Vincent van Gogh - Path in the Woods 1887

Path in the Woods 1887
Path in the Woods
Oil on canvas 46.0 x 38.5 cm. Paris: June, 1887
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Nieuw-Amsterdam, Sunday, 28 October 1883.
My dear brother,
It’s Sunday today and you’re never out of my thoughts. As to these things, I’d find ‘the longer you stay there, the more bored you’ll be’ very applicable to business; ‘the more you’ll enjoy yourself’ to painting — enjoy here in a serious sense of a zest for life, good spirits, energy. Oh — I said we should by all means take Tom, Dick and Harry as they are — by all means — let’s do that, but apart from taking one thing and another as it is, isn’t there something absurd about these forms and conventions, aren’t they truly bad? Maintaining a certain status fosters certain base acts, insincerities — to be done willingly and knowingly with premeditation. That’s what I call the fatal side, even of the black ray, let alone where there’s no question of any ray at all.
Now take the Barbizon painters, not only do I understand them as people, but in my view everything, the tiniest, most intimate particulars, sparkles with spirit and life. The ‘painters’ household’ with its great and petty vexations, with its calamities, with its Sorrows and griefs — it has a certain good will in its favour, a certain sincerity, a certain genuinely human quality.
Precisely by not maintaining a certain status, not even thinking about it — if you take enjoying in the most serious sense of ‘finding it interesting’ — for my part I call that ‘enjoying’. And then about that certain status ‘boring, stupefying’. Do I say this because I despise refinement or something? — just the very opposite, because I regard and respect the genuinely human, living with nature — not going against nature — as refinement. I ask, what most makes me a human being. Zola says — I, an artist, I want to live life to the full — want to live without ulterior motive — naive as a child, no not as a child, as an artist — with good will, just as life unfolds, so I’ll find something in it, so I’ll do my best in it.
Now take all the prearranged airs, the conventional, how hugely priggish it actually is, how absurd it is, a person who thinks that he knows it all and that things go as he thinks — as if there wasn’t always a je ne sais quoi of almighty good and also an element of evil in all things in life, which one feels as something infinite above us, infinitely bigger, more powerful than us. A person who doesn’t feel small — who doesn’t realize that he’s a speck — what a fundamental mistake he makes. Does one lose something by abandoning some notions, drummed into us as children, of preserving status — of regarding certain manners as No. 1? For myself, I don’t even think about whether I lose or don’t lose by it, I only know that my experience is that these forms and notions don’t hold water and are often even fatal, yes are decidedly bad. I come to the conclusion that I don’t know anything, but at the same time that the life we are in is such a mystery that the system of ‘Respectability’ is certainly too narrow — so, for me, that has lost its credit.

What shall I do now? — the customary term is ‘What is your aim, what is your aspiration?’ — oh, I shall do what I shall do — how? I don’t know beforehand — do you, who ask me this priggish question: what is your aim, what is your aspiration? Now people say ‘you lack character if you have no aim, no aspiration’. My answer: I didn’t tell you that I had no aim, no aspiration; I said that I found it unspeakably priggish to want to force someone to define what is indefinable.
So these are my thoughts on certain questions about life. The whole discussion about them is one of the things that I describe as ‘boring’. Live — do something — and that’s more enjoyable, that’s more positive.
In short. A kind of taking society as it is but feeling oneself completely free, not believing in one’s own intellect but in ‘reason’; believing my own intellect, although I don’t confuse that with ‘reason’ — (my intellect is human, reason is divine, but there’s a link between the one and the other), my own conscience is the compass that shows me the way, although I know that it doesn’t work exactly accurately. What I wanted to say is that when I look back at the past generation of painters, I remember an expression you used, ‘they were SURPRISINGLY cheerful’. I now want to say that if you were to become a painter, you would have to do it with something of that same surprising cheerfulness. You need it as a counterweight against the melancholy aspect of the situation. You do more with that than with anything else. You must have a certain genius, I don’t know another word for it, which is the exact opposite of what people call ‘ponderous’. Do not, of course, tell me that neither you nor I could have that ourselves. I say it because I believe that we must do our best to become thus, I don’t claim that either you or I are already sufficiently thus — I say, let’s do our best in that regard — because I want to show you in these letters that in my opinion you aren’t mistaken, although I believe that you understand what I think about one thing and another anyway. In my view, the whole plan would gain immeasurably if it could be linked to your remaining with the woman you’re with.
