Vincent van Gogh - Portrait of Theo van Gogh 1887

Portrait of Theo van Gogh 1887
Portrait of Theo van Gogh
Oil on cardboard 19.0 x 14.0 cm. Paris: March-April, 1887
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Sunday, 22 July 1883.
My dear Theo,
I thank you for your letter, and for the enclosure, although I can’t suppress a feeling of sadness over what you say, ‘as for the future, I can give you little hope’. If you mean that only in relation to financial matters, I wouldn’t be downcast, but if I’m to take it as applying to my work, I really don’t see how I deserve that. It just so happens that I can now send you the prints of photos after a few of my recent drawings, which I promised you earlier but couldn’t manage because I was flat broke.
I don’t know how you intended those words, nor can I know. Your letter is too brief, but it gave me an unexpected blow right in the chest.
But I would like to know what the position is, whether you noticed something in me, that I wasn’t making progress or something.
As for financial matters, you’ll remember writing to me months ago about bad times. My answer was: very well, a reason for us to do our very best on both sides; see that you send me the absolutely essential, I’ll get on with making more progress so that perhaps we can place something with the illustrated magazines. I’ve since made a start on various large compositions in which there was more of a subject than in studies of single figures.
So now my first consignment of photos to be shown to someone or other if needed coincides with your ‘as for the future, I can give you little hope’. Is there something in particular???
I’m rather nervous about this. You must write again soon. Well, as you see, the photos are Sower — potato grubbers — Peat diggers. I’ve now done some more, Sand quarry, weed burners, Dung-heap, Potato grubber 1 figure, Coal loaders, and at Scheveningen this week I worked on Mending nets (Scheveningen fishermen’s wives).
And two larger compositions of Dune workers (one of which I showed to Tersteeg again) which, although they’ll require a lot more labour, are still what I’d most like to complete.
Long rows of diggers — poor fellows set to work by the city — in front of a piece of dune land that’s to be dug over. But to do that is terribly difficult.
Peat diggers gives you a first idea of it. I wouldn’t be so melancholy about it, brother, if you hadn’t added something that worries me. You say ‘let’s hope for better times’. You see, that’s one of the things one must be careful about, in my view. Hoping for better times mustn’t be a feeling but a doing something in the present.
My doing depends on your doing, in the sense that if you were to reduce what you send I couldn’t go on and would be desperate.
Precisely because I felt the hope of better times alive within me, I continued to throw myself into it with all my strength — into the work of THE ‘PRESENT’ — without thinking about that future other than to trust that work would bring its reward, although the spending on food, drink, clothes had to be reduced again and again, week after week, more and more. I was faced by the question of going to Scheveningen, the question of painting. I thought: come, press ahead. But now I wish I hadn’t begun, old chap, for it means extra expenses and I don’t have it. The weeks passed, many, many weeks and months of late, when each time the expenses were slightly more than I could keep up with, even with all the fretting and worrying and economizing. So when the money arrives from you, not only do I have to manage on it for 10 days but I immediately have to pay out so much that in those 10 days that lie ahead one couldn’t be in a more meagre situation from the outset. And the woman must breastfeed the child, and the child is strong and growing, and she’s often worried because there’s no milk.

