Vincent van Gogh - Peasant Digging 1885

Peasant Digging 1885
Peasant Digging
Oil on canvas 45.5 x 31.5 cm. Nuenen: July-August, 1885
Otterlo: Kröller-Müller Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Etten, Wednesday, 23 November 1881.
Dear brother,
I’m very glad that you wrote to Pa and Ma about this and that. It seems to me that it can’t help but do some good – especially in the long run. You surely know that I’m not the sort of person to do anything intentionally to hurt Pa and Ma. When I have to do something they disapprove of, which often grieves them, wrongly, I suffer a lot as well.
Don’t think, though, that the deplorable scene that took place recently was caused solely by anger. Sadly, when I made it clear that I wouldn’t go on studying in Amsterdam and later, in the Borinage, when I refused to do what the ministers there wanted, even then Pa said something similar. So there really is a long-standing and deep-rooted misunderstanding between Pa and me, which cannot be completely erased, I think. But we can show mutual respect for each other, even with regard to certain differing – frequently even contradictory – feelings, because apart from those we actually agree about so many things.
If Pa were the man he used to be, I believe we’d get along better, but something has changed in Pa in recent years, I believe, not to his advantage.
He’s increasingly wrapped up in trifling matters and takes them hard, and overlooks many important things or takes them too lightly. And this definitely has a physical cause, in my opinion. But what pleases me is that, perhaps precisely because at times I’ve even spoken roughly and harshly to Pa, something has awakened in him. This summer he was in a kind of ‘live and let live’ mood, and his sermons were also terribly, terribly weak. Now his sermons are getting a bit livelier and there’s more feeling in them, though I don’t always agree with them by any means! But I only want to say, perhaps it did no harm, my making the occasional remark. I think that if Pa were to understand my true meaning I could often be of some use to him, even with his sermons, because I sometimes have a completely different view of a text. But Pa considers my viewpoint inadmissible and rejects it outright.
But this doesn’t make me Pa’s enemy, God forbid. Nor do I view Pa as my enemy but as a friend who could, however, be more of a friend if he weren’t so afraid that I would ‘infect’ him with French ‘fallacies’ (?).
Well, with respect to ‘the case in question’, as J.P.S. calls what happened between Kee Vos and me, I’ll tell you that I’ve ventured an attack on the aforementioned Mr J.P.S. By means of a registered letter, for I fear that ‘unregistered’ letters would fail to hit the mark. But he’ll have to read this one, in which I’ve tried to draw His Hon.’s attention to various matters which I’m afraid had slipped his mind to some extent and which he didn’t want to take seriously. It’s an ‘impolitic’, very daring letter, but one which will – of this I’m certain – at least make an impression on His Hon. Perhaps resulting at first, however, in a certain ‘expletive’ that His Hon. certainly wouldn’t use in a sermon. But even then, in the worst case, I think that his reaction, when my words have finally sunk in, will be: there’s truth in what you say and it wasn’t uncalled-for to draw my attention to this and that.
I am, however, extremely anxious and am ready to go to Amsterdam myself, but because the journey is expensive I can’t waste my ammunition, and the journey to Amsterdam is my fall-back if my letter has no effect. Rest assured that J.P.S. is really a very clever man, and actually an artist. His books are very good and testify to deep feeling. This summer I read a short work he’s just published on ‘the minor prophets’ and a couple of other relatively little-read books of the Bible. I have great hope that as time passes there will be more sympathy between His Hon. and me than there has been up to now. I don’t want to ‘defeat’ him but win him over.
The letter I got from him a couple of months ago wasn’t unsympathetic or written in anger, only his words ‘the no is decisive’ were very definite. It also said that His Hon. thought that in time affection could grow between her and me as between brother and sister.
However, I consider that just as unlikely as my ending up marrying my dear sister Willemien.
