Vincent van Gogh - Street Scene in Montmartre 1887

Street Scene in Montmartre 1887
Street Scene in Montmartre
Oil on canvas 46.0 x 61.0 cm. Paris: Spring, 1887
Copenhagen: private collection

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Hoogeveen, on or about Friday, 21 September 1883.
Dear brother,
I’ve just received your letter and thank you right heartily for it. And want to write to you again straightaway to tell you a few things about my experiences. First of all, I’ve had a letter from Rappard in West-Terschelling and he’s hard at work there, having first spent some time here in Drenthe, in Rolde near Assen.
I hope to be able to visit him there myself this winter and to make a few more studies; the trip there, as far as I can make out, there and back, being three guilders, unless the crossing to T. should prove difficult. But it would be worth it to be with a painter again, and will break the isolation.
I’m longing to get your next letter, which I hope won’t get stuck in the pen. Don’t forget to tell me the outcome regarding C.M., whether you’ve told him that I was here and whether your letter has also gone unanswered. If that’s the case I’ll certainly go and see C.M., not now of course but later, and ask him to explain why he didn’t reply. I shan’t write, but I’m unshakeably determined that I shall not put up with his not answering, particularly not answering you, and since this is part of it, also his not answering me.
I’ve NEVER SAID that he must do something, nor do I now. I count what he did or might do as a favour, and as such something for which I’ve always thanked him, and for my part have also given him studies, certainly 50 altogether, with the right to swap them later. And all this being so, I certainly don’t have to tolerate any insults, and it is a gross insult that I haven’t even had word that he received the last packet of studies. Not a syllable. And should your letter remain unanswered on top of this, it would be cowardice to leave it at that, and I must and shall demand an explanation. Which, as said, I shall most certainly do, and in a personal visit, even though some time may elapse. If he isn’t willing to talk to me then, that would by no means finish the matter, because my mind is made up that I shall have satisfaction about it. Should he give it me, well and good, but should he refuse to give it me (I haven’t used a single impolite term to him, I’ve only written in a very cool tone), should, I say, he refuse to give it me, I may say an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and insult him roundly back, which I would do in cold blood.
Make no mistake, brother, understand me in this once and for all, however desirable it might be to get financial help — that is far from being No. 1. No. 1 is that he goes too far in losing sight of the rights that I have as a human being, even were I a stranger to him (I never speak of our relationship, nor rely on it), not to be treated as a bad lot, not to be condemned or accused of this or that without being able to speak up for myself. I have the right, every right to demand an answer and to consider silence a very gross insult.

I must speak frankly about this because I had hoped until now that it would come right of its own accord, and that I would receive word in reply.
But there’s a limit to this silent forbearance and, as I say, beyond that limit it would be cowardly and unmanly of me not to protest four-square against it. So I ask you kindly, simply to tell me what has happened as regards an answer to your letter; then I’ll know for myself what I must do, then I won’t say another word about it, but even if more than a year were to pass I’ll still find deep inside me, as untarnished, clear and bright as I have at this moment, this same feeling that I must have an explanation, and not rest until I’ve settled matters with him one way or another.
I think that you’ll appreciate my feelings, and would do so all the more if you knew precisely what occurred between him and me in years past. When I was very dubious about the plan to study, whether the promise to bring that about was straightforward and well-considered — I thought then that they made the plan too hastily and I went along with it too hastily, and in my view it remains an excellent thing that it stopped when it did, which I deliberately brought about myself, contriving it such that the shame of giving up fell on me and not on anyone else. You know that I, who have learned other languages, could have managed to master that miserable little bit of Latin &c., but I said I couldn’t cope. This was an excuse, because I didn’t want to tell my protectors that I regard the whole University (or at least the Theology Faculty) as an unspeakable mess, a breeding-ground for Pharisees. I tried to prove that I didn’t lack courage by going to the Borinage, where life was most certainly much harder for me than it would have been had I become a student.
I thought that C.M., for example, might have understood me better, and have all the more reason to believe him insensitive when I think how he has treated me with a degree of contempt ever since. Then and now I’ve kept to myself a good many things that I could have said, and if I ever tackle him about them he’ll have to feel a thing or two in his conscience, whatever he may say; how I, neither in the past nor now, have ever committed any base acts against him, so there’s no conceivable reason for this insult of his failure to reply, all the more so since it would have been better if, from the moment when I went to The Hague, all that was in the past had been forgiven and forgotten and we’d resolved to maintain cordial relations, which I discussed with His Hon. at the time. But I do not say, brother, peace at any price, and I would rather have an unpleasant explanation than weakly let things go when doing so would be weak, and it would be now.
Be assured, though, that I shall NOT mention you, even though his insult to you, if he doesn’t set it right (it occurs to me that he’s beginning to use something of the same policy towards you) is what’s making me resolved to have it out with His Hon., and I’ve decided to say a great many things to him.