And that if you feel that it’s in your nature and hers even to have a degree of pleasure — a surprising cheerfulness — in the face of the situation — a je ne sais quelle surprising youthfulness — and I don’t reckon that among the impossibilities — you said she was intelligent — well then, you can do more together than alone. And in this case, if people of the same sentiment, people in the same rather serious misfortune, should join forces to see it through together, I say the more the merrier.
And I say — if this was so or came to pass, this joining together to work one’s way through, this is something that’s infinitely more than all the forms, and rises above ‘what will they say’. And wanted to tell you the people here don’t seem to me to be unpleasant or scheming. There’s something benevolent here, and I believe that you could do exactly what suits you best here. There is here — a surprisingly youthful atmosphere.
I know that all these things have an inevitable financial aspect, but I say, let’s weaken this inevitable money side as much as possible, in the first place by not being too afraid of it, and by feeling that if one sets to work with love, with a singular understanding of one another and working together and supporting one another, this would alleviate many things that would otherwise be unbearable, indeed sometimes change them utterly. For myself, if there were a few people with whom one could talk about art, who would, and would want to, feel — I would gain immensely for my own work — I would feel myself more, be myself more. If there’s enough money for us to hold out for an initial period, I’ll be earning by the time it runs out. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me to be as I originally felt it.
Your heart is partly in the house of G&Cie, but G&Cie don’t ask for that, demand unreasonable things in their overconfidence. In the first place this is a great blow for you, something that causes you much inner pain. This isn’t just a question of money, you have your heart in it, it’s a heartache. You’ll embark on a similar career with that heartache, perhaps with a similar result again. Look, can this be done? I tell you that I doubt it — that it seems to me that you, who are very young, would not be reckless if you were to argue: I’ve had enough of the art trade but not of art, I’ll abandon the trade and I’ll look to the heart of the profession itself. I should have done that at the time. The fact that I made a mistake was an error in point of view, understandable, perhaps, because I didn’t know then how things were regarding teaching or evangelism — knew nothing about them — and had ideals about them. You’ll say, can’t one also develop ideals about art that don’t hold water in existing situations? Well, answer that for yourself; I also answer it for myself by asking, is Barbizon, is the Dutch school of painters, a fact or not a fact?
Whatever else the art world may be, it isn’t rotten. On the contrary, it has got better and better — and perhaps it has already reached the highest peak, but we’re still very close to it in any event, and as long as you and I live, even if we were to live to 100, there will be a certain gusto of a real kind. So if people want to paint — buckle down to it. If the woman came, of course she’d have to paint too.
Everyone should paint here. The wife of one of the Van Eycks had to do it too. With the greatest possible good heart, cheerfulness, enthusiasm, one would have to begin by saying, none of us can do anything and yet we are painters. Action follows from our intent. That’s what the idea has to be, it seems to me. We live from day to day — if we don’t work ‘like a bunch of negroes’ then we’ll have to die of hunger and cut the most ridiculous figures. We simply have a tremendous aversion to that, and so we have to and we shall. It couldn’t be done by people who didn’t have something of what I’ll simply call surprising youthfulness — and at the same time a seriousness that was damned serious.
The — putting your heart and soul into it.
Now — if it were a speculation I wouldn’t be able to think about it like this — but here it’s a battle to escape from the world of convention and speculation. It’s something good, something peaceful, a just enterprise. We’ll certainly endeavour to earn our bread, but then definitely in the literal sense. Money leaves us cold except as far as it’s needed for the absolute essentials of life. We do nothing of which we have to be ashamed. We can openly stroll about the countryside and work, with what Carlyle calls quite a royal feeling.14 We can work because we’re honest. We say, we made a mistake when we were children, or rather we had to do what we were told then, and do what we did to earn our living. Later, this and that happened, and then we deemed it advisable to become artisans. Because certain situations were too pretentious for us.
