Loo if need be, only you know that doctors sometimes don’t tell you everything, particularly in doubtful cases. You should also understand that what I said about her being rather in a fog will probably recur, is a thing that most people who are getting old have. In any event I think it a very practical idea not to let her stay in the midst of the upheaval of the removal, unless she absolutely insists. For the rest, old chap, for my part I believe that Van de Loo has given Ma all, absolutely all the advice there was to give, and would say nothing new. I mean, he would already have given a warning if a danger that could be averted were threatening. But if he doesn’t say anything it’s a sign that, if there were something, he can’t do anything about it and nothing should be done about it; if he’s letting nature take its course, he’s doing it because that’s the best thing — Van de Loo is enormously scrupulous and — Zola-like cool and calm. Anyhow — I’ll speak to Wil about it, and either I may go there or Ma may come across Van de Loo sometime when he’s in the village; we’ll do something. But I think it will just have to take its course. Now in such cases, you’ll agree with me, worrying and being overanxious is intolerable for the patient if she notices it. And with old people there’s often no way of predicting it, precisely because in so many cases their hearts aren’t normal, because of fatty degeneration, say, and they can just as easily go off suddenly as carry on for another 5, another 10 years. Emotion can have an effect, of course, but precisely because of this there’s much more chance of staying alive if the mind is no longer all too clear, than in periods of lucidity. Something else — I’m quite sure that, from time to time at least, there’s definitely a substratum of deep thoughts in Ma (for her inner life, her life of the mind is fairly complicated and has levels or layers) that she neither wants to nor could express. In many cases she was rather silent, so — I for one would rather say that I don’t always know everything about her. Particularly now that she’s lucid, letting her do as she wants is certainly the easiest, firstly for her and secondly the most sensible for us.
Silently understanding how it would by no means be a misfortune for her were it to be that she didn’t live very much longer and departed without much suffering, serenity is justifiable in this regard. Serenity too, though, were it to be that years of relatively mechanical life remained.
You see that I wanted to arrange my going to Antwerp at around the same time as their trip, which will be over around February. Between then and their final move, I’ll either be back in Nuenen or — if something exceptional detained me longer, nonetheless always ready to be present right away if something happened.
This must go off, but I’ll write in a few days and tell you what I’ve arranged with Wil. I’ll suggest she goes to Van de Loo with Ma before the trip; that would go without saying for Ma. Once Van de Loo has seen her, that will be the moment for either Wil or me to ask Van de Loo outright whether he can say anything about her life expectancy. For my part, depending on what you and Wil think about it, I’m willing to prepare Van de Loo before Ma’s visit, and tell him what we’d like to know, so that he gives her a really thorough examination. Regards.
Write soon and tell me what you think about my going to Antwerp — I don’t believe there’s anything against it.