To Theo van Gogh. Hoogeveen, on or about Friday, 14 September 1883.
My dear Theo,
Now that I’ve been here for a few days and have walked around a good deal in different directions, I can tell you more about the region I’ve fetched up in.
I enclose a scratch after my first painted study from this part of the world, a hut on the heath. A hut made of nothing but sods of turf and sticks. I’ve also seen inside about 6 of this type, and more studies of them will follow.
I can’t more accurately describe the way the exterior looks in the twilight or just after sunset than by reminding you of a particular painting by Jules Dupré which I think belongs to Mesdag, with two huts in it on which the mossy roofs stand out surprisingly deep in tone against a hazy, dusty evening sky.
That is here.
Well, it’s very beautiful inside these huts, dark as a cave. Drawings by certain English artists who have worked on the moors in Ireland most realistically convey what I observe. A. Neuhuys does the same with somewhat more poetry than strikes one at first, but he makes nothing that isn’t also fundamentally true.
I saw superb figures out in the country — striking in their expression of soberness. A woman’s breast, for example, has that heaving motion that is the exact opposite of voluptuousness, and sometimes, if the creature is old or sickly, arouses compassion or else respect. And the melancholy which things in general have is of a healthy kind, as in Millet’s drawings. Happily, the men here wear breeches; it shows off the shape of the leg, makes the movements more expressive.
To mention one of the many things that gave me something new to see and to feel during my explorations, I’ll tell you how here one sees, for example, barges pulled by men, women, children, white or black horses, loaded with peat, in the middle of the heath, just like the ones in Holland, on the Trekweg at Rijswijk, for instance.
The heathland is rich. I saw sheepfolds and shepherds that were more attractive than those in Brabant.
The ovens are more or less like the ones in T. Rousseau’s Communal oven;5 stand in the gardens under old apple trees or among the celery and cabbages.
Beehives, too, in many places.
One can see that many of the people have something wrong with them — it isn’t exactly healthy here, I think — perhaps because of unclean drinking water. I’ve seen some girls of,
I would say, 17 or younger who still had something very beautiful and youthful, in their features too, but generally it fades very early. Yet this doesn’t detract from the
fine, noble bearing of the figure that some of them have, who prove to be very withered when seen close to. There are 4 or 5 canals in the village, to Meppel, to Dedemsvaart,
to Coevorden, to Hollandscheveld.
If you follow them, you see here and there a curious old mill, farmhouse, shipyard or lock. And always the peat barges coming and going.
To give you an example of the authentic character of this region: while I was sitting painting that hut, two sheep and a goat came up and started grazing on the roof of the house. The goat climbed onto the ridge and looked down the chimney.
The woman, who heard something on the roof, shot outside and threw her broom at the said goat, which leapt down like a chamois.
The two hamlets on the heath where I’ve been and where this incident took place are called Stuifzand and Zwartschaap. I’ve also been in various other places, and now you can imagine how unchanged it still is here, since Hoogeveen is a town after all, and yet nearby there are shepherds, those ovens, those turf huts &c.
I sometimes think with great melancholy about the woman and the children, if only they were looked after — oh, it’s the woman’s own fault, one could say, and it would be true, but I fear that her misfortune will be greater than her guilt. I knew from the outset that her character is a ruined character, but I had hopes of her finding her feet and now, precisely when I don’t see her any more and think about the things I saw in her, I increasingly come to realize that she was already too far gone to find her feet.
And that just makes my feelings of pity even greater, and it’s a melancholy feeling because it isn’t in my power to do anything about it. Theo, when I see some poor woman on the heath with a child in her arms or at her breast my eyes become moist. I see her in them; her weakness and slovenliness, too, only serve to intensify the likeness. I know that she isn’t good, that I have every right to do what I’m doing, that to stay with her there wasn’t possible, that bringing her with me really wasn’t possible either, that what I did was even sensible, wise, what you will, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it goes right through me when I see some poor little creature, feverish and miserable, and that then my heart melts. How much sadness there is in life. Well, one may not become melancholy, one must look elsewhere, and to work is the right thing, only there are moments when one only finds peace in the realization: misfortune won’t spare me either. Adieu, write soon, and believe me