If you were to talk to people about it, I think they’d all advise against it &c. Perhaps only the woman you’re with wouldn’t. If you’ve made a decision for yourself, avoid people so that they can’t sap your willpower. At the very moment when one hasn’t yet shed one’s superficial awkwardness, isn’t yet polished, a ‘good for nothing’ is enough to cause despondency for six months, until one eventually sees after all that one shouldn’t have let oneself be disoriented.
There are two people whose intense struggle between ‘I’m a painter’ and ‘I’m not a painter’ I know.
Rappard’s and my own — sometimes a frightening struggle, a struggle that’s precisely the distinction between us and some others who take it less seriously. For ourselves, we sometimes feel wretched, at the end of a spell of melancholy there’s a little light, a little progress; some others have less of a struggle, perhaps work more easily, yet their personal character also develops less. You would also have this struggle, and I say you must be aware that you run the risk of being put off by people who doubtless have the very best of intentions.
If something in you yourself says ‘you aren’t a painter’ — IT’S THEN THAT YOU SHOULD PAINT, old chap, and that voice will be silenced too, but precisely because of that. Anyone who goes to his friends and complains about his troubles when he feels like that loses something of his manliness, something of the best that’s in him. Your friends can only be those who fight against it themselves, rouse the active in you through their own example of action.
One must take it up with assurance, with a conviction that one is doing something reasonable, like the peasant guiding his plough or like our friend in the scratch, who is doing his own harrowing. If one has no horse, one is one’s own horse — a lot of people do that here. You must regard it not as a change — as a deeper penetration.
You’ve learned to see art over the years — now you go on, already knowing what you want to make. Don’t think that this is a little thing.
You can be decisive, you know what you want.
There’s a saying of Gustave Doré’s that I’ve always found exceedingly beautiful — I have the patience of an ox — right away I see something good in it, a certain resolute honesty; in short there’s a lot in that saying, it’s a real artist’s saying. When one thinks about people from whose mind something like this springs, it seems to me that the sort of arguments one all too often hears in the art trade about ‘gift’ is such a hideous croaking of ravens. ‘I have the patience’, how calm that is, how dignified that is. They wouldn’t even say that if it weren’t precisely because of all that croaking of ravens. I’m not an artist — how coarse that is — even to think it of oneself — should one not have patience, not learn patience from nature, learn patience from seeing the wheat slowly come up, the growing of things — should one think oneself such a hugely dead thing that one believed one wouldn’t grow? Should one deliberately discourage one’s development? I say this to show why I find it so silly to talk about gifts and no gifts.
But if one wants to grow, one must fall into the earth. So I say to you, plant yourself in the soil of Drenthe — you will sprout there. Don’t shrivel up on the pavement. You’ll say that there are city plants — well yes, but you are wheat and belong in the wheatfield. Well, I too foresee that, perhaps for financial reasons, now cannot be the moment, but at the same time that perhaps the circumstances would just make it possible. And if there were only half a possibility, it’s my opinion that you would do well to risk it. I don’t believe that you would ever regret it. You would develop the best that is in you, have a more peaceful life. Neither of us would be alone, our work would flow together. We might have frightening moments at the outset, we’d prepare ourselves for them and arrange things in such a way that we had to withstand them, couldn’t turn back. Not look behind us nor be able to look behind us, actually force ourselves to look forward. But it’s precisely then that we’re far away from all friends and acquaintances, we fight the fight without anyone seeing us, and that’s best, other people can only hinder us. We see victory ahead — we feel it in us. We’ll be so busy working that we won’t be able to do anything but think positively about the work.
I don’t suppose in the least that I’m telling you anything new, I just ask, don’t go against your own best thoughts. Think about that idea of looking at things with a certain cool, good heart rather than with gloominess. I see that even in Millet; he couldn’t help being of good heart, precisely because he was so serious. This is something specific, not to all schools of painting, but to the school of Millet, Israëls, Breton, Boughton, Herkomer, several others. In short, those who seek the really simple are themselves so simple, and their view of life is so full of good will and good heart, even in misfortune.
Think about these things, write about these things. It must be a revolution that is, because it’s necessary that it should be — the most self-evident thing in the world for you and for me, so I write about it calmly and I have no doubt you’ll also think about it calmly. With a handshake.
Ever yours,