To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Thursday, 6 December 1883.
My dear Theo,
You’ll have been rather surprised that I dropped you a line that I would go home sometime, and am now writing to you from here.
But first I must thank you for your letter of 1 December, which I’ve just received here in Nuenen.
The last 3 weeks I was actually rather unwell — was troubled by various things that arose out of having caught a cold, and nerves as well.
One must try to break something like that, and I felt that I would get worse if I didn’t have a change.
Well, I decided to go home for various reasons — something I was actually very loath to do.
My journey began with a walk of more than 6 hours — mostly across the heath — to Hoogeveen. On a stormy afternoon with rain, with snow. This walk cheered me up no end, or rather my feelings were so in sympathy with nature that it calmed me down more than anything else.
I thought that being at home again might give me a more accurate insight into the question of what I should do.
Drenthe is superb, but staying there depends on many things — depends on whether one has the money for it, depends on whether one can endure the loneliness. Pa would consider that question settled, I believe, with a conclusion that one would reach in a conversation, but for my part I’m in no hurry to make a decision about it, and I’ll have to see what I think about it, for instance, when I’ve been here for a week or so.
However, for the time being I’m in the dark as to what I should do in this respect. I see more and more that when one thinks or speaks about something, one by no means arrives at a satisfactory conclusion. At one moment it seems more possible than at another. And for my part I don’t let these things go at once but keep thinking about them, sometimes long after other people consider that they’re already decided.
But, old chap, it’s so difficult for me, because for me it becomes so much a matter of conscience that I would be too much of a burden to you — perhaps abuse your friendship if I accept money for an enterprise that may not pay.
You write again about Moniteur Universel. Do you think it too gloomy of me when I tell you that I regard it as possible that in a relatively few years’ time a number of large
art businesses — for example Moniteur Universel — in a word others that have also expanded enormously — will decline — fall into decline as quickly as they came up?
In a relatively short space of time, everything that is the art trade developed in rapport with art itself. But it became all too much a sort of bankers’ speculation and it still is — I do not say entirely — — I simply say much too much. Why, in so far as it’s a bubble company, shouldn’t it go the same way as, for instance, the tulip trade? You’ll point out to me that a painting isn’t a tulip. Of course there’s a universe of difference, and naturally I, who love paintings and tulips not at all, am very well aware of this. But I contend that many rich people who buy the expensive paintings for one reason or another don’t do it for the artistic value that they see in them — the difference between tulip and painting that you and I see isn’t visible to them — they, the speculators and blasé sots and a lot of others, would buy tulips now too, just as in the past, provided there was a certain cachet to it.
True, there are real, sterling art lovers. But it’s perhaps only 1/10th of the total of the business that’s done, perhaps it’s even a much smaller proportion — of which it can be said: this or that transaction was genuinely out of belief in art.
I could expand on this forever of course, but without going on about it any more I believe that you agree with me that there’s a great deal in the art trade that could prove to be hot air in the future. Things that are very highly priced now can go down. If you ask me, can Millet and Corot go down, I say, yes, IN PRICE.
Anyway, from an artistic point of view, Millet is Millet, Corot Corot, fixed — as the sun itself, in my view.
Five years ago I thought differently about it, in so far as I thought that Millet, say, would remain fixed, EVEN in price, but since then — precisely because I see Millet is usually just as much utterly misunderstood now that he’s less concealed and is more in evidence in reproductions, for instance, as when he was despised — I fear he’ll remain somewhat outside public taste and — it isn’t certain that those who understand him best will have to pay as much money for him later as they do now. Rembrandt fell too — in price — in the periwig age. I just want to ask you frankly, do you believe that the prices that are still being paid now will stay? I tell you frankly, I do not believe it.
Yet at the same time, to me Millet is Millet, Rembrandt Rembrandt, Israëls Israëls &c., whether it costs ten cents or a hundred thousand to buy one of his paintings.
Consequently I don’t think about the art trade much.
Only when my thoughts turn to you and I come to ask you whether you can take pleasure in it, or whether, especially later, you won’t see all too much that goes against the grain with you to stay in it.
You’ll say, one can get used to anything, or rather you’ll say, one must endure until the heart breaks in us. So be it, I agree with you in that — but if the heart does break in us, we’re still free to act in one way or another. And as regards you or me, we are what we are, and because we’re enthusiastic about art, we would each in our own way also remain constant in our opinion about Millet, say, even if the most absurd things were to happen.
But I ask: in the event of a gradual cooling off in the expenditure of tremendous sums for paintings, how are the huge firms which have colossal sums in outgoings etc. every year, which cut into their profits, going to succeed? They’ll soon find themselves with enormous deficits. Trees like this don’t fall at the first blow, but they can rot away inside and ultimately fall because of the wind alone, without a single blow from an axe. When? I have absolutely no idea of the exact date.
