To Theo van Gogh. Etten, on or about Friday, 23 December 1881.
Sometimes, I fear, you throw a book away because it’s too realistic. Have compassion and patience with this letter, and read it through, despite its severity.
My dear Theo,
As I already wrote to you from The Hague, I have some things to discuss with you now that I’m back here. It’s not without emotion that I look back on my trip to The Hague. When I went to see M. my heart was beating rather hard, because I was thinking to myself, will he too try and fob me off or will I find something else here? And well, what I experienced with him was that he instructed and encouraged me in all manner of kind and practical ways. Though not merely by always approving of everything I did or said, on the contrary. But if he tells me, this or that isn’t good, then it’s because he’s saying at the same time ‘but try it this way or that way’, and that’s entirely different from criticizing for the sake of criticizing. Or if someone says ‘you’re ill with this or that’, that doesn’t help much, but if someone says ‘do this or that and you’ll get better’, and his advice isn’t deceit, look, that’s the real thing, and – and – it naturally helps. Now I’ve come from him with a few painted studies and a couple of watercolours. Of course they aren’t masterpieces and yet I truly believe there’s something sound and real in them, more at least than in what I’ve made up to now. And so I now consider myself to be at the beginning of the beginning of making something serious. And because I now have a few more technical resources at my disposal, namely paint and brush, all things are made new again, as it were.
But – now we have to put it into practice. And the first thing is that I must find a room large enough to be able to take a sufficient distance. Mauve just said to me, when he saw my studies, ‘you’re too close to your model’.
In many cases this makes it next to impossible to take the necessary measurements for the proportions, so this is certainly one of the first things I have to watch out for. Now I must arrange to rent a large room somewhere, be it a room or a shed. And that won’t be so terribly expensive. A labourer’s cottage in these parts costs 30 guilders a year to rent, so it seems to me that a room twice as large as that in a labourer’s cottage would cost something like 60 guilders.
And that isn’t insurmountable. I’ve already seen a shed, though it has too many inconveniences, especially in the winter. But I’d be able to work there, at least when the weather is milder. And here in Brabant, moreover, there are models to be found, I believe, not only in Etten but also in other villages, if difficulties were to arise here.
Still, though I love Brabant very much, I also have a feeling for other figures than the Brabant peasant types. Scheveningen, for example, I again found unspeakably beautiful. But after all I’m here, and it would very probably be cheaper to stay here. However, I’ve definitely promised M. that I’ll do my utmost to find a good studio, and now I must also use better paint and better paper.
Nevertheless, Ingres paper is excellent for studies and scratches. And it’s much cheaper to make sketchbooks in all formats from it oneself than to buy ready-made sketchbooks. I still have a small supply of Ingres paper, but you’d be doing me a big favour if you could send some more of the same kind when you send back those studies. Not pure white, though, but the colour of unbleached linen, no cold shades. Theo, what a great thing tone and colour are! And anyone who doesn’t acquire a feeling for it, how far removed from life he will remain! M. has taught me to see so many things I didn’t see before, and when I have the opportunity I’ll try and tell you about what he’s told me, because perhaps there are still one or two things that you don’t see properly either. Anyway, we’ll talk about artistic matters sometime, I hope.
And you can’t imagine the feeling of relief I’m beginning to get when I think of the things M. said to me about earning money. Just think of how I’ve slogged away for years, always in a kind of false position. And now, now there’s a glimmer of real light.
I do wish that you could see the two watercolours I’ve brought with me, because you would see that they’re watercolours just like any other watercolours. There may be many imperfections in them, be that as it may, I’d be the first to say that I’m still very dissatisfied with them, and yet, it’s different from what I’ve done up to now, and it looks fresher and sounder. All the same, it must become much fresher and sounder, but one can’t do what one wants all at once. It comes gradually. I need those couple of drawings myself, however, to compare with what I’ll be making here, because I have to do them at least as well as what I did at M.’s.
But even though Mauve tells me that if I continue to slog away here for a couple of months and then go back to him again in March, for instance, I’ll then be able to make saleable drawings on a regular basis, I’m nevertheless going through a rather difficult period. The cost of models, studio, drawing and painting materials are multiplying, and there are no earnings as yet.
