To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 19 August 1883.
My dear Theo,
As I write this I’m also writing a letter to Pa in which there are one or two things I shan’t repeat now. Be so good as to read Pa’s letter.
In this letter to you I wish to say again that it seems to me more and more that the most practical and direct way to make progress with the work is not to look too far away and to stay down to earth. When I think of London, it’s a stimulating thought, I assure you, but the question is: is it practicable now, is now the right moment? Wouldn’t it be better if I said plainly to myself: ‘Consider your work not yet mature enough, because what you want and intend doesn’t yet seem to be sufficiently comprehensible to those who see it, since they’re more or less startled by it, so to speak — carry on — work faithfully and forcefully from nature — look again deep in the country on the heath or in the dunes, and for the time being let it be enough that those who have seen it don’t yet see much in it now, so don’t go on showing it, don’t count on support in London right away, it must be better’? I say things like that to myself and, after taking into consideration what I write here about the woman, you’ll probably also think that there are reasons to doubt whether London can or should be done right away.
I’m unable to decide yet.
But a simple thought that seems to me right, precisely because of its simplicity, is that I should take no steps other than to live more cheaply by moving to the country, somewhere where the land has character.
I’m eager to know whether Pa and you can more or less follow my feelings as regards staying with the woman. I’d like that to be possible, because then, instead of sending
the woman onto the streets, we’d respond to her promise of better behaviour by forgiving and forgetting. It’s better that she be saved than that she goes under.
This morning she says this to me, ‘As for what I used to do, I don’t even think about it and I haven’t talked to mother about it either, but I know that if I have to go I won’t earn enough, mainly because I have to pay the children’s board, and that if I went on the streets on that account it would be because I had to, not because I wanted to.’ I believe I once wrote to you about what took place between us when she was in the hospital and I hadn’t yet decided whether or not to take her into my house. She asked for nothing then, which contrasts sharply with more normal times with her.
I can’t say exactly what her expression was like, but something like a sheep wanting to say, if I must be slaughtered I won’t resist. Anyway, so heart-rending that I can’t do otherwise than forgive completely, indeed sooner feel guilt myself than accuse. Nonetheless I’ve kept all this to myself and made her promise various things — to be more orderly, harder working, to pose better, not to go to the mother &c. And now for me too it’s completely forgiven, completely forgotten without reservation, and I take her side just as I used to in the past.
It’s a deep compassion that is so strong that everything else gives way to it, and I can no more do otherwise now than I could last year in the hospital, and I say now as then, as long as I have a crust of bread and a place to live you have a home there. It wasn’t passion then, nor is it passion now, it’s understanding each other’s needs as convincing facts.
But knowing now how she was often upset by her family last year, and fearing that she may relapse, I would like to be able to live with her in a village somewhere where she saw nothing of the city and was confronted with a great deal of nature as a matter of course. After all, I’ve known from the start that it will take years before her constitution is fully restored, and so there’s still hope.
Well, the little boy is terribly attached to me; these days he’s always at my side wherever I go in the house, now that he’s beginning to crawl and to stand. You see, Theo, by acting according to what we clearly and steadily feel, I believe that we may well lapse into mistakes, and come up against a brick wall any number of times, but we’ll be preserved from great evil and from despair if we ask what duty is — and do that which must be done as best we can. As to the work, I don’t doubt that there are things wrong with it, but I also don’t doubt that I shan’t lose my way completely, and that I’ll arrive at something good, albeit after much searching.
And I believe that it’s dangerous to try to progress through something other than what is directly work.
I wish I had fellows like Mauve or, to mention someone else, Herkomer as friends, although this isn’t the very first thing that I think matters, and they’d also not regard it as the first.
By steadily working on, whether for a long or a short time, whether with more or less success, sooner or later among the painters one is bound to meet a friend for life, such as M. or H., say, might be. And perhaps sooner when one works on quietly than when one goes and asks him or visits him, which with me has less chance of success because of one or two eccentricities that you feel I have more than I do. For I do see something of that, but not that it’s so bad that I ought not to be surprised at times at the long duration of difficulties in finding some trust among people. Supposing my faults were just as bad and as indisputable as those of the woman, for instance, then I would like someone to do for me what I’ve done for the woman, and on several occasions — to forgive me not by halves but through and through, as if there had been absolutely nothing wrong and never would be. If perhaps you said something to C.M. about me possibly leaving the woman, then please take it back immediately — I can’t do something that now seems to me cruel or merciless. I don’t know whether I’ll be happy with the woman in future, and maybe I won’t — it will certainly not be perfect — but happiness is not what we’re accountable for; we’re accountable for the extent to which we follow our conscience.
Adieu, old chap, and, if you will, write me one more letter while you’re in Nuenen.
Now you must read Pa’s letter. I can’t say anything different. If I left the woman, she might go mad, but because I for my part have more than once found a way of calming her down during her moods of intolerable bad temper, for example by dispelling a fear that oppressed her, because in the course of this year she has learned to see that in me she has a true friend who helps her with her weaknesses and understands what’s wrong, there has come into her that je ne sais quoi of calm when I’m with her, and in time she will, I hope, get better, particularly if what drags her back into the past, of which she’d preferably not be reminded, no longer draws her.
A move is desirable, though, but it must also be an economy measure. She has been told things such as that I would leave her because of the children, for example. This isn’t true, that wouldn’t be my reason in any event, but it’s one of the things that disorientate her and make her wish she didn’t have the children.
Theo, the fact is that she does learn, but one has to point out the same thing to her many times, and she’ll sometimes drive a person to despair, yet when she — but it rarely happens — comes to say what she wants and intends, it’s strange how pure she is despite her corruption. As if deep down something in the ruin of her soul and heart and spirit has been saved.
And her expression in those rare moments is like that of a Mater Dolorosa by Delacroix or certain heads by Ary Scheffer. I believe in that, and now that I’ve seen that again, I respect that depth and hold my tongue about her faults.
I hope you see a few more beautiful sunsets above the quiet land, old chap, far away from the city, before you go back to the city. As to changing where I live, I know that this can be done at more than one place.
But of course we do what we do calmly and so we’ll write about it again.
Adieu — I wish you pleasant days, and assure you that whatever the future may bring, I continue to hope that later days will be calmer.