To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, on or about Friday, 29 January 1886.
My dear Theo,
Of course all my attention is concentrated on gaining what I want to gain.
Namely a clear field to make a career.
Namely to find my feet instead of going under.
I’ve already told you that my constitution is at a very low ebb, and that I must act energetically to put it right.
I’ve already told you that there’s no reason to go and work in the country again for the first year — that it’s infinitely better for the whole future if I draw plaster casts and nudes in town.
Now I furthermore believe I’m not misstating the case when I dare assert that your own situation is also more or less critical — critical enough, at any rate, to make it advisable to seek renewal.
For the longer I’m in town the more I become convinced that the business crisis is not at an end, that the trade in paintings, above all, is being terribly threatened and has already been affected.
And to express the criticism briefly — the big houses that became the focus of the art trade and reached their greatest growth and expansion in, let’s say, 68/70 - 76 — that have maintained their prestige since then only with difficulty and by bullying — will they be able to hold out or not?
As they’re being weakened in the second place by the force majeure of the general crisis, but in the first place by wrong organization internally and by the fact that painters increasingly prefer personal initiative and are circumventing the dealers and managing their own affairs — and even doing harm to the big houses where they can. So there, perhaps, you have the question — can one rely on the present situation or not? Must one be on the qui vive for a general decline and various crashes in prices and in consequence a possible stagnation of the routine trading of recent years, or not? However, I’m not asking you to have a cast-iron opinion about it — I don’t have one myself either.
One can predict nothing infallibly in so large a field. So better leave that aside. But, if one analyzes from close up, one sees that the greatest and most energetic people of the century have always worked against the grain, and with them working was always through personal initiative.
Both in painting and in literature (I don’t know about music, but I imagine that it will have been the same thing there).
Starting something on a small scale, persevering come what may, producing a great deal with a little capital, having character rather than money, more audacity than credit. Look at Millet and Sensier, look at Balzac, Zola, De Goncourt. Look at Delacroix. All the same — setting up a studio in Paris now, straightaway, might perhaps not be as good as not doing it until after another year of study, both for yourself and for me.
Let me draw with Cormon for a year. During that period, you take another really good look at the business, and the opportunities. And then — I believe — we can chance it.
Given that in a time of monetary crisis like the present, money is what ammunition is to a soldier in a hostile country — let’s not waste our powder. Furthermore — I hear various people complaining, both painters and — ordinary people: ‘I took a fine room because people were going to come to me, and no one’s come to me since, and I don’t feel at home there myself.’
Still, I do believe that for portraits it’s necessary to create a degree of comfort in a studio, otherwise the people who come to sit will dislike it.
But if one wants to start on that, one must think about where one rents it, where one has the best chance of getting visitors and making friends and becoming known. Given the desirability, above all, of drawing for another year — the question of a good studio is very much a side issue for the time being, and so anything will do. If we’re prepared to look at it coolly and sensibly, I don’t think this year of drawing is a misfortune. On the contrary, it gives us time to work everything out and consider things at our leisure before we begin.
So the wisest thing would be if I were to come to Paris and we were to put it off for a year — in that year we can get to know each other better at close quarters which can change a lot — and then we can be less afraid to start expanding a little, because in the meantime we’ll have strengthened the weak points.
If we work for another year, if we recover our health — you as well as me — we’ll be more resilient then than now.
But what should I do now? Look here, to go back to Brabant is actually a detour, and I’ll lose time and money on it.
Why can’t I go straight from here to Paris whenever you like, and carry on working here until I go?
I tell you, I’m in such a bad way that if there’s any money, then let me take care of my health and let the rest go, because they can do just as well at home with a labourer, in fact better. If I don’t get a bit stronger, you see, it’s CERTAIN that I’ll be ill — I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, and for that matter I don’t much care either, whatever will be, will be. If I go to Brabant I’ll have the expenses of my journey, I’ll also have to pay for my room there (which I gave notice on) and take somewhere else to store my things, which will be not less than 50 francs rent and another 50 francs in advance for a new store and removals.
I’d also be obliged to pay for some paint — and of course I’d begin to paint again there too.
Now I thought that because of the force majeure of circumstances I was free to declare myself unable to meet these obligations at present. In other words not to pay my rent there but to say, put my furniture in your attic, keep it as security, I’ll pay you when I come to collect it, then at the same time I don’t have to rent new storage.
If I have the weakness of always just giving, even if I can’t afford it, very well — but then I do myself too much harm and I make myself unfit for my work. I think you must appreciate this. When you consider how I’d already been complaining recently that it couldn’t go on like this, you see it really wasn’t for nothing.
If I’d known beforehand what I’ve found out here about opportunities to work in a studio in town, I’d have done it sooner. Now — since I must make progress and since I’m also ill — all I can do is ask you to approve my staying here until I go to Paris, and let me go to Paris at any rate not later than when the course here ends, 31 March.
Even then, we still inevitably have the cost of travelling from here to Paris. You have to move, too, which also won’t happen by itself.
So Brabant is a detour, waste of time etc. As things are now I have to live from one day to the next, and what’s owing has to wait.
Once I’m better and I start to sell in Paris, very well, then I can pay off the rent and the paint. Not now. I haven’t got it and neither have you, so that’s that.
Anyway, I’ve had so much unpleasantness there that I don’t have to consider anyone there. It would also be a weakness on your part if you were to alter that. You constantly write and tell me that you haven’t any money, very well, so that’s so. If making money is not possible when it comes to food — then it ought not to be possible when it comes to rent or unnecessary travelling expenses.
And at home — I know perfectly well that Rijken, the gardener, or Huizing, and not I, are the best people to pack things up and send them off properly.
If I were there I would do it; travelling there expressly — no — not when there are at least 6 pairs of hands at least as good as mine at their disposal. In the end, it doesn’t bother me, but I just tell you what’s right and I point out to you the urgency of going on with what will enable us to make progress. It’s not pleasant for me to come back ill either — you see — and you can’t deny that. Let me recover first, I’m at much too low an ebb now.
Anyway, the summary of this and the last letter is this — Carry on calmly either here or much better yet with Cormon.
Moreover, I’m ill, although I’m keeping going.
If I possibly could I wouldn’t object to going back to Brabant even, I’d be happy to do it if I could, but neither you nor I have the means and — they can better spare me there than use me. Regards, write to me soon though.