Vincent van Gogh - A woman with a spade, seen from behind 1885

Peasant Woman Digging 1885
A woman with a spade, seen from behind
Oil on canvas on panel 41.5 x 32.0 cm. Nuenen: July, 1885
Toronto: The Art Gallery of Ontario

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Etten, Saturday, 19 November 1881.
Dear brother,
I just received your letter. Thanks for your sympathy, thanks for ‘the travelling money’. I don’t think I’ve ever received money with more gratitude than that money from you, because it was so unbearable for me to think that if I did have to go I wouldn’t be able to. Now at least I have the assurance of being able to strike one more blow. Thanks for your opinion of my drawings, though it’s better than I deserve. Keep on writing to me about my work, don’t be afraid of hurting me with your criticism, I’ll consider such injuries proof of your sympathy, sympathy a thousand times more valuable than flattery. You write practical things, I must learn from you how to be practical, so you have to preach to me a lot, for I don’t refuse to repent and need repentance so very much!
There’s a phrase in your letter that I’ll pick out and answer separately and immediately. I’ll copy your words. (Show me what I should believe in. Tell me if it’s enough to resign oneself when what one hoped would happen doesn’t happen, and instead of bringing about improvement withers one’s feelings.)
Resign oneself! God forbid! Truly not. Can you resign yourself to a kind of damnation? Wouldn’t you say, as I do, I who am a much greater sinner than you, that ‘even though I might deserve damnation, I in no way resign myself to it but shall strive for something better, for freedom and deliverance and mercy!’
I say to you, I, Vincent, you, Theo, were not born for such resignation but for vigorous faith! Love, and stand in the freedom that love — but love concentrated on one person! — will release in you, and do not submit to that damned yoke of resignation. Suppose that one day a certain young person, let’s call him ‘Mister X’, met a lady whom I’ll call Mrs She. X felt something beating ‘below the left nipple’, she too ‘below the left breast’.
They looked each other in the eyes and took a few hesitant steps, more or less decided. Then Mister X said, very forcefully (?), ‘It’s not possible’, adding not unsentimentally, ‘who am I to hazard such a thing?’
And she said ‘you, “something”, i.e. the “woman’s heart” that beats beneath my left breast, why have you deceived me?’ When Mister X had turned his back on her, so bravely and righteously (he thought he was being ‘Mister Righteous’), thinking that he could do it, he discovered to his great consternation that something appeared to have changed in the world, for behold, ‘the heaven was of brass and the ground beneath his feet as of iron’. He felt an unbearable thirst and knew not for what but thought he knew it was ‘certainly not for her’. And he threw himself into his business affairs with all his fervour, with all his shrewdness, but that didn’t alter the fact that ‘the heaven remained of brass and the ground of iron’, and his heart within him hardened and grew numb from unspeakable distress.
And ‘she’, what do I know? – strong or weak, boisterous or serious, flippant or solemn, wretched in any case.
He was in a desert. She as well. He felt, ‘I’m withering’. She asked, ‘Why am I withering? I want to blossom! Bud! Live! O God! And poor me, I can’t! I’m not allowed to!’ Turn! Turn! Turn! The desert is the grave of many who are ‘all too strong’ who have many a ‘faithful one’ in tow. Are these things so? someone asks. Is the desert a reality or not? If it is – then it’s just as true that there’s a land of promise where one doesn’t die but ‘stiffens’ as Kee Vos says, just as the plant that lets its head droop in the bright sunshine stiffens again in the evening dew. The way out of the desert is to return to her. The desert is fatal and endless if one simply hikes across it with his back turned to her, saying, I don’t need either the dew or the stiffening.
But if she – wasn’t faithful – and ‘meanwhile’ took another, whether out of spite or because she yielded to ‘principalities and powers’, fathers, aunts, brothers, friends who preach Jesuitisms. Go and see, if she isn’t married yet, whether or not she wants to be rescued, and if she prefers another to Mister X then she is what she is, but she wasn’t worthy of the man’s heart and man’s love of X. The man who loved her had been labouring under a delusion which I’d call taking a Brochart or something similar to be a Boughton, Millais or Tissot. But I doubt whether it often happens to such as Theo and Vincent that they make such a huge mistake. Our gaze is steady, especially when we’ve had the figure before our eyes for a rather long time. Second phrase in the letter from T. v. G. that requires an urgent answer and not a moment to lose.
‘Precisely because I know what the consequences of an irrevocably lost hope can be, I don’t dare (guess) commit myself unhesitatingly’.
Ugh! Who’s talking about an ‘irrevocably lost hope’! Nonsense, the word ‘irrevocable’ doesn’t exist for the aforementioned T. v. G., who hasn’t yet hoped seriously enough. So keep on hoping!!!
