Vincent van Gogh - Two Peasant Women Digging 1885

Two Peasant Women Digging 1885
Two Peasant Women Digging
Oil on canvas on panel 39.0 x 55.0 cm. Nuenen: July, 1885
Private collection

« previous picture | Nuenen - van Gogh's paintings | next picture »

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Anthon van Rappard. Etten, Monday, 21 November 1881.
My dear Rappard.
To speak less abstractly for once, I’d like to discuss several matters with you this time. You say Ten Cate spoke to you about the same things I did. Be that as it may, but if Mr Ten Cate is the person I saw very briefly in your studio one day, then I most seriously doubt whether he and I have at bottom exactly the same thoughts. Is he small of stature, with black or at least dark hair and a rather pale complexion, and very smartly dressed completely in black worsted, at least on the occasion that I saw him? I should tell you that I’m used to paying very close attention to the outward appearance of people if I want to work out how they actually think. But Mr Ten C. is someone I saw but once and only very briefly, if indeed he was the one I saw, and so I can’t really take the measure of him. Still, it may be that he spoke to you in some respects as I did. I have nothing against that, all the better.
Your answer to my letter is actually only half an answer, but I thank you for it anyway. You’ll no doubt tell me the other half sometime, but not just yet. The other, still-to-come half is longer than the first, already-received half and much more satisfactory.
Assuming that sooner or later you’ll leave the academy for good, I imagine that you’ll have to wrestle with a very singular problem which is far from unfamiliar to you, even now. Someone who works regularly at the academy as you do must feel rather out of his element when, instead of knowing in advance, today I have to do this or that, he must daily improvise or rather create his working environment. Looking for and finding work isn’t at all easy, especially in the long run. At any rate, it wouldn’t surprise me if, when you’ve finally left the academy for good, you occasionally felt as though the ground were being cut from under your feet. But you’re not the kind of man, I think, to let yourself be dismayed by this natural phenomenon, and you’ll soon recover your equilibrium.
Then, however, when you plunge once and for all (for once you’ve taken the plunge, you’ll never go back), head over heels and whole-heartedly into reality, you’ll talk exactly as Ten Cate does and exactly as I do to others who still stick to the academy. Because from what you’ve told me about Mr Ten Cate I think that the arguments he presented to you can be reduced to these words: Rappard, don’t hold back, plunge head over heels into reality.
That open sea is your native element, and even at the academy you can’t deny your true character and nature, and that’s why the gentlemen there don’t really recognize you and fob you off.
This doesn’t mean that Mr Ten Cate, and this applies even more to me, can handle the sea and can yet move and manoeuvre as we’d like, but if we don’t drown or get battered against the rocks by the breakers, we’ll become able seamen all the same. And there’s no mercy, everyone who launches out into the deep has to go through a time of drudgery and toil. We start out catching few or no fish, but we get to know the waters and how to steer our boat, and that’s already something vital. And after a while we catch a lot of fish, and big ones too! I think, though, that Mr Ten Cate probably fishes for a different kind of fish than I do, because our temperaments are different, I believe, for each fisherman is permitted to make his forte what he likes, but fish of one sort can’t help going into the other net and the other sort into the first one, and so his catch and mine may sometimes overlap. From time to time you might dislike sowers and seamstresses and diggers. That may well be. So do I. But ‘sometimes disliking’ is in my case far outweighed by a certain enthusiasm, whereas in your case they seem to carry equal weight.
Have you saved my epistles? If you have a moment and they haven’t yet perished in the flames, read them again, I say, though perhaps it’s pretentious to ask such a thing of you. Still, I wrote them in earnest, though I didn’t hesitate to speak plainly and to give free rein to my imagination. Now you’ll say that I’m actually a headstrong person and that I’m in fact preaching a doctrine.
Well, if you want to take it that way, so be it, I don’t necessarily have anything against it, I’m not ashamed of my feelings, I’m not ashamed of being a man, of having principles and faith. But where do I want to drive people, especially myself? To the open sea. And which doctrine do I preach? People, let us surrender our souls to our cause and let us work with our heart and love what we love.
Love what we love, what an unnecessary warning that seems, and yet how great a raison d’être. After all, how many people expend their best efforts on something that isn’t worthy of their best efforts, and treat what they love in a ‘stepmotherly’ fashion instead of giving themselves openly to the irresistible urging of their heart. And we even think that behaviour such as the above shows ‘firmness of character’ and ‘strength of mind’, and we expend our efforts on an unworthy one and neglect our true lass. And all of that with ‘the most sacred of intentions’ and ‘thinking we must do it’ from a ‘moral conviction’ and ‘sense of duty’. Thus we have ‘the beam in our own eye’, confusing a seeming or would-be conscience with our real conscience. The person who is now writing to his dear friend Rappard has long gone through the world with one – perhaps even more than one – such object, though of monstrous size, in his eye.
Is that beam now gone? you ask. Well, how should the present writer answer you? He knows one thing, that one very large beam is temporarily gone, but precisely because he didn’t notice it when he was labouring under it, he considers it not impossible that there might be more whose existence or otherwise might not be completely clear to him as yet. However, the present person has learned to be on the qui vive for eye complaints, eye beams. The exceptionally large beam in question was of a rather unartistic nature. I won’t tell you on this occasion what kind it was. For there are all manner of ‘eye beams’, artistic, theological, moral eye beams (very frequent), practical eye beams and theoretical eye beams (sometimes in combination, very fatal!) and, well, many, many more.
So we needn’t be too dismayed if we aren’t without them, provided we don’t take ‘not being too dismayed’ so far that it becomes carelessness or indifference or obduracy on that score.
I recently received a nice letter from my brother Theo, who also asked after you. I had sent him a few drawings and he strongly advised me to go on with those Brabant types. What he says about art is always powerful, and he often has tips that are both practical and workable.
Today I again pursued a certain ‘bête noire’ of mine, namely the resignation method. That ‘bête noire’ is of the hydra variety, I believe, which is to say the more serpent heads one chops off the more new ones sprout. Yet there are men who have succeeded in killing such a ‘bête noire’.
That’s always my favourite occupation whenever I can find half an hour for it, to fight that old ‘bête noire’ again. But perhaps you didn’t even know that theology has a resignation system with a side branch of mortification. And if this were but a matter that existed only in the imagination and in the writings and sermons of theologians, then I wouldn’t bother about it, but sadly it’s one of those burdens grievous to be borne which certain theologians place around people’s necks and do not touch with one of their fingers, so unfortunately such resignation belongs to the sphere of reality and causes many large and petty miseries of human life. But when they wanted to strap that yoke to me I said: go to hell! And they found that very disrespectful. Well then, so be it. No matter what the raison d’être of resignation, it, namely resignation, is for those who can resign themselves and faith for those who can believe. And what else can I do if I wasn’t born for the first, namely resignation, but for the second, namely faith and all it entails? Well, write again when you have a moment, believe me meanwhile, with a handshake,
Ever yours,