For Van Gogh's first twelve months in Paris he absorbed a lot of information about modern art from the best of the avant-garde artists of the time, but in practice his work in 1886 and early 1887 varied little from his paintings in the Netherlands. The spring of 1887 Van Gogh stayed with Émile Bernard and his parents in Asnières and the budding spring seemed to trigger an awakening within Van Gogh where he experimented with the genres to develop his personal style. In a country setting, undergoing industrialization, Van Gogh was able to depict his reverence for rural life and express concern about encroachment of industrialization. With new techniques, Van Gogh produced paintings evoked tenderness of couples taking a walk in the park or social commentary about the ways in which factories affected country life.
To Theo van Gogh. Nieuw-Amsterdam, on or about Wednesday, 31 October 1883.
My dear brother —
I cannot count the grains of corn in a sack of corn just by smelling it — I cannot see through the planks in the barn door — but I can sometimes see from the bulges whether it’s a sack of potatoes or corn; or again, even if the barn door is shut, I can tell from the squealing that the pig’s being slaughtered.
And so I can only, will only consider the situation in which you presently find yourself in so far as I have information, albeit vague, to make sense of it, and it isn’t by way of prediction.
But to the point. Consider cool-headedly whether what you’re facing here is what they call fatality on the field of battle. Consider the faces of your friends, false friends, enemies, consider all the — je ne sais quoi’s — consider whether a certain void is forming around you so that you no longer have any handholds, at least are able to tie things up less easily. In short, consider whether fatality is For or decidedly Against.
Tell me this one thing, whether it’s a mistake on my part when I think that I see in some phenomena that you’re dealing here with one of those malignant crises that sometimes tend to crop up in big businesses and big cities? Again, is the aspect of the things — fatal? — do you feel: there’s nothing to be done about this? — or do you feel: redress is possible, there’s no reason to change as yet? For myself, unless you were to write to me yourself: no it isn’t that bad — for myself I see that the affair has a fairly fatal look.
Think about it cool-headedly — I know that you have your calmness, your presence of mind — I know that you’re trying to analyze it, and so I just wanted to know whether you yourself see anything of that which I fear is the case.
Now, old chap, as long as the situation was tolerable — as long as business could be done, well I’ve never dared to come right out and say, get out of it, above all respecting your position, because you didn’t do it for your own pleasure but for the sake of the welfare of us all. But your former duties, which, moreover, you assumed voluntarily, cease to be duties in the event that the state of affairs is such that going on wouldn’t only be fighting a losing battle, but at the same time would inevitably result in your being crushed.
In short, there’s a thus far and no further, and my premonition is that you’re close to it.
Look here — about now or ever — making yourself scarce or disappearing — neither you nor I must ever do that, any more than a suicide. I myself also have my moments of great melancholy, but the thought: disappear, make yourself scarce, must, I repeat, be regarded by me and by you as not befitting us.
Against the risk of going on all the same when one feels it isn’t possible, going on with the desperate feeling that it must end in a disappearance, our conscience argues with a BEWARE!!!
If I’m wrong, if my premonitions don’t square with the facts I’m asking you about, if they do or do not have the decidedly fatal aspect — well then I’ll believe your simple statement: ‘I do see a chance of one thing and another working out’ (or similar information) when you write to tell me so. If it’s a fait accompli that here you’re dealing with one of those vicious crises such as Paris, London produce — if that’s so decidedly in the air that you feel that it’s a force that would crush, if by trying to oppose it, one would force the worst to happen — then, abandon the wreck and concentrate your attention and energy not on preserving your present position, but on creating something completely new.
For a long time now it has seemed to me that your duty was too complicated — my view is that your duty should be a simple thing, and the present situation would become more complicated the longer it went on, and more doubtful as to whether or not it really was duty; furthermore that through painting you’ll presently find a very clear duty, a very simple, straight path for your feet. My idea is that continuing as at present would prove to be not only more and more intolerable but moreover less and less profitable. I don’t say this about G&Cie alone, but also about you as a dealer in general. I don’t say that you and I will get rich together, but we’ll be able to maintain our aplomb and equilibrium, even though — this I cannot deny — we’ll have a very hard struggle in the first few years.
Yet, above our enterprise of painting I see not fatality against but for, but you would, I fear, crush not just yourself but me too by wanting to go ahead with what, in my opinion, really goes against the grain. In the first place we wouldn’t be able to support each other and each of us would stand too much alone. In the second place, we’d cause each other to waver by working in diametrically opposed directions so that, despite our friendship, we’d turn our backs on each other now and then.
Well, old chap, for me painting is too logical, too reasonable, too straightforward for me to make a change. Well, you yourself helped me carry through the idea of a craft; I know that basically it’s your own idea too, and so it seems to me that we should go on to work together. My reason, my conscience compels me to tell you what in part are also your own ideas, there’s nothing for it but to undertake a radical renewal. I know that my words will stand out oddly against what other people would say if you consulted them; they’d dismiss it with ‘it will turn out all right’, ‘the desired changes will happen’. I wasn’t to flatter you; very well, I don’t flatter. And as far as inspiring you with courage, yes, I do dare to do that, I dare to inspire you with the very highest, most cheerful courage and serenity, but only for painting, and as to Paris only this — take a good look and see whether you don’t have fate against you on that battlefield. Now, with a hearty handshake
Now then, the countryside here is very singular.
