Vincent van Gogh - Head of a Woman 1885

Head of a Woman 1885
Head of a Woman
Oil on canvas 42.7 x 33.5 cm. Nuenen: March, 1885
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Amsterdam, Monday, 3 and Tuesday, 4 December 1877.
My dear Theo, I’ve just returned from a visit to the Rev. Jeremie Meijjes, this time I found him at home but he had to go to the Church Council, so I only spoke to him briefly, also saw his wife and the two youngest children, and his wife read me part of a letter from their son who is at the institute in Den Helder. Now that I’m undergoing the ordeal of exams myself, I sympathize with others in the same position, and from several remarks I can imagine how they are doing to some extent. Anyone aspiring to a position in society must go through a time of great difficulties and exertion, success can depend on little things. If one says or writes a wrong word in an exam it can be the cause of failure. ‘All things are full of labour, man cannot utter it’ — those are true words, and if one thought too much about the dangers of all kinds that surround one – all those who don’t have to take exams no less than those for whom that lies in store, one would become dizzy, and then one would almost certainly not pass, and would almost not dare to do a thing. It is indeed good that a voice speaks to us from the Bible, strengthening us with words like ‘Let not your heart be troubled’, ‘have faith in God’. It is also good to look at those who have succeeded and have got through the difficulties more than at those who succumbed to them.
Man makes things difficult but God gives the blessing. God can work in a person so that he can write and deliver thousands of sermons — that is something good and worthwhile — and I hope that that will be my portion — the Preacher spoke of vanity of vanities, all is vanity, and Paul was sorrowful yet alway rejoicing because of ‘the foolishness of preaching’, but in the meantime He went on preaching anyway and never stopped, and it is written again and again ‘we came’, and Jesus above all said that He worked while it was day, before night came, when no man can work, and that His Father worketh hitherto and He had too.
Heard the Rev. Laurillard yesterday in the Noorderkerk on Acts iv:32, And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
He has a wonderful talent, a new approach each time, and everything very spirited and lively, there is something special, something ‘evergreen’, something of the imperishable, ever-youthful and fiery passion that is also in Pa. I so believe that he, more than any other minister here, has put his whole heart into his Work. He who does that does wisely, I believe, and will keep going the longest, and will indeed be blessed in other respects and circumstances.
Of course you know that Uncle Hein died, thank God, we may well say, because the end was relatively calm and the deliverance came at last. When something like this happens, one sometimes hears more sincere thoughts from many hearts than in cases of a less serious nature, and then one hears many saying ‘life is short’. The best that we can ask, perhaps, is to choose correctly and to speak the right words in the decisive hours of that life. Pa has had lumbago again, as you’ll already have heard, in one of his last letters Pa wrote about the marriage of Marijn van Aertsen. On that occasion Pa gave a sermon on Jesus loved Mary and her sister, and Lazarus. If you can, write and tell me as soon as possible when you plan to go to Etten and whether we could arrange to travel together. I’d very much like to take the opportunity of this trip to stay in Haarlem until the next train, and especially also to stop a while in Dordrecht. I’d like very much for us to go to Dordrecht again together, couldn’t that be arranged?
Have just had some writings bound that I wanted to preserve as well as possible, it was a nice feeling when I received them at home, I gave them to a bindery near here in one of the narrow streets of Kattenburg, where all kinds of religious works are published, and the shop belongs to two brothers whose appearance immediately made me think of two things, namely church owls and the lion’s heads on doors.
Have walked rather a lot this week, it can’t do any harm to get to know the city a little.
While working today I had lying before me a sheet from Bargue’s Cours de dessin, 1st part, No. 39, Anne of Brittany. That was already hanging in my room in London with No. 53, and ‘A young citizen’ was then hanging between them. What I found beautiful and good in the beginning I still find to be so.
The expression on the face of that Anne of Brittany is noble and reminiscent of the sea and rugged coasts. I’d like to know her story. She’s truly a beautiful woman. De Lemud would surely have drawn her figure well.