I promise you that, I’ll make it appear as if I was talking about myself alone, as if I knew nothing about you.
I have the very deepest contempt for this mysterious, sphinx-like silence &c., and I tell you here and now that I think all sorts of things about it, except for something that’s straightforward and honest or true.
It may have something to do with the general politics of the day, I know that, but as you know I don’t agree with the general politics of the day because I regard it as base and bearing all the traits of a decline that will end in a new periwig age. One could weep about what’s presently being spoiled in all sorts of areas, things to which our predecessors devoted their labours, honestly, are now being mean-spiritedly neglected and abandoned. The times we live in are perhaps outwardly a little more respectable than earlier days, but too much nobleness is being lost for us to be able to expect the same great things of the future that there have been in the past. Well, everyone has to make up his own mind.
Now to change the subject — but it was necessary to deal with these matters, although I take not the slightest pleasure in writing about them — namely my experiences here. The more I walk around the area, the more I’m coming to like Hoogeveen itself, and I don’t doubt that this will remain so. If C.M. falls through, which I fear, this doesn’t alter the fact that in the long run it will work out cheaper here than in The Hague. But because of C.M. falling through I’ll have to scrimp and save for a while before I can carry out my plans. And perhaps we’ll lose absolutely nothing by it after all.
The fact is that I do need money and a stock of paint and various things before I can expect any results from the trip through the south-east corner of Drenthe.
But in six months or so I hope I’ll have saved enough, and in the meantime I’ll still be able to do things here. So for the present I won’t go further away for good, but will stay and work in this area. Will try to save some money for two trips, one through the south-east corner, one across the heath between here and Assen. And I hope to combine the latter trip to the north with a visit to friend Rappard and spend some time in his lodgings on Terschelling, known as ’t Scheepje. It would be too reckless to go on these two trips if one were to undertake them without supplies and without being prepared for the circumstances. But with patience they’re possible, for I see well enough that I have fewer expenses here than in The Hague. And before I begin on that I’d like to pay Rappard his money back, although it may be that later I’ll perhaps borrow something from him again after I’ve seen him, and if I know for sure that I can make something specific with it. At first I had some trouble here with models on the heath, where people laughed about it and I was ridiculed and couldn’t finish figure studies that I’d started because of the unwillingness of the models, although I had paid them well, at least for these parts. I stood firm, though, and concentrated on a single family in that same place, where I can now get an old woman, a girl and a man, and have hopes that they’ll remain willing.
I have a few studies of the heath, which I’ll send you when they’re thoroughly dry, and have also begun watercolours. And I’ve also started pen drawings again, specifically with a view to painting, because one can go into such details with the pen as painted studies cannot do, and one does well to make two studies, one entirely drawn for the way things are put together, and one painted for the colour. If this can be done, that is, and the occasion permits, this is a way of working up the painted study later.
The heath is rich, and there are marshy meadows that often remind me of T. Rousseau.
Well, I can tell you that the open air and the life here are really doing me good. Oh if only the poor woman could have had it — I think of her with such profound sadness — although my common sense tells me quite clearly that it’s impossible now in the circumstances. I’m worried about her because I heard nothing from her, and from that assume that she has been either unwilling or unable to do things that I advised her to do. I can’t even write to her easily, because if she continues to live in Bagijnestraat I know first that my letter will be opened, probably by her brother or her mother, and secondly as long as she lives there I don’t want to have anything to do with it anyway, not even with her. Still, perhaps I’ll hear something yet, but my thoughts will be gloomy if I hear nothing further. I had hoped to get a message from an address other than Bagijnestraat, and that she and her mother had started a little business doing laundry and ironing.
Oh Theo, if she hadn’t had any family she’d have behaved herself so much better. Women like her really are bad, but first infinitely, I say infinitely, more pitiable than bad, and secondly they have a certain passion, certain warmth which has something so very human that the respectable could learn a lesson, and I for my part understand the words of Jesus, who said to the superficially civilized, the respectable people of His time, ‘the harlots go BEFORE you’. Women like her, they can be fatally bad (I’m not even speaking here of the Nanas, full-blooded and sensual, but of the more nervous, rational temperaments among them), women like her, they fully justify Proudhon’s words, woman is the desolation of the righteous man — they don’t care about what we call ‘reason’ and go against it directly and culpably, I know that, but on the other hand they still have that genuine humanity, which means that one may not and cannot do without them, and one feels that there’s good in them and even something almighty good, even though one can’t define it other than ‘I don’t know what makes one love them after all’. Gavarni was serious when he said: I felt something die within me with every woman that I have left. And the most beautiful saying and the best that I know on the question of women is the one that you know too, oh woman whom I could have loved, and one would willingly go into the infinite with that, wanting nothing more than that knowledge.
