Vincent van Gogh - Gordina de Groot, Head 1885

Gordina de Groot, Head 1885
Gordina de Groot, Head
Oil on canvas on panel 41.0 x 32.5 cm. Nuenen: March, 1885
Zurich: Collection Mrs. A.M. Pierson

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Amsterdam, Tuesday, 30 October 1877.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your last letter, which I was glad to get. Yes, old boy, that etching after Jules Goupil is beautiful and forms, with all that’s associated with it, a fine and good whole that is a thing to keep in one’s heart. I rather envy your having read Carlyle, ‘French Revolution’, it’s not unknown to me but didn’t read all of it, I found parts of it in another book, namely by Taine.
Am busy making an extract from Motley, including capture of Den Briel and siege of Haarlem, Alkmaar and Leiden, have drawn a map to go with it, so as to complete it. Have also finished an extract from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s progress. Am working all the time, day in, day out, so some things do get done.
I keep my work together, everything aimed at getting through the exams, I consult Mendes on everything, and model my studies on what he has done, for that is how I’d like to do it too. That history of the 80 Years’ War is really wonderful, anyone would do well to make such a good fight of his life. Truly life is a fight, and one must defend oneself and resist and make plans and calculations with a cheerful and alert mind in order to make it through and get ahead. It becomes no easier the further one gets in life, and it has been rightly said:

Does the road go uphill then all the way?
‘Yes to the very end’
And will the journey take all day long?
‘From morn till night, my friend.’

