To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Monday, 20 August 1883.
My dear Theo,
You’ll understand that I’m rather eager to hear from you whether you’ve read my letter. As for myself, the course that’s the cheapest by our calculations — I believe a village would be the answer — would seem to me the most sensible in the given circumstances.
If the 150 francs a month can continue, I believe we can cover the cost completely, or nearly so. Dear brother, you see that it doesn’t look as if there’ll be any leeway for me, in any event.
I’ll try not to complain, and swallow what I can swallow.
I remain convinced that actually more is required for the work, and that I ought to be able to spend a little more on food and other needs, but if I must manage with less — after all, my life may not be worth the food — why should I make a fuss about it? And it isn’t anyone’s direct fault, not mine either.
I hope, though, that you understand one thing — that one cannot do more than scrimp, even on food, clothes, every kind of comfort, everything that’s really needed. When one has stinted oneself even in those things, there can be no question of unwillingness, can there?
You understand that if someone said to me, do this, do that, do a drawing of this or that, I wouldn’t refuse, indeed I would try repeatedly with pleasure if it didn’t work the first time. But no one says that, or so vaguely, so in general, that it confuses me rather than helps me on my way. Dear brother, regarding clothes, I’ve put on what I got without wishing for more, without asking for more. I’ve worn clothes from Pa and from you that sometimes fit my body differently and I can’t help that, also because the waists may differ.
If you won’t mention that my dress occasionally leaves something to be desired, I’ll be content with what I have and even grateful for it, in no small measure, although of
course at a later stage I’ll return to it if I can, and hope to say to you: Theo, do you remember the days when I went round in a long minister’s coat of Pa’s &c.?; and it seems
to me that quietly registering things now and laughing about them together later when we’re more on top of them is infinitely preferable to arguing about them now. For the
present, if I have to go out I have your suit that you brought, and more that is presentable. Forgive me if I don’t wear it in the studio or out of doors, that would be to ruin
it wilfully, because one always gets some stain or other when painting, and particularly when trying to capture an effect in rain and wind.
My view as regards earning money is as simple as can be; it is that it must come through the work, and that in the circumstances I gain nothing by speaking to people about it personally.
Yet if I see a chance, I pursue it, for instance, what I told you about Belinfante, and Smulders. But so far I’ve had little luck. Well, I shan’t grieve about that as long as you don’t upset me by suspecting me of being unwilling. For I believe that if you think about it carefully you won’t doubt that I’m industrious, and if, moreover, you were to demand that I asked people to buy from me, I would do it, but I might then become melancholic. If possible, allow me to go on as before. If not, and if you want me to call on people with my work, I shan’t refuse if you advise that.
Yet, dear brother, human brains can’t withstand everything. Take Rappard, who got brain fever and has now gone all the way to Germany to get rid of it. I become more agitated than is good for me when I take steps like going to people to talk about the work. And what do I come away with? A refusal or a fobbing-off.
It wouldn’t agitate me if it was you, say, who know me and to whom I’m used to speaking.
I tell you, I feel less energetic outdoors when I’ve been among people.
If we don’t waste time with steps of that kind, we’ll make progress slowly but surely, and I know of no better way.
In no case shall I refuse a serious commission, whatever is asked for, to my liking or not, I’ll try to do it as required, or do it again if required.
In short, I resolve not to get impatient in any event, even if people were deliberately to make it difficult for me.
I can’t say more than that, and if you care to commission something from me, you can carry out a test, or several tests. I’m at your disposal. I believe there’s a difference between now and the past. In the past more passion went into both the making and the judging of work. One made a definite choice for this or that movement, one enthusiastically backed one side or another. There was more verve. Now I believe there’s a spirit of caprice and satiety. People are generally more lukewarm. For my part, I wrote to you before that it seemed to me that since Millet a sharp falling off was evident, as if the peak had already been reached and decline had set in.
This affects everyone and everything.
I’m always glad that I saw the collection of drawings by Millet at the Hôtel Drouot.
At the moment you’re in Nuenen.
I wish, brother, that there were no reasons for me to be absent. I wish we were walking together through the old country churchyard or at a weaver’s. Now that isn’t so. Why not? Oh, because I realize that I would seem like a spoilsport in the given atmosphere.
Theo, again — I don’t entirely understand it, and think it has gone rather too far when both you and Pa feel ashamed to walk a little with me. For my part I’ll keep away, though my heart yearns to be together. At least, given that I at any rate can’t do without that brief moment of seeing either you or Pa with no reservations for once — solely because of unbreakable bonds — henceforth I would like us never again to discuss the question of conventions or clothes when we see each other. You see from everything how instead of insinuating my way in I withdraw as far as possible. But conventions mustn’t cause a general cooling. That one point of light that we see each other briefly once a year mustn’t be clouded over. Adieu,
As to the work, I don’t hesitate. You’ve read Fromont Jeune and Risler aîné, haven’t you? I do NOT see you in Fromont Jeune of course, but I do see a resemblance between myself and Risler aîné — in his absorption in his work, his decisiveness in that, while otherwise he was an ‘ordinary chap’ and fairly nonchalant and short-sighted, his few wants for himself, so that he changed nothing for himself when he became rich.
