To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Wednesday, 26 December 1883.
My dear Theo,
I came back to Nuenen yesterday evening, and now I must get what I have to tell you off my chest straightaway.
I packed up my tools, studies, &c. there and sent them here and, Pa and Ma having cleared out the little room, I’m already installed for the time being in this new workplace, where I hope I may be able to make some progress.
Know also that I spoke to the woman and that it’s our decision, even more definitely, that she will stay by herself and I by myself in any event, so that the world can’t reasonably find fault.
Now that we’ve parted we’ll remain parted, only looking back we regret that we didn’t choose a middle way instead, and even now there remains a mutual attachment that has roots or grounds that go too deep to be transitory.
Now I have to tell you a few things that I won’t return to again after this — which you may take as you will — which you’re at liberty to reflect about or to dismiss — that’s not my business — you must decide that for yourself.
Know, then, that I look back with deep regret on your visit this summer, on our conversations then, and on what arose out of them. Time has now passed over it, but I can’t deny, looking back, that it seems to me that we weren’t right. And now I regard your words and you yourself rather differently, and I can no longer think of you with exactly the same feeling as before. For I now see more clearly how you and others appeared to wish that I should part from her.
I don’t doubt the good intentions.
It was up to me to decide and so, if I did wrong, I may not, in my view, blame you in the first place (in the first place I blame myself), but you in the second place.
The levers that worked on me so that I was unsettled, and with which you were at least to some extent concerned — were, first, touching on an infinitely tender question from the past that troubled me, secondly your saying that ‘my duty’ would perhaps lead me to part. Well — if what you said had been entirely isolated — I wouldn’t even mention it — but it’s too much like the feelings of other people with whom I also differ for me to be able to regard your opinions as being entirely isolated. I accepted your point of view — although probably with intentions very different from what you imagine, and concerning which time will clear up one thing and another for you that now isn’t the time to discuss.
You drew my attention to a case where it ‘had worked well’ that a certain man had left a certain woman.
That may be true in itself — very true — but was it applicable here concerning her and me? You see, that’s something else.
And I’ve taken the liberty of looking back over it to see ‘whether it had worked well’. And — my friend — that’s only too doubtful now. Know that the woman has managed well, working (namely as a washerwoman) to keep herself and her children, consequently has done her duty, and that in great physical weakness.
You know that I took her into the house with me because things happened during her confinement that made the doctors in Leiden say that she had to be somewhere quiet if she and her child were to pull through.
There was anaemia and perhaps already the first signs of consumption, too. Well, as long as I was with her she didn’t get any worse, but stronger in many respects, so that various nasty symptoms didn’t recur.
But now all that is worse again, and I fear very much for her well-being; and the poor baby, which I cared for as if it were my own, is no longer what it was either.
Brother, I found her in great wretchedness and I’m very sad about it.
I know that it’s more my own fault, of course, but you could have spoken differently too. Now, too late, I understand better that some of her fits of temper, and some things that I thought she did wrong deliberately, were also symptoms of nerves, and that she did them more unwittingly, as it were. As she said to me on more than one occasion later, ‘Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing’.
Both you and I have an excuse, in that it’s understandable that one sometimes doesn’t know how to deal with a woman like that, and then there were the financial difficulties — but still we should have chosen more of a middle way, and if we could still find it even now — although it will be difficult to find now — it would still be humane and less cruel. I didn’t want to get her hopes up though, and I encouraged her and tried to comfort her and strengthen her on the path she is on now, alone, working for herself and her children. Yet my heart is strongly drawn to her with the same profound pity as in the past, pity that has always lived on in me during these last months, even with a separation.
Well, our friendship, brother, has taken a heavy blow from this, and if you should say, we were certainly not mistaken, and if you should reveal yourself to me to be of exactly the same mind now as you were then — I would no longer be able to esteem you precisely as I did in the past.
I respected you then precisely because, at a time when other people didn’t want to know me because I was with her, you helped me to keep her alive.
I don’t say that no change or alteration was necessary, but — I think we (or rather I) went too far. Now that I have a studio here, perhaps more than one financial difficulty is less fatal.
I end by saying, think about it if you will — but if, after what I’ve told you, your sentiments remain precisely the same as this summer, I can no longer have the same respect for you as I did before.
Incidentally, I’ve also resolved not to say another word to you about a possible change in your circumstances or career. For I see as it were two natures in you, struggling with each other within you — a phenomenon that I also see in myself, but there are still, perhaps, a few questions fermenting in you that in your eyes have already been resolved for me because I’m 4 years older. Think about what I’ve said, that would be very good, although you can also dismiss it. But for my part I wanted to talk to you frankly about it, and can’t conceal my feelings from you. With a handshake.
As to my view about how far one may go in a case where one concerns oneself with a poor, forsaken, sick creature, I’ve already told you on a previous occasion, and repeat, to INfinity.
And on the other hand, our cruelty can be infinite too.