But by fighting the difficulties in which one finds oneself, an inner strength develops from within our heart, which improves in life’s fight (one matures in the storm), if we always endeavour to keep that heart out of which are the issues of life, good and simple and rich toward God, to restore that and make it thus more and more, and to bear in mind the words that we must have a good conscience before God and before people.
As we regard others so are we regarded by many eyes. It is from the conscience — God’s finest gift, and the proof that His eye is upon us, all-seeing and all-knowing, and also the assurance that He be not far from every one of us, but as our shade upon our right hand, and that He keeps us from the evil — that our light comes in the darkness of life and of the world. And if we feel an eye watching us, as it were, then it is good to gaze upward sometimes as though seeing Him who is invisible. I know that life of Frederick the Great illustrated by Menzel, that’s a good acquisition, do go on with that collection; I also know that woodcut after Jacque, The sheepfold, do bring those things home with you at Christmas.
Have bought from the Jew that lithograph after L. Steffens of which you once showed me the painting, an old and a young priest conversing in a garden, it’s a good lithograph. The scene reminds me of a painting by Jacquand, photographed in the cartes de visite, it’s called ‘The new vicar’, I believe, it has the same sentiment, and also of The novice by G. Doré.
Old boy, Latin and Greek and studying are difficult, but all the same I feel very happy with it and am doing the things I have longed for. I’m no longer allowed to sit up late in the evenings, Uncle has very strictly forbidden it — yet the words written below the etching by Rembrandt stick in my mind, In medio noctis vim suam lux exerit (In the middle of the night the light diffuses its strength) and I make sure that a small gaslight goes on burning the whole night, and lie looking at it often in medio noctis, thinking about my plan for work the following day and considering how to go about that studying as well as possible. Hope in the winter to light the fire early in the morning (and while obeying Uncle yet letting the light shine in the night and darkness once in a while). The winter mornings have something special about them, Frère painted that in that workman, ‘A cooper’ (the etching is hanging in your room, I believe), among other things.
Fill my soul with a holy bitterness that shall be agreeable to Thee, and I shall humbly spend all the years of my life in Thy service, in the bitterness of my soul, yea, even in Thy Service, O Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. That is certainly a good prayer, and I thought of it when I told you in simplicity that it was good to steep oneself in coffee in everyday life.
A person has needs, and requires strength and fortification to be able to work. And one must make do with what one has and fight with such weapons as are within one’s reach, and use the means at one’s disposal to make the most of it and gain from it.
(You can see from my handwriting that it had grown dark, but now the lamp is on.) Ate hotchpot at Uncle Stricker’s one afternoon, and it occurred to me on that occasion to make that extract from Motley, I’ll show it to you at Christmas. Because here in town I’ve seen and walked over so awfully many doorsteps and church floors and flights of steps up to houses, it occurred to me to make those maps of rocky Scotland, and while colouring them in (green and red) I thought of those pickles33 that Uncle is so fond of and I’ve grown fond of too. A person’s soul is a singularly strange thing, and it is good, I think, to have one like a map of England made with love and to have in it as much as possible of that love which is holy and beareth all things and believeth all things and hopeth all things and endureth all things and never faileth. That Love is the Light of the world, the true life that is the light of men. The knowledge of languages is certainly a good thing to have, and I follow after in the hope that I might also grasp something of it.
When one eats a crust of black rye bread it’s certainly good to think of the words ‘Tunc justi fulgebunt ut sol in regnum Patris sui’ (Then shall the righteous shine forth as the Sun in the Kingdom of their Father), or also when one very often has muddy boots or wet, dirty clothes. May we all at sometime enter into that kingdom which is not of this world, where they do not marry and are not given in marriage, where the sun shall be no more thy light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee, but the Lord shall be an Everlasting Light, and God our glory, where the sun shall no more go down, neither shall the moon withdraw itself, for the Lord shall be thine Everlasting Light, and the days of mourning shall be ended and God shall wipe away all tears from the eyes. And so we can be leavened with the leaven of ‘sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing’, being what we are through God’s grace, having in the secret recesses of the heart the words ‘I never despair’ because we have faith in God. And then ‘Set your face as a flint’ are really good words in many circumstances, and also ‘be like an iron pillar or like an old oak tree’. It’s also good to love thorns, such as the thorn-hedges around the little English church or the roses in the cemetery, they’re so beautiful these days, yes, if one could make oneself a crown of the thorns of life, not for the people but with which one is seen by God, then one would do well.
I imagine you know the woodcuts by Swain, he’s a clever man, his studio is in such a nice part of London, not far from that part of the Strand where the offices of the illustrated magazines are (Ill. Lond. News, The Graphic, Seeley &c.), not far from Booksellers’ Row either, full of all kinds of bookstalls and shops where one sees all kinds of things, from the etchings of Rembrandt to the Household edition of Dickens and Chandos classics, everything there has a green cast (especially in foggy weather in the autumn, or during the dark days before Christmas), and it’s a place that immediately reminds one of Ephesus, as it is described with such singular simplicity in Acts. (Similarly, the bookshops in Paris are also so interesting, in the Faubourg St Germain, for instance.)
Old boy, how inexpressibly happy I’ll be if I manage to pass my exams, if I conquer the difficulties it will be done in singleness of heart, but also with prayer to God, for I so often pray fervently to Him for the wisdom I’m in need of, and that He may one day grant that I write and deliver many sermons, the more like our Father’s the better, and to complete a Work in my life to which end all things work together for good.
I was at Uncle Cor’s on Monday evening, and also saw Aunt and the whole family, all send you their warm regards. Stayed rather a long time because I hadn’t seen Aunt for a long time and one offends so easily without meaning to by giving the impression of not appreciating and of neglecting people. Looked through that book at Uncle’s, the engraved oeuvre of C. Daubigny. Went from there to Uncle Stricker’s, Uncle was out but a son of the Rev. Meyboom was visiting (brother of Margreet), an officer in the Navy, and his girlfriend and a young man, Middelbeek,61 who has been in London for a while and is going back there. At 10 o’clock Uncle came home soaking wet, for it was raining quite a lot that evening, and I had a long talk with him and Aunt, because Mendes had paid them a visit a couple of days ago (one shouldn’t utter the word genius lightly, even if one believes that there is more of it in the world than many people think, but Mendes certainly is a very remarkable person, and I’m happy and grateful for my contact with him) and hadn’t given them a bad report, fortunately, but Uncle asked me if it wasn’t difficult, and I admitted that it was very difficult and that I was doing my best to bear up and to be alert in all kinds of ways. He gave me encouragement, however. But now there’s still that terrible algebra and geometry, anyway, we’ll see — after Christmas I have to have lessons in those as well, there’s nothing for it.
I also cling to the church and to the bookshops, if I can think of an errand to do there I do it. Today, for instance, I was at Schalekamp’s and at C.L. Brinkman’s in Hartestraat (that shop of Schalekamp’s is an interesting sight) and bought a couple of maps from the Teachers’ Society, of which there are around 100 at a stuiver apiece, including the Netherlands in every possible historical period. (So often, in the past as well, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me up and reminded me that there are good things in the world.)
Sunday morning I went to the early service and afterwards to the French church, where I heard an outstanding sermon from the Rev. Gagnebin: the house at Bethany. ‘One thing is needful and Mary hath chosen that good part’. That Rev. Gagnebin has a pleasant appearance and a worthy head, and his face has something of the Peace of God which passeth all understanding. He does have something, I think, either of that priest in The last victims of the terror or of that humble and faithful manservant one sees in ‘The women of the boarding-house’.
That painting by Israëls you describe must be beautiful, I can picture it from your clear description. Saw a small painting of his at C.M.’s, also one by Mauve, very beautiful, shepherd with flock of sheep in the dunes.
A good cheerful letter from home too, fortunately things seem to be going better in Princenhage. I’m longing not a little for Christmas, do bring one thing and another with you, as much as possible, it’s good for all of us. Don’t be in a hurry to send the tobacco; still have some, it’s a good and necessary aid to study.
Wrote a long letter to Harry Gladwell that went off today, also sent your regards. If you have the time and the opportunity, think of Michelet, you know what, and J. Breton, but you know what it’s for and that there’s no hurry, and if necessary Christmas is soon enough. Now, I must get to work and the sheet of paper is nearly full, I wish you well, write if possible, I gave Uncle the receipt enclosed in your letter. Uncle sends you his regards, also Uncle and Aunt Stricker. Bid your housemates good-day from me, and should the opportunity arise also Mauve and his wife and the Tersteegs and Van Stockums (how is she?) and Haanebeeks, and Borchers if you run into him. Blessings on everything you do, I wish you strength and vigour in these autumn days, and let it be Christmas again with us together again before we know it, as it were, adieu, a handshake in thought, and believe me ever
Your most loving brother
Saw 2 photos of Gabriel Max, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and a nun in a convent garden, the first one, in particular, was beautiful.
Do you know an engraving after Landseer? It’s called The highlander, I believe, a highlander in a snowstorm on top of a mountain holding an eagle he’s shot.