From the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France:
During his stay in Paris, between March 1886 and February 1888, Van Gogh lived with his brother Theo in the north of the city: first in rue de Laval, then in rue Lepic from June 1886. Unlike other Impressionists who, in summer, were able to afford even a modest holiday in the country, Vincent, by choice as much as necessity, sought out locations near to where he lived. This was the case with Asnières, a town situated on the banks of the Seine, not far from the fortifications of Paris. There he painted and drew several views of bridges or, as here, of the restaurant de la Sirène.
Both style and subject had precedents in Impressionism, yet the painting moves away from them in some respects. It reflects the exterior appearance of the buildings more than the convivial pleasures enjoyed inside. The Impressionists, and above all Renoir, often depicted restaurants, but preferred to evoke the atmosphere inside them.
In The Restaurant de la SirèneVan Gogh increased the white brushstrokes, while still using the full richness of his palette. The painter Emile Bernard was without doubt alluding to a depiction of the restaurant de la Sirène when he recounted to Vollard that some of the works Van Gogh produced in Paris featured "smart restaurants decorated with coloured awnings and oleanders". Although this painting is one of his closest in style to Impressionism, Van Gogh increased the parallel hatching thus suggesting a more personal style that would soon reach its peak.
To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Friday, 28 December 1883.
My dear Theo,
You must know that I mean what I say to you regarding the woman. You must know that all the disappointment that your visit this summer caused me — more than you know — in so far as it touched me personally, it isn’t something that I’ll attach much importance to — but the other thing — namely that I found her again in such a state that my heart melted in me — that — it will remain — something insurmountable between you and me — unless she is yet saved.
You were careless with your words then — you didn’t consider what you were saying and evidently spoke without sufficient grounds — and I’ll tell you straight out what I think about that — that in common with Pa, who often acts thus, you are cruel in your worldly wisdom.
Cruel, I repeat, because what is crueller than to deprive such an unfortunate, withered woman and her little child of support? Don’t think that you can fool yourself that it was nothing, or just my imagination; don’t think that it will help you to argue that this is just about one faded whore and her bastards. All the more reason for profound compassion, in my view. Which I indeed displayed.
I have now realized that in all that time YOU never wrote a single word about her, and didn’t reply when I told you I’d heard from her.
And I now realize several other things, and because I realize them now I no longer speak to you in the same tone as before. I do know that you did it with good intentions under the circumstances — I do know how you try to keep the peace with everyone (which I believe can’t be done) — I do know that even in this case you’re probably not actually aware of having done something that wasn’t right — yet — brother — remaining good friends with the world and following our conscience cannot go together. You don’t give your conscience its due. I also know that not everyone in my case and circumstances would undertake to contradict you, but although not everyone would do that, I at least want to tell you that I do hold something against you in this matter, and that in general I warn you against your policy. Which I find TOO politic.
For I foresee that later (perhaps much later) you’ll regret much of what you now take to be right. For the time being I don’t have to give you any reason why I think that, because you wouldn’t believe me.
The time that I was parted from her has largely spoiled again what had been gained for her well-being, and this is making it more and more difficult now. Is there anything still to be done? — but in what way?
This is truly not a question of money alone, for the poor woman also misses me as I was for her and her children, namely that I loved them, and still feel as much if not more for them now. Be so good as to take back what you write in a certain letter ‘that I would do her and myself a disservice’; mindful of the service you did her and her children and me this summer, you’d best keep quiet about that!
You presume moreover, in the letter in question, which contains the only reference to her that you’ve written since this summer — you presume that I would want to take ‘that person’, as you call her, to Drenthe with me.
I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to, because I don’t have the money for it.
As to the money — brother — you understand that I don’t take any pleasure in it any more, don’t you? You do understand that, don’t you?
I did take pleasure in it because it meant not only my survival, but also that of those poor creatures.
It’s a sad letter at the end of this year — sad for me to write, sad for you to receive (although you’re at liberty to dismiss it, decide that for yourself), but it’s worse for the poor woman. Regards.
I’ve had news from her again, since I sent her to a doctor and have heard various details about it.
Further — brother — you know that my response was cool to the tidings that a calamity that threatened you has been averted, I have no other response in that regard than ‘too BAD for you — my friend’. Perhaps you’ll understand why one day. I don’t say that it wouldn’t have been a calamity, but ............................... It seems to me that there are those moments in life when it’s better that the blow should fall, albeit it hard, than that one should be liable to be spared by the world. As to me, I’m bound to misfortune and failure, it’s damned hard sometimes, but there it is. I still don’t envy the so-called fortunate and eternally successful ones, since I see too much behind it. Take the Prisonnier by Gérôme — the man lying shackled is in a bad way to be sure, but in my view it’s better to be him than that other fellow who’s lording it over him and tormenting him. I say this to point out to you the extremes of circumstances. In no way do I, for example, confuse my own fate with more aggravated misery like that of the prisoner. Nevertheless, in our society one also sees a je ne sais quoi of what I refer to.