I, too, have an enormous feeling of faintness at times in the dunes or elsewhere, because there’s nothing coming in.
Everyone’s shoes patched and worn out and other petty vexations that give one wrinkles. Anyway — it would be nothing, Theo, if only I could hold on to the thought: it will work all the same, just press on. But now to me your words ‘as for the future, I can give you little hope’ are like ‘the hair that breaks the camel’s back at last’. The burden is sometimes so heavy that one hair more makes the animal fall to the ground.
Well, what to do? I’ve seen and spoken to Blommers twice already in Scheveningen, and he saw a few things of mine and asked me to call on him sometime.
I did some painted studies there, a bit of sea, a potato field, a field with women mending nets, and here at home a chap in the potato field planting cabbage in the empty spaces between the potato leaves, and then I’m working on the large drawing of beeting the nets, as they call it. But I feel my enjoyment fading, one needs a fixed point somewhere. You see, the fact that you say to me, just have hope for the future, is as if you yourself no longer have any hope for me. Is that so? I can’t help it, I feel unwell because of the worry, and I just wish you were here.
You say that the effect of the autographs is rather meagre. That doesn’t surprise me in the least when I consider that someone’s physical state influences his work, and my life is too dry and too meagre. Honestly, Theo, for the sake of the work we ought to have eaten a little better, but we couldn’t afford it and things will stay like that if I don’t get a little more leeway by one means or another. So do show the photos to Buhot or someone if you can’t arrange it yourself, and try to find a market through him, if you can.
I almost regret starting to paint again, for if I can’t make any progress I would rather I had given it up. It can’t be done without paint, and paint is dear, and because I still owe Leurs and Stam some money I can’t run up a bill. And I like painting so much. Now that I was doing it again I took more pleasure in things from last year, and have hung painted things in the studio again. The sea, which I love very dearly, needs to be attacked with painting, otherwise one has no grip on it. Look, Theo, I just hope that you aren’t losing heart, but truly, if you’re going to talk about ‘giving no hope for the future’ then I feel sad, for you must have the courage and the energy to send, otherwise I’ll be stuck and powerless to move forward, for those who could be friends have become hostile, and appear to want to stay like that.
Consider the fact that, after all, I’ve done nothing that could justify this, at any rate not explain why Mauve, say, or Tersteeg or C.M. are so cool as not to want to see anything or say a word. I find it human that a coolness may arise over one thing or another, but to maintain the coolness now that more than a year has passed, and after repeated attempts at reconciliation, is not kind.
Thus I end for today with the question, Theo, when in the beginning you spoke to me about painting, and if we could have foreseen then the work now, would we have hesitated to think it was right that I should become a painter (or draughtsman then, what difference does it make?)? I don’t believe that we’d have hesitated to press ahead if we could have foreseen these photos, for instance, would we?, for a painter’s hand and eye are needed after all if one wants to create such a scene in the dunes in one form or another. But now I often feel so wretched when I see people remaining so apathetic and cold that I lose heart. Well, then I recover again and go back to work and smile about it, and because I work in the present and don’t let a day go by without working, I believe that I do indeed have hope for the future, although it doesn’t feel like that because, as I say, there’s no room left in my brain for philosophizing about the future, either to upset me or to console me. Holding on to the present and not letting it pass by without managing to get something out of it — now that’s what I believe duty is.
So you should also try to hold on to the present with respect to me, and let’s persevere with what we can persevere with, preferably today rather than tomorrow.
But you needn’t spare me, Theo, if it’s just a question of money, and if you, as friend and brother, retain some sympathy for the work, saleable or unsaleable. As long as that’s the case, that I still retain your sympathy in this respect, then it matters precious little to me, and we must confer calmly and coolly. Then, if there’s no hope for the future financially, I would propose a move to the country, saving half the rent in a village deep in the country, and for the same amount of money that one pays here for bad food getting good, healthy food, which is needed for the woman and the little ones, and for me too in fact. Also having advantages perhaps for models.
As you know, last summer I painted — now I’ve hung up several studies again, because when I was doing new ones I saw that there was something in them after all. Painting helped me indirectly with my drawing during the winter months and the spring, and I worked that up right until these recent drawings. Now, though, I feel it would be good to paint again for a while, and I need that to become richer in tone, in the drawings too. I had planned to paint the women sitting in the grass mending the nets in a fairly large format, but after what you said I’ll wait until I’ve spoken to you.
I’ve received small prints of the autographs, but weak ones, yet the man tells me he ought really to have put on more ink and that he’ll give me better ones. No matter, I’ve experimented with doing a croquis in a small format as if for an illustrated magazine. Oh, Theo, I could make much more progress if I was a little better off.
But I can’t think of a way out, I come up against expenses on all sides. When I read the life story of one painter or another, I see that in fact they all needed money, and were miserable when they couldn’t carry on.
Write soon, for I’m not well and in two minds as to whether I dare go ahead with Scheveningen, which will involve the costs of painting materials. I had hoped that you would have been able to send something — well, in any event, especially if you have no money, you must write to me soon, for it’s quite a feat to keep one’s spirits up in the circumstances.
I think the drawings from which the photos have been taken aren’t yet deep enough in tone, not yet depicting the emotion nature evokes sufficiently, but if you compare this with what I began with, the earlier figures, I believe I’m not mistaken in seeing signs of progress and we mustn’t let go of that advance, so let us toil on.
I wish you could come. Write soon in any case. Adieu, with a handshake.
Ever yours,

I don’t think it right, Theo, to spend more than one receives — but if it’s a question of stopping or carrying on working, I’m for carrying on to the end. Millet and other predecessors carried on right up to the bailiff, and some went to prison or had to move hither and thither, yet I don’t see in them that they stopped. And with me it’s still only the beginning, but I see it in the distance like a dark shadow, and it sometimes makes working sombre.
I’ve spoken to Breitner again, about those three compositions in progress. It was indeed so that he had done them in a moment when he was out of sorts. He told me that he regretted doing them like that, and showed me an altered composition of the drunkard and studies of low street women that were infinitely better. And I also saw some watercolours in the making and a painting of a farrier’s that were done with a calmer and more correct hand and head. I read a book he lent me, Soeur Philomène by De Goncourt, who wrote Gavarni. The story is set in a hospital, very good.