Vincent van Gogh - Peasant Woman by the Fireplace 1885

Peasant Woman by the Fireplace 1885
Peasant Woman by the Fireplace
Oil on canvas on panel 29.5 x 40.0 cm. Nuenen: June, 1885
Paris: Musee d'Orsay

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From the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France:
This work, produced by Van Gogh at the end of the Nuenen period in Holland (1883-1885), was part of a collection of preparatory studies for the large, famous painting The Potato Eaters (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh) dated September-October 1885.
During the preceding months, Vincent had written to his brother Théo on several occasions telling him about the studies he was doing at the time (figures of peasants, peasant women, heads).
In these dark paintings with heavy impasto, Van Gogh sought to capture the effects of lighting by placing his models against the light in front of a window, near a lamp or, as here, near the hearth, to highlight the contrast between shadow and light.
In March 1885, the painter announces to Théo: "I cannot yet show a single painting. But I do make lots of studies …. Moreover, it is difficult to say where the study ends and the painting begins…". This Peasant Woman near the Hearth, which the painter's correspondence enables us to date as March-May 1885, shows a woman in profile, peeling potatoes. It is one of the rare, early paintings of the artist from the French national collections.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Etten, Monday, 7 November 1881.
This letter is for you alone, you’ll keep it to yourself, won’t you?

Old boy,
It wouldn’t surprise me, Theo, if my previous letter made a rather strange impression on you. But even so, I hope you’ll have received an impression from it that allows you to survey the terrain to some extent. I tried to indicate the proportions and planes with big, straight charcoal lines. Once the indispensable outlines have been found, we dust off the charcoal with a handkerchief or a wing and search more intimately for the contours.
So this letter will be written in a more intimate, less harsh and sharp tone than the previous one.
First of all, I must ask if you’re at all surprised that there is love serious and ardent enough not to be chilled, not even by a great many ‘no, nay, nevers’. I imagine that, far from causing surprise, you’ll surely find this very natural and reasonable. Love is indeed something positive, something strong, something so real that it’s just as impossible for someone who loves to take back that feeling as it is to take one’s own life. If you reply to this by saying ‘but there are in fact people who take their own life’, then I simply answer: I don’t really think that I’m a man with such inclinations.
I’ve acquired a great appetite for life and I’m very glad that I love. My life and my love are one. But you’re confronted with a no, nay, never, you draw to my attention. Then I say to that, Old boy, for the time being I regard that ‘no, nay, never’ as a piece of ice that I press to my heart to thaw.
Deciding who will win, the coldness of that piece of ice or my warmth of life, that’s a delicate matter on which I’d rather not comment as yet, and I wish that others would also keep quiet about it if they have nothing better to say than ‘unthawable’, ‘madness’ and such loving innuendoes. If I were faced with an iceberg from Greenland or Nova Zembla, I don’t know how many metres high, thick and wide, then it would certainly be a critical case if one stood in front of it and wanted to embrace the aforementioned ice colossus and press it to one’s heart and thaw it.
But considering that as yet I haven’t noticed an ice colossus of such dimensions in my sea lane, considering, I say, she isn’t many metres tall, thick and wide, even with no, nay, never and all, and, if I’ve measured correctly, isn’t unembraceable, I can’t yet appreciate the ‘senselessness’ of my course of action.
So as for me, I’m pressing that piece of ‘no, nay, never’ ice to my heart, I don’t know what else to do, and if I want to try and hold out until it disappears and thaws — who’s to object???
Tell me, Theo, do you think it very tactful of people to pay her a compliment because her no, nay, never is unmeltable, unthawable and irrevocable! And yet many do just that, in my opinion, by making such a fuss about that no, nay, never.
Wouldn’t it be more humane of these people if they were willing and able to smile about it?
I find it very sad indeed that there are so many who feel so strongly about it, but even so, I’m not planning to grow despondent about it nor to let go of the courage I’ve plucked up. God forbid.
Let those who wish be despondent. I’ve had enough of it and don’t want to be other than happy as a lark in spring! I want to sing no other song than ‘love on’!
Do you take pleasure, Theo, in that ‘no, nay, never’? Truly, I believe the opposite of you. But the fact is there appear to be some people who take great pleasure in it, and perhaps without knowing it, ‘naturally for the best, with the best of intentions’, occupy themselves in wresting the piece of ice from my breast and, without being aware of it, pouring more buckets of cold water on my ardent love than they themselves know.
But I maintain that many buckets of cold water won’t cool me off for the present, old boy. I find it very unchristian, especially of Christians, to believe so firmly in that no, nay, never and to attach little or no power to the ‘love on’! And I swear that I don’t understand where they get it from, such vacillation, between irresoluteness and despondency in this case. And the physics that taught them about the unmeltability of ice is likewise a mystery to me. And it’s not easy for me to regard as friends those who want to upset me or distract me or thwart me or fob me off.
Don’t you find it very clever of them to have insinuated that I should just prepare myself to hear sometime soon that she’d made another, richer match, that she’d become beautiful and would surely receive an offer of marriage, that she would develop a definite dislike of me if I were to go further than ‘brother and sister’ (that was the absolute limit), that it would really be such a shame if ‘meanwhile’ (!!!) I were to pass up another, possibly better opportunity!!!
O, whoever you may be who utters such abominations as I unwillingly repeat in the lines above, you say them in haste and clumsily and unthinkingly, don’t you? Surely you don’t want me to think that in your heart of hearts you’re really so conceited and shallow? God forbid that this should be the real you.