Admittedly, Pa said that I needn’t be afraid of the inevitable expense, and Pa is pleased with what M. himself said to him, and also with the studies and drawings I brought back. But I do find it utterly, utterly wretched that Pa should suffer by it. Of course we hope that things will turn out well later, but still, it weighs heavily on my heart. Because since I’ve been here Pa really hasn’t profited from me, and more than once he’s bought a coat or trousers, for example, which I’d actually rather not have had, even though I really needed it, but Pa shouldn’t suffer by it. The more so if the coat and trousers in question don’t fit and are only half or not at all what I need. Anyway, still more petty vexations of human life. And, as I’ve told you before, I find it absolutely terrible not to be free at all. Because even though Pa doesn’t ask me to account for literally every penny, still, he always knows exactly how much I spend and what I spend it on. And now, although I don’t necessarily have any secrets, I don’t really like people being able to look at my cards. Even my secrets aren’t necessarily secrets to those for whom I feel sympathy.
But Pa isn’t the kind of man for whom I can feel what I feel for you, for example, or for Mauve. I really do love Pa and Ma, but it’s a very different feeling from what I feel for you or Mauve. Pa cannot empathize or sympathize with me, and I cannot settle in to Pa and Ma’s routine, it’s too constricting for me — it would suffocate me.
Whenever I tell Pa anything, it’s all just idle talk to him, and certainly no less so to Ma, and I also find Pa and Ma’s sermons and ideas about God, people, morality, virtue, almost complete nonsense. I also read the Bible sometimes, just as I sometimes read Michelet or Balzac or Eliot, but I see completely different things in the Bible than Pa sees, and I can’t agree at all with what Pa makes of it in his petty, academic way. Since the Rev. Ten Kate translated Goethe’s Faust, Pa and Ma have read that book, because now that a clergyman has translated it, it can’t be all that immoral (??? what is that?). Yet they don’t see anything in it but the catastrophic consequences of an unchaste love.
And they certainly understand the Bible just as little. Take Mauve, for instance, when he reads something deep he doesn’t immediately say, that man means this or that. Because poetry is so deep and intangible that one can’t simply define it all systematically, but Mauve has a refined sensibility and, you see, I find that sensibility to be worth so much more than definition and criticism. And oh, when I read, and I actually don’t read so much and even then, only one-and-a-half writers, a couple of men whom I accidentally found, then I do so because they look at things more broadly and milder and with more love than I do, and are better acquainted with reality, and because I can learn something from them. But all that drivel about good and evil, morality and immorality, I actually care so little about it. For truly, it’s impossible for me always to know what is good, what is evil, what is moral, what is immoral.
Morality or immorality coincidentally brings me to K.V. Ah! I’d written to you that it was beginning to seem less and less like eating strawberries in the spring. Well, that is of course true. If I should lapse into repetition, forgive me, I don’t know if I’ve already written to you about what happened to me in Amsterdam. I went there thinking, who knows whether the no, nay, never isn’t thawing, it’s such mild weather. And so one evening I was making my way along Keizersgracht, looking for the house, and indeed found it. And naturally I rang the bell and heard that the family were still at table. But then I heard that I could come in all the same. And there they were, including Jan, the very learned professor, all of them except Kee. And they all still had a plate in front of them, and there wasn’t a plate too many. This small detail caught my eye. They wanted to make me think that Kee wasn’t there, and had taken away her plate, but I knew she was there, I thought it so much like a comedy or game. After a while I asked (after chatting a bit and greeting everyone), But where’s Kee? Then J.P.S. repeated my question, saying to his wife, Mother, where’s Kee? And the missus said, Kee’s out. And for the time being I didn’t pursue the matter but talked a bit with the professor about the exhibition at Arti he’d just seen. Well, the professor disappeared and little Jan Vos disappeared, and J.P.S. and the wife of the same and yours truly remained alone and got ourselves into position. J.P.S., as priest and Father, started to speak and said he’d been on the point of sending a certain letter to yours truly and he would read that letter aloud. However, first I asked again, interrupting His Hon. or the Rev., Where’s Kee? (Because I knew she was in town.) Then J.P.S. said, Kee left the house as soon as she heard you were here. Well, I know some things about her, and I must say that I didn’t know then and still don’t