To Theo van Gogh. Nieuw-Amsterdam, Sunday, 11 November 1883.
You once wrote to me about a certain difference in our respective physiognomies. Very well. And your conclusion was that I would be more of a thinker. What shall I say about that? I am indeed aware of a mode of thinking within me, but nevertheless I don’t feel that my thinking is really organized within me. I feel that I’m a little different from being a real thinker. When I think about you I see action, very characteristic, so be it, but also so decidedly not in isolation, and on the contrary accompanied by so much feeling and indeed thinking too, that my conclusion is that there’s more similarity than difference between you and me. I don’t say there’s no difference — but having got to know you better of late it seems to me that the difference is less than I thought for a while in years past.
When I look at our temperament and type of physiognomy, I find rapports and very pronounced similarities between, for example, the Puritans and ourselves. I.e. the folk from around Cromwell’s time, a small band of men and women who sailed out to America in the Mayflower, away from an old world, and settled there, determined to live in simplicity. Times change — they cut down forests — we’d turn to painting. I know that the initiative taken by a small band, known to history as the Pilgrim Fathers, however small in itself, had great consequences. And for ourselves I’d think in the first place that we shouldn’t really philosophize about great consequences, should seek nothing but a path for ourselves so that we can travel through life as straight as possible. Premeditating consequences is not our way, neither yours nor mine. When I speak of the Pilgrim Fathers it’s for reasons of physiognomy, to point out to you that certain red-headed folk with square foreheads aren’t thinkers alone nor men of action alone, but usually have both elements combined. I recognize a figure of one of those Puritans in Boughton’s paintings, and if I didn’t know better I would believe that you had posed for it. The physiognomy above all, exact, exact — a little silhouette on a rock against a background of sea and mist — if need be I can also show you myself, i.e. that variation of the same physiognomy, but my profile is less characteristic.
Pa sometimes mulled over the story of Jacob and Esau with regard to you and me — not entirely mistakenly — although happily there’s less enmity, to mention just one difference,
and in the Bible itself there are examples aplenty of better relations between brothers than existed between the aforementioned venerable patriarchs.
I sometimes thought myself about being a thinker, but I saw more and more that I wasn’t cut out for it, and because now, unfortunately, the prejudice that someone who has a need to think things through is not practical and only belongs among the dreamers, because this prejudice is very respected in society, I usually got into trouble precisely by not keeping things to myself enough.
But since then, the very history of the Puritans and the history of Cromwell, as Carlyle conceived it, for instance, made me see how much thinking and acting don’t rule one another out, and the sharp distinctions between thinking and acting that it’s customary to assume nowadays, as if one rules out the other, don’t actually exist.
As to doubting oneself, whether one is an artist or not — that entire question is too much of an abstraction. I say that I have nothing against thinking about it, though, provided I may also draw and paint. And — my plan for my life is to make paintings and drawings, as many and as well as I can — then, when my life is over, I hope to depart in no other way than looking back with love and wistfulness and thinking, oh paintings that I would have made! But this doesn’t, if you please, rule out making what is possible. Do you have anything against this, either for me or for you? I wish that painting became such a fixed idea with you that the question, am I an artist or am I not an artist, was somewhat consigned to the realm of abstractions, and that more practical questions concerning putting a figure or a landscape together would come to the fore, being more enjoyable.
Theo, I declare to you that I would rather think about how arms, legs, head attach to a torso than whether or not I myself am more of an artist or less. I think that you would rather think about a sky with grey clouds and their shining edges over a muddy piece of land than ponder on the question of yourself.
Well, I do know it though, sometimes the mind is full of it, it can’t be helped. Look here, brother, even if our mind is sometimes occupied by the question is there a God or does He not exist, this is no reason for us deliberately to commit a godless act, is it? Likewise the question, artistically, am I an artist or not? shouldn’t lead us not to draw or not to paint. Many things can’t be defined, and in my view wasting too much time on them is wrong. Now, if the work doesn’t go well or one runs up against a lack of knowledge, one becomes bogged down in such thoughts and insoluble questions. And feeling troubled by this, the best thing to do is to overcome the cause of the distraction by getting a fresh view of the practical side of the work. Now for my part, seeing both in you and in me something of that puritanical character that unites thinking and doing so much and is so far from wanting to be only a thinker or only a machine, that has a need both for principles of simplicity and for motivated work at the same time, I do not admit a separation or divergence, much less that you and I should be opposites.
In my view it would be an error of judgement if you were to continue in business in Paris.
So the conclusion, two brothers, painters. Whether it’s in your nature? You could occupy yourself struggling hard and fruitlessly against nature precisely by doubting whether you can, and thus hamper your own liberation. Sadly, I know that all too well in my own case. After all — even despite our being against ourselves, I’m starting to realize more and more, man proposes, God disposes.
There’s an infinitely powerful force over our doing right and our doing wrong. Likewise your circumstances — be sensible — perhaps even so sensible that you become a painter for good and all. It would basically reassure me so much if I saw you pick up the brush that I’d reckon the disaster and shipwreck of the moment as being of less importance than the future certainty of heading in a direction you won’t regret.
But I do wish you would find immediate tranquillity for your heart in the matter of women. If that were possible, you would be even stronger, since being loved gives one certain wings, certain surprising courage and energy. Then one is more a whole person than otherwise. And the sooner one is that the better.
In any case, I reckon it among the possibilities that you yourself will come to realize that your path is painting, and then, my dear brother, Puritan without knowing it, it could well be that your time in Paris is coming to an end, an old world closing itself off from you in a less than generous manner — however a new world opening up to you — appearing inhospitable and rough, together with all that, a certain hope and high courage in the heart, one feels the something on High9 above the barren shore, and so one turns one’s hand to the plough — asking no questions.
Well, think about it, more or less, for a long or short while. But it wouldn’t help if you were to say, Vincent, be quiet about it, for I’d reply, Theo, perhaps it won’t be quiet in yourself.
It is more difficult to contain
Than the source of great rivers.
Theo, I’ve heard from the poor woman a few times since. She seems to be carrying on working, doing washing for people, serving as a temporary help, in short doing her best. Writes almost indecipherably and incoherently. Seems to regret some things from the past. Children healthy and well. My pity and affection for her are certainly not dead, and I do hope that we’ll retain a bond of affection, although I don’t believe that living together again would be desirable or possible. Pity may not be love, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it can go deep.
Well brother, to change the subject, it’s snowing here today in the form of colossal hailstones. I say it’s snowing because of the effect. I’m keeping silent about the beauty of it here, because I would have TOO MUCH to tell you about it. As to work, I’m almost overbrimming because of the idea that you might start on it, which has a surprising hold on me. I wish it could be decided, precisely so that we could make definite plans for working together. Drenthe is so beautiful, it absorbs and fulfils me so utterly that, if I couldn’t stay here forever I would rather not have seen it at all. It’s inexpressibly beautiful. With a handshake.