Vincent van Gogh - Flying Fox 1885

Flying Fox 1885
Flying Fox
Oil on canvas 41.5 x 79.0 cm. Nuenen: late October-late November, 1885
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Thursday, 1 and Friday, 2 June 1882.
My dear Theo,
I received your letter with the enclosure and immediately paid the landlord. There’s a mortgage on the house and so the rent is collected by someone else, who evicted the people downstairs last month; he gives short shrift. What you say about dividing the month into 3 so that I would receive the money on the 1st, 10th and 20th is most welcome. That’s much easier for me. I don’t need to tell you what a relief your letter was.
Have you received the Fish-drying barn drawing? I’m working on a couple more to add to it, so that you’ll have 3 or so done in the same manner.
C.M. also has some in this manner, but haven’t heard from him yet.
I want to say something more about what you seem to fear, namely the possible steps the family may take to make me a ward of court. If you think that ‘a few witnesses (false ones at that) need only state that you can’t manage your financial affairs, and that’s enough to give Pa the right to deprive you of your civil rights and make you a ward of court’, if, I say, you really think that it’s that easy these days, then I take the liberty to question that.
Those wardships which were often so scandalously abused to get rid of people thought to be ‘troublesome’ or ‘disagreeable’ (awkward customers) aren’t granted so readily these days. And the law gives the accused the opportunity to appeal, as well as numerous remedies.
But, you will say, a clever lawyer will twist the law &c. &c. So be it, but I say to you, in this day and age people aren’t made wards of court so easily or so readily...
I know of a case where even the Jesuits were unable to have someone they wanted out of the way made a ward of court, for the simple reason that the man said, I am not in the slightest the sort of person to whom wardship is at all applicable, and wouldn’t give in. Then, an example of someone who was placed under supervision somewhere against his will so that he couldn’t go where he pleased, warns the person supervising him that he has no right to deprive him of his freedom and must let him go... warns him several times quite coolly and calmly but receives a refusal in reply. Then smashes his guard’s brains in with the poker and remains calmly standing beside him and gives himself up. The case was investigated and the result was complete acquittal (because in some extreme cases there’s a ‘right of self-defence’), and because of the murder the original case was looked at again and it was found that the accused wasn’t someone who deserved to be made a ward of court.
In short, in this day and age it isn’t easy to make someone a ward of court if he protests calmly and manfully and forthrightly. I don’t really think the family would do such a thing... but, you will say... at the time of Geel they already wanted to. Sadly, yes — Pa is capable of it — but I tell you, if he dares to attempt something like that, I will stand up to him to the utmost. He’d do well to think twice before attacking me, but again I doubt whether they’d dare do such a thing. If they do want and dare to, I shan’t say, ‘Oh, please don’t do that’, but on the contrary, I’ll let them go ahead so that they’re shamed in public and have to bear the costs of the matter. I say to you, I know of a case in which a noble, very rich family wanted to make someone a ward of court, employing lawyers and Jesuits, but still didn’t succeed in having that person made a ward of court — even though he was accused on two counts: first, incompetence in financial matters and second, diminished mental capacity. He protested, and the judge let the family know unofficially that they’d be well advised to drop the case; the family had to give up even before proceedings really began.
I would only add this: that, it being known to you that I protest at all times against anything of the sort, if sooner or later they take advantage of, for example, a possible sickness or indisposition on my part to take action against me, you will know that it is not with my consent. In the event of illness I hope that you would resist any attempt to exploit my helplessness. In a healthy state I can deal with it on my own, and have no fear of anything of this kind. And I can’t believe that they’d really resort to such a measure, but if at some time you learn that steps are being taken, let me know.
Of course I don’t mean when people are just talking about it or mention it — I can put up with mere talk, but not if it turns into deeds. If they do something, I hope you’ll warn me. I’m familiar with the law on wardship, I do not believe they can do anything to me.
Once before in my life, many years ago though, I had a letter along the same lines as your last one. It was from H.G.T., whom I had consulted about something that I’ve regretted speaking to him about ever since. Then, I recall, a kind of fear swept over me and I was afraid of my family. Now — 10 or 12 years later — I’ve learned to think differently about my obligations and relationship to my family. Pa is always harping on the ‘respect and obedience’ I’m supposed to owe him. I don’t mean to say that a child shouldn’t owe its parents respect and obedience, but I want to point out that Pa sometimes abuses that badly and, for example, if someone doesn’t agree with him, immediately takes it as a lack of respect. It would be a fine thing if I were to organize my life as Pa would like it. It’s absolutely certain that then nothing more would come of my drawing, for I would be unable to do anything any more. I’ll share and agree with Pa’s view when Pa acquires an understanding of art, and that will never happen. The ministers often bring ‘beauty’ into a sermon, but then it’s in their usual way and very heavy going.
