To Theo van Gogh. Nieuw-Amsterdam, on or about Monday, 5 November 1883.
My dear Theo,
What I think is the best life, oh without even the slightest shadow of a doubt, is a life made up of long years of being in touch with nature out of doors — and with the something on high — unfathomable, ‘awfully Unnameable’, because one can’t find a name for it — above that nature. Be a peasant — be, if that were fitting at the present time, a village clergyman or schoolmaster — be, and given the present time that’s the form that seems to me to be the most fitting, be a Painter — and in so doing as a person you will, after that spell of years of outdoor life and manual work, as a person you will, in the end and in the passage of years, gradually become something better and deeper. I firmly believe this. In my view, the way one starts out, cleverer, not so clever, with more or with fewer privileges of favourable circumstances, is far from being the most important thing. If one starts on it one must only do it with the belief in the need to be in touch with nature, with the belief that if one takes that path one can’t go wrong, and walks straightest. And — added to that is just precisely that if one had things easy, a sort of living on private means, it would be of very little help, for it is precisely many a hard day, precisely many forlorn attempts, that make someone better.
And what I believe does a great deal of good is if one doesn’t work absolutely alone, because the work inevitably absorbs one, but one doesn’t become lost in that absorption because each advises the other, can keep the other on the right path.
If you were to talk to people, they’d say to you, what are you thinking of, what a reckless gamble to give up this and that, etc. In short, people would think it crazy — think it a mistake. For myself, I would think the recklessness must lie in a different outlook on life from the one I’m talking about — that of Painter — I think reckless is precisely binding oneself irrevocably to the city and city affairs.
People will tell you, you’re a fanatic and you don’t foresee the future — in my view you do foresee the future, in my view in a period like the one you’re in now, certainly after such emotional experiences as you have had, one can’t be fanatical then, one is in a period of disenchantment. People needn’t try to twist things with me, that won’t wash with me. I feel my own incurable melancholy about the way one thing and another has gone, and they try to tell me I was in a mood of ‘rash, youthful fanaticism’. Far, very far from it. In your frame of mind one is in damned earnest.
It isn’t something soft, something sweet that you think you will find; no, you know that it will be a fight as if with a rock; no, you know that nature can’t be conquered or made submissive without a terrible fight, without more than the ordinary level of patience.
And people would imagine your state of mind, if one were to talk about becoming a painter, as a delusion of a bed of roses.
I ask you, what do people who might only vaguely begin to think that way know about it? That’s the way the world is, though, but that’s only one of its enormities when it comes to misunderstanding, by no means the worst. It’s precisely because of this deadly contrariness of public opinion that it’s obvious that one should ignore it. One feels that things are wretched and all too wrong; however calm and cheerful and full of serenity by nature, one becomes utterly melancholy, feels that this can’t be different, and then, what is more practical than to say, if I don’t do something about it I’ll lose my energy and vitality, I’m going to refresh, renew myself in nature, I’m just going to tackle it very differently, and I’ll arrange it in such a way that in a few years’ time, say, I have altogether new, firm ground beneath my feet.
I have no patience with the ‘so-called’ common sense (fake article, inexpressibly different from the real thing) that one is supposed to use, that one is said not to use if one
departs from the ordinary or takes a risk. I say, I have no patience with it. For me, it’s precisely because my natural common sense, if I use it to reflect, leads me to such
very different results from the narrow-minded worldly wisdom and cautious, half-hearted sincerity of some people, that I have no patience with it.
Oh that procrastination, oh those hesitations, oh that failure to believe that good is good, that black is black and white is white. Dear brother — I can’t speak; now, at this moment, I’m glad that I can only express myself falteringly, chaotically and roughly. I’m glad that I can’t write to you coherently like Tersteeg and Pa — at this moment.
I believe so strongly in your artistic ability that to me you’ll be an artist as soon as you pick up a brush or a piece of chalk and, clumsily or not clumsily, make something. Before you can express yourself in your work, namely a straightforward, thinking manly soul — peaceable — good — before you can do that, a very great deal has to happen, but it will come. At first one doesn’t paint as one is, certainly not when one is good. But right away there’s a je ne sais quoi — I already see it now in your word pictures of bits of Paris &c., I would see it in your first sketches or studies too.
When I think of Pa himself, then it seems to me that it’s to his contact with nature that Pa owes his goodness, and his mistake, to my mind, is to attach more value to other things than they’re basically worth. To me, Pa is someone who didn’t have any knowledge of the intimate lives of some great men when he should have had it. I mean that, in my view, Pa does not know, did not know nor ever will know what the soul of modern civilization is. What is it? The eternal, the very greatest simplicity and truth — Dupré, Daubigny, Corot, Millet, Israëls, Herkomer — not to mention Michelet, Hugo, Zola, Balzac, a host more from the more distant and more recent past. If prejudices, which Pa has carried with him throughout his life with an assiduousness worthy of a better cause, stand in his way — to me he’s a black ray. The only criticism I have of Pa is: why isn’t he a white ray? This is harsh criticism, so be it, I can’t help it. To you I say, look for white ray, white, do you hear! With a handshake.
I don’t say, far, very far be it for me to say that I have a white ray, but I’m not embarrassed to say that it exists, that white light — and I seek it, that alone do I consider simple. Dear brother, they’re tricky matters to talk about, but anyway — don’t take it amiss of me if I can find no better words for what I mean, and look upon my endeavour to speak to you in confidence and calmly as brother to brother and friend to friend. Theo, I’ve often argued with Pa in the past because Pa said ‘it is thus’, and I said, Pa, you’re contradicting yourself, what you’re saying now is diametrically opposed to what at bottom you also vaguely feel yourself, even though you don’t want to feel it. Theo, for a long time I’ve completely and utterly refrained from arguing with Pa because I see that Pa has never thought about nor wants to think about certain very weighty things, and clings to a system by which he reasons, and simply does not reason (nor did nor ever will do) according to the bare facts. There are too many who do as he does for him not to find some support and assurance in the thought that everyone (that’s to say, first all the sedate, respectable clergymen) thinks like this about it. But he has no other assurance, and it’s based on a system and conventions, otherwise it would collapse as being groundless. Pa doesn’t wrestle with the naked truth.