Just suppose you were asked whether you’d want to be a painter if you could suddenly be transported to the era 40 years ago, when things were as they were when Corot &c. were young – also that you wouldn’t be alone but would have a comrade. Why I ask this — because in the countryside here, where people haven’t yet progressed beyond diligence and barge, where everything is much purer than I’ve ever seen anywhere, I feel exactly as though I myself had been transported to the aforementioned time.
You have seen Drenthe — from the train, in haste, long ago. But remotest Drenthe, if you come here, will make a very different impression on you, and even you will feel just as if you were living in the age of Van Goyen, Ruisdael, Michel; in short, in what one scarcely finds now even in present-day Barbizon. It seems to me that this is something important, because nature like this can sometimes awaken in a mind things that would otherwise never have woken. I mean something of that free, cheerful spirit of the past, I mean that nervous wavering can be silenced that way.
Yet I believe that alone in a region like this one could be held up and become dull through lack of company. And for myself, I really long for your collaboration.
I think about you, however, not first and foremost for my sake; I think about you first and foremost for your sake, although these also run together, although they also enhance each other. What I see is that hanging on in Paris, even if you could keep it up for years more, will nonetheless not bring you peace, and will also not be as useful to other people as painting.
I see that Paris will put you in what I would call a false position in regard to your own duty. I’ll leave being useful to others out of it, I don’t know whether this would truly remain sound in the long term because you focus other, stupider minds on Paris, a thought that upsets those very people, because they’d be intoxicated by it.
Make no mistake: everything had its reason until now, but in my view the signs of the times point to a change of direction now, in a very different and much more decisive way than ever happened before.
This is not about weakening or giving up; on the contrary it’s about striking calamity to the heart, planting in better soil the same energetic principle of wanting to rise. The calamity leaves us our same courage and serious will.
Let the world spitefully say what it wouldn’t refrain from saying, that can leave you and me cold. And on the contrary, for ourselves, we’re counting on a difficult life which has a goal other than earning as much money as we might perhaps do.
Our goal, first and foremost, is to reform ourselves through craft and contact with nature, believing that it’s our duty first and foremost, precisely so that we can remain straight with other people, and consistent.
Our goal is ‘walking with God’ — as against living amid the affairs of the big cities.
We’ll do no one any harm by it.
Our belief is that, yes – although, to some people, it seems hypocritical to say this — our belief, I say, is that God helps those who help themselves9 in so far as they concentrate their endeavours and attention on that and roll up their sleeves to that end. The longer I think about it the more I see that Millet believes in a something on High.
He speaks of it very differently from Pa, for instance — for he leaves it more vague, yet I see more in Millet’s vagueness than in Pa. And I see the same as in Millet in Rembrandt, in Corot, in Breton, in Brion, in short in the work of several people, although I don’t hear them hold forth about it.
The end of things doesn’t have to be an ability to explain but to base oneself on it effectively.
In short, Theo, a certain indeterminate but nonetheless fixed feeling in me that it’s the first duty to direct the heart upwards leads me, as brother and as friend to a brother and a friend, to ask you to consider directing yourself towards a life founded on simpler principles.
Principles that I can’t define other than: sensing that duty is unlikely to bring someone to the Paris business, but rather points to retiring from it.
Can you share this sense to some extent? Think about it, reflect on it; if you need time for it, put yourself to the test and take your time. Any hesitation along the lines of ‘I’m not an artist’, though, only seems justified to me in so far as it doesn’t stand in the way of doing what you have to do and I have to do to become one. Neither we ourselves nor other people can fully explain the extent to which we are not one, the extent to which we are. Only the How to do it system involves saying I’ll do my best to do it, asking no such questions; in my view the How not to do it system is only that which says ‘I know in advance that I can’t do it anyway’.
One isn’t sure of one’s case all at once, one knows nothing in advance other than very vaguely, but nevertheless something called conscience is a sort of compass for man to distinguish between this direction and that — between north and south, between right and left — broadly. Consequently, in spite of chance currents, in spite of deceptively friendly-looking coasts, to say, yes, but fundamentally this isn’t the right direction. And there you have it, earning money in Paris, even for other people, particularly given your recent experiences, seems to me to be a deceptive fata Morgana, a coast that would recede further and further away the more you continued to try to land there, meanwhile carrying you further and further away from your proper direction.
I respect all your hesitations and doubt, I respect your weighing up the pros and cons, I don’t seek to force you to decide at once. But I just point out to you very, very seriously and decidedly that it seems to me to be a fact that you’re standing at a fork in the road and must reflect before you set out, before you just persevere with Paris. The signs of the times, not I, tell you: Hold on! what do you want? If you want Paris, very well — if you can make up your mind to that, so be it — then I wouldn’t interfere in it, but it won’t be that easy, and I’m afraid you could run up against fatality. I strongly doubt whether you’ll preserve your peace as a result.
I see everything against painting except fatality, I see everything for Paris except fatality.
Fatality in which I see with an inexpressible feeling God, Who is ‘the white Ray’ and has the last word: what isn’t good through and through isn’t good and doesn’t endure; and against whom even the black ray is powerless.
What you’re facing is something terrible, something awful — things are so inexpressible that I have no words for them, that were I not your brother and your friend, who would regard keeping silent as ungrateful and hardly humane, I would say nothing. Well, seeing as you say, in the first place inspire me with courage, in the second place don’t flatter me, I say: well then, I see this and that in it, here on the silent heath where I feel God high above you and me.
With a hearty handshake.