From Foundation E.G. Bührle, Zurich:
Van Goghs central theme during his two years at Nuenen is not landscape; he wants to be a painter of peasant life. Though he was prevented from sharing everything with the very poor in the Borinage, he wants at least to champion in paint the peasants and weavers whom he paints and draws in their simple cottages at their daily tasks or accompanies into the fields in order to record the work of digging, sowing and harvesting. He feels related to the Barbizon masters and seeks to carry on the ideas pioneered by Jean-Francois Millet. Thus in his work at Nuenen he is the precursor of Gerhart Hauptmanns weavers (1893) and the graphic art of Käthe Kollwitz.
This race of Brabant peasants and weavers is not beautiful; heavy toil in all seasons has put its mark on them. Van Gogh never tires of painting them in their murky huts, especially in winter when they are glad to earn models fees (the money being supplied by Theo). More than forty such studies are done; van Gogh thinks that one or another of them, "even if they are now worthless", will later on have their value. The colour of these peasants heads van Gogh once compared with that "of a dusty unpeeled potato", this reminds him of what was said of Millets peasants: His peasants seem to have been painted with the earth on which they cast the seed".
To Theo van Gogh. Amsterdam, Sunday, 10 February 1878.
My dear Theo,
It’s Sunday evening, and I want to write a few words again, for I also really long to get another letter from you, do write again soon, I am with you so often in thought. I sincerely hope that you’ve had a good Sunday.
As you know, Pa was here and I’m very glad of it, we went together to Mendes, Uncle Stricker, Uncle Cor, Vos and Kee and both Meijjes families, and the most pleasant memory of Pa’s visit is that morning we spent together in my study, looking over my work and talking about all sorts of things. You can imagine that those days flew by and when, after bringing Pa to the station and watching the train or even only the smoke for as long as it was in sight, I came back to my room and Pa’s chair was standing there by the little desk on which the books and notebooks were still lying from the day before, even though I know that we’ll see each other again quite soon, I broke down and cried like a child.
You’ll already have heard that Mendes made a favourable impression on Pa as well. In the evening, at Uncle Cor’s, we saw drawings and books, including Doré’s Bible and Bida’s Le livre de Ruth and Histoire de Joseph.
Was in the English church this morning and met Wierda upon leaving the church, who had been there too. We went for a walk together and he asked me if I’d like to come and see his room, he lives in Weteringstraat, about 10 minutes from Leidsestraat. I told him that for a long time I had wanted to see his room and where and how he lived, so I went along and after drinking coffee I stayed till around 3 o’clock and saw his books and heard a thing or two about his life, where he had been previously and so on, first he was in Bolsward, then in Haarlem and then here. He has worked hard in his life and will probably continue to do so and not give it up easily. Afterwards, at home, translated a passage from Caesar, and this afternoon to Uncle Stricker’s, I go there rather often now that Uncle is out of town and now that it’s lonely again here in the house since Pa left. This evening they went to see Vos, who isn’t any better. I still have to congratulate you on Pa’s birthday, even though it’s already been and gone, it will have been a good day, with Anna there too, I’m longing for a letter from home to hear how they celebrated that day. Anna was slightly indisposed and hadn’t yet recovered completely, she wrote in a letter that Pa received here. Perhaps Pa read Ma’s letter aloud to you, which she wrote while Pa was here, it told about a visit to a sick person which sounded like something out of Adam Bede.
It’s foggy here today, fortunately Pa had good weather so that we could walk quite a lot.
I’m reminding you of that piece by Jules Breton, not that there’s any hurry, but try and remember it sometime.
Because in March you’ll probably make the trip again, won’t you, and also come here again?
Uncle Jan will most likely come back on Tuesday.
You’ll certainly have a lot to do at the beginning of the year, like most people. Wierda, too, unburdened himself on that score this morning.
For me, too, things are beginning to get more and more serious as the exam approaches. I’ll be glad when it grows light a bit earlier in the morning and we’re already beginning to get used to it.
Did Pa remember to give you the photograph of the Maris? The woodcut after Van Goyen, Dordrecht, is hanging in its place. Went recently to see that painting again here in the museum, it is good through and through. The next time you come here I’d like to look through the etchings by Dürer here in the museum again, as we did with Rembrandt’s last time.
It’s no doubt beautiful in Scheveningen on these grey days, do you still go there quite often? Perhaps it’s like that painting by Ruisdael in the museum in The Hague. Do you have the lithograph of it that was once in the Kunstkronijk? It’s really good.
How are things going at Mauve’s? Very well, I hope. Have you been there recently?
I’m currently taking lessons from Uncle Stricker once or twice a week, that is a bonus. Uncle is an expert in it, and I’m glad he could find the time to do it.
Now, old boy, a hearty handshake in thought, I’ll set to work, give my regards to your housemates, and also to Mauve if you run into him, I wish you the very best, write soon, also congratulations on Anna’s birthday, even though it’s still to come, and believe me ever
Your loving brother
Good-night, old boy, I sat up writing till 12 o’clock, a handshake in thought.