Vincent van Gogh - Peasant Woman Peeling Potatoes 1885

Peasant Woman Peeling Potatoes 1885
Peasant Woman Peeling Potatoes
Oil on canvas on panel 43.0 x 31.0 cm. Nuenen: February, 1885
Private collection

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Amsterdam, Tuesday, 12 June 1877.
My dear Theo,
I received your letter of 7 June and was glad to see that you were in Etten and had a good Sunday there, it’s nice that Pa and little brother brought you as far as Dordrecht.
And then you wrote about how you spoke at home of your plans for the future, when I read it, my heart spilled over for you, as it were, it seems very good to me. Launch out into the deep. What I hope now is only this – that you go to London before you see Paris. But we have to wait and see what happens. I’ve loved so much about those two cities, I think back on them with a feeling of nostalgia, and I’d almost like to go with you, if I’m ever far enough along to be permitted to fill a position in that great Dutch Church, then those memories will one day provide subjects for sermons, go onward in belief and with the faith of old, you and I; who knows whether we’ll shake each other’s hand again as I remember Pa and Uncle Jan doing at that little church in Zundert, once when Uncle came back from travelling and much had happened in both their lives, and they now felt firm ground beneath their feet, as it were.
Be sure and write as soon as you hear any more about this, I hope that we’ll have a quiet moment together sometime before you leave. Even though there seems to be no opportunity at present, such a thing may soon come about. But I repeat, brother, my heart spills over for you, I think the plan is very good – my past comes completely alive again now that I’m thinking of your future. ‘Behold, I make all things new’ will perhaps soon be your experience.
Be blessed these days. Take a good look at the things around you – don’t forget them – walk through the land again, as it says: in the length of it and in the breadth of it.
I have a lot to do every day, so the time goes quickly and the days are almost too short, even though I stretch them out a bit, I have such a great desire to progress and also to know the Bible well and thoroughly, and also to know many things, such as what I wrote to you about Cromwell. ‘No day without a line’, daily writing, reading, working and practising, with meekness and perseverance, will surely lead to something.
This week I went to the cemetery here, outside the Muiderpoort, there’s a small wood in front of it where it’s beautiful, especially in the evening when the sun shines through the leaves, there are also a lot of beautiful graves and all kinds of evergreens, and roses and forget-me-nots bloom there. Also took another walk to the Zuiderzee, which is 40 minutes from here, over a dyke from which one sees meadows everywhere and farms which always remind me of etchings by Rembrandt. It’s a beautiful city, this, today I again saw a corner for Thijs Maris or Allebé, namely houses behind the Oosterkerk, on a small inner courtyard, I had to see the sexton to ask about Uncle’s place in the church and I was in his house, also living there is a shoemaker &c., but one finds it everywhere, the world is full of it, may our own heart be filled with it and become so more and more. When I saw that sexton I couldn’t help thinking of a wood engraving, by Rethel I think, you must know it too, ‘Death as a friend’. I always found that scene very moving, in London in those days one saw it in front of nearly all the print-shop windows. It has a pendant, Cholera in Paris, and that dance of death is also by Rethel.
Heard the Rev. Laurillard on Sunday morning in the early sermon on ‘Jesus went through the cornfields’. He made a deep impression on me – he also spoke in that sermon about the parable of the sower and about the man who cast seed into the ground, and he should sleep, and rise day and night, and the seed should spring and increase and grow up, he knoweth not how, he also spoke about the funeral in the cornfield by Van der Maaten. The sun shone through the windows – there weren’t that many people in the church, mostly labourers and women. Afterwards I heard Uncle Stricker in the Oosterkerk on ‘praise, not of men but of God’, also occasioned by the death of H.M.
