Vincent van Gogh - Study for The Potato Eaters 1885

Study for The Potato Eaters 1885
Study for The Potato Eaters
Oil on canvas 33.5 x 44.4 cm. Nuenen: Early April, 1885
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

« previous picture | Nuenen - van Gogh's paintings | next picture »

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Hermanus Gijsbertus Tersteeg. Amsterdam, Friday, 3 August 1877.
Dear Mr Tersteeg,
Theo told me of your loss in his last letter, and I feel the need to write a few words to you.
‘He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is Love’, I heard Rev. Keller van Hoorn, an old friend of my Father, deliver a sermon on this text in Dordrecht one Sunday evening, a few days after the death of his daughter. He said: what has given me strength and kept me going after this, the most crushing blow I have ever been dealt, was faith in my God, without which I cannot live – I found comfort yet again in the great riches of His words. He couldn’t help opening the Bible that lay before him and, as though reliving that moment of heartbreak, hit upon the same passage as then, namely:
David therefore besought God for the child, when his child was very sick, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead? But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead. Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat. Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread. And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.
And also 1 Kings XIX:3-15: And when Elijah saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. And the Angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.
And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And the Lord said unto him, Go, return on thy way.
Then he closed the Bible and spoke at length and with incredible feeling about how our days and circumstances are different from those of David and Elijah, yet their God is not far from each and every one of us, and for us, too, there comes strength from Above, for when we are weak, then are we strong, his mouth spoke from the abundance of the heart, the words fell from his lips as the snow or the rain cometh down from heaven, one thing followed another, this was it, faith. Those words have a special sound coming at such moments from such lips: I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die. Believest thou this? And those other words too: She is not dead, but sleepeth.
My Father has also felt what you will have been feeling these past days. I recently stood early one morning in the cemetery at Zundert next to the little grave on which is written: Suffer the little children to come unto Me, for of such is the kingdom of God. More than 25 years have passed since he buried his first little boy there, in those days he was moved by a book by Bungener which I sent to you yesterday, thinking it would be a book after your own heart. All things will work together for good to them that love God, this has been his (namely my Father’s) experience at least, and in everything that has befallen him and his children he has until now grown gradually stronger, and his faith has taken root more firmly, so that there is a bond that never lets go of us, not even when we suffer the most, the bond of God’s love.
When Cromwell was standing by his little boy’s body and a sword pierced his soul, as it were, these words gave him strength: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased and know how to abound, every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (Philip IV:11-13).
Have now been studying Latin and Greek for about 3 months and my tutor, Mendes da Costa, said a few days ago when I asked him about it that we had progressed as far as he thought we would in this amount of time if I were suited for study, so I am not without hope and I go on from day to day with good hope, with something of the faith of old. My sister Anna is coming to Amsterdam today with my future brother-in-law and I am looking forward not a little to seeing them. Do not think ill of me for writing to you as I have done, I felt the need to do it.
My warm regards to Mrs Tersteeg and Betsy and believe me, with a handshake in thought to all of you
Yours truly,
Would you be so good as to give the enclosed note to Theo?