To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Friday, 12 or Saturday, 13 May 1882.
My dear Theo,
Today I sent off a few drawings and sketches for you; what I want to show you above all else is that what I told you about doesn’t mean that I’m easing off on my work, on the contrary. I’m literally engrossed in my work and take pleasure in it, and am in good spirits.
Now I hope that you won’t blame me for being a little worried because you haven’t given me answers to various things. I don’t believe you’ll think ill of me for being with Christien. I don’t believe that you’ll abandon me altogether for that or any other reason of etiquette or whatever. But is it any wonder that after what happened with Mauve and H.G.T. I sometimes think with a certain melancholy, perhaps it’s happened with him as well?
At any rate, I’m very much looking forward to a letter from you, though I know that you’re doubtless very busy and that it hasn’t been so very long since you last wrote. Perhaps you’ll experience it yourself sooner or later, but during days in which one is one with a pregnant woman, so to speak, there’s so much to worry about that 24 hours is sometimes a week and a week seems longer than a month. And that’s why I’ve written to you so often these last few days, as long as I have no reply. I wrote to you about my plan to rent the house next door as being more suitable than this one, which appears capable of being blown apart &c. But after all, you know very well that I don’t ask arrogantly for this or that.
I only hope that you’ll continue to be what you were to me, I don’t think I’ve lowered or dishonoured myself by doing what I did, although some will perhaps think so. I feel that my work lies in the heart of the people, that I must keep close to the ground, that I must delve deeply into life and must get ahead by coping with great cares and difficulties. I can’t imagine any other way, and I don’t ask to be without difficulties or cares, only that they don’t become unbearable, I hope, and that doesn’t have to be the case as long as I work and continue to have the sympathy of people like you. Life is the same as drawing: sometimes one has to act quickly and resolutely, tackle things with willpower, take care that the broad outlines appear with lightning speed. It’s no use hesitating or doubting, and the hand may not tremble and the eye may not wander but must remain fixed on one’s purpose. And one must be so engrossed in it that something quickly takes shape on the sheet of paper or the canvas, where at first there was nothing, so that later one hardly knows how one tossed it off. The time of reasoning and reflecting must precede the decisive action. While doing it there’s little space for reflecting or reasoning. And acting quickly is a man’s work and before one is capable of it one must have experienced something. Sometimes a helmsman succeeds in making use of a gale to make headway instead of foundering because of it.
What I wanted to say to you again is this. I don’t have any great plans for the future. Though I may have a fleeting desire for a life free of care, for good fortune – time and again I return lovingly to the difficulties, to the cares, to a difficult life – and think, it’s better like this, I learn more this way, I’m no worse a person for it, this isn’t the road to ruin.
I’m engrossed in my work, and I’m confident that with a bit of good will from people like you, like Mauve, like Tersteeg, although we had a disagreement this winter, I’ll succeed in earning enough to live on – not in luxury but in the spirit of ‘thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy face’. Christien isn’t a millstone round my neck or a burden, but a help. If she were alone it’s possible that she’d go under; a woman shouldn’t be alone in a society and an age like the one we live in, which doesn’t spare the weak but tramples them underfoot and rides over them with wheels when a weak creature has fallen.
This is why, because I see so many weak people downtrodden, I seriously doubt the genuineness of much of what one calls progress and civilization.
I do believe in civilization, even in this day and age, but only in the kind that’s based on true love of humanity. Anything that costs human lives I find barbarous, and I have no respect for it. Anyway, enough. If I could rent the house next door, if I could have a weekly allowance, it would be wonderful. If not, I won’t give up hope and shall wait a while longer. But if the first is possible, it would be so fortunate for me, and would give me more strength for my work that is otherwise absorbed by cares.
You’ll see that the portfolio contains all kinds of things. Keep what appears to be the best of what I send, which you can then show if the occasion arises. The rest I’ll get back at your convenience.
If I thought you’d come soon, I’d naturally keep these things until you came. Now, though, it’s perhaps good for you to see one thing and another together, and I hope you can tell that I’m not living a life of leisure at your expense. Viewing it superficially, you’d perhaps see this business with Christien in a completely different light from what it actually is.
But now that I’ve told you what I said in this letter and the previous ones, it will seem less incomprehensible to you. I wish that those who wish me well understood that what I’m doing is prompted by a deep feeling of and need for love, that frivolity and arrogance and indifference are not the springs that drive the machine, and that if I take this step it’s proof that I’m taking root close to the ground. I don’t think I’d do well to strive for a higher station or to change much in my character. I must experience even more, must learn a lot more before I’ll be mature, but that’s a question of time and continuing to work. Adieu, write soon, if there’s anything to spare it certainly wouldn’t be ill-timed.
Believe me, with a handshake,
If I thought I could do someone or other a favour by moving away from The Hague, I’d prefer to go away rather than bother anyone, it doesn’t matter where. But I’m not doing anything to harm anyone, and after what you wrote to me I think I shouldn’t worry too much about what H.G.T. said.
The house I wrote to you about is now to let and I’m afraid it will be gone if I don’t act quickly. All the more reason why I’m looking forward to your letter. Because you’ll understand, after what happened with Mauve and H.G.T. and after what I told you about Christien, that I’m asking you frankly: Theo, do these things mean a change or separation between you and me? If not, I find it wonderful and am twice as happy as I was before to have your help and sympathy; if yes, then it’s better for me to know the worst than to live in uncertainty.
I like to see what I’m up against, whether it be good fortune or ill fortune.
I have your answer regarding the business of Mauve and H.G.T., not about the other. The other is something entirely separate, there’s a boundary between the artistic and the intimate, but it’s good to agree frankly on how we see things. And that’s why I say: Theo, I intend to marry this woman, to whom I am attached and she to me. If this should unhappily result in a change of attitude towards me on your part, I hope that you won’t withdraw your help without warning me in advance, and that you’ll continue to tell me clearly and plainly what you think.
Naturally I hope that in no way will your help and sympathy come to an end, and that we’ll continue to hold out a brotherly hand to each other despite things ‘the world’ opposes. So, old chap, if you receive this and haven’t written yet, let me hear something by return of post, because after what I told you I need to be reassured or else to know the worst.
Adieu. I hope that the air stays clear between you and me.