Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat 1886-1887

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat 1886-1887
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat
Oil on cardboard 41.0 x 32.0 cm. Paris: Winter, 1886-1887
Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 3 June 1883.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your letter and thanks for the enclosure. Today is Sunday, and this week I’ve worked furiously and am taking today off to be able to write quietly to you, at somewhat greater length than has been possible recently, because many things distracted me. And my need to write is all the greater because I see from your letter that not everything is going well for you, and I wanted to write rather more warmly than normal.
If in my own case — with my limited income — Pa and Ma objected to marriage because of the lack of money, I could more or less accept that, and at least understand their speaking like that and make allowances. But now that they’re raising this same objection in your case, Theo, you who have a permanent position and a good income (more substantial than their own, mark you), I find that unspeakably pretentious and utterly wicked. Ministers are in fact among the wickedest people in society, and barren materialists. Not in the pulpit so much, but in private matters. From a moral standpoint one might perhaps be entitled to object to marriage in certain cases where destitution in the absolute sense is to be expected, but in my view this objection is at once completely invalid morally as soon as there’s no question of destitution in the literal sense. And in your case it would be ridiculous to expect immediate destitution.
Suppose someone like old Mr Goupil had an objection concerning money — one expects no less from his standpoint, that of a rich dealer.
But with Pa and Ma, who are supposed to be humble and content with simplicity, I think it very nasty of them to speak like that, and I’m ashamed, as it were, that they’re like that. I wish everybody in our house would seek peace and stint themselves rather than chase after a high position. And put our energy into improving ourselves in cultivation of the mind and humanity while being content with the simplest of things on principle.
So it grieves and offends me, it again disappoints me terribly, that Pa and Ma said that.
I would do I don’t know what if I could get this undone somehow. I’d like to be proud of Pa because he was a truly poor village pastor in the pure sense of the gospel, but I find it so wretched when Pa stoops to things that aren’t in keeping with ‘the dignity of his calling’. I think Pa might rightly be expected to cooperate where it’s a matter of saving a poor woman on her own — to take her side precisely because she was poor and alone.
Not to do this is a great fault in Pa, and it’s inhuman of whoever does this, and doubly inhuman if a minister does it.
And to stand in the way of such a woman, to obstruct her rescue and salvation, is monstrous.

Now I know full well that almost every minister would say the same as Pa — and that’s why I for one count that entire corps among the wickedest people there are in society. You and I likewise, we occasionally do something that’s perhaps a sin, but after all we’re not merciless and we do feel compassion, and precisely because we don’t consider ourselves to be without fault and know how these things work, we don’t scold fallen or weak women as the ministers do, as if it were all their own fault.
And, moreover, your woman is a decent woman from a respectable family, and really Pa is greatly at fault, I think.
Suppose there were difficulties, it seems to me that Pa, especially as a pastor, ought to urge you to help her and to bear the difficulties for the sake of saving her. With someone like Pa one ought to be able to find comfort where society offers no comfort — but oh yes — they make it worse than ordinary people.
It’s atrocious that Pa adopts this attitude.
When Pa was here he spoke disapprovingly about my being with the woman. I said then that I didn’t refuse to marry her.
Then Pa AVOIDED that and talked around the subject.
He didn’t want to come out with it and say that I should abandon her, but regretted that I had relations with her.
I’ve hardly talked this over with Pa at all, as a matter of fact, precisely because I fail to see that he’s exactly the person who has anything to do with this. You’ve fulfilled your duty to inform Pa and Ma, but now that they talk like this they give you the right, it seems to me, to exclude them from further confidences and to consult them less than you would if they were more reasonable. They’re mistaken in the sense that they’re not humble and humane enough in this case.
Well, you say that business isn’t flourishing. That’s bad enough. But the situation has always been precarious and always will be in life. Let’s keep our spirits up and seek energy and serenity.
I can inform you that my first composition, of which I sent you a croquis, has progressed to a level where it’s nearly finished. I did the drawing in charcoal first, then I worked it over with the brush and printer’s ink. So there’s quite some force in it, and I believe that the second time one looks at it one will be able to find more than one saw the first time.
And a second drawing of a similar scene was made since I sent you a croquis. Do you remember describing to me some time ago (last year) an accident in a quarry on the Butte Montmartre where you saw a band of workmen and one had injured himself in the quarry?
Well, it’s a similar scene, but just the team of workmen labouring.
I was in Dekkersduin with Van der Weele and there we came across the sand quarry, and I’ve been there since and had plenty of models day in, day out, and so the second is now done too.