On Monday Aunt Mina and Margreet Meyboom left for Etten, and I saw them at the station of the Oosterspoor. While I was waiting for them there, I read the following in Lamennais:
At the head of a small inlet beneath a cliff hollowed out at its foot by the waves, among rocks from which hung long strands of sea-green weed, two men, one young, the other old but still sturdy, leaning against a fishing-boat, waited for the tide that was slowly coming in, barely ruffled by a dying breeze. Swelling as they neared the shore, the waves slid lazily over the sand with a faint and gentle murmur. A little later, the boat could be seen moving away from the shore towards the open sea, its prow raised, leaving behind it a ribbon of white foam. The old man, beside the tiller, watched the sails as they filled, then drooped like weary wings. His gaze then seemed to look for a sign on the horizon and in the dense, motionless clouds. Then, as he sank back into his thoughts, one read on his tanned brow an entire life of toil and unremitting struggle from which he had never flinched. The ebb tide created small valleys in the calm sea, where the hen petrel played, balancing gracefully on the glistening, lead-hued waves. From high in the air the seagull dived into them like an arrow, and on the black tip of a rock the ungainly cormorant stood motionless. The slightest movement, a faint breath of air, a streak of light, altered the aspect of these changing scenes. The young man, withdrawn into himself, saw them as one sees in dreams. His soul drifted and floated to the sound of the wake, like the light, monotonous sound with which the nurse sends the child to sleep. Suddenly, coming out of his reverie, his eyes light up, the air echoes to the sound of his resonant voice: To the ploughman the fields, to the huntsman the woods, to the fisherman the sea and its waves, and its reefs and its storms. The sky above his head, the depths beneath his feet, he is free, he has no master but himself. See her obey his hand, see her leap across the moving plains, the frail vessel into which the wind breathes life. He contends with the waves and subdues them, he contends with the wind and tames it. Who is as strong, who is as great as he? Where are the boundaries of his domains? Has anyone ever found them? Wherever the Ocean pours itself forth, God has said to him: Go, this is thine. His nets gather a living harvest in the depths of the waters. He has flocks beyond number which grow fat for him in pastures covered by the seas. Flowers — purple, blue, yellow, crimson, open in their bosom, and to charm his eye, the clouds present him with vast shores, beautiful azure lakes, wide rivers, mountains and valleys and fantastic cities, now plunged in shadow, now lit by all the glory of the setting sun. Oh, how sweet it is to me, the fisherman’s life! How its harsh battles and its manly joys delight me. And yet, my mother, when at night the squall suddenly shakes our cabin, what fear grips your heart! See you rise, all trembling, to invoke the holy Virgin who protects poor sailors! Kneeling before her image, your tears flow for your son, driven in the darkness by the whirlwind towards the reefs, where the moans of the dead are heard, mingling with the voice of the storm. Protect us, O Lord, for our barks are so small and Thy sea is so great.
A terrible storm blew up here this morning at quarter to 5, a little while later the first stream of workers came through the gate of the dockyard in the pouring rain. Got up and went into the yard and took a couple of notebooks to the cupola and sat there reading and looking round the whole yard and dock, the poplars and elders and other shrubs were bent by the strong wind, and the rain pelted on the wood-piles and the decks of the ships, sloops and a little steamboat went back and forth in the distance, near the village on the other side of the IJ, one saw brown sails passing quickly and the houses and trees on Buitenkant and churches in more vivid colours. Again and again one heard thunder and saw lightning, the sky looked like a painting by Ruisdael, and the gulls were flying low over the water.
It was a magnificent sight, and really refreshing after the oppressive heat of yesterday. It has refreshed me, because I was awfully tired when I went upstairs yesterday evening. Paid a visit yesterday to the Rev. Meijjes and his wife, because Pa had told me to do this, and I had tea with them. When I arrived, His Reverence was taking his afternoon nap and I was requested to go for a half-hour walk, which I did, fortunately I had that little book by Lamennais in my pocket and I read under the trees lining the canals, where the evening sun was reflected in the dark water. Then I went back, and they made me think of ‘Winter’ by Thorvaldsen. One nevertheless sees it much more beautifully in Pa and Ma, but as I said, it was like that here, too.
The days fly past, I’m four years older than you and I feel that they probably go by faster for me than for you, but I fight against it by stretching them out a bit in the mornings and evenings.
Will you write again soon? It’s a pity that Mager isn’t coming after all. The weather has cleared up again, and the sky is blue and the sun is shining brightly and the birds are singing, there are rather a lot of them at the yard, and all kinds, in the evenings I always walk up and down there with the dog, often thinking of that poem ‘Under the stars’.
When all sounds cease, God’s voice is heard, under the stars.
The roses growing against the house are also blooming, and in the garden the elderberry and jasmine. Recently went to the Trippenhuis again to see whether those rooms, which were closed when we were there together, had been put back in order, but it will probably take another fortnight before one can go in again. There were a lot of foreigners at the time, French and English, hearing them speak revives a lot of memories in me. Yet I don’t regret being back here. ‘Life hath quicksands, life hath snares’ are true words.
How is Mrs Tersteeg? If you run into Mauve or go to see him, give him my regards, also to everyone at the Haanebeeks’ and Rooses’.
Now I must get to work, don’t have any lessons today, but on the other hand 2 hours tomorrow morning, so have really a lot to do. I’ve worked my way through the history of the Old Testament up to Samuel, this evening I’ll start with Kings, when that work is finished, it will be a valuable thing to have. As I sit here writing I cannot help making a little drawing now and then, like the one I sent you recently, and like the one I made this morning of Elijah in the desert with stormy skies and a couple of thorn-bushes in the foreground, it’s nothing special, but sometimes I see it all so clearly in my mind’s eye, and I believe that at such moments I should be able to talk about it passionately, may it later be granted me to do so.
I wish you the very best, if you ever go to the Scheveningen Bosjes or to the beach, give them my regards. When you next come here I’ll be able to show you some beautiful spots here as well. Every day on my way to Mendes I have to pass through the Jewish quarter.
Should like you to hear the Rev. Laurillard too, one day.
And now, adieu, a handshake in thought from
Your loving brother,