Vincent van Gogh - Head of a Woman 1885

Head of a Woman 1885
Head of a Woman
Oil on canvas 43.0 x 30.0 cm. Nuenen: March, 1885
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Cuesmes, between about Monday, 11 and Thursday, 14 August 1879.
My dear Theo,
It’s mainly to tell you that I’m grateful for your visit that I’m writing to you. It was quite a long time ago that we saw each other or wrote to each other as we used to. All the same, it’s better that we feel something for each other rather than behave like corpses towards one another, the more so because as long as one has no real right to be called a corpse by being legally dead, it smacks of hypocrisy or at least childishness to pose as such. Childish in the manner of a young man of 14 years who thinks that his dignity and social standing actually oblige him to wear a top hat. The hours we spent together in this way have at least assured us that we’re both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and took a walk with you, I had the same feeling I used to have more than I do now, as though life were something good and precious that one should cherish, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I had been for a long time, because in spite of myself life has gradually become or has seemed much less precious to me, much more unimportant and indifferent. When one lives with others and is bound by a feeling of affection one is aware that one has a reason for being, that one might not be entirely worthless and superfluous but perhaps good for one thing or another, considering that we need one another and are making the same journey as travelling companions. Proper self-respect, however, is also very dependent on relations with others.
A prisoner who’s kept in isolation, who’s prevented from working &c., would in the long run, especially if this were to last too long, suffer the consequences just as surely as one who went hungry for too long. Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or lamp-post, whether of stone or iron, so that I can’t do without them without perceiving an emptiness and feeling their lack, like any other generally civilized and highly respectable man — and I tell you these things to let you know what a salutary effect your visit had on me. And just as I wished that we not drift apart, this is also the case with regard to those at home. Even so, at the moment I really dread going there and am strongly inclined to stay here. It could, however, be my fault, and you could be right in thinking that I don’t see things straight, which is why it may be that, despite my great reluctance and notwithstanding that it’s a hard journey, I’m going to Etten for at least a few days.
As I think back on your visit with thankfulness, our talks naturally come to mind. I’ve heard such talks before, many, in fact, and often. Plans for improvement and change and raising the spirits — and yet, don’t let it anger you, I’m a little afraid of them — also because I sometimes acted upon them and ended up rather disappointed. How much has been well thought out that is, however, impracticable.
The time spent at Amsterdam is still so fresh in my memory. You were there yourself, and so you know how the pros and cons were weighed, considered and deliberated upon, reasoned with wisdom, how it was well meant — and yet how pitiful the result, how daft the whole business, how grossly stupid. I still shudder at the thought. It was the worst time I’ve ever gone through. How desirable and appealing the rather difficult and troubled days here in this poor country, in these primitive surroundings, seem to me compared with then. Something similar, I fear, will be the result of following wise counsel given with the best of intentions.
For such experiences are pretty drastic for me. The damage, the sorrow, the heart’s regretfulness is too great for both of us not to have learned the hard way. If we don’t learn from this, what shall we then learn from? A striving such as reaching the goal set before me, as it was put then, truly that is an ambition that won’t easily take hold of me again, the desire to achieve it has cooled considerably, and I now look at things from a different perspective, even though it may sound and look attractive, and even though it’s unacceptable to think about it as experience taught me to think about it. Unacceptable, yes, just as, for example, Francq the Evangelist finds it unacceptable that I declared the sermons given by the Rev. Jean Andry to be only slightly more evangelical than the sermons of a priest. I would rather die a natural death than be prepared for it by the academy, and have occasionally had a lesson from a grass-mower4 that seemed to me more useful than one in Greek.
Improvement in my life — should I not desire it or should I not be in need of improvement? I really want to improve. But it’s precisely because I yearn for it that I’m afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease. Can you blame a sick person if he looks the doctor straight in the eye and prefers not to be treated wrongly or by a quack?
Does someone who has consumption or typhus do wrong by maintaining that a stronger remedy than barley water might be useful or even necessary, or, finding that barley water in itself can do no harm, nevertheless doubts its efficacy and potency in his particular case?
The doctor who prescribed barley water mustn’t say, this patient is a stubborn person who is set upon his own ruin because he doesn’t want to take medicine — no, because the man is not unwilling, but the so-called medicine was unsuitable, because it was indeed ‘it’ but still not yet ‘it’ at all.
Do you blame someone if he fails to be moved by a painting which is recorded in the catalogue as a Memling but which has nothing to do with Memling other than that it’s a similar subject from the Gothic period but without artistic value?
And if you should now assume from what I’ve said that I intended to say you were a quack because of your advice then you will have completely misunderstood me, since I have no such idea or opinion of you.
If, on the other hand, you think that I thought I would do well to take your advice literally and become a lithographer of invoice headings and visiting cards, or a bookkeeper or a carpenter’s apprentice — likewise that of my very dear sister Anna to devote myself to the baker’s trade or many other things of that kind (quite remarkably diverse and mutually exclusive) — which it was suggested I pursue, you would also be mistaken. But, you say, I’m not giving you this advice for you to follow to the letter, but because I thought you had a taste for idling and because I was of the opinion that you should put an end to it.
Might I be allowed to point out to you that such idling is really a rather strange sort of idling. It’s rather difficult for me to defend myself on this score, but I would be sorry if you couldn’t eventually see this in a different light. I also don’t know if I would do well to counter such accusations by following the advice to become a baker, for example. That would really be a sufficient answer (supposing it were possible for us to assume the guise of a baker or hair-cutter or librarian with lightning speed) and yet actually a foolish response, rather like the way the man acted who, when accused of heartlessness because he was sitting on a donkey, immediately dismounted and continued on his way with the donkey on his shoulders.
And, joking apart, I honestly think it would be better if the relationship between us were more trusting on both sides. If I must seriously feel that I’m annoying or burdensome to you or those at home, useful for neither one thing nor another, and were to go on being forced to feel like an intruder or a fifth wheel in your presence, so that it would be better I weren’t there, and if I should have to continue trying to keep further and further out of other people’s way — if I think that indeed it would be so and cannot be otherwise, then I’m overcome by a feeling of sorrow and I must struggle against despair.
It’s difficult for me to bear these thoughts and more difficult still to bear the thought that so much discord, misery and sorrow, in our midst and in our family, has been caused by me.
If it were indeed so, then I’d truly wish that it be granted me not to have to go on living too long. Yet whenever this depresses me beyond measure, all too deeply, after a long time the thought also occurs to me: it’s perhaps only a bad, terrible dream, and later we’ll perhaps learn to understand and comprehend it better. But is it not, after all, reality, and won’t it one day become better rather than worse? To many it would no doubt appear foolish and superstitious to believe in any improvement for the better. Sometimes in winter it’s so bitterly cold that one says, it’s simply too cold, what do I care whether summer comes, the bad outweighs the good. But whether we like it or not, an end finally comes to the hard frost, and one fine morning the wind has turned and we have a thaw. Comparing the natural state of the weather with our state of mind and our circumstances, subject to variableness and change, I still have some hope that it can improve.
If you write, soon perhaps, you will make me happy. Just in case, address your letter care of J.Bte Denis, rue du Petit-Wasmes à Wasmes (Hainaut).
Walked to Wasmes after your departure that evening. Have since drawn a portrait.
Adieu, accept in thought a handshake, and believe me
Yours truly,