Only when I continued to address Kee Vos despite that letter from His Hon. did he think it necessary to put a spoke in my wheel through the intermediary of Princenhage. Which spoke had no effect. That lever wasn’t enough to make me budge. If I were bent on ‘defeating’ and destroying J.P.S. or playing a mean trick on His Hon. or deceiving him, I’d certainly regret it and my mistake would be fatal. But now it’s an entirely different matter, and the weapon I’m fighting with is ‘Reason’. By the way! you must let me hear from you again. I’ve thought so often of Mister X, about whom I wrote to you, though you probably don’t know him.
If you thought I meant to suggest that a man should curtail, temper or completely suspend his passions, supposing they were ambitions in business affairs and financial matters, then you would be mistaken. On the contrary, those passions must only bear more and better fruit. They mustn’t be diminished but rather counterbalanced by Love. Provided that counterweight, Love, be so strong that the scale – no matter how heavy the side of business affairs, and I assure you, I don’t want to make them less weighty! you may even add some if you like! – provided, I say, that the scale be tipped to the side of ‘Love on’!
‘Greed’ is a very ugly word, but that devil Avarice leaves no one in peace, and it would surprise me very much if you or I hadn’t sometimes been tempted by him, so much so that we were momentarily inclined to say: money is the master, money can do anything, money is No. 1. Not that you or I actually bow down to that ‘Mister Mammon’ and serve him, but he does make it amazingly difficult for you and me at times. Me through poverty lasting many years, you through a high salary. Those two things have this in common, that they are temptations to bow to the power of money. Weaker or stronger in our respective temptations, neither you nor I are, I trust, destined utterly to fall prey to the money devil. But will he have no hold on us at all?
Well, that money devil shouldn’t play a mean trick on you, that you might think it a shame to earn a lot of money, and the money devil shouldn’t play a mean trick on me, that I might think my poverty commendable. No, there’s truly no merit in being as incapable of earning money as I am, and I must change that, and in order to change that you’ll give me many useful tips, I hope. But I seriously think that your attention, meaning your best, your most concentrated attention, should be focused at this time on the development of a vital force not yet fully awakened in you: Love. Your best efforts must be directed at that wing which is the weakest, the least developed in you. For truly, it is of all powers the most powerful, it makes us only seem to be dependent – the truth is, there is no true liberty, no true freedom, no irrefutable independence, than through it. Without it, sooner or later we fall. With it, we win in the end.
It makes our talents fertile, also that talent for doing business and having a clear understanding of financial matters, and, in a word, love is our justification before God. Our great, sufficient justification, for only through it, through love, I say, does our sense of duty become plain and our work clear, and by loving and by fulfilling the obligations of love we do God’s will and find that peace with God that eases our conscience. Fighting against God – we do that when we continue to wander in the desert where the earth is as iron and the sky above us as brass. But not for nothing is it written in the Bible that ‘charity shall cover the multitude of sins’, and also, But there is mercy with Thee, O Lord, that Thou mayest be feared. Those are words that hold water in reality and are true. Well, I nevertheless believe that you will benefit much more from re-reading Michelet than from the Bible. And as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t do without Michelet for anything in the world.
All the same, the Bible is eternal and everlasting, but Michelet gives such extremely practical and clear suggestions, immediately applicable to this fast-paced, hectic modern life in which you and I find ourselves, that he makes us progress quickly, and we can’t do without him.
And the Bible consists of layers and there’s progression in it. For example, the difference between Moses and Noah on the one hand and Jesus and Paul on the other, and in my opinion Stowe and Michelet are a continuation of the gospel, not a repetition.
Take Michelet and Beecher Stowe, they don’t say, the gospel is no longer valid, but they help us to understand how applicable it is in this day and age, in this life of ours, for you, for instance, and for me, for instance, to mention someone.