know with certainty whether her coldness and rudeness is a good or bad sign. This much I do know, that I’ve never seen her so seemingly or actually cool and callous and rude towards anyone but me. So I didn’t say much in reply and remained dead calm. Let me hear that letter, I said, or not, I don’t really care either way. Then came the epistle. The writing was reverent and very learned and so there wasn’t really anything in it, though it did seem to say that I was being requested to stop corresponding and I was given the advice to make vigorous attempts to forget the matter. At last the reading of the letter was over. I felt exactly as though I were hearing the minister in the church, after some raising and lowering of his voice, saying amen – it left me just as cold as an ordinary sermon. And then I began, and I said as calmly and politely as I could, well yes, I’ve already heard this line of reasoning quite often, but now go on – and after that? But then J.P.S. looked up... he even seemed to be somewhat amazed at my not being completely convinced that we’d reached the extreme limit of the human capacity to think and feel. There was, according to him, no ‘after that’ possible. We went on like this, and once in a while Aunt M. put in a very Jesuitical word, and I got quite warm and finally lost my temper. And J.P.S. lost his temper too, as much as a clergyman can lose his temper. And even though he didn’t exactly say ‘God damn you’, anyone other than a clergyman in J.P.S.’s mood would have expressed himself that way. But you know that I love both Pa and J.P.S. in my own way, despite the fact that I truly loathe their system, and I changed tack a bit and gave and took a bit, so that at the end of the evening they said to me that if I wanted to stay at their house I could. Then I said, thank you. If Kee walks out of the house when I come, then I don’t think it’s the right moment to stay here, I’m going to my boarding-house. And then they asked, where are you staying? I said, I don’t know yet, and then Uncle and Aunt insisted on bringing me themselves to a good, inexpensive boarding-house. And heavens, those two old dears came with me through the cold, misty, muddy streets, and truly, they showed me a very good boarding-house and very inexpensive. I didn’t want them to come at all but they insisted on showing me. And, you see, I thought that rather humane of them and it calmed me down somewhat. I stayed in Amsterdam two more days and talked with J.P.S. again, but I didn’t see Kee, she made herself scarce each time. And I said that they ought to know that although they wanted me to consider the matter over and done with, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And they continued to reply firmly: ‘Later on I would understand it better’. Now and then I also saw the professor again, and I have to say he wasn’t so bad, but – but – but – what else can I say about that gentleman? I said I hoped that he might fall in love one day. Voilà. Can professors fall in love? Do clergymen know what love is?
I recently read Michelet, La femme, la religion et le prêtre. Books like that are full of reality, yet what is more real than reality itself, and what has more life than life itself? And we who do our best to live, why don’t we live even more!
I walked around aimlessly those three days in Amsterdam, I felt damned miserable, and that half-kindness on the part of Uncle and Aunt and all those arguments, I found them so tedious. Until I finally began to find myself tedious and said to myself: would you like to become despondent again? And then I said to myself, Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. And so it was on a Sunday morning that I last went to see J.P.S. and said to him, Listen, my dear Uncle, if Kee Vos were an angel she would be too lofty for me, and I don’t think that I would stay in love with an angel. Were she a devil, I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with her. In the present case, I see in her a real woman, with womanly passions and whims, and I love her dearly, that’s just the way it is, and I’m glad of it. So long as she doesn’t become an angel or a devil, the case in question isn’t over. And J.P.S. couldn’t say very much to that, and spoke himself of womanly passions, I’m not really sure what he said about them, and then J.P.S. left for the church. No wonder one becomes hardened and numb there, I know that from my own experience. And so as far as your brother in question is concerned, he didn’t want to let himself be overwhelmed. But that didn’t alter the fact that he felt overwhelmed, that he felt as though he had been leaning against a cold, hard, whitewashed church wall for too long. Oh well, should I tell you more, old chap? It’s rather daring to remain a realist, but Theo, Theo, you too are a realist, oh bear with my realism! I told you, even my secrets aren’t necessarily secrets. Well, I won’t take those words back, think of me as you will, and whether you approve or disapprove of what I did is less important.
