Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait 1887

Self-Portrait 1887
Oil on canvas 41.0 x 33.0 cm. Paris: Spring-Summer, 1887
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Hoogeveen, Friday, 12 October 1883.
Dear brother,
I just received your letter. I read and re-read it with interest, and something that I’ve already thought about sometimes, without knowing what to do about it, is becoming clear to me. It’s that you and I have in common a time of quietly drawing impossible windmills &c., where the drawings are in a singular rapport with the storm of thoughts and aspirations — in vain, because no one who can shed light is concerned about them (only a painter would then be able to help one along the right path, and their thoughts are elsewhere). This is a great inner struggle, and it ends in discouragement or in throwing those thoughts overboard as impractical, and precisely when one is 20 or so, one is passionate to do that. Whatever the truth of the matter that I said something then that unwittingly contributed to throwing those things overboard; at that moment my thoughts were perhaps the same as yours, that’s to say that I saw it as something impossible, but as regards that desperate struggle without seeing any light, I know it too, how awful it is. With all one’s energy one can do nothing and thinks oneself mad, and I don’t know what else. When I was in London, how often I would stand on the Thames Embankment and draw as I made my way home from Southampton Street in the evening, and it looked terrible. If only there had been someone then who had told me what perspective was, how much misery I would have been spared, how much further along I would be now. Well, fait accompli is fait accompli. It didn’t happen then — I did talk to Thijs Maris occasionally (I didn’t dare speak to Boughton, because I felt such great respect in his presence) but I didn’t find it there either, that helping me with the first things, with the ABC.
Let me now repeat that I believe in you as an artist, and that you can still become one, indeed that you should very soon think calmly about whether you are one or not, whether you would be able to produce something or not if you learned to spell the aforementioned ABC, and then also spent some time walking through the wheatfield and the heath, in order to renew once more what you yourself say, ‘I used to be part of that nature, now I don’t feel that any more’. Let me tell you, brother, that I myself have felt so deeply, deeply that which you say there. That I’ve had a time of nervous, barren stress when I had days when I couldn’t find the most beautiful countryside beautiful, precisely because I didn’t feel myself part of it. That’s what pavements and the office — and care — and nerves — do.
Don’t take it amiss if I say now that your soul is sick at this moment — it really is — it isn’t good that you aren’t part of nature — and I think that No. 1 now is for you to make that normal again. I think it’s very good that you yourself feel the difference between your state of mind now and in other years. And don’t doubt that you will agree with me that you must work on it to put it right.
I now have to look back into my own past to see what the matter was, spending years in that stony, barren state of mind and trying to emerge from it, and yet it got worse and worse instead of better.
Not only did I feel indifferent instead of responsive to nature but also, which was much worse, I felt exactly the same about people.
People said that I was going mad; I myself felt that I wasn’t, if only because I felt my own malady very deep inside myself and tried to get over it again. I made all sorts of forlorn attempts that led to nothing, so be it, but because of that idée fixe of getting back to a normal position I never confused my own desperate doings, scrambling and squirmings with I myself. At least I always felt ‘let me just do something, be somewhere, it must get better, I’ll get over it, let me have the patience to recover’.
I don’t believe that someone like Boks, for instance, who really turned out to be mad, thought like that — so I say again, I’ve thought about it a lot since, about my years of all sorts of scrambling, and I don’t see that, given my circumstances, I could be other than I have been.
Here is the ground that sank beneath my feet — here is the ground which, if it sinks, must make a person miserable, whoever he may be. I was with G&Cie for 6 years — I had put down roots in G&Cie and I thought that, although I left, I could look back on 6 years of good work, and that if I presented myself somewhere I could refer to my past with equanimity.
But by no means; things are done so hurriedly that little consideration is given, little is questioned or reasoned. People act on the most random, most superficial impressions. And once one is out of G&Cie no one knows who G&Cie is. It’s a name like X&Co., without meaning — and so one is simply ‘a person without a situation’. All at once — suddenly — fatally — everywhere — there you have it. Of course, precisely because one has a certain respectability one doesn’t say I’m so-and-so, I’m this or that. One presents oneself for a new situation serious in all respects, without saying much, with a view to putting one’s hand to the plough. Very well, but then, that ‘person without a situation’, the man from anywhere, gradually becomes suspect. Suppose that your new employer is a man whose affairs are very mysterious, and suppose that he has just one goal, ‘money’. With all your energy, can you really immediately, at once, help him a very great deal in that? Perhaps not, eh? And yet he wants money, money come what may; you want to know something more about the business, and what you see or hear is pretty disgusting.