Michelet even says things completely and aloud which the gospel merely whispers to us germinally, and Stowe actually goes as far as Michelet. It should come as no surprise if I tell you, at the risk of your thinking me a fanatic, that I consider it absolutely essential to believe in God in order to be able to love. To believe in God – by that I mean (not that you should believe all those petty sermons of the ministers and the arguments and Jesuitry of the prudish, the sanctimonious, the strait-laced, far from it) — to believe in God, by that I mean feeling that there is a God, not a dead or stuffed God,b but a living one who pushes us with irresistible force in the direction of ‘Love on’. That’s what I think. Proof of His presence – the reality of love. Proof of the reality of the feeling of that great power of love deep within us – the existence of God. Because there is a God there is love; because there is love there is a God. Although this may seem like an argument that goes round in a circle, nevertheless it’s true, because ‘that circle’ actually contains all things, and one can’t help, even if one wanted to, being in that circle oneself.
Now you, and I too, have already read Michelet once or several times. But now try and read him again! The result will be different, I think. Because then both you and I doubted and now we believe.
Then we weren’t yet ready for the experience, now, at any rate, we’re much more ready than we were.
Then we understood; now, though, we understand better and more.
Then we reasoned, love is something fundamentally good, now we reason, Love is the foundation that is good.
Then we thought, ‘we shall love’, now it has become or is becoming, ‘we love’.
Who, though, are that ‘we’ ‘in question’? Oh, you don’t know them, I mean in fact Mister X and me, but what do you know of Mister X? Mister X is certainly someone who is, I think, only a figment of my imagination, or else I made him up.
But concerning not Mister X but you, I meanwhile say that if you re-read Michelet’s books again seriously, a kind of inner revolution or reformation will start to take place in you, which will continue for a very long time into the future and which is without repentance, and which will bring you to that same land of promise and peace whither Mister X, that renowned desert traveller! (according to what I’ve heard), is also going.
It’s so strange that I’m so totally in the dark about what’s happening in Amsterdam. I mean that I know nothing about it other than what I feel. How can one feel something in the distance? Well, I can’t give you an explanation, but just fall in love sometime and perhaps you’ll also hear voices in the distance and see small things you imagine to be large, in the same way one assumes there is fire because of the smoke.
Fortunately, it’s calm, mild weather, which has a wholesome influence on people. If it were bitterly cold with a north wind, my ‘case in question’ would be much worse.
Meanwhile Uncle and Aunt Stricker’s big celebration is approaching. Pa and Ma intend to go to it. I’m very glad that you’ve written to them beforehand, because I’d prefer that their ‘moral conviction’ regarding the untimeliness and indelicacy of my love not be brought up there. Pa and Ma found it very harsh of me to go against it, but perhaps they little know that others also heed what they say, and that behind their back they are sometimes judged less cruelly than by me when they’re present. And J.P.S. himself, although truly not charming towards me at the moment, might get something into his head and take revenge and rightly so! Supposing a father hears: ‘your daughter is loved “in an indelicate way” (?)’!, wouldn’t such a person become furious! Or, if he doesn’t become furious, wouldn’t he think to himself ‘O you ungodly people! O, idiots!’ And you see, I trust that J.P.S. would do the latter, even if he were 10 times angrier with me than is now the case.
But it’s strange, Pa and Ma are sometimes stone-blind to ‘manners’, even though they’re always blaming me for my lack of ‘manners and courtesy’. Pa warned me, saying: Be careful with J.P.S., because he’s a man who attaches great importance to ‘conventions’. Well, I smiled to myself at this warning, thinking, You little know that during a certain conversation between you and J.P.S. this summer you failed to observe the conventions! It so happened that J.P.S. was discussing a certain theological subject with Pa, and J.P.S. cornered Pa but at the same time gave him an opportunity to defend his proposition, but Pa stuck to his guns and ‘ignored’ being cornered, which was indeed a fact, and at last J.P.S. fell silent, even though he had wanted to steer the whole discussion in a direction that would have given Pa more thorough proof of his proposition than his own opinion, which didn’t hold water, as J.P.S. had proved by cornering him. If Pa had been more alert he would have noticed that, far from disagreeing with Pa, J.P.S. stood firmer on that point than Pa himself did, and wanted to demonstrate to Pa that the matter could be defended with better arguments than those Pa had put forward.