I’d really like very much for us to be together in Haarlem, write in any case when and for how long you could get leave.
Old boy, I long so much for Christmas and home and you; when you write, remember to report what I asked you regarding those lithographs.
Bring as many of your prints as you can, even if I know them, I’d still like to see them again.
It’s a nice family, that of the Rev. Meijjes — but none of the ministers is really like Pa. His work is brilliant, and besides, a better man than Pa will not easily be found, for he knows how to keep himself in check and to control himself and to do what is good and dutiful, more than his own will.
After church last Sunday I met that person who works in Centen’s bookshop, with whom you travelled and whom I’ve also met at Braat’s, and here too. Talked with him and gave him your regards, as you had asked me. He had also been to the Rev. Laurillard. And this morning I saw and spoke to him again at the Post Office. He sends you his regards. His appearance had already struck me often, before you told me who he was, I’d like to know more about him.
So almost another year has gone by in which much has happened to me, and I look back on it with thankfulness. If I look back in general on the time spent at Braat’s and the months of study here, then those are truly two good things. Old boy, if I were at university next Christmas, and already through the first difficulties of the beginning, just as I am now through the beginning of Latin and Greek, how happy I should be. Undefessus favente Deo, ‘tirelessly with God’s grace’, that is certainly a good state to be in, and a phrase that Mendes is fond of, he mentioned it last Saturday.
Wrote to Harry Gladwell today and also gave him your regards. I hope that he’ll go home for Christmas.
Sent you today for St Nicholas two maps from Stieler, namely the British Isles and Normandy and Brittany. Hang them up in your room for a while, promise me you’ll do it, I’ve copied them both quite carefully, as you know, and the one of England twice in fact, on the one that turned out best I wrote the division of the country and the names in Latin, and changed the surrounding countries to what they were in Roman times, such as Lake Flevo instead of Zuiderzee. To do it I went to Mendes earlier than usual on several mornings, and there compared my map with those of Britannia, Caledonia and Ierne in Spruner-Menke’s Atlas antiquus. So I don’t need these any more, and it’s good for you to have them to look at for a while. At the Rev. Meijjes’s I also heard them talking about Stieler’s atlas. His son, who’s at the institute in Den Helder, has the complete atlas and wrote in his last letter, among other things, that he had copied the map of the world. Perhaps you know that Uncle Cor also has one lying in the room in which that large painting by Bernier is hanging. Recently saw at Uncle’s a large drawing by Bosboom, Sacristy, also two by Miss van Bosse that were very beautiful, especially the one of a farmstead. Then, along with the maps, you’ll be getting Gruson, Histoire des croisades. Also gave that book to Mendes, who liked it; even if you don’t have time to read it from beginning to end, at least leaf through it from beginning to end, then the most beautiful passages will catch your eye of their own accord. If the work of Thijs Maris is beautiful, then this is too. Since Uncle Jan sent a box to Etten, sent to Cor for St Nicholas a lithograph after J. Maris of a girl coming from the cemetery, which one sees in the background with the gravestones and the little church. A monk sits by one of the gravestones.
If you don’t have that one, swap it with Cor for another lithograph.
When there’s nothing else, there’s always something more, goes the proverb, and I experienced that this morning, when I thought that I couldn’t give anyone a St Nicholas present, because I nonetheless found something for everyone, even though it’s not much, Pa and Ma have a map that I drew.
It’s already growing dark, and the view of the yard from the window beside me is indescribably beautiful, with that avenue of poplars whose slender forms and thin branches stand out so delicately against the grey evening sky, and then the old building with the arsenal in the water that is as still as ‘the water of the old pool’ that is spoken of in the book of Isaiah, the walls of that arsenal are completely green and weathered at the bottom at water level. Then, below, the little garden and the fence around it with rosebushes, and everywhere in the yard the little black figures of the workers, and also the little dog. Just now, too, the figure of Uncle Jan with his long grey hair, probably going to make the rounds. In the distance the masts of the ships in the dock, in front the Atjeh, completely black, and the grey and red gun-turrets, and here and there the street-lamps are just being lit.
