To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Sunday, 23 April 1882.
Since I wrote to Mauve ‘do you realize that those two months are long past, let’s shake hands and go our separate ways rather than quarrel’, I say, since I wrote such a thing and received no sign of life in return, it’s as though something has been choking me.
Because – and you know this – I do love Mauve, and it’s so awful that nothing much will come of all that happiness he held out to me. For I fear that the better I draw the more trouble and opposition I’ll encounter. Because I’ll have to suffer greatly for various idiosyncrasies that I cannot change. First of all, my appearance and manner of speaking and clothing, and also because later, when I’m earning more, I’ll continue to live in a different sphere from most other painters, because my view of things, the subjects I want to depict, inevitably demand it.
Enclosed is a little sketch of Diggers, I’ll tell you why I’m enclosing it:
Tersteeg says to me: ‘Things didn’t go well for you earlier either, and it was a failure, and now it’s the same all over again’. Stop right there – no, it’s wholly different from before, and that line of reasoning is in fact fallacious. That I wasn’t suited to commerce or professional studies in no way proves that I’d also be unfit to be a painter. On the contrary, if I were fit to be a clergyman or a dealer selling the work of others, perhaps I wouldn’t have been fit for painting and drawing, and wouldn’t have both handed in and been given my notice as such. It’s precisely because I have a draughtsman’s fist that I can’t keep myself from drawing and, I ask you, have I ever doubted or hesitated or wavered since the day I began to draw? I think you know very well that I’ve hacked my way through and am obviously ever more keen to do battle.
Coming back to that little sketch – it was made in the Geest district in the drizzle, standing in a street in the mud, in all that bustle and noise, and I’m sending it to show you that my sketchbook proves that I try to capture things first-hand. Put Iterson or H.G.T. himself, for example, in front of a sandpit in the Geest district where the dredgers are at work laying a water or gas pipe – I’d like to see the kind of face someone like that would pull and what kind of sketch he’d make. Struggling on wharves and in alleys and streets and inside houses, waiting rooms, even public houses, that’s not a nice job, unless one is an artist. As such one would rather be in the filthiest neighbourhood, provided there’s something to draw, than at a tea party with nice ladies. Unless one draws ladies, in which case a tea party is nice even for an artist.
I only mean to say that looking for subjects, frequenting the labourers, the struggle and worry with models, drawing from nature and on the spot, is all rough work – sometimes even filthy work, and truly, the manners and clothing of a shop assistant aren’t exactly the most appropriate for me or anyone else who doesn’t have to speak to beautiful ladies and wealthy gentlemen and sell them expensive things and earn money,a but instead draws diggers in a pit in the Geest district, for instance.
If I could do what H.G.T. or Iterson can, if I were suited to it, I wouldn’t be fit for my profession, and for my profession it’s better that I am as I am than that I force myself to adopt manners that wouldn’t fit me. I – who wasn’t at ease in a reasonably good coat in a respectable shop and no longer could be, especially now, and would most likely be bored and be a bore – am a completely different person when I’m working in the Geest district, say, or on the heath or in the dunes. Then my ugly face and my weather-stained jacket are perfectly in keeping with my surroundings, and I’m myself and work with pleasure.
Whatever the ‘How to do it’ entails, I hope to battle on. If I wear a nice coat, the workers I need as models are distrustful and fear me like the devil, or else they want a lot of money from me.
Now I’m struggling along as I see fit, and it seems to me I’m not one of those who complain that ‘there are no models in The Hague’. So if remarks are made about my manners in the sense of clothing, face, manner of speaking, what shall I say in reply – – – that such talk bores me.
Am I then someone without manners in another sense, namely rude or tactless? Look, in my opinion all civility is based on kindness towards everyone, especially towards those we know – based on the need felt by anyone with a heart in his breast to mean something to others and to be of some use – on the need one ultimately has to live with others and not alone. It’s for that that I do my best, I draw not to annoy people but to amuse them, or to draw their attention to things that are worth looking at and which not everyone knows. I refuse to believe, Theo, that I’m such a monster of rudeness or incivility as to deserve to be cut off from society or, in the words of Tersteeg at any rate, ‘be unable to remain in The Hague’.
Do I lower myself by living with the people I draw, do I lower myself by frequenting the houses of workers and poor people or by receiving them in my studio? It seems to me that my profession involves that, and only those who understand nothing of painting or drawing are entitled to find fault with it.
I ask this: where do the draughtsmen for The Graphic, Punch &c. get their models? Do they or don’t they go themselves to round them up in the poorest alleyways of London? And the knowledge they have of the people, is it innate – or did they acquire it later in life by living among the people and by paying attention to things that most people walk right past, by remembering what many forget?
When I go to see Mauve or Tersteeg, I can’t express myself as I’d like, and perhaps I do more harm than good. When they get used to my manner of speaking, it won’t bother them.
But, if you will, tell them from me how matters stand, that if I said or did anything to hurt them, I hope they’ll forgive me. Tell them, in better words than I can find and with the necessary civility, how they, for their part, caused me much pain, much sorrow, much trouble in the few short months which these unpleasantnesses have made so long. Make them understand this, because they don’t know it, they take me to be insensitive and indifferent. And by doing so you’ll be doing me a big favour, and I believe that everything can be settled in this way. I wish they’d simply accept me as I am. Mauve has been good to me and has given me considerable and unstinting help, but – it lasted a fortnight. That's too short.
Adieu Theo – do your best in this affair – if I have a bit of good fortune here instead of misfortune, I won’t have to make life difficult for you, and now enough, believe me
You’ve no doubt heard of Pa’s calling and that Ma’s better again, but Uncle Cent is ill. I’m working on the drawings for C.M., but I’ve been so depressed these days by what I wrote to you that it’s torn me away from my work, and then I thought, some light must be shed on the matter, perhaps Theo can enlighten me.
It’s no wonder that it depressed me, because Tersteeg already told me ‘that I wouldn’t be able to remain in The Hague’, and I thought, he’s just the kind of person who, if he puts his mind to it, will thwart me and try to cripple me every step of the way. But how on earth is it possible, and what has come over them? If he thinks my drawings aren’t good, is that any reason for such resolute opposition, with whichever weapons?