I mentioned briefly that I thought it not impossible that J.P.S.’s financial situation might be shaky. But people like him are a little like the Hamman family, for example. Such families stand firm even when they’re shaky. I even think that J.P.S. would be much better off if he had to cut back a bit than if he could go on in the same way. I say ‘go on in the same way’ because I’ve been told that he’d set up his household in a somewhat grander style, but because I haven’t been to see His Hon. for a couple of years it’s difficult for me to judge, and I don’t know if there’s any truth in it. It is however true (and I think it not impossible that it wasn’t J.P.S.’s own idea but perhaps due to nagging on the part of his wife or SONS that he started to live in a grander style), it’s true though, I say, that he’s been a bit too ambitious or has been carrying too much sail, in any case he’ll cleverly save himself! No matter what!
And – and – it’s also quite possible that if he’s been speculating, he will prove to have done so successfully. Meanwhile was it rash(?), impolitic of me even to have touched briefly upon that delicate subject – as well as other, very different things — in my registered letter, and to have more or less said to His Hon., though not in the same words: it was said that you wanted to urge your daughter to make a rich match to safeguard the future of her child, but I can’t believe that you’re the kind of man who would actually play such a Jesuitical trick, and so I didn’t believe it except only for the blink of an eye. Forgive me for that blink of an eye. Apparently it was rash and impolitic of me to intervene, but it would, I believe, have been blameworthy rashness and a blameworthy policy if I had simply let matters rest and allowed things to take their course. If I hadn’t spoken, it would certainly not have prevented others from putting other truly Jesuitical tricks into His Hon.’s head, so the bitter truth could do no harm as a counterbalance.
Hoping to receive a few words from you before long, believe me, with a handshake
Ever yours,

I’ve sent a drawing to Mauve, a digger in a potato field, to give him some sign of life. I wish he would come soon. As soon as he’s seen my studies I’ll send you a few more. If you prefer that I don’t write to you so often or so much, just say Stop! But perhaps another Stop! will come of its own accord, namely that all the time left to me for correspondence will have to be devoted to her. These extremely long letters won’t go on forever.
You must understand that I’m doing my best to change many things about myself. Specifically the sad state of my financial affairs, and I also think it would do me no harm to spend more time with people.
Well, the best and most reliable means of improving my financial situation is certainly to work hard. Work, take pains. That’s the resource that fails the least. But that isn’t enough in itself, or rather, there are other things I must deal with. Perhaps it’s no bad thing that I lived so long ‘underground’, as it were. That I’m one ‘who has been down’. But now I don’t need to return to the abyss and would do well, I think, to fling all melancholy to the winds and to live life a bit more freely and cheerfully on the ground floor. And to revive old relationships as much as possible and to begin new ones.
I’ll bump my head here and there, so be it, but I’d really like to try and persevere and see whether we can’t fight our way up completely. I’ve often thought about whether it would be good and whether it would be possible to go to The Hague for a while. Viewing my field of work here and the Brabant types as my true work. I must hold fast to that no matter what, for I’ll be able to find subjects here for years, now that I’ve got to know it a little. But staying here with the Brabant types needn’t prevent me from seeking to form relationships elsewhere, or even from living elsewhere for a while.
All painters and draughtsmen do that, don’t they?
Do you know what I’d like? That Kee Vos would start saying better things than no, nay, never. Then it would be possible to make a campaign plan for an artistic expedition. First, though, I have to take up arms against ‘Jesuitry’ and expend a great deal of mental effort (not against Kee Vos, you understand! heaven protect me from ever having to wage war against her – we’re a thousand miles from that!) and, second, I can’t start a new campaign before ‘the one in question’ has come to a conclusion.
Does Kee Vos know, and J.P.S., that without intending to, they are crossing me in the extreme? Anyway, they’ll have to make amends later!!! Which is to say that I’m counting on their accompanying me on many an artistic campaign, do you understand! And those campaigns will succeed, I’m sure!