Now, I’m glad you’ve told me frankly what you think about Sien, namely that she intrigued and that I allowed myself to be fooled by her. And I can understand that you might think that, because such cases aren’t unknown. However, I remember once shutting the door so firmly in the face of a girl who wanted to try something similar that I rather doubt that I’m likely to be the victim of a crude intrigue. The position with Sien is that I am truly attached to her and she to me, that she’s my loyal helper who goes everywhere with me, and who becomes ever more indispensable to me each day. My feelings for her are less passionate than my feelings last year for Kee Vos, but a love like mine for Sien is the only kind I’m capable of, especially after being disappointed in that first passion. She and I are two unfortunates who keep each other company and bear the burden together, and it’s in that way that unhappiness is turned into happiness and the unbearable is made bearable. Her mother is just like an old woman as Frère paints them. Now, you understand that I wouldn’t care a great deal about the formality of marriage if the family didn’t, as long as I remain loyal to her. But I know for certain that Pa really does think it important, and although he won’t approve of my marrying her he would think it far worse if I lived with her without being married. His advice would be: leave her, and he would give that advice in this form: wait, which would be the end of it and quite inappropriate. Pa’s like that... he procrastinates over matters that are urgent and pressing, and by doing so can make a person furious. So let Pa keep his ‘wait’ to himself, for if he should say it I couldn’t restrain myself. I’m 30 years old with furrows on my forehead and lines on my face as if I were 40, and my hands are full of grooves — yet I’m regarded by Pa, in his eyes, as a boy (it’s 18 months since Pa wrote to me ‘you are in the first flush of youth’). And that’s then said with a tuppence-worth of wisdom thrown in that I’ve heard many times before. Do you know what I compare Pa and Uncle Stricker with?... ‘The two augurs’ by Gérôme. But I’m an “awkward customer” — so be it.
Now you will say: Vincent, immerse yourself instead in perspective and the Fish-drying barns. And then I say, you’re quite right, brother, and that’s why I’m going to work on the two drawings that belong with the first, and that you’ll presently receive as proof that I like nothing so much as immersing myself in the things of nature and drawing, without going into such, to me, eminently foolish matters as being made a ward of court. Adieu, with my warm thanks for your loyal help.
Ever yours,

I held on to this letter because I wanted to send the small drawings with it, but they still need some work. But one is finished, namely another fish-drying barn. Sien and I camped in the dunes for it for days on end from morning till evening like true bohemians. We took bread and a small bag of coffee, and fetched hot water from a water and coals woman in Scheveningen. This water and coals woman in her setting is wonderful — indescribably interesting. I’ve already been to that shop at 5 in the morning when the street-sweepers came to drink their coffee. That would be a thing to draw, old chap!!! However, the posing of the various figures would cost me quite a lot, but at heart I long to do it. Do write to me when you can to let me know what you think of these three latest drawings. And also whether you really think I should be more afraid than I am of being made a ward of court, which I believe impossible. For I should not be unconcerned if steps were really being taken; that goes without saying. It would be inconvenient for me to go to Etten just now, first because I’m so wrapped up in my work, and second because the journey would cost me more than I can afford, and I can better spend it on Sien.
I’m delighted by the prospect of your coming. I’m eager to know what sort of impression Sien will make on you. There’s nothing special about her; she’s just an ordinary woman of the people who for me has something sublime. Anyone who loves an ordinary, everyday person and is loved by her is happy — despite the dark side of life.
If it hadn’t been that she needed help last winter, the bond between her and me wouldn’t have come about in the circumstances, after my disappointment and wounded love. In fact, though, it was precisely the feeling of being able to be useful after all, even despite that disappointment, that brought me to my senses and made me arise. It isn’t that I sought it, but I found it, and now the fact is that there’s a warm attachment between her and me, and it would do me no credit to give that up. I might perhaps have become indifferent and sceptical if I hadn’t met Sien, but my work and she now keep me active. And I would like to add that, because Sien takes on all the toil and worry of the painter’s life and is so willing to pose, I believe I’ll be a better artist with her than if I had won Kee Vos. For Sien may not be so graceful and has perhaps, or rather certainly, very different manners, but I’ve been struck by her good will and devotion.