Well, all the same it seems to me that one is acting against oneself if one isn’t willing to think things through, it seems to me that one is acting against oneself if (in one’s youth, above all) one doesn’t say: listen here, for my part I don’t want to rely on a system, I want to set about it according to reason and conscience. I even pay less heed to my own father (although he’s not bad, although I say nothing about him), than to those in whom I see more truth.
Well dear brother — I have a deep, deep, deep respect for Millet, Corot, Daubigny, Breton, Herkomer, Boughton, Jules Dupré &c. &c., Israëls, in short the painters — I’m far from confusing myself with them — I don’t consider myself their equal — no — but all the same I say, whether people think it conceited of me or anything else — all the same I say, you’ll show me the way and I’ll pay more heed to your example than to that of Father, master or anyone else. To me, Pa and Tersteeg are something along the lines of Delaroche, Muller, Dubufe &c. — I may think it clever, I may say nothing about it, I may take it for what it is, I may have a certain respect for it, but that doesn’t alter the fact that I say, the least painter or human being who wrestles directly with the naked truths of nature is more than you.
Anyway, old chap, neither Pa nor Tersteeg has given me anything but false peace for my conscience, and they haven’t made me free, nor even respected my desire for freedom and naked truth, and my feeling of ignorance and darkness.
Well, left to my own devices I haven’t achieved the light and what I want, very well, so be it, but precisely since abandoning their systems outright, I yet have a degree of hope that my efforts won’t be in vain.
And that I shall see the white ray before my eyes close.
Whatever the inner struggle about not having found it yet, I’ve never regretted having said that I considered black ray black ray, and having abandoned that outright, save for not arguing about it, which, if I have argued about it, was a mistake.
Well for my part, knowing what I know, I look at you and ask, What shall he do with it? Theo, when we had a bit of an argument in The Hague not long ago and you said to me — I’m
increasingly drawn to Pa — then I said, old chap, it’s a tricky matter that, and you must follow your own conscience. But I’ve also tried to explain to you since that, for my
part, I haven’t been able to find any peace in Pa’s way of thinking (and H.G.T.’s, which I find much the same), and was increasingly beginning to realize that there’s such a
thing as black ray and white ray, and that I found their light black and a convention compared with the lightness of Millet and Corot, for instance.
Well, I’ve thought about it for 4 years longer than you, I’m 4 years older and calmer — with me, time and experience have led me to drop and abandon certain things. And I don’t want to influence you, but neither do I want to conceal myself from you or do anything other than speak out forthrightly.
I come to the following conclusion. What Pa and Tersteeg held up to me as Duty was a Spectre of duty.
They essentially said (not in so many words) ‘earn money and your life will become straight’. Millet says to me: put your life straight (at least try to do that first, and to wrestle with the naked truth) and EVEN earning money will sort itself out, and in that, too, you won’t be dishonest.
I felt then, and much more so now, that (although they themselves believed they had honourable intentions, and I don’t suspect them of deceit but, as I said, take them for what they are — but at the same time leave them behind me), Pa and Tersteeg, and come to that C.M. and who knows who else, all the influences of the past, increasingly took me out of nature. Well, whatever one may say about Millet, at least he brought me back into nature more than anyone else could have done in my desperate state of mind.
My youth has been austere and cold, and sterile under the influence of the black ray. And, brother, your youth too, in fact. Old chap — I don’t want to flatter you this time. Anyway, but I don’t want to blame anyone for it but myself. All the same, the black ray is unspeakably cruel — unspeakably. And at this moment I feel as many pent-up tears about many things as there are in a figure by Mantegna!
But brother, my very sorrow about so much proves to me that I’ve finished dealing with those systems. I’ve suffered from them, but at bottom I no longer belong on that side. And now, I say as brother to brother, as friend to friend, although our youth was austere and went against the grain, from now on let’s seek the gentle light, since I know no other name for it but the white ray or goodness. Not regarding ourselves as already having acquired it, of course, but searching for it, believing in it with collier’s faith.
Be it as it may that more than once I’ve been short-tempered both with Pa and with Tersteeg &c. &c., don’t consider me as being influenced by hatred or malice towards them. I don’t envy them, in my view they’re not happy themselves, and at bottom I’m certainly not their enemy or their hater, nor do I regard them as my enemies either, even though I don’t look back on their influence with that much pleasure. But I don’t suspect them of malicious intentions. I think that they do follow their consciences, but that there are spectres there. And I do not see in Corot and Millet that there were spectres in their consciences. There I see that it was calmer and a serenity of a better calibre. Well, yet again, I’m still very far from that. However, every study, every effort towards painting, every new love of and wrestling with nature, happy or unhappy, brings me a faltering step closer. As to religion, I find less of that in Pa than in Uncle Jan, say, although many would obviously say the reverse. I find Pa the opposite of a man of faith. Anyway. Look here, starting to paint demands a certain collier’s faith because one can’t prove beforehand that it will succeed, and everyone would have grave doubts about it. But Theo, even though both you and I begin with as many pent-up tears as the figures by Mantegna or Giotto, at the same time we can have a silent hope through all our melancholy.
In the early years of having things hard, it may be a sowing in tears, so be it, but we’ll hold them in, and a long, long way off we feel a silent hope of the harvest.