I’ll continue – from Amsterdam I went to Haarlem and sat very agreeably with our dear sister Willemien, and I took a walk with her, and in the evening I went to The Hague, and I landed up at M.’s around seven o’clock. And I said: listen M., you were supposed to come to Etten to try and initiate me, more or less, into the mysteries of the palette. But I’ve been thinking that that wouldn’t be possible in only a couple of days, so now I’ve come to you and if you approve I’ll stay four weeks or so, or six weeks or so, or as long or as short as you like, and we’ll just have to see what we can do. It’s extremely impertinent of me to demand so much of you, but in short, I’m under a great deal of pressure. Well, Mauve said, do you have anything with you? Certainly, here are a couple of studies, and he said many good things about them, far too many, at the same time voicing some criticism, far too little. Well, and the next day we set up a still life and he began by saying, This is how you should hold your palette. And since then I’ve made a few painted studies and after that two watercolours.
This is a summary of my work, but there’s more to life than working with the hands and the head.
I remained chilled to the marrow, that’s to say to the marrow of my soul by that aforementioned imaginary or not-imaginary church wall. And I didn’t want to let myself be overwhelmed by that deadening feeling, I said. Then I thought to myself, I’d like to be with a woman, I can’t live without love, without a woman. I wouldn’t care a fig for life if there wasn’t something infinite, something deep, something real. But, I said to myself in reply: you say ‘She and no other’ and should you go to a woman? But surely that’s unreasonable, surely that goes against logic? And my answer to that was, Who’s the master, logic or I? Is logic there for me or am I there for logic, and is there no reason and no understanding in my unreasonableness or my stupidity? And whether I act rightly or wrongly, I can’t do otherwise, that damned wall is too cold for me, I’ll look for a woman, I cannot, I will not, I may not live without love. I’m only human, and a human with passions at that, I need a woman or I’ll freeze or turn to stone, or anyway be overwhelmed. In the circumstances, however, I struggled much within myself, and in that struggle some things concerning physical powers and health gained the upper hand, things which I believe and know more or less through bitter experience. One doesn’t live too long without a woman without going unpunished. And I don’t think that what some call God and others the supreme being and others nature is unreasonable and merciless, and, in a word, I came to the conclusion, I must see whether I can’t find a woman.
And heavens, I didn’t look so very far. I found a woman, by no means young, by no means pretty, with nothing special about her, if you will. But perhaps you’re rather curious. She was fairly big and strongly built, she didn’t exactly have lady’s hands like K.V. but those of a woman who works hard. But she was not coarse and not common, and had something very feminine about her. She slightly resembled a nice figure by Chardin or Frère or possibly Jan Steen. Anyhow, that which the French call ‘a working woman’. She’d had a great many cares, one could see that, and life had given her a drubbing, oh nothing distinguished, nothing exceptional, nothing out of the ordinary.
Every woman, at every age, if she loves and if she is kind, can give a man not the infinite of the moment but the moment of the infinite.
Theo, I find such infinite charm in that je ne sais quoi of withering, that drubbed by life quality. Ah! I found her to have a charm, I couldn’t help seeing in her something by Feyen-Perrin, by Perugino. Look, I’m not exactly as innocent as a greenhorn, let alone a child in the cradle. It’s not the first time I couldn’t resist that feeling of affection, particularly love and affection for those women whom the clergymen damn so and superciliously despise and condemn from the pulpit. I don’t damn them, I don’t condemn them, I don’t despise them. Look, I’m almost thirty years old, and do you think I’ve never felt the need for love?
K.V. is older than I am, she also has love behind her, but she’s all the dearer to me for that very reason. She’s not ignorant, but neither am I. If she wants to subsist on an old love and if she wants to know nothing of new ones, that’s her business, but the more she perseveres in that and avoids me, the more I can’t just stifle my energy and strength of mind for her sake. No, I don’t want that, I love her, but I don’t want to freeze and deaden my mind for her sake. And the stimulus, the spark of fire we need, that is love and I don’t exactly mean mystic love.