Heyerdahl has now seen Sorrow, but I would like the latest three drawings to be seen by a draughtsman, for example Henri Pille. H. Pille certainly won’t remember me, although we have met, and I know that he’s someone who’s sometimes very odd in his behaviour, and I don’t know whether he’ll say anything. But I just wanted to know whether the drawings would make any impression on him and whether they appealed to him. I say this just in case you run into Henri Pille now and again, for you’d have to show them to him as if by chance. I must also tell you that all goes well with my collection of woodcuts, which I think of as belonging to you although I have the use of them. I now have at least a thousand prints, English (mainly SWAIN’S), American, French. And Rappard, for example, who now also collects them, liked them very much. So that’s something that belongs to you which you haven’t yet seen. But I’m sorry that I was unable to buy Doré’s London recently. The Jew wanted 7.50 guilders for it, but I couldn’t pay that. And an Album Boetzel. Anyway, you’ll see them when you come here, and I hope be pleased with them. Perhaps through them you’ll make the acquaintance of some artists you’ve seen little or nothing of before.

My dear Theo,
What I really must say to you is this. You know full well that right up to today there has never been anything of a criminal nature in my life and that I’m in full possession of my civil rights as a Dutchman. That I’ll be on my guard against such things as are not permitted under the law of the land, but then would certainly not allow myself to be molested or made a ward of court or anything like that. I’m aware that sometimes very ugly things were repeatedly said about me in the family in various ways, although I don’t know the exact source. But I doubt whether those who said those things would dare to maintain them if it really came down to swearing to them in court or something like that.
I don’t know whether you have the Constitution of the Netherlands and the other laws. I’ve frequently consulted them about various questions for myself, if I doubted the legality of something or other. And not only the Dutch laws, but I’ve sometimes taken the trouble to compare the Dutch regulations with the French or English constitution. Not only now but in previous years when I was studying some points of history, I had to look up the laws.
So I declare to you that I’ll calmly await the course of events, but I just hope the question won’t arise and that, on the contrary, the family will be disposed to settle things in an orderly and peaceful way when the need arises.
I must tell you, Theo, that I’ve noticed that Pa, for example, sometimes does not take the trouble to check things, or bases and establishes a judgement on such shaky foundations and superficial impressions, information or hearsay that it can’t hold water. Moreover, an article of the law shouldn’t be viewed in isolation or taken out of context, but should be seen in the context in which it occurs, with the amendments and explanatory articles that go with it.
If, for example, it says, ‘A child owes its parents respect’, as the law on paternal authority begins, it isn’t good enough to fly into a temper and say, ‘You don’t have enough respect for your parents’. You must first think and see if there’s indeed anything unlawful in the child’s behaviour before resorting to the law.
But what often happens in our family? There’s some piece of gossip; people inflate it, take it to an extreme, arrive at a judgement or decision about someone, sometimes entirely without having informed the person in question or speaking to him, relying solely on impressions, hearsay, snippets of information (the devil take them, especially the last). Our dear Uncle Cent has a way of gathering ‘snippets of information’ that I find far from loyal.
For my part, when I saw that kind of thing at home, I said often enough to Pa, This will bring you no good.
Just imagine, Theo, how very different it could have been in our home. If Pa had been a little less suspicious of me, for example, if he was a little less mistrustful, if, instead of always seeing me as doing everything wrong, he had devoted a little more patience and good will to understanding my true intentions — which he always completely misinterprets. In the first place he would have felt less sorrow on my account and more peace of mind about me, and in the second would have spared me a good deal of sorrow.
For it’s a great sorrow to think that it’s even worse: as if I had no home, no father, no mother, no family, and I’ve often thought that – do so now as well.
But one thing is certain: one may not proceed behind someone’s back, not even, I believe, make decisions about someone, even in a family council, unless the accused, or rather the person about whom the council is deliberating, is present. But what is a family council? In many cases no more than an intrigue, sometimes a sop to the family’s vanity — much ado about nothing.
But often something is decided which proves that those present have overlooked the law and which will thus not be upheld when it actually comes to court. If I really were a bad or spiteful, trouble-making person or an intriguer or dimwit, then I really would be afraid.
Now, being as I am, I really don’t believe that I have anything to fear from any steps the family or members of the family may take against me.
It is my sincere wish that no steps be taken against me, not because I fear anything but because I would rather have peace than disputes.