As regards my work all my ideas are so ordered, so definite, that I believe you’d do well to accept what I say: let me get on with it as I am; my drawings will become good if we stay on the normal footing with each other, but because the improvement depends a little on the money for my outgoings and expenses — and not only on my efforts — be as generous as you can with the money, and if you see a chance to add any help from another quarter, don’t let it slip. But in fact these few lines contain everything I have to say.
You mustn’t let yourself be misguided as to my true character by my actions when I left Goupil. If the firm had been for me then what art is for me now, I would have acted more decisively then. But in fact I was unsure then about whether it was my career or not, and I was more passive. When I was asked, wouldn’t you like to leave?, I said, you think I should leave?, then I’ll leave. No more than that. There was more silence then than talk. If it had been dealt with differently, if they’d said: we don’t understand how you acted in this or that case, explain it, it would have turned out differently.
I already told you, brother, discretion isn’t always understood. Too bad, perhaps. It’s better I have the career I have now, I believe, but when I left Goupil there were motives other than clothes, on my side at any rate.
There was a half or whole plan then for me to get a position in paintings at the new branch in London, which in the first place I didn’t consider myself suitable for, and in the second had no interest in. I would have liked to stay with the firm if I’d been given a position that consisted less exclusively of talking to the customers.
In short, if I’d been asked then, do you enjoy the business?, my answer would have been, yes, certainly. Would you like to stay? Yes, if you consider me worth what I earn and don’t consider me a hindrance or harmful. Then I would have asked for a position at the printer’s perhaps, or for the one in London — but slightly altered — and would have got it, I believe.
They didn’t ask me anything, though, just told me, ‘You are an honest and hard-working employee but you set a bad example to the others’, and I said nothing to refute that because I didn’t want to influence whether or not I would stay.
I could have said a great deal to refute that, though, if I had wanted, and indeed things that I believe would have ensured that I could stay. I say this because I don’t understand how you couldn’t know that it was a question not of dress but of very different matters. Well — to you — I say what I don’t doubt is right to say now, given that my profession is my profession and I don’t doubt that I should stay in it.
So I say this to you: not only do I wish to keep things between us as they are, but I’m really so grateful for our relationship that I only enquire about poorer or richer, more or less difficult, taking nothing for granted, that I’m content with all conditions and will fit in, adapt, make do if need be.
But I desire only that you shouldn’t doubt me with respect to good will, application — and grant me a little common sense so that you don’t suspect me of doing silly things, and so quietly let me carry on working in my normal way.
Of course I must seek in order to find, and not everything will come off by a long way, but in the end the work will be good.
Patience until it’s good, not letting go until it’s good, not doubting, is what I would like you and I to have together and to hold on to. If we hold onto that, I don’t know to what extent we’ll benefit financially, but I do believe that — on condition of collaboration and solidarity, however — we’ll be able to persevere for our whole lives, sometimes selling nothing and finding life hard, then at times selling and having it easier.
That’s sufficiently brief and to the point. Persevering depends on our will to stay together. As long as that will exists, it is possible. Now I mention Risler aîné again (I believe you know the book, if not read it sometime, and what I mean will be clear to you) and point out to you how that man’s appearance was more or less like mine, how his life was working in the attic of the factory on his designs and machines, how he had no time for or interest in anything else for that matter, and his greatest luxury for himself was to drink a glass of beer with an old acquaintance.
The story in the book is one that’s of no importance here, other things in the book aren’t relevant. I draw your attention to the character, the way of life of Risler âiné in itself, without any thought of anything else in the story. Really only to explain to you that I think very little about my clothes because of my way of working — of doing business, if you like – is working personally, NOT approaching people.
A few friends I’ll have later will, believe me, take me as I am. I think you’ll understand this letter, and understand that it isn’t a case of me getting angry when something is said to me about clothes. No, inside I’m becoming ever more calm and concentrated, and something very different would be needed to make me angry. Wherever I went, I would be roughly the same — perhaps really making a bad impression everywhere in the beginning. But I doubt whether that would remain for ever with the people I talked to about it face to face.
Well, from this moment on I’m again completely absorbed in the work. Do for me what can be done, think yourself about what could be useful or help us to get somewhere more quickly. I don’t doubt your good will or friendship. Regards, enjoy your days, and write soon.