They are fellows with wheelbarrows and diggers. I’ll see that I do a croquis of them as well, but it’s a complicated composition and perhaps it may be hard to see both the one and the other in a croquis.
The figures are drawn from extensive studies. I would very much like them to be reproduced. The first is on grey paper, the other on yellow.
I long greatly, Theo, for you to be in the studio once more, for there are so many studies too and you can now see what my aim is when I do the studies, and many more things could be taken from them. I’ve had a frame, or rather passe-partout, made of ordinary wood and given it the colour of walnut with a black inside edge, and that encloses the drawing well and one can work comfortably in the frame.
I’ve arranged everything in readiness for larger compositions and again have strainers for two new ones. I want to do the tree-felling in the woods sometime, and the rubbish dump with the rag-pickers and the potato-digging in the dunes.
It’s good that I went to Rappard, for his sympathy raised my spirits when I hadn’t enough self-confidence.
But when you see these drawings, Theo, and see the studies, you’ll understand that this year I’ve had as much care and trouble as I can bear. It’s maddeningly difficult to forge the figure.
And really, it’s the same as with iron — one works on a model and carries on working on it, it’s difficult in the beginning but eventually it becomes more pliant, and one finds the figure just as iron becomes malleable when it’s red-hot and then one must keep going at it. So I’ve had models continually for these two drawings, and toiled away early and late.
It’s disappointing that you write that business isn’t going very well — if the position gets more precarious, let’s redouble our efforts.
I’ll be doubly attentive to my drawings, but for the time being you be doubly attentive to sending the money. For me it represents model, studio, bread; reducing it would lead to something like suffocating or drowning, I mean I can no more do without it now than I can do without air. I’ve had these two drawings in my heart for a long time already, but I didn’t have the money to do them and now, through that from Rappard, progress has been made. The creative power can’t be held back, what one feels must come out.
Do you know what I often consider? It’s to establish relations in England with The Graphic or London News. Now that I’m making progress, I want so very much to carry on working on some larger compositions suitable for an illustrated magazine. Boughton and Abbey are together doing drawings of ‘picturesque Holland’ for Harper of New York (also the agent for The Graphic). I saw these illustrations (very finished although they’re small, definitely done after larger drawings) at Rappard’s. Now I think to myself that if The Graphic and Harper send their draughtsmen to Holland, they wouldn’t be unwilling to take on a Dutch draughtsman if he could supply them with something good for not too much money. I’d like to work towards being permanently employed for a monthly wage rather than selling a drawing now and again for a relatively higher sum. And commit myself to a series of compositions following on, for example, from these two that are on the easel or from others that I’ll add. I would think it advisable to go to London myself with studies and drawings and to look up the managers of the various organizations, or preferably the draughtsmen Herkomer, Green, Boughton (some, however, are in America at present) or others, if they’re in London. And would be able to get information about processes better there than elsewhere. Who knows, perhaps Rappard would also like to come along and bring drawings as well? Something like that needs to be done, I believe, with or without changes to the plan. I would dare, I believe, to undertake to supply about 1 large drawing each month for a double-page engraving,a and shall apply myself to the other formats too, the whole page and the half page. I know that they can reproduce large and small, but the double page lends itself better to what is done broadly; the smaller can be drawn in other ways, say, with pen and pencil. Now I believe that it isn’t every day that the managers of illustrated magazines find someone who regards those magazines as his special goal.
From the small sketch that I’ve made just this minute (in a quarter of an hour and enclosed herewith) of the large drawing, you can see that, if it’s a matter of making the format smaller or bigger, I’m not daunted by that. If I know definitely that this or that is required in a certain size, I can do that.
But for my own study I prefer to work in a somewhat larger size, so that I can study the hands, feet, head in more detail.
Don’t you agree that a host of scenes of tree-felling &c. could be done in the same style in which I’ve handled Peat diggers and Sand workers which it seems to me would have enough vitality done like that to serve as illustrations?
But once again, as long as I don’t find employment the money from you is absolutely indispensable. What I received from you today — I immediately have to pay out exactly as much as I receive, I still have to pay three models whom I had several times, I have to pay the carpenter, pay rent, still pay the baker and grocer and the cobbler as well, and stock up again. Well, in front of me I have two blank sheets for new compositions and must set to work on them. I ought to take a model again, day in, day out, and struggle until I’ve got it down. I’m starting work on it nonetheless, but in a few days, you understand, I’ll be absolutely broke, and then those terrible 8 long days of not being able to carry on and waiting, waiting until it’s the tenth again.