That woman didn’t cheat me – oh, anyone who thinks all those sisters are swindlers is so wrong and understands so little.
That woman was good to me, very good, very decent, very sweet. In what way? That I won’t repeat even to my brother Theo, because I strongly suspect my brother Theo of having experienced something of this himself now and then. The better for him.
Did we spend a lot together? No, because I didn’t have much and I said to her, listen, you and I don’t have to get drunk to feel something for one another, just pocket what I can afford. And I wish I could have afforded more, because she was worth it.
And we talked about all kinds of things, about her life, about her cares, about her destitution, about her health, and I had a livelier conversation with her than with my learned professorial cousin Jan Stricker, for instance.
I’ve actually told you these things because I hope you’ll see that even though I perhaps have some feeling, I don’t want to be sentimental in a senseless way. That, no matter what, I want to preserve some warmth of life and keep my mind clear and my body healthy in order to work. And that I understand my love for K.V. to be such that for her sake I don’t want to set about my work despondently or let myself get upset.
You’ll understand that, you who wrote in your letter something about the matter of health. You talk of having been not quite healthy a while back, it’s very good you’re trying to get yourself straightened out.
Clergymen call us sinners, conceived and born in sin. Bah! I think that damned nonsense. Is it a sin to love, to need love, not to be able to do without love? I consider a life without love a sinful condition and an immoral condition. If there’s anything I regret, it’s that for a time I let mystical and theological profundities seduce me into withdrawing too much inside myself. I’ve gradually stopped doing that. If you wake up in the morning and you’re not alone and you see in the twilight a fellow human being, it makes the world so much more agreeable. Much more agreeable than the edifying journals and whitewashed church walls the clergymen are in love with. It was a sober, simple little room she lived in, with a subdued, grey tone because of the plain wallpaper and yet as warm as a painting by Chardin, a wooden floor with a mat and an old piece of dark-red carpet, an ordinary kitchen stove, a chest of drawers, a large, perfectly simple bed, in short, a real working woman’s interior. She had to do the washing the next day. Just right, very good, I would have found her just as charming in a purple jacket and a black skirt as now in a brown or red-grey frock. And she was no longer young, perhaps the same age as K.V., and she had a child, yes, life had given her a drubbing and her youth was gone. Gone? – there is no such thing as an old woman. Ah, and she was strong and healthy – and yet not rough, not common. Those who value distinction so very highly, can they always tell what is distinguished? Heavens! People sometimes look for it high and low when it’s close by, as I do too now and then.
I’m glad that I did what I did, because I think that nothing in the world should keep me from my work or cause me to lose my good spirits.
When I think of K.V., I still say ‘she and no other’, and I think exactly the same as I did last summer about ‘meanwhile looking for another lass’. But it’s not only recently that I’ve grown fond of those women who are condemned and despised and cursed by clergymen, my love for them is even somewhat older than my love for Kee Vos. Whenever I walked down the street – often all alone and at loose ends, half sick and destitute, with no money in my pocket – I looked at them and envied the people who could go off with her, and I felt as though those poor girls were my sisters, as far as our circumstances and experience of life were concerned. And, you see, that feeling is old and deeply rooted in me. Even as a boy I sometimes looked up with endless sympathy and respect into a half-withered female face on which it was written, as it were: life and reality have given me a drubbing. But my feelings for K.V. are completely new and something entirely different. Without knowing it, she’s in a kind of prison. She’s also poor and can’t do everything she wants, and you see, she has a kind of resignation and I think that the Jesuitisms of clergymen and devout ladies often make more of an impression on her than on me, Jesuitisms that no longer impress me for the very reason that I’ve learned a few tricks. But she adheres to them and couldn’t bear it if the system of resignation and sin and God and whatnot appeared to be a conceit. And I don’t think it occurs to her that perhaps God only actually begins when we say those words with which Multatuli closes his prayer of an unbeliever: ‘O God, there is no God’. Look, I find the clergymen’s God as dead as a doornail. But does that make me an atheist? The clergymen think me one – be that as it may – but look, I love, and how could I feel love if I myself weren’t alive and others weren’t alive? And if we live, there’s something wondrous about it. Call it God or human nature or what you will, but there’s a certain something that I can’t define in a system, even though it’s very much alive and real, and you see, for me it’s God or just as good as God. Look, if I must die in due course in one way or another, fine, what would there be to keep me alive? Wouldn’t it be the thought of love (moral or immoral love, what do I know about it?). And heavens, I love Kee Vos for a thousand reasons, but precisely because I believe in life and in something real I no longer become distracted as I used to when I had thoughts about God and religion that were more or less similar to those Kee Vos now appears to have. I won’t give her up, but that inner crisis she’s perhaps going through will take time, and I have the patience for it, and nothing she says or does makes me angry. But as long as she goes on being attached to the past and clinging to it, I must work and keep my mind clear for painting and drawing and business. So I did what I did, from a need for warmth of life and with an eye to health. I’m also telling you these things so that you don’t get the idea again that I’m in a melancholy or distracted, pensive mood. On the contrary, I’m usually pottering about with and thinking about paint, making watercolours, looking for a studio &c. &c. Old chap, if only I could find a suitable studio.
