To Theo van Gogh. Wasmes, on or about Thursday, 19 June 1879.
My dear Theo,
It’s already rather late, i.e. nearly 12 o’clock, but I still want to write a few words to you today. First of all, because it was such a long time ago that I wrote to you — but old chap, what should I write to you? — am swamped with all kinds of work here, so that the days pass by, but often one doesn’t even have time to think or do things that would otherwise appeal to one. But what particularly compels me to write is what I heard from home, namely that they’ve offered to send you to Paris for 6 weeks. If you go there, you’ll pass by the Borinage. Wouldn’t you consider spending a day here, or longer if possible? I’d so much like you to know this country, because there’s so very much that’s unique to be noticed by those who look at things closely. Wouldn’t it be remarkable for someone who had never seen a seaside village to see Scheveningen or Katwijk or some other village? Well then — there’s no sea here, but the character of all things is interesting and worth getting to know. So should you feel the desire and are so inclined, and can find the time and opportunity, please stop over here, but write ahead of time when you’re coming and whereabouts I can find you, at which station and on which train.
I’ll give this letter to Ma when she comes, because in all likelihood I’ll be meeting her when she returns from Paris. Am eagerly longing to see her.
Fortunately for Uncle, the danger seems to have been averted5 for the time being.
What affected me deeply was hearing that Frans Soek died, I’d like to hear some particulars in the matter from you, if you happen to know anything, poor chap, life wasn’t easy for him, but rather quite a struggle.
We had a terrible storm here a couple of days ago, around 11 o’clock in the evening. There’s a place nearby where one can see in the distance, below, a large part of the Borinage, with the chimneys, mountains of coal, small workers’ houses, small black figures moving about during the day as though in an ants’ nest, in the far distance dark fir woods with small white workers’ houses in front of them, a couple of little towers in the distance, an old mill &c. Usually a sort of fog hangs over it, or else there’s the fanciful effect of light and shade owing to the shadows of clouds that remind one of paintings by Rembrandt or Michel or Ruisdael. But on the occasion of that storm in the pitch-black night, it was a special effect caused by the flashes of lightning that made everything visible just for a moment now and then. Nearby, the large, sombre buildings of the Marcasse mine, standing alone and set apart on the flat field, which that night, during the violent rains, truly reminded one of the hulk of Noah’s ark, as it would have appeared in the darkness of the Flood by the light of a lightning flash. Inspired by the impression made by that storm, I included a description of a shipwreck in the Bible reading this evening.
Am currently reading Uncle Tom’s cabin a lot — there’s still so much slavery in the world — and in that astonishingly beautiful book this extremely momentous matter is treated with such wisdom, with a love and a zeal and interest in the genuine welfare of the poor and oppressed, that one can’t help coming back to it again and again and finding more in it each time.
I know no better definition of the word Art than this, ‘Art is man added to nature’, nature, reality, truth, but with a meaning, with an interpretation, with a character that the artist brings out and to which he gives expression, which he sets free, which he unravels, releases, elucidates.
A painting by Mauve or Maris or Israëls speaks more and more clearly than nature itself. So it is with books as well, and in Uncle Tom’s cabin in particular, things have been put in a new light by the artist, and thus in that book, even though it’s already beginning to be an old book, i.e. one written years ago, all things are made new. It’s so subtly felt, it’s so well worked out, it’s so masterly. It was written with so much love, so much seriousness and so faithful to the truth and with knowledge of the subject. It’s so humble and simple but at the same time so truly sublime, so noble and so distinguished.
Recently read a book about the English coal-mining district, but it didn’t give very many details. Herewith a woodcut for your scrapbook.
Lately made the acquaintance of someone who supervised the workers for years. Is of humble origins but worked his way up. Now he has a chest complaint, quite serious, and can no longer stand the terribly exhausting work down in the mine. It’s very important to hear him talk about the subject. He has always remained the workmen’s friend (in contrast to many others who worked their way up, not because of true distinction but because of money, driven by motives less noble and many times more base). He has a labourer’s heart, true and honest and courageous, but is far above most of them as regards intellectual development.
On more than one occasion during a strike, he was the only person who could exert any influence on the workers.
They would hear no one, they would listen to no one but him, and at the critical moment no one was obeyed but him alone. When I met him for the first time, I thought of the etching after Meissonier, with which you are familiar, The reader. One of Denis’s boys is as good as engaged to his daughter, which is why he comes here to the house, though but seldom, and I made his acquaintance. Since then I’ve visited him a few times.
Have you ever read Legouvé’s Les pères et les enfants, that’s a remarkable book, found it there in the house and read it with interest.
Received a letter a few days ago from the Rev. Jones of Isleworth in which he writes about the building of wooden churches here in the Borinage. Is it feasible? Is it desirable? He has a mind to work towards that goal, i.e. erecting the first of such buildings.
Even talks about coming over here sometime in the autumn to discuss the matter.
I truly wish that such a thing may come to pass.
Write a few words if you have time, and if you can, stop here on your way to Paris. In any event, let me know if possible on which train you’ll be passing through one of the railway stations in the vicinity of Wasmes, and which station, because I’ll do my best to be there.
Blessings on your work, and believe me ever
Your loving brother