So have no doubts about being called a ‘lucky dog’, because it suits you very well indeed, although those who were so busy baptizing you with that name possibly had a small Jesuitical grain of mustard seed in them and foresaw a possible downfall. But I say that you won’t fall, and if you do fall, so be it, it will only be in order to stand up again, having consolidated your position as lucky dog. But that much more consolidated position as lucky dog must have as a basis ‘the bottom that is good’, and you know what I mean by that. A position with ‘something good at bottom’ cannot endure in the long run. Still, trample the not-committing-yourself underfoot. Be assured, though, that he who addresses a girl in such a way that he really and truly awakens something new in her, namely love, and awakens her or brings her back to real life, will always be damned and hated by many who are, on the face of it, kindly.
As far as the Rev. Dr J.P.S. is concerned, in my opinion he has false shame but, what’s more, a measure of real shame in his good moments. There are (a rule with exceptions) no more faithless and hardened and worldly people than clergymen and, above all, clergymen’s wives, but even clergymen sometimes have a human heart beneath their armour of triple bronze.
Regarding Pa and Ma. A man has two kinds of enemies, firstly his entrenched enemies, secondly his friends. Furthermore, he has two kinds of friends, firstly his friends and secondly his enemies, the latter sometimes doing him many favours without this actually having been their intention. The ‘key to the front door’ is an enemy that sometimes helps more than anyone: close the door in his face and he’ll come in through the window! In short, only then, in my opinion, would Mister X be in trouble, if both she and he had intended it, if only for a moment – and she being married, that notwithstanding.
If both she and he felt the beating of something extraordinary beneath the left nipple and the left breast, and if the ‘principalities and powers’ make it appear as though she’s accepted someone else, then there’s still at least a chance for Mr X. And Mr X would do well to take thorough stock of the situation and not rest before speaking to her face to face.
If Mr X is ‘in the desert’ and she is free, he must return to her like a shot. The desert is only fatal, I think, if he has said from spite and obduracy of heart, ‘I don’t want to love her. Rather than go to her, I prefer to die and she must die too.’
If he is in the desert and she is free, then the desert will blossom as the rose very shortly after he turns around. For if she still hadn’t taken another, then she loved him, whether she knew it or not. Perhaps there’s something inconsistent about the various cases I mentioned there, but I prefer to leave the inconsistency rather than spoil the sentiment by searching for the correct words. If you have a love story, speak about it openly and trust in my discretion. In fact I don’t rightly know how I stand with you.
For my part, père Michelet does me a lot of good.
Read in any case L’amour and La femme and, if you can get hold of it, My wife and I and Our neighbours by Beecher Stowe. Or Jane Eyre and Shirley by Currer Bell. Those people can tell you many more things much more clearly than I can.
One has to have loved, then fallen out of love, then love again! Go on loving all the same, if we were to say ‘I’ll never love again’, this misconception would be ‘irrevocable’. It stops with the ceasing of our unwillingness. Is there ‘despair’ and ‘irreparable desolation’? Possibly, but I actually don’t believe for a minute that you or I were born for that; on the contrary, I think we were born for a bottom that is good, namely that attainment of our respective ‘her and no other’.
Were I not ‘one who has been down’ but, on the contrary, one who had always stood firmly in his shoes, I’d be less than worthless to you, but because I’ve been in that mysterious, deep pit of heartache, there’s a slight chance that I can tell you something useful regarding some affair of the heart.
I come to you with my drawings and practical matters to be healed, and who knows whether for my part I can’t be of some use with respect to difficulties in love. However, you still don’t know how much power to love there is in you before you’ve started revealing it to the world. First of all, though, we must say, no matter what, happy or unhappy, I want to go on loving! Thanks, old chap, for the travelling money! Very good of you! And very humane! Accept a handshake in thought, believe me always
Ever yours

Theo, Uncle Cent really has sympathy for me, but that doesn’t alter the fact that I think he’s done me more harm than good with respect to J.P.S.
Even though you so mistakenly call yourself unbelieving, and perhaps think that you’re a materialist, even so you’re actually the first man who, if I dare to attack him forcefully, takes it well and comes back without anger.
Although perhaps you now think that I’m rather strong in some ways, you’ll find me very ignorant and uneducated in a thousand other things. Alas, we become so one-sided in this fast-paced, hectic modern life.
Read Michelet over again!
Pa and Ma get annoyed again and again at words and expressions of mine or their tone, and are often confused as to my actual meaning and think that I want to insult or distress them.
Listen once more, Theo, it’s an important matter.
Should such as you and I doubt ourselves? No. Truly not any longer. We really wouldn’t want to discover at the end of our lives that we’d gone through the world like sleep-walkers. God forbid.
Now it’s as clear as day to me that it’s both your duty and mine to make sure that we not only love but also marry. For this we must give proof of choosing sides and having principles and believing. You call yourself unbelieving. I beg your pardon? That you aren’t.
We now stand as adults, as soldiers in the ranks of our generation. We don’t belong to the one Pa and Ma and J.P.S. belong to, we must be more faithful to the modern than to the old. Looking back at the old is fatal. We mustn’t get upset if the older generation doesn’t understand us, and we must go our own way, even going against their wishes. Later on they’ll say, yes, you were right after all! I tell you what I tell myself: the time for action and energy has come, now more than ever. So put your hand to the plough! Being strong, one becomes strong. Believing, one learns to believe. Loving, one learns to love.