There goes the bell, and the whole stream of workers is coming towards the gate, and with them the lamplighter to light the street-lamp in the square behind the house. Also heard the Rev. Laurillard a while ago at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, speaking so well on the text ‘the preaching of the cross is the power of God’, because they are words of truth that reveal the thoughts of many hearts, because they are the words of Eternal Life, the word that proceedeth from the mouth of God by which man shall live and not by bread alone, with the life that is more than meat, which is to know God, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom He hath sent, and because heaven and earth shall pass away, but the preaching of the cross shall not pass away. Have you ever seen any of his books? ‘Uit de cel’ must be very beautiful, for instance, and I was moved by this passage from Rust een weinig:
That which pleases God the most
A certain fallen angel would again be taken up to heaven in grace if he brought thither the gift that pleases God the most. Gladdened by that promise and full of hope, he then turned towards the earth. He hovered over a field, where a fierce and violent battle was being fought. It was a battle between a tyrant’s crew and a host of valiant men fighting for their freedom of hearths and altars. They fought courageously but with an unfavourable outcome. Their ranks, however, were sorely depleted, and at last only one man was left. Moved by the stubborn valour of this hero and his late fellows, the despot offered him prestige and honour. The answer was an arrow-shot. But that arrow-shot missed its mark, and the valiant friend of freedom was immediately struck down. The fallen angel descended to his body and took a drop of his blood, and thought that this would surely be the gift that would ensure his entrance to the heaven barred to him. But at the gates of heaven he was told that he would have to search again. Because there was something else, something even more exalted. A few moments later he was hovering over a wood. From that wood the sounds of moaning and groaning came to him. He approached and saw a youth lying there, whose hollow-cheeked face was the colour of lead. He was a victim of the plague. This youth had stolen away from the town, so that the maiden he loved and who loved him would not die by coming near him. But she looked for and found him. Then there arose a touching battle between Love and Love. His love for her called out, as though insane: go away! and her love for him answered with resolve: no! Thus they died both of them together. The fallen angel caught the last sigh that crossed her lips and raced upward with it, in the certain hope that this gift would open up heaven to him. But at the gates of heaven he was told that he would have to search again, that there was something else, something even more exalted. For the third time the disappointed spirit flew down to earth. He saw below him a smiling and lovely landscape, illuminated by the slanting rays of the slowly setting sun. A delightful little boy was jumping around there, lighthearted and merry, now turning towards a charming flower, then running after a colourful butterfly. Presently a horseman rode up and dismounted at a stream there, his horse sweating and panting. His face wore a fierce expression, and all his features had something shocking about them, something that spoke of anger. But at the sight of the child it took on a softer expression, and there was something deeply melancholy about it when the words escaped from his lips: Child! I was once like you! Then a bell tolled. It was a bell that called to evening prayer. The child knelt down and prayed. Then the heart of the brute was crushed, and uttering the heart-rending cry: My mother also taught me to pray like that, all of a sudden a tear spouted from his eye. The fallen angel took the tear from his rough cheek and flew off with it to heaven. And yes! that tear of remorse was the gift, which pleased God — who hath no pleasure in the death of the sinner, but that he turn from his way and live — much more than anything else. The exile saw heaven open up for him again.
You will probably be very busy these days, but if you have a moment, write then, and above all, as soon as you decide when you’ll be going to Etten, be sure to let me know. Wouldn’t it be possible for us to go to Dordrecht again together the Friday or Saturday before Christmas? It’s good to benefit as much as possible from the journeys and trips one must make. May you be blessed in everything you do and, if possible, receive good St Nicholas letters. Give my warm regards to your housemates, also to the Tersteeg family, Haanebeeks and Van Stockums, if you happen to go there. Does Mr Tersteeg know Stieler’s maps? Adieu, Theo, if perhaps I don’t write again before we see each other, all being well, then goodbye for now. Accept a hearty handshake in thought, and believe me ever
Your loving brother
Uncle Jan sends you his regards, also Uncle and Aunt Stricker.