If you weren’t friends, I would call you cowardly
For I do not accept the yoke of despair.
He who hasn’t yet learned to say ‘she and no other’, does he know what love is? When I was told the above-mentioned things, I felt with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, ‘She and no other’. You show weakness, passion, ignorance, worldly inexperience if you say ‘she and no other’, some might suggest, ‘don’t commit yourself, find a way round it’. God forbid! May this weakness of mine be my strength, I want to be dependent on ‘her and no other’ and even if I could, I shouldn’t like to be independent of her. She has loved another, though, and her thoughts are still in the past, and she appears to have qualms about the mere thought of a possible new love.
There are words, however, and you know them,

One has to have loved, then fallen out of love, then love again!
Love on! My darling, my dearest, my best beloved.

Theo, don’t think it rash or reckless of me that I’m full of enthusiasm for the victory of the Love on! Not that I’ve got it already or that she already loves me, but I’m pursuing it as if I might win her. I’ll love her so long that in the end she’ll love me too.
I saw that she was always thinking about the past and buried herself in it with devotion. Then I thought: even though I respect this feeling and it touches and moves me, I still think there’s something fatal about that deep mourning of hers. So it shouldn’t be allowed to soften my heart, but I have to be as firm and sure as a blade of steel. I want to try and kindle ‘something new’ that doesn’t take away the old but instead gives it a right to exist.
And then I began — at first clumsily, awkwardly and yet resolutely, and it ended with the words ‘Kee, I feel exactly as though you were the closest person to me and I the closest person to you in the fullest sense of the word, I love you as I love myself’ — and then, then she said, no, nay, never.
No, nay, never, what’s the opposite of that? Love on!
Who will win — I cannot decide that — God knows — I only know this one thing, though, ‘that I had better stick to my faith’.
When I heard the ‘no, nay, never’ this summer, O God, how terrifying that was, even though I wasn’t unprepared for it, still, at first it was as shattering as damnation. And yes — for a moment it cast me to the ground, as it were. Then, still gripped by unutterable anguish, a thought came to me like a bright light in the night, namely this: He who can resign himself, let him resign himself, but if you can believe, believe! Then I got up, not resignedly but believing, and had no other thought than: She and no other! You will say to me, What will you live on if you win her?, or perhaps, You won’t get her. But no, you won’t talk like that. He who loves, lives, he who lives, works, he who works, has bread.
There is a God — and he would that we shall love, that is the first requirement.
So then, I feel calm and clear about it, and it’s precisely this that has an influence on my work, to which I’m drawn more and more every day, for the very reason that I realize I’ll succeed. Not that I’ll become something extraordinary but something very ‘ordinary’ indeed, and by ‘ordinary’ I mean that my work will be sound and reasonable and will have a reason to exist and will be able to serve some purpose. I think that nothing sets us down in reality as much as a true love. And he who is set down in reality, is he on the wrong path? I think not. But what should I compare it to, that strange feeling, that strange discovery of ‘loving’? For it’s truly the discovery of a new hemisphere in a person’s life when he falls seriously in love.
And that’s why I now wish that you, too, would fall in love, but a she is needed, otherwise it’s an utter impossibility. But that she is just like other things, he who seeks shall find, although the finding itself is due to good fortune and not to merit. Seeking, though, isn’t pointless, and who, for that matter, can refrain from it? Who doesn’t seek much more than he himself realizes, sometimes without knowing it?
Even though one seeks with the expectation of finding, finding is a complete surprise nonetheless.
It’s also a great surprise if you find something and — and — and — then you appear to be confronted not with a yea and amen but with a no, nay, never. That is at first not pleasant but terrible.
But as Uncle Jan rightly says, the devil is never so black that one can’t look him in the face, it’s also like that with a no, nay, never. For my part, at least, I know that if one but seizes it with courage, one doesn’t regret it.
Now you must definitely write to me, if you haven’t already done so, especially when you’ve received and read this letter. Because now, of course, I’m really longing for a letter from you, since speaking to you as I’ve done. I don’t believe you’ll think badly of me because of what I’ve said to you, but rather that you have more or less the same ideas about the matter of the general indispensability of a ‘she and no other’.
At any rate, write to me soon now, and believe me (‘meanwhile’!!!)
Ever yours,
Vincent