If you will, just write to me about this question in general, for example what you think of the staying power — in the long run — of an establishment such as you say Moniteur Universel is — or Petit — or Arnold & Tripp. I tell you frankly, I don’t see that it can keep going in the long run. I believe something like this has to collapse.
In my view, it can’t be very pleasant to be on hand for this — I’d rather sit by a peat fire, painting. The art trade, one feels a sort of ‘what do I care’ about it, except — except — except — that I personally find it very unpleasant if I’m really very short of money.
You’ve always remained calm in Paris, very simple and certainly cooler than a man like Tripp, say.
You’re out to see things as they are, you — like me — can’t help analyzing. And yet, even you don’t in the first place bring what you know of a situation to bear in order to profit from that situation all the same.
I mean, it isn’t in your nature to fish in troubled waters.
But I ask you frankly, what’s the position? Do you really believe that the people at Moniteur Universel will ask something different of employees from what G&Cie asks?
Moniteur, G&Cie, Tripp, Petit, to me they’re all similar firms. I believe in my own case that, having been thrown out by one, I would be thrown out by them all. If old Goupil says, you’re no good to us, I believe other bosses would also think more or less the same.
Well, as to you, I believe that it would be the same for you with another house as it is with G&Cie. In my opinion, setting up for oneself at a time when a cooling off and
decline could be foreseen is something that one cannot do with any enthusiasm.
So do you believe in these times, do you believe that the trade will stay at this level? If you believed this, I would respect your opinion and keep quiet, but I don’t know whether you know that I don’t really believe that the very large firms can keep going. Do write to me about it, then it will be so much easier for me to talk about it. I feel rather embarrassed with you at the moment, and I want you to know my perhaps nervous opinion that firstly I don’t believe that these highly inflated firms can keep going and, secondly, even should they prove to keep going, I wouldn’t enjoy being involved in them, directly or indirectly.
Another thing is, if I can provide for myself by doing this or that here or there, I won’t look such a gift horse in the mouth. If it proves to be my duty to do this or that, very well, I won’t refuse the work, not even unpleasant work.
I thought of you brother, on my long trudge across the heath on that stormy evening. I thought of a passage, I don’t know which book it’s from, two eyes awake, brightened by genuine tears — I thought, I am disillusioned, that is — I thought — I have believed in many things that I now know are in a sorry state at bottom — I thought, these eyes of mine, here on this gloomy evening, awake here in the solitude, if there have been tears in them from time to time, why should they not have been wrung from me by such sorrow that it disenchants — yes — and banishes illusions — but at the same time — awakens one? I thought, is it POSSIBLE that Theo is easy about many things that I’m uneasy about.
Could it be just melancholy, that I can’t take the old pleasure in this or in that?
In short, I thought, can I be mistaking gold for gilding? Am I mistaking something that’s in full growth for something withering? I couldn’t come up with an answer for myself. Can you? Do you know for sure that there isn’t already far-advanced, unrelenting decline on all sides?
Give me courage if you yourself have courage — but I say to you in my turn ‘don’t flatter me’. I tell you that, as far as I’m concerned, even if I become clever (which I am not noticeably as yet), I believe — firmly believe — that I’ll always be very poor — it will exceed my expectations if I manage to keep out of debt.
The coming men in Holland after those mastodons Mesdag, Israëls, Mauve, Blommers, Maris &c. will, under no circumstances, still be able to earn what was earned in those days, that is the last 20 years, say. And especially not if they’re clever. One of the drawbacks of a period like the one we’re entering is that a time when prices are inflated so high is, as it were, taking a lien on the future, which makes the future dark for posterity.
So, old chap, perhaps Arnold & Tripp have never treated you personally anything other than very courteously or, in short, with due form.
That doesn’t alter the fact that you, who are just as clever as Uncle Cent, for instance, won’t be able to do what Uncle Cent did. Why not? Because there are too many Arnold & Tripps in the world. Insatiable money-grubbers, that’s to say, compared with whom you are a sheep.
Please don’t take this as an insult, brother, that I make this comparison. It’s better to be a sheep than a wolf, it’s better to be the one who is killed than the one who kills — namely better to be Abel than Cain. And — and — I myself am not a wolf either, I hope, or rather I know.
Suppose that both you and I are ‘sheep’ in society, not in our imaginations but in truth. Very well — given fairly hungry and vicious wolves — it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possibility that we’d be gobbled up. Well, even then, although I don’t think this would be exactly pleasant, in short it’s surely still better after all to be ruined than to ruin someone else. I mean, it’s no reason to lose one’s serenity if one should realize that one might have to lead a life of poverty while one had the skills, the talents, the aptitude with which others grow rich. I’m not indifferent to money, but I don’t envy the wolves.14 Now, with a hearty handshake.
If you will, answer me some of these things while I’m here at home; I’m here to get some rest and resolution.