Vincent van Gogh - Peasant Woman Digging 1885

Peasant Woman Digging 1885
Peasant Woman Digging
Oil on canvas on panel 37.5 x 25.7 cm. Nuenen: July-August, 1885
Den Bosch: Noordbrabants Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Anthon van Rappard. Etten, Wednesday, 23 November 1881.
My dear Rappard,
When I re-read your letters, old chap, I find such good, nice remarks in them, and, you see, that’s precisely what spurs me on to keep up this correspondence.
Aha! So I’m actually a headstrong person after all! Well, I’ll admit defeat, you’ve stung me to the quick! So be it. I thank you for that revelation, yes, thank God, at first I didn’t dare believe it myself but you’ve made it clear to me, so I have a will, an inclination, I’m going in a definite direction, and, what’s more, not satisfied with that, I want others to go with me! Thank God, so I’m a headstrong person! Well, from now on I want to be nothing else. And now I’d really like to have my friend Rappard as my travelling companion – it’s not a matter of indifference to me to lose sight of him – am I wrong about that?
Well, I was saying, in my haste, that I wanted to drive people ‘to the open sea’ (see previous letter). If that’s all I did I would be a terrible barbarian. But there’s something else that makes the matter more reasonable. A man can’t stand it on the open sea for long – he has to have a little hut on the beach with a fire on the hearth – with a wife and children around that hearth.
You see, Rappard, where I myself seek to go, whither I seek to push others as well, is to become fishermen in the sea that we call the ocean of reality, but for myself, and for those fellow human beings I sometimes buttonhole, I definitely want ‘that little hut’ as well. And in that little hut the above-mentioned things. So the sea and that haven, or that haven and the sea.
And as regards that doctrine I’m preaching. That tenet of mine, ‘people, let us love what we love’, is based on an axiom. I thought it unnecessary to mention that axiom, but now for the sake of clarity I’ll spell it out. That axiom is ‘People, we love’. From that I derive the first proposition.
People, let us love what we love, let us be ourselves, ‘let us not want to know better than God’. (‘Let us not want to know better than God’ is not an expression of mine but of Mauve’s.) And I’ll prove that proposition with a reductio ad absurdum, namely in this way. To begin with, suppose a man didn’t love what he loved, how much misery he would cause himself and others, and how much trouble he would stir up in the world of our blessed Lord. In short, if everyone were like that person of whom we assume for the moment — if it’s possible for us to do so, that is — that he didn’t love what he loved, how the world would gradually (which in my view was ordained uprightly by our blessed Lord, and is maintained in that position by Him, and for the time being, for at least as long as you and I shall live, will stay in that position, it will no doubt last out our time), if, I say, everyone were like that supposed man, intentionally standing upside down and turned inside out (it’s fortunate that he can exist only in our imagination as an abstraction in our reductio ad absurdum of an ungeometric proposition!), how the world rightly created by God would start to look very like a totally wrong world. It seems to me, starting off with that as an abstraction, that the person in question, intentionally standing upside down and turned inside out, existing for the moment only in our imagination (and not even that), who wouldn’t choose to love what he loved, we feel to be going so much ‘against the grain’ that we may in fact take as proved the logic or the reasonableness of the proposition ‘people, let us love what we love’. (Moreover, if I haven’t proved clearly enough that the falseness of the proposition in question is a great absurdity, you, who are much further along in geometry than I am, would — with a bit of good will — easily succeed in finding more conclusive proof of my proposition.)
We now come to remarkable conclusions or ‘consequences’ of this basic principle, which include,
First, a man who flatly refuses to love what he loves drives himself into the ground.
Second, he’d have to have a very strong dose of O/Abstinence (the O and the A are both applicable, coincidentally. Eh!) to stand it for long.
Third, if he were to change, his conversion wouldn’t be great.
Yes, and whether I say it or don’t say it, I think you’ll understand in any case that I’m more or less insinuating: Rappard, that by sticking so close to the academy you’re keeping a spare turn of rope around your arm with which many a man has ‘hanged’ himself – because he couldn’t be free of it when he wanted to choose the sea!
Because you, though, have rather strong muscles, you will be able to break that spare turn of rope in time of need. But others! Believe me, there are those who hang themselves with it!
Are there, in addition to ‘academic’ ones, yet other ‘turns of rope’? There are, by your leave, as many kinds of turns of rope as there are eye beams. (See chapter on ‘eye beams’ in previous letter.)
How many? ‘Legion’, I say, ‘Legion’.
‘Hanging oneself’ by the ‘spare turn of rope’ is a much more protracted and fearful death than hanging oneself straightforwardly with a noose.
Are there also moral turns of rope?
And why shouldn’t they be just as good as moral eye beams? But you and I haven’t really laboured under them, nor do we labour under them, nor shall we labour under them.
Hmm — I’m not so very sure of that, and if instead of speaking of you and me I were speaking of myself alone, I’d say: as far as I’m concerned, I have laboured under, am labouring under, shall continue to labour under moral eye beams and moral turns of rope, but that did not, does not and will not alter the fact that I have cast out, am casting out and shall continue to cast out moral eye beams from my eye. And moral turns of rope I have rent asunder, am rending asunder and shall continue to rend asunder with flashes of lightning.
Until at the end I’ll stand with a single eye and a free arm. When?
Provided I persevere until the end – in the end. Well, you will indeed see that together we’ll win this by persevering with our correspondence, that this correspondence will gradually become more serious.
Because although, as I’ve already said, I’m giving free rein to my imagination, I’m nevertheless writing to you truly, not without but very much with earnestness. And, while far from writing to you out of any desire to argue, my intention nonetheless is: ‘to wake Rappard up’, and I doubt whether in that ‘waking of Rappard’ I’ll nod off myself. God forbid that such would be the case, far from it.
I told you on a previous occasion that I generally scrutinize, with artists in particular, the man who produces the work just as much as the work itself. Lacking the man, I must sometimes draw conclusions from the work alone (we can’t know all artists personally), lacking the work, I must take the measure of the man alone. Well, of a certain Mr van Rappard I know, first, his work to some extent, second, him to some extent.
His work always says to me, hereafter better.
His person says the same.
From good to better.
Do you think that a very unmerciful judgement? Now (turning to a completely different subject), as regards my special ‘bête noire’, I’ve had little opportunity today to occupy myself with pursuit of the same; even so, I couldn’t refrain from attacking it just for a bit.
But we’ll discuss this in more detail at some point. It’s beginning, however, to be slightly on the qui vive, the fact is that resignation is accustomed to resignation and, I thought, it would give up the fight, but you see, I’m not inclined to do it yet. Anyway, perhaps I’ll tell you later about the bête noire in question. Bloody bête noire! It does me good all the same.
Meanwhile, believe me, with a handshake,
Ever yours,
I’m now writing to you often because I’ll soon have a lot of other correspondence.