To Theo van Gogh. Wasmes, Thursday, 26 December 1878.
My dear Theo,
It’s time I write to you again, first of all to wish you happiness at the beginning of a new year. May much good be your share, and God’s blessing be on your work in this year that we’re beginning.
I’m eagerly longing for a letter from you, to hear again how things are going and how you are, also perhaps to hear if you have recently seen anything beautiful or remarkable.
As far as I’m concerned, you surely understand that there are no paintings here in the Borinage, that in general they haven’t the slightest idea of what a painting is, so it goes without saying that I’ve seen absolutely nothing in the way of art since my departure from Brussels. But this doesn’t mean that this isn’t a very special and very picturesque country, everything speaks, as it were, and is full of character. There was snow these last few days, the dark days before Christmas. Then everything was reminiscent of the medieval paintings by Peasant Bruegel, among others, and by so many others who were so good at expressing the singular effect of red and green, black and white. Time and again, what one sees here reminds one of the work of Thijs Maris or Albrecht Dürer, for example.
There are sunken roads here, overgrown with thorn-bushes and with old, twisted trees with their gnarled roots, which look exactly like that road in the etching by Dürer, The knight and Death.
These last few days, for instance, it was an extraordinary sight, with the white snow in the evening around the twilight hour, seeing the workers returning home from the mines. These people are completely black when they come out of the dark mines into the daylight again, they look just like chimney-sweeps. Their houses are usually small and could better be called huts, scattered along the sunken roads and in the wood and against the slopes of the hills. One sees moss-covered roofs here and there, and the light shines kindly in the evening through the small-paned windows.
Just as in Brabant we have the copse and the oak wood, and in Holland the pollard willows, so here one sees those black thorn-bushes around the gardens, fields and land. The recent snow gave it the effect of letters written on white paper, like the pages of the gospel.
I’ve already spoken here at various times, both in a fairly large room, specially furnished for religious meetings, and in the gatherings that are customarily held in the workers’ houses in the evenings, which one can best call Bible-reading. Spoke, among other things, on: the parable of the mustard seed, the barren fig tree, the man who was blind from his birth.7 On Christmas, of course, on the stable of Bethlehem, and Peace on earth.
May it come to pass with God’s blessing that I be placed here permanently somewhere; I should sincerely wish it.
Everywhere around here one sees the big chimneys and the huge mountains of coal at the entrance to the mines, the so-called coal-pits. You know that large drawing by Bosboom, Chaudfontaine, it conveys the character of the land here well, only here everything is coal, in the north of Hainaut stone-quarries, and Chaudfontaine more iron ore.
I still think so often of that day when you were in Brussels and of our visit to the Museum. And I often wish that you were a bit closer and we could be together more often. Do write again soon. Again and again I look at that etching of A young citizen. The mine-workers’ language is not all that easy to understand, but they understand normal French well if one can speak it rapidly and fluently, then it naturally resembles their dialect, which is spoken amazingly fast. At a gathering this week I spoke on the text Acts XVI:9 ‘And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.’ And they listened attentively when I tried to describe what that Macedonian was like who needed and longed for the comfort of the gospel and the knowledge of the Only True God. How we should imagine him as a worker with signs of sorrow and suffering and fatigue on his face, without form or glory but with an immortal soul that has need of the meat which endureth unto everlasting life, namely the Word of God, for man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
How Jesus Christ is the Master who can strengthen, comfort and enlighten a man like the Macedonian, a workman and labourer who has a hard life. Because He himself is the great Man of Sorrows, who knows our diseases, who himself is called the carpenter’s son, even though He was the Son of God and the great physician of sick souls. Who worked for 30 years in a humble carpenter’s workshop to carry out God’s will; and God wants man to live and walk humbly upon the earth, in imitation of Christ, minding not high things, but condescending to men of low estate, learning from the gospel to be meek and lowly in heart.
I’ve already had the opportunity to visit a few sick people, for many people here are ill. Wrote today to the president of the Comité d’Evangelisation to request that my case be brought before the next meeting of the committee.
It thawed last night, I cannot tell you how picturesque the hilly countryside looks in the thaw, now that the snow is melting and the black fields with the green of the winter wheat are again becoming visible. For foreigners the villages here are truly a maze, with countless narrow streets and alleyways with the small houses of the workers, at the foot of the hills as well as on their slopes and at the top. It can best be compared to a village like Scheveningen, especially the poor quarters, or to those villages in Brittany that we know from paintings. For that matter, you rode through this region yourself on the railway journey to and from Paris, and maybe remember it a little. The Protestant churches are small, similar to the one in Hoeven, but slightly larger, but where I spoke was only a simple, large room that can hold a hundred people if necessary. I also attended a service in a stable or barn, so it’s quite simple and novel.
Write soon when you have the time, and remember that you are repeatedly, even constantly, in my thoughts. Wishing again that God’s best blessings may be your share in the new year, and shaking your hand in thought, believe me ever
Your most loving brother
Give my regards to everyone at the Rooses’ and wish them all, and anyone who should happen to ask after me, a happy New Year.
If you write, please address your letter care of M. Vanderhaegen, Colporteur à Pâturages près de Mons (Borinage Haînaut).
I just visited an old mother in a charcoal-burner’s family. She’s seriously ill, but pious and patient. I read a chapter to her and prayed with all of them. The people here have something special and appealing because of their simplicity and kind-heartedness, just like the Brabanters in Zundert and Etten.