I know that there are women, absurdly enough (they indeed do even more harm to it than the men), who are wholly governed by ambition etc. — Lady Macbeth is this type — these women are fatal, and one must avoid them despite their charm or one becomes a villain and very soon finds oneself faced with terrible evil that one has done and can never put right again — but there was nothing like this in her with whom I was, although she was vain, just as we all are at times. Poor, poor, poor creature is all that I felt at the start and I still feel in the end. Bad? So be it, but who in our times is good? Who feels so pure that he wants to play judge? God forbid. Delacroix would have understood her, I dare say, and God’s misericorde will even, I sometimes think, understand her much more, surely.
As I wrote to you, the little lad loved me very much, and when I was already sitting in the wagon I still had him on my lap. And so we parted, I believe with inexpressible melancholy on both sides, but nothing more. I tell you brother, I’m not good in the way of the ministers, I too, not to mince words, think whores are bad, but I nevertheless feel something human in them that means I don’t have the slightest scruple about consorting with them, I see nothing particularly evil in them, I haven’t the slightest remorse about the acquaintance I have or have had with them. If our society were a pure and ordered one, oh yes, then they were temptresses, now — many times it seems to me they should be regarded more as sisters of charity than anything else.
And now, as in other periods of the fall of a civilization, the relationships of good and evil are often reversed because of the corruption of society, and one reasonably comes back to the old saying: ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’.
Like you, I’ve been to Père Lachaise, I’ve seen the graves of men for whom I have indescribable respect; I felt the same respect by the humble little tombstone of Béranger’s mistress, which I visited expressly (if I remember rightly it’s in a little corner behind his),18 and I also thought there about Corot’s mistress in particular. Such women were silent muses, and I forever, always and everywhere feel the influence of a feminine element in the emotion of these gentle masters, the intimacy, the penetration of their poetry. I’m speaking a bit seriously in this letter, not because I think that Pa’s feelings and views, for instance, are wrong in everything — far from it — you would, for example, do well to follow Pa’s advice in many things — we talked about Pa, you will recall, during your visit and at the moment you left — but something that I felt vaguely then I can now express more clearly, when you speak with Pa, think at the same time of Corot, say, you’ll then automatically avoid some of the extremes into which Pa lapses much too much, and as I see it, on this condition that there’s less stiffness, Pa’s advice is usually good, and I have myself paid heed to it many times. But I point out that Pa and others do not know that besides their upright lives — for Pa’s life is upright — there are other upright lives, more in a milder spirit, in the character of Corot, Béranger, shall I say. You and I also feel that much more in any event. Because Pa and others DO not KNOW THAT, they are frequently and fatally mistaken when judging certain matters. Mistakes along the lines, for example, that C.M. certainly believes that Degroux was a bad man, in which, however sure he is in his belief, he is nonetheless mistaken.
I’ll now tell you something else to make it clear to you that I’m not speaking in the abstract but about things that have solidity and substance. If you want an example of someone who originally had the ordinary, good Dutch character and feelings and yet has changed those feelings since, yet has reconsidered, and I think will change even more. Then as an example I give you Rappard, who is now already much gentler and more humane than when I first got to know him, and in my view is much improved, even though he was already good before. Although, I fear, not everyone sees it this way, and he has already had some conflict about it. In the past he really was good, but yet he became dissatisfied with that and is now deeper and more humane than he was then. It doesn’t make things easier for him — he used to have far less conflict — I know that for certain — because at the time I jokingly called him ‘the clear conscience’ and teased him about it, which I definitely no longer do, because I see that there has been a revolution in him. He’s a little less elegant and he’s much less superficial as a person, and a certain germ of genius has begun its development, and he has steered clear of the pitfall of ‘withering’.
In respect of people who genuinely seek good, I think what Hugo says is true, ‘there is the BLACK ray and there is the WHITE ray’.
In my view Pa has more the black ray and Corot has more the white ray, but both of them have a ray from on high.
So I don’t call anyone whom we’ve discussed bad, NO, for all that, but I do say that the black ray has a fatal side, and because I’ve since thought about what you said to me on the station platform when you left, I tell you now in explanation of what I couldn’t readily find words for then, ‘I know that Pa is Pa, but there’s something else besides that, namely what we’ll call “the white ray”’. And I find more that’s positive, more true peace in that, and I’ve fixed my attention on it much more. As to Millet, he’s the man above all others who had the white ray. Millet has a gospel, and I ask you whether there’s a distinction between a drawing by him and a good sermon. It makes the sermon black, it’s the outcome of the comparison, even if it (the sermon, that is) is fine in itself, assuming that it is. I know that you too have a lot of strife at the moment, although I don’t know precisely the ins and outs of it. And in any event it’s out of sympathy that I tell you precisely what I think about a few things, because I’ve also had and still have a lot of strife.
And I wish you more and more of the white ray, you hear! Thanks for what you sent, and a handshake in thought.
Ever yours,