Yes, old chap, if only we could find someone who would take the drawings.
For me work is an absolute necessity, indeed I can’t really drag it out, I take no more pleasure in anything than in work, that’s to say, pleasure in other things stops immediately and I become melancholy if I can’t get on with the work. Then I feel like a weaver when he sees his threads getting tangled and the pattern that he had on the loom going to the devil and his thought and effort coming to nothing. So try to handle it so that we can persevere energetically. I’m going to ask for permission to work in the old people’s home. I already have many studies of orphan men, but I need to have the women too, and also the setting at the place itself. Well, you have your woman to look after, so you know well enough that I don’t have it easy from that angle either, with two more little ones on top.
Tell me, Pa and Ma’s answer won’t affect whether you come this summer, will it?
It’s so essential, I believe, that you see the studies and the large drawings, especially with a view to the financial side as well. You could take the same steps in Paris as I would take in London as regards the people at the illustrated magazines, I believe, if you could show them a couple of large drawings.
But in this case I think it would be wise not to begin before we’re as good as certain that they’ll readily accept it.
These larger compositions entail many outgoings if one treats them conscientiously. For, old chap, it all has to be done with models; even if one uses studies, one still has to retouch with the model there again. If I could take a model more often, I could do them far, far better. So, old chap, as for my not needing you one time, I need it more than ever, but I would point out the opportunity we have if we persevere. Because of the money from Rappard, I already have several things such as sketchbooks &c., and everything you send is converted into drawings, and I believe you’ll find what I’m working on now more suitable than the previous ones. So let’s be of good heart and energetic.
One obstacle to several things that I have in my head from the beach is that I don’t have a Scheveningen woman’s costume. You understand that I could do that kind of composition with Scheveningen figures in the spirit of the enclosed croquis. But if I draw a figure outdoors it is of course too superficial. It has to be taken up again and worked over with a model, and one needs the costumes. Well, that would be an expense which, if I could afford it, would make three, four drawings I have in my head smooth going. Yet how can I afford it? As I say, in three days everything I have now will be gone, because almost all of it has to be paid out immediately. For these two drawings I also needed various smocks, trousers, sou’wester &c. A model doesn’t always have on a fine smock that’s picturesque — one changes that and it becomes more real and more expressive. When you come you must see how those studies for the figures in the foreground of the croquis are solidly worked. I did them outdoors on a pile of sand near a florist.
In the beginning of your letter you write that you’re pleased that there’s no reason to be concerned about the woman. Well, there isn’t immediately, inasmuch as I try to preserve my serenity and good spirits in that respect too. But I do have cares, heavy cares even, and there’s no lack of difficulties. I began trying to save the woman despite the difficulties, and have persevered up till now despite the difficulties, but it won’t all be rosy in the future either. Still, we must work as hard as we can. Theo, the difficulties I was having with the woman when I last wrote to you — do you know what that was? Her family were trying to get her away from me. I’ve never involved myself with anyone except the mother, because I considered them untrustworthy. The more I try to analyze the history of that family, the more I’m strengthened in that view. Well, they were intriguing precisely because I ignored them, and this led to a treacherous attack. I’ve told the woman how I view their intentions and also that she must choose between her family and me, but that I didn’t wish to have any dealings with any of them, in the first place because I believed relations with her family would lead her back to her previous wrong life. The family’s proposal was that she and her mother should keep house for a brother of hers who is separated from his wife and is a notoriously bad lot. The reason why the family advised her to leave me was that I earned too little and I wasn’t good for her, and only did it for the posing but would leave her in the lurch. Mark you, because of the small child she hasn’t done much posing for me this whole year, has she? Anyway, I leave it to you to decide to what extent these suspicions about me were well founded. Well then, but it was secretly discussed behind my back, and in the end the woman told me. I said to her, do what you like but I shan’t abandon you unless you go back to your previous life. The wretched thing is, Theo, that if we’re poor at some point, they try to upset the woman in this way, and that bad lot of a brother, for instance, tries to get her back to the old life. Now — I say only this of her — I would think it brave and generous of her if she broke off all relations with her family, I myself advise her not to go there, but if she wants to go I let her. And the temptation to show off her child, say, often brings her back to her family. And that influence is fatal and has a grip on her precisely because it comes from her family and those who unsettle her by saying ‘he’ll leave you in the lurch’. In this way they seek to persuade her to leave me in the lurch. Adieu, old chap, let’s work and keep a clear head and try to act rightly. You know how things are with my money, help me if you can.