I do wish that you knew Sien, but you’re so far away and it’s impossible for me to describe a person so that you’d know her well enough from the description alone. However, I can try. Do you remember the nursemaid we had years ago in Zundert, Leen Veerman? Sien is a similar type of person, I believe, if my memory is correct. Now, her profile is rather like the Angel of the passion by Landelle, you know that I mean a kneeling figure — the print is published by Goupil. But of course she isn’t exactly the same, I mention it just to give you a rough idea of the line of her face. She had a mild case of smallpox and is thus no longer beautiful, but the lines of her figure are simple and not without grace. What I appreciate in her is that she doesn’t play the coquette with me, goes her own way quietly, is thrifty, is very willing to adapt to circumstances as she finds them and to learn, so that she can help me in my work in a thousand ways. And the fact that she’s no longer beautiful, no longer young, no longer silly, no longer coquettish — those are the very things that make it possible for me to do something with her. Her constitution has suffered severely, and last winter she was very weak. Now, thanks to plain food, plenty of walking and fresh air and taking baths, she’s much stronger and more robust than then. But a pregnancy is a hard undertaking. Her speech is ugly, and she often says things and uses expressions that our little sister Willemien, for example, who was brought up very differently, wouldn’t say, but this no longer bothers me in the slightest. I would rather she had ugly speech and was good than cultured in her speech and without a heart. But that’s just it — she has lots of heart — can endure, has patience, good will, takes trouble, and rolls her sleeves up. Comes every week to scrub the studio to save the money for a cleaner. Well, we’ll be poor from time to time, but as long as she has something to eat, she too doesn’t have a weak constitution in the sense of having an illness. But she has repeatedly suffered a lot, from smallpox for example, and then from throat disease. But that’s no reason why she shouldn’t grow old, and in complete good health. What’s more, what reason do I have for melancholy? I have my work after all, and my enjoyment of it. Since when is there any need to waver or hesitate or be faint-hearted? That’s why people fail, but not through tackling the difficulties and problems, even if they seem to be of huge dimensions.
I must ask you something again in confidence. Do you think Pa might perhaps be concerned that I was going to ask him for money because I’m in this situation? Let me just explain how things stand. I most certainly wouldn’t do that. Pa has often told me that my upbringing &c. cost more than that of the others. This is why I’ll now not ask Pa for anything more, for example in the event of marriage, not so much as a single old cup or saucer. Sien and I have the essentials. The only thing we can’t do without as long as I can’t sell is the 150 francs from you for the rent, bread, shoes and drawing materials — in short, the running expenses. But make no mistake, I don’t want to interfere in Pa’s financial affairs either now or later (he has always kept them completely hidden from me, except that he told me long ago and on very many occasions that there had been a capital but that this had been drawn on and was now reduced to almost nothing). You know what I’m like. I’m not the sort of money-grubber or miser who would ask Pa for something now, knowing how things stand, although I know no more details beyond the general point that the capital has been reduced to nothing or soon will be.
I sometimes feel as deep a compassion for Pa and Ma as you, but you know that I can’t do what you do and so I never mention it. However, you know what I think about it, and if you happen to discuss the matter you could tell Pa this. I ask for nothing, not so much as an old cup or saucer, only one single thing — that I be allowed to cherish and care for my poor, weak, tormented little wife as well as my poverty permits, without steps being taken to separate or hinder us or cause us sorrow. No one cared for her or wanted her, she was alone and abandoned like a discarded rag and I picked her up and gave her all the love, all the tenderness, all the care, that was in me. She felt that and has grown stronger, or rather is in the process of growing stronger.
You know the old fable or parable. There was a poor man in a city who had absolutely nothing except for one little ewe lamb that he had bought and fed so that it grew up in his house — it ate from his meat and drank from his cup and slept in his bosom and was like a daughter to him. There was also a rich man in the city, who had many flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. Even so, he took that ewe lamb from the poor man and slaughtered it. See, if Tersteeg, for example, could do what he wanted, he would take Sien from me and throw her back into that accursed old life that she always loathed.
And for what? — to please Princenhage or to give himself an air of virtue as if he’d caught me committing a crime! They have no feeling at all in Princenhage; they’re bored, so an intrigue — someone to persecute, or something like that — is a welcome diversion. And yet, how do I obstruct Tersteeg? I ask nothing from him, I don’t bother him in any way — for as you know I haven’t even set foot in his gallery for six months. Shall not do so in the future either, because now more than ever I find him hateful for his lack of normal human feeling, because he has no respect for life but just hacks at it savagely. A person without money should be done away with according to him... away with them — all rags and tatters.
Let me be quite clear, the lives of the woman, the children and me hang by the thread of the 150 francs a month until my work starts to go.
If that thread breaks before then, it’s ‘morituri te salutant’. It has been worked out exactly, exactly, and we can only make ends meet by exercising the greatest possible thrift. But to us that’s a blessing, because we’re bound firmly to each other by love.
Whether Pa and Ma remain calm will depend for 3/4 on what you say to them. If you voice an objection, the fat will be in the fire. If you say something like, stay calm, don’t interfere, or if you manage one way or another to calm them, they’ll stay calm. You need not compromise yourself for this or take the responsibility yourself. Far from it — that rests with me. But, if you remain what you’ve been to me up to now, you could reassure them in two respects as regards finances: first that I have a resource for meeting running expenses in your monthly sum; second that I ask nothing from them, not a penny, not so much as an old cup or plate; third that I already have the most essential furniture, bedding, children’s clothes, cradle &c.
There you have it, brother. May the ‘dramatic’ be avoided and may serenity prevail for all of us. This is my hope and this is what I strive for.