And soon it’s: ‘someone without a situation’, I don’t need you any more. See, now that’s what you increasingly become: someone without a situation. Go to England, go to America, it doesn’t help at all, you’re an uprooted tree everywhere. G&Cie, where your roots are from an early age — G&Cie, although indirectly they cause you this misery because in your youth you regarded them as the finest, the best, the biggest in the world — G&Cie, were you to return to them — I didn’t do that then — I couldn’t — my heart was too full, much too full — G&Cie, they’d give you the cold shoulder, say it was no longer their concern or something. With all this one has been uprooted, and the world turns it around and says that you’ve uprooted yourself. Fact — your place no longer acknowledges you. I felt too melancholy to do anything about it — and I don’t remember ever having been in the mood to talk to someone about it as I’m talking to you now. Because, and actually to my surprise, for I thought that even if they did it to me they would, however, certainly not have dared to do it to you, I read in your letter the words ‘when I spoke to them this week the gentlemen made it almost impossible for me’. Old chap, you know how it is with me, but if you’re miserable about one thing and another, do not feel you are alone. It’s too much to bear alone, and to some extent I can sympathize with you the way it is. Now, stand your ground and don’t let your pain throw you off balance — if the gentlemen behave like this, stand on your dignity and don’t accept your dismissal except on terms that guarantee you’ll get a new situation. They aren’t worth your losing your temper, don’t do that, even if they provoke you. I lost my temper and walked straight out. Now in my position it was different again from yours; I was one of the least, you are one of the first, but what I say about being uprooted, I’m afraid that you would feel the same if you were out of it, so look at that, too, cold-bloodedly, stand up to them and don’t let them push you out without being a little prepared for that difficult situation of beginning again. And know this — given an uprooting, given not making headway again, don’t despair.
Then, in the worst case, do NOT go to America, because it’s exactly the same there as in Paris. No, beware of reaching that point where one says: I’ll make myself scarce; I had that myself, I hope that you won’t have it. If you had it, I say again, beware of it, resist it with great coolness, say to yourself, this point proves to me that I’m running into a brick wall. This is a wall for bulls to run into; I am a bull too, but an intelligent one, I am a bull about becoming an artist. Anyway, get out before you smash your head to pieces, that’s all. I’m not saying that that’s what will happen; I hope that there will be no question whatever of running into a wall. But suppose after all that there was a whirlpool with accompanying sharp-edged rocky promontories, well, I would just think that you might avoid it, wouldn’t you? Perhaps you’ll admit that those rocks might be there, since you yourself pulled me out of that whirlpool when I had no more hope of getting out of it and was powerless to fight against it any more.
I mean, give those waters a very wide berth. They’re beginning to drag you down in that one thing — I say no more nor less than I’m sure of — that you aren’t part of nature. Do you think it strange of me that I dare to say as much as this: now, at the very beginning, change course now and no later than now in so far as you work at restoring the bond between yourself and nature? The more you remain in the frame of mind of not being part of nature, the more you play into the hands of your eternal enemy (and mine too), Nerves. I have more experience than you of the sort of tricks they could play on you. You’re now beginning to enter waters that are throwing you off balance, inasmuch as the rapport with nature seems to be broken. Take that very coolly as a sign of aberration; say, oh no, not that way if you please. Seek a new passion, an interest in something; think, for example, after all perspective must fundamentally be the simplest of all things and chiaroscuro a simple, not a complicated matter. It must be something that speaks for itself, otherwise I don’t much care for it. Try to get back to nature in this way.
Will you now, old chap, simply take it from me when I say that as I write to you I’ve got something back of what I had years ago. That I’m again taking pleasure in windmills, for example, that particularly here in Drenthe I feel much as I did then, at the time when I first began to see the beauty in art. You’d be prepared to call that a normal mood, wouldn’t you? — finding the outdoor things beautiful, being calm enough to draw them, to paint them. And suppose you were to come up against a brick wall somewhere, wouldn’t you find someone in my present mood composed enough to want to take a little walk with him, precisely in order to have a distraction from thoughts if, through nervousness, these thoughts start to acquire a certain despairing element? You are yourself and not fundamentally changed, but your nerves are beginning to be unstrung by strain. Now, look after your nerves, and don’t take them lightly, because they cause quick-tempered manoeuvres — well, you know a thing or two about that yourself.

Make no mistake, Theo, at this moment Pa, Ma, Wil, Marie, and I above all, are supported by you; it seems to you that you have to go on for our sakes, and believe me I fully understand that, or at least can understand it to a very great extent. Just think about this for a moment. What is your goal and Pa’s, Ma’s, Wil’s, Marie’s and mine? What do we all want? We want, acting decently, to keep our heads above water, we all want to arrive at a clear position, not a false position, don’t we? This is what we all want, unanimously and sincerely, however much we differ or don’t differ among ourselves. What are we all prepared to do against fate? All, all of us without exception to work quietly, calmness. Am I wrong in regarding the general situation in this way? Very well, what are we facing now? We’re confronting a calamity which, touching you, touches us all. Fine. A storm is brewing. We see it brewing. That lightning might well strike us. Fine. What do we do now? Do we reach our wit’s end? I don’t think that we’re inclined that way — even if certain nerves that we all have in our bodies, even if certain fibres of the heart, finer than nerves, are shocked or experience pain.