Well, my letter has grown long, but anyway.
I sometimes wish that the three months between now and going back to M. were already over, but such as they’ll be, they’ll bring some good. Write to me, though, now and then. Are you coming again in the winter?
And listen, renting a studio &c., I’ll do it or I won’t, depending on what Mauve thinks of it. I’m sending him the floor plan as agreed, and perhaps he’ll come and have a look himself if necessary. But Pa has to stay out of it. Pa isn’t the right man to get mixed up in artistic matters. And the less I have to do with Pa in business matters, the better I’ll get along with Pa. But I have to be free and independent in many things, that goes without saying.
I sometimes shudder at the thought of K.V., seeing her dwelling on the past and clinging to old, dead notions. There’s something fatal about it, and oh, she’d be none the worse for changing her mind. I think it quite possible that her reaction will come, there’s so much in her that’s healthy and lively. And so in March I’ll go to The Hague again and – and – again to Amsterdam. But when I left Amsterdam this time, I said to myself, under no circumstances should you become melancholy and let yourself be overwhelmed so that your work suffers, especially now that it’s beginning to progress. Eating strawberries in the spring, yes, that’s part of life, but it’s only a short part of the year and it’s still a long way off.
And you should envy me because of this or that? Oh no, old chap, because what I’m seeking can be found by all, by you perhaps sooner than by me. And oh, I’m so backward and narrow-minded about so many things, if only I knew exactly why and what I should do to improve. But unfortunately we often don’t see the beams in our own eye. Do write to me soon, and you’ll just have to separate the wheat from the chaff in my letters, if sometimes there’s something good in them, something true, so much the better, but of course there’s much in them that’s wrong, more or less, or perhaps exaggerated, without my always being aware of it. I’m truly no scholar and am so extremely ignorant, oh, like many others and even more than others, but I can’t gauge that myself, and I can gauge others even less than I can gauge myself, and am often wide of the mark. But even as we stray we sometimes find the track anyway, and there’s something good in all movement (by the way, I happened to hear Jules Breton say that and have remembered that utterance of his). Tell me, have you ever heard Mauve preach?? I’ve heard him imitate several clergymen – once he gave a sermon on Peter’s barque (the sermon was divided into 3 parts: First, would he have bought it or inherited it? Second, would he have paid for it in instalments or parts? Third, did he perhaps (banish the thought) steal it?). Then he went on to preach on ‘the goodness of the Lord’ and on ‘the Tigris and the Euphrates’ and finally he did an imitation of J.P.S., how he had married A. and Lecomte.
But when I told him that I had once said in a conversation with Pa that I believed that one could say something edifying even in church, even from the pulpit, M. said, Yes. And then he did an imitation of Father Bernhard: God – God – is almighty – he created the sea, he created the earth and the sky and the stars and the sun and the moon, he can do everything – everything – everything – and yet – no, He’s not almighty, there’s one thing He cannot do. What is the one thing that God Almighty cannot do? God Almighty cannot cast away a sinner. Well, adieu, Theo, do write soon, in thought a handshake, believe me