From Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney:
Without the obsessive regime of self-instruction and direct observation from nature that typified his Nuenen period, it is doubtful we would know Vincent van Gogh today. A late starter, the almost 30-year-old van Gogh made up for lost artistic time in a fever of drawing and painting that culminated in his first masterpiece, 'The potato eaters', finished in 1885. Between December 1884 and the completion of this rustic nocturne, he produced forty bust-length portraits of peasant types: a series of Heads of the People as it were. Van Gogh's socialist sympathies are apparent in every one. Vigorously brushed and soberly coloured, they take substance from the darkness around them. Fiery highlights on flesh and fabric suggest lamplight. Indeed, 'The potato eaters' is lit by paraffin. The present brooding study in all likelihood shows Antonius van Rooij, paterfamilias of the group. Van Gogh yearned to share in the social simplicity and moral certainty of this man. That he could not do so, though painful to him, left open the way to art.
To Theo van Gogh. Isleworth, Friday, 18 August 1876.
My dear Theo,
Yesterday I went to see Gladwell, who’s home for a few days. Something very sad happened to his family: his sister, a girl full of life, with dark eyes and hair, 17 years old, fell from her horse while riding on Blackheath. She was unconscious when they picked her up, and died 5 hours later without regaining consciousness.
I went there as soon as I heard what had happened and that Gladwell was at home. I left here yesterday morning at 11 o’clock, and had a long walk to Lewisham, the road went from one end of London to the other. At 5 o’clock I was at Gladwell’s. I’d gone to their gallery first, but it was closed.
They had all just come back from the funeral, it was a real house of mourning and it did me good to be there. I had feelings of embarrassment and shame at seeing that deep, estimable grief, for these people are estimable.
Blessed are they that mourn, blessed are they that are ‘sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing’, blessed are the pure in heart, for God comforts the simple. Blessed are they that find Love on their path, who are bound intimately with one another by God, for to them all things work together for good. I talked with Harry for a long time, until the evening, about all kinds of things, about the kingdom of God and about his Bible, and we walked up and down on the station, talking, and those moments before parting we’ll probably never forget.
We know each other so well, his work was my work, the people he knows there I know too, his life was my life, and it was given to me to see so deeply into their family affairs, I think, because I believe that I love them, not so much because I know the particulars of those affairs, but because I feel the tone and feeling of their being and life.
So we walked back and forth on that station, in that everyday world, but with a feeling that was not everyday.
They don’t last long, such moments, and we soon had to take leave of each other. It was a beautiful sight, looking out from the train over London, that lay there in the dark, St Paul’s11 and other churches in the distance. I stayed in the train until Richmond and walked along the Thames to Isleworth, that was a lovely walk, on the left the parks with their tall poplars, oaks and elms, on the right the river, reflecting the tall trees. It was a beautiful, almost solemn, evening; I got home at quarter past 10.
Thanks for your last letter. You hadn’t yet written that Mrs Vintcent had died; how often I brought her home in the evenings. Do you still visit Borchers sometimes? How I’d like to have walked with you to Hoeven! I often teach the boys biblical history, and last Sunday I read the Bible with them. Mornings and evenings we all read the Bible and sing and pray, and that is good. We did that at Ramsgate, too, and when those 21 sons of the London markets and streets prayed ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, give us this day our daily bread’, I’ve sometimes thought of the cry of the young ravens that the Lord hears, and it did me good to pray with them and to bow my head, probably even lower than they did, at the words Do not lead us into temptation but deliver us from evil.
I’m still full of yesterday; it must be good to be the brother of the man I saw so sorrowful yesterday, I mean that it must ‘be blessed to mourn’ with manly sorrow, how I’d have liked to comfort the Father, but I was embarrassed, though I could talk to the son. There was something hallowed in that house yesterday.
Have you ever read ‘A life for a life’, I think in Dutch it’s called ‘Uit het leven voor het leven’, by the woman who wrote John Halifax? You’d find it very beautiful. How’s your English coming along?
It was a delight to take a long walk again, very little walking is done here at school. When I think of my life of struggle in Paris last year and now here, where sometimes I can’t leave the house for a whole day, or at least no further than the garden, then I sometimes think, when will I return to that world? If I do return to it, though, it will probably be some other kind of work than I did last year. But I think that I prefer doing biblical history with the boys to walking; one feels more or less safe doing the former.
And now, regards to everyone at the Rooses’, and if anyone else should ask after me. How are the Van den Berghs, and the Van Stockums on Buitenhof? Do you ever hear anything from them? A handshake in thought and best wishes from
Your most loving brother
And herewith a letter for Mauve. You may read it, I believe it’s good not to forget one’s old acquaintances, that’s why I’m writing again to some of them, also those in Paris, to Soek and others.
If you can persuade anyone to read Scenes from clerical life by Eliot, and Felix Holt, you’ll be doing a good deed. The former is a wonderful book. Recommend the former to Caroline and to the Mauves and, if possible, to Mr Tersteeg as well. Could you write by return of post saying whether a Dutch pound of butter costs 80 cents and – if it’s a different pound – what part of a kilo is it then? Also give my regards to Mr and Mrs Tersteeg and Betsy. I’m writing to you between school hours and rather in haste, as you can see.