And for myself I do not congratulate you that it may be expected that you’ll be able to keep in with certain authorities. It occurred to me that it wouldn’t be superfluous to declare myself to you. You can take it just exactly as you like.
I don’t forget, either, that at the beginning you had compassion for the woman in question. But precisely because I myself was not and am not blind to her faults, but sought and seek her preservation despite them, I believe that you could have respected and better understood this feeling of mine — then you would also have been able to take my part more resolutely against anyone who knew less about it than you, and it wouldn’t have got to such a high pitch that I had to give it up.
I’m warning you now, because perhaps it’s still not too late; if it gets any worse the time for warnings will be past. If you need me to explain everything to you even more plainly, here you are. You say yourself that you wish I would leave the woman, yes, leave her completely.
Very well, but I won’t or can’t do it, do you understand, my friend, and it would be treachery if I were to do such a thing — I’m thinking of old words from the Bible, ‘hide not thy face from thy neighbour’. Now I tell you outright, no Theo (if you choose to presume that I want to do this or that, think exactly what you like, I shall do what I shall do, D.V.).
I know very well that this is a sore point that relates to the financial aspect. Not only in the sense you refer to in your letter, but in the first place in another. If I accept money from you and do something you declare yourself to be directly opposed to, that would be wrong. I’ve always talked openly to you about everything, and revealed myself just as I was, tried to be honest, but I haven’t acted without consulting you. Very well, should this stop and should we not know each other in our private lives any more, there would be something false about our position. And that I decline.
I’ve spoken my mind about Pa, I’ve spoken my mind about you as far as this summer is concerned. Why? To convert you to my way of thinking? No, just because I would consider it treacherous of me if I were to keep such things to myself. I am simply not a traitor, and if I have something against someone, then I say so and I don’t fear the consequences, although they can be serious enough. That’s simply the way I am — I clarify the position myself and say: hold on, because I think very differently from you about this and that, and I can’t associate with you with the old cordiality any more (I’m not saying that I don’t want to associate with Pa or you at all any more — I’m not such a zealot).
But I feel it when something has been broken. And I say, what’s broken is broken.
If I do this, at least I’ll regain my serenity, I would lose my serenity if I wasn’t frank enough.
I dare to face the future provided — I don’t enter into things that I’d feel were dishonest.
And if you want yet another reason, well here you are then. For the sake of putting the woman back on her feet, I would even sacrifice my own pride over this principle or that as far as taking money is concerned, and did this more than once for her sake and for the children, but if the woman were not there then I would be even prouder than ever. (I already told you that in The Hague in response to something about being good friends with H.G.T., when you said then, ‘yes, I thought as much’.) And now, in my view, the situation is such that I can do nothing for the woman in the circumstances if I have no support, from you for instance, and that consequently I think myself that it is not in my power to help her — at least not right away. So you have power over me — you, above all, in conjunction with many others, none of whom are able to agree with me. And yet you will not get me to renounce her — with all your financial power. And because I won’t give in on the issue of the woman and want to say that clearly, make it audible to even the deafest of ears, I declare in advance that I’ve decided to share with her that which is my property, and I don’t wish to accept any money from you except what I can regard as my property without second thoughts.
Know, in short, that I believe I’m allowed to do anything that doesn’t harm anyone else, and that freedom, to which not just I but, in my view, every human being has the full, self-evident right — that freedom, I say, I have a duty to uphold as being the only position that I have to uphold. I really do ask: will I harm someone with this or that before I act? But unless people really prove to me that I would harm someone with something that I do, I don’t have to refrain from doing it. So, I who don’t coerce also don’t want to be coerced — I who respect others’ freedoms also insist on my own.
And as for the woman and the children, she’s attached to me, and that even after the parting, and I to her. And now I should in some way undertake, tacitly or not tacitly, to abandon her? No, I won’t undertake any such thing. I’m not asking you to be responsible for any costs whatsoever; on the contrary, I tell you, you can reduce the money, stop it altogether, but she’ll have her share of what I have.
True cowardice on my part, brother, would be to be ambiguous about this. If it had to come to it that I myself had nothing, very well — that would be the worst, and there would still perhaps be others besides you who would make my life possible, to some extent. And if not — well, then not.