We can do our duty no better than by loving sincerely (not naїvely or sentimentally, but manfully) and by loving only one in particular. In doing this we also show what we think of those who feel they can love more than one. The men and women who may be considered to stand at the forefront of modern civilization, for instance, Michelet and Beecher Stowe, Carlyle and George Eliot, and how many others, they call to us, ‘O man, whoever you are, who has a heart in his body, help us to establish something real, something enduring, something true, concentrate on one occupation and love one woman.
Let your occupation be a modern one, and create in your wife a free, modern soul, free her of the terrible prejudices that restrain her. Do not doubt the help of God if you do what God wants you to do, and in this day and age God wants the world to be reformed by reforming morals, by renewing the light and the fire of eternal love.
By such means you will succeed, and you will also exert a good influence in your sphere, smaller or larger depending on your circumstances.’ You see, in my opinion those are the words that, by and large, Michelet says to us.
Why the hell should you and I be afraid of the key to the front door? Should you and I hesitate to propose to a girl, and should we doubt that in the end we’ll succeed? Certainly it’s presumptuous to feel sure of one’s success, and yet one may believe: my inner struggle will not be in vain, and I want to fight it; despite all my own weaknesses and faults I want to fight it as best I can.
Even if I fall down 99 times, the hundredth time, too, I’ll get up! And why does one talk about ‘a means of subsistence’ as though I had none? What artist hasn’t struggled and toiled, and what other way is there than struggling and toiling to find firm ground beneath one’s feet? And since when can someone with a draughtsman’s fist not earn anything? J.P.S. has something good – and even though he’ll sometimes be furious at me and will perhaps curse me as well, his anger will not burn for ever.
Yet I won’t win it all at once, not even if I win it all at once in the eyes of some. Just between you and me — I don’t think it at all impossible that, despite their grand appearance, the financial position of J.P.S. isn’t so very good after all. All the more reason, if he were completely worldly, to let his daughter make a good match, though J.P.S. and T. v. G. at Etten are, in spite of their position as clergymen, people as well and not UTTERLY WORLDLY. How do I know that? – because I think the same as J.P.S. about many things, but because I belong to a younger generation I go somewhat further and let go of things that His Honour still clings to.
J.P.S. is more liberal in his views than Pa, but both remain standing in front of a wall that Beecher Stowe and Michelet have torn down in places, and neither Pa nor J.P.S. know those places because they haven’t delved deeply enough into new ideas. So I’m not afraid of J.P.S., though I admit there’s a chance I’ll make the acquaintance of the front-door key and perhaps of his G. damn you. But if that must happen, the sooner the better. The cannon is loaded, there’s a large bombshell in it, I know that and yet I must man the redoubt nonetheless. Perhaps they think that my fear of the bombshell is so great that I don’t dare approach. So they’re not always on the qui vive, and if I venture to go nearer quietly, then they unexpectedly see me close by! In haste they fire the bombshell, but I throw myself flat on the ground, being at an advantage because I’m calm and they’re surprised. Perhaps then the bombshell flies over me harmlessly, and then like lightning to the redoubt. Meanwhile, you see that loving is in practice not only eating strawberries. I’d have done it a long time ago if only I’d had ten guilders.
I must be certain, though, that if I go she will be at home. I’m now corresponding continuously with our sister Willemien, who’s on sentry duty and will warn me. Because she is going to Haarlem and I’ll hear from Wil when she is returning to Amsterdam. Good, dear, true old girl our sister is.
Oh Theo, she has such depth, but one doesn’t see it right away! She, you, I, we all have an outer layer, a bark of lightheartedness, but inside there’s a trunk of harder wood. And hers is fine-grained!
Since yesterday’s curse some calm has set in, I wrote on a piece of paper, ‘the man who curses me, who wanted to send me to a madhouse, who calls my love “indelicate”, does he love me or not, does he have a father’s heart in his body? And on what does he base his “conviction” that the above-mentioned things are his “duty”?’ I then laid that scrap of paper on Pa’s reading-desk and later in the day a change set in.
I then said again what I’ve already said many times, that Pa and Ma simply must understand that I’m not their enemy, and don’t contradict them with the intention of distressing or insulting them but because it’s sometimes urgently necessary to try and explain to them why my way of thinking differs from theirs.
Now we’ll see how things develop.
Have started another digger, busy digging up potatoes in the field. And there the surroundings are dealt with more thoroughly. Woods in the background and a strip of sky.
How beautiful the field is, old chap! When I earn more and can spend more on models, I’ll make entirely different things, you’ll see!
But it’s hard work for the models too, believe me. The more so because those I use aren’t professional models, and perhaps that’s all the better! If you ever have the chance to get someone interested, I believe you can gradually start talking about me forthrightly. But in order to make better work, I’ll eventually have to start spending more on models. Now I spend 20, 25, 30 cents a day, though I can’t do that every day, but it’s actually not enough, and I could make more rapid progress by spending a little more. Now in the winter I won’t be able to work out of doors with a model very much, though I can indoors, and that’s also good. Adieu, accept a hearty handshake in thought, and believe me
Ever yours,