We are today what we were yesterday, even if the lightning strikes or even, perhaps, should it thunder. Are we or are we not the sort who can look at things calmly? That, simply, is the question, and I see no reason why we should not be so. What I also see is the following — that our position towards one another is also straight at this moment. That for the purposes of keeping straight it’s desirable to have a closer connection, and in my view there are a few things in ourselves that we’ll have to work out between us.
In the first place, I would be very pleased if your relationship with Marie were to be put on a firmer footing; in other words a formal engagement if possible.
Secondly, I would consider it desirable that we all understood that circumstances urgently require that Brabant no longer be closed to me. I myself think it better that I do not go there unless there’s no other choice, but in the event of an emergency the rent that I’m obliged to pay could be saved, because Pa has a house there rent-free.
I’m at a point where there will probably be some income from my work soon. And if we could now reduce expenditure to a minimum, even below what it is at present, perhaps I could earn instead of consume, become positive instead of negative.
If it’s a question of our having to earn, I can see a chance in this way — if there’s patience at home, a realization of the necessities, if above all, when it comes to models for me, even the family cooperates. As to the question of models, they’d definitely have to do what I wanted, have to trust that I had my reasons for it. If I were to say to Ma or to Wil or Lies, pose for me, it would have to happen.
I wouldn’t make any unreasonable demands, of course. You know how it came about that I left; the fundamental cause was misunderstanding one another, actually in all things. So can we live together? Yes, for a time, if we have to and people on both sides understand that everything has to be subordinated to what the force majeure of circumstances dictates. I had hoped that that was understood at the time, and I didn’t take the initiative to leave — when I was told to go away, though, I went.
Anyway, I broach this because I see that perhaps things will come to pass such that you must have your hands free, and if it might help for me to live at home for a while, I think that Pa and I would both have to reconcile ourselves to that immediately. Although if it isn’t necessary — so much the better. But I’m not saying that I absolutely must be in Drenthe; where isn’t the most important thing.
So be aware of this, that in that respect I would of course do whatever you thought advisable.
Well, I’ll write to Pa today, without more ado, simply this: if Theo were to think it advisable that my expenses should be reduced to a minimum and I should live at home for a while, I hope that both you and I will have the sense not to put a spoke in the wheel through mutual discord, but keeping silent about everything that has passed will reconcile ourselves to what circumstances bring. Nothing more about you or about business nor, should I have to live at home, would I talk about you other than in general terms. And for the time being I would certainly not mention Marie.
Theo, if you had said perhaps a year ago that you would certainly not become a painter, would certainly stay in your present profession, I would have had to accede; now I don’t accede so readily, I still see that repeated occurrence in the history of art of the phenomenon of two brothers who are painters. I know that the future is unpredictable, at least I tell you that I don’t know how things will turn out. However, it’s definitely the case that I believe in you as an artist, and this is actually reinforced by some of the things in your last letter.
Mind now, I advise you of one thing that’s urgently necessary — beware of your nerves — use all means to keep your constitution calm. Consult a doctor daily if you possibly can, not so much because a doctor can do anything about it, as much as would be needed, but because the very fact of going to a doctor to talk about it &c. will show you, this is nerves, that is me.
It’s a question here of self-knowledge, of serenity, despite all the tricks that the nerves must play. I consider the whole idea that it could come to your making yourself scarce to be the effect of nerves. You would do wisely and well to regard it in this way yourself. I hope that you will not bring off a coup, I hope that you will not make a financial invention — I hope that you will become a painter. If, through cool aplomb, you can let the crisis now deliberately being created by the gentlemen run off you like water off a duck’s back, can say to them ‘I am certainly not leaving in this way, certainly not now, never like this’ — if you say to them, I have plans but they aren’t even of a commercial nature, and as soon as they can be put into effect I’ll retire in all tranquillity; until that time, as long as you can’t find fault with what I do, leave things as they are, but know that you’re very much mistaken in me if you think that I would leave because you make things impossible for me, or would part from you in any unreasonable way. If you want to be rid of me, very well, I also want to be rid of you, but amicably and in good order, and it goes without saying that I must keep going. Anyhow, try to make them understand that you’re dead cool and calm and will remain so, however that you have absolutely no desire whatsoever to stay — but that you won’t leave until you see a favourable moment. This seems to me to be the way to counter what they’re now trying to do, to make it impossible for you to stay. Perhaps they suspect that you’ve already established relations elsewhere, and in such a case making it impossible for someone to stay can sometimes be very nasty. If they turn nasty now, there’s nothing for it, cut it short — perhaps the best thing might be to explain calmly that you would retire on certain conditions.
In the meantime, let me know if I should go home for a while so that you have your hands free. And again, Pa, Ma, Wil, Marie, I, in a word all of us, think much more of you yourself than of your money. Making yourself scarce is nothing but sheer nerves.
But — restore — try to restore, even if it doesn’t happen all at once — the rapport between you and nature and people. And if the only way to do this is to become a painter, well then become one, even if you see ever so many objections and impossibilities.
Now listen — write to me very soon — be sure to do that. With a handshake.
Ever yours,