However, I’ll reserve one small exercise in revenge for later: I’d think it so nice if J.P.S. himself had to marry the pair in question of whom he’d so explicitly said that in future they would be at most ‘brother and sister’ to one another.
But I’m afraid I’m busy selling bearskins that still belong to bears I haven’t yet shot. Still, I’d like to speculate about one more bearskin.
Pa said recently, ‘Out of moral conviction I’ve never wanted to influence two people to marry each other’; well, as far as I’m concerned, my conscience tells me exactly the opposite. ‘He that gathereth not with Me scattereth’, as Michelet would say. Fortunately, Michelet didn’t have Pa’s scruples, otherwise his books wouldn’t exist. And what is Pa’s big mistake? Precisely that ‘moral conviction’. And out of gratitude to Michelet I promise that if later on I come into more contact than I do now with artists who so often ‘beat about the bush’, I’ll do what I can to make them understand that they must love, one alone and that one forever. To reassure ‘art dealers’ who might think that ‘one household’ costs more than ‘no household’, I hasten to add that a married artist and his wife spend less and are more productive than an unmarried one and his mistress. Père Millet! Would he have had greater expenses than so many Italians and Spaniards who ‘live in the desert where the sky is of brass and the earth of iron’? Is a wife more expensive than a mistress? You pay the mistresses anyway, gentlemen art buyers, and those ladies laugh at you behind your back. Who is it who’s cheating you, Messrs Goupil & Cie? The immoral women or the chaste women?
Although I’ve always had one sorrow after another with the no, nay, never, I keep going back with more love each time. And I’ve already experienced many more good things than sorrows, although the sorrows really were sometimes serious, to say no more about them.
One is certain of sinking separately, only together can one be saved,28 behold one of the things Michelet can say so simply. Sometimes it seems he was deceiving himself, but later one said he was right after all.
It’s also applicable to Michelet’s own books, one has to have loved, then fallen out of love, then love again. Will this mild weather be mild enough to thaw the ‘no, nay, never’ one of these days?
The weather is so very calm and mild sometimes, won’t that have an influence? Will I be chucked out during or shortly after ‘the big celebration’? God forbid!
Will the Trojans have let that Trojan horse in the form of a registered letter inside the walls of Troy? And if so, will the Greeks hidden in that horse, meaning the things written in that letter, overpower the fortress? Yes, I’m extremely anxious to know.
This much, at least, will become clear to Mr J.P.S. this evening, that he miscalculated this summer to some extent, thinking at first that he was dealing with a slight, sentimental passion that would wither and bleed to death!
Others besides J.P.S. thought so too; they thought so at Princenhage, especially Aunt Cornelie.
It was strange to see Her Hon.’s surprise when, in reply to their request to stop corresponding with Kee Vos and J.P.S., I told them a thing or two about my view of ‘the case in question’. She found my ‘unresignation’ extremely wicked! Especially when I said that I believed that resignation was mostly something very unchristian and that neither Jesus nor Paul had given us an example of it! And I fell completely from grace, once and for all I’m afraid, because Aunt Cornelie appeared to have set her heart on my doing one of the following three things: first ‘demoralizing’ myself, second going mad or dying of despair, third ‘meanwhile’ looking for another lass. Well, none of those three things appealed to me, I had equally little inclination for all three, and so I proposed a fourth, namely ‘to thaw the no, nay, never’. But ‘that fourth’ was probably not part of the religious systems of those Rev. Drs who are Her Hon.’s confessors and spiritual shepherds. Tell me, Theo, wouldn’t Aunt Cornelie actually be much better off without spiritual shepherds than with them?
‘The lost sheep’ is dearer to God than 99 sheep that are so spiritual they always stay in the field of clover and never become familiar with the desert.
I myself saw my child in the desert, alone and wandering and desolate, and I ran after her – the others – what do I care about them! She first, she and not ‘the others’ at all, ‘the others’ can get along very well without me, for that matter there will always be enough for ‘the others’, but there aren’t always people who understand her! And you, Theo, for which sheep will you let ‘THE OTHERS’ go? Adieu.
Ever yours,