To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Tuesday, 18 July 1882.
My dear Theo,
This time I have something to tell you about a visit from Mr Tersteeg. He came here this morning — and saw Sien and the children. I would have wished that he could at least have put on a friendly face for a young mother who gave birth a fortnight ago, but apparently that was asking too much. My dear Theo, he spoke to me in a way you can perhaps understand:
What was the meaning of this woman and that child? Where on earth did I get the idea of living with a woman, and with children as well?
Wasn’t it as ridiculous as if I were to drive about the city in my own carriage? To which I replied that it was most definitely a different matter entirely.
Was I not right in the head? It was obviously the product of a sick mind and body.
I told him that I’d just received ample reassurances from people much better qualified than he, namely the doctors at the hospital, as regards both my body and my mental strength being capable of making a sustained effort. He kept chopping and changing from one subject to another, dragging in my Father and, just imagine, my uncle in Princenhage!!! Would get involved. Would write.
My dear Theo, for the woman’s sake, for my own sake, I restrained myself, I didn’t get angry. I gave curt and plain answers to his in my view all too indiscreet questions, perhaps too gently, but I preferred to resort to too gently rather than perhaps getting angry. He gradually calmed down a little. I asked him if it wouldn’t seem rather ridiculous if at home they received an outraged letter from him followed by a friendly invitation from me to come here at my expense to discuss the very same matter. This had some effect in that he looked surprised. Was I going to write? Do you question that?, I said, of course – but now you must admit that this is hardly a suitable moment, just when they’re in the middle of moving at home and the woman is in such a state that the least emotion could cause a prolapse of the womb that might never be put right. Making her feel fearful, anxious and nervous now is murder. Oh in that case, of course, he wouldn’t write, and then again saying that I was as foolish as someone who wanted to jump into the water and he was trying to hold me back. I said that I didn’t doubt his good intentions, and that for that reason I tried not to be angered by his words, even though I found such a conversation most disagreeable.
And finally, because I clearly showed that I wanted to end the conversation, he left.
I’m writing to you immediately. I told him that I wrote to you about it, no more than that. This also calmed him somewhat.
You know that I don’t want to hide it, but for Sien, for the baby, and for me too, it would be better if there were no more scenes like this. Causing the woman to become agitated is to give her a hard blow. I can’t say this often enough. She is well, but weak and highly sensitive. The slightest thing can spoil her milk and lead to far worse, at least in the first six weeks.
I tried to turn the conversation to the drawings, but he just looked around quickly – Oh, those are the old ones. There were some new ones but he didn’t seem to see them. As you know, most of the recent ones are either with you, or C.M. still has them &c. He was overhasty in everything.
Only one thing is clear: I am as mad and wrong as can be. I ask you, how is it possible to speak to someone like that, and what good can it do?
This is exactly what I fear: an unsympathetic, schoolmasterly, unfeeling and indiscreet meddling in my most intimate and private affairs. No one could remain calm in the face of that. So although I didn’t get angry, I do severely blame Mr Tersteeg, and I don’t want to have anything to do with him or speak to him as long as he’s in this police officer mood. I’m writing to you about it immediately. I believe he’s capable of causing all sorts of misery with his untimely meddling at home and by sowing unrest in Princenhage (and Princenhage has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with it), and upsetting everyone. Can’t this be stopped???
Things are all right with home at the moment, but, you’ll see, who knows whether he won’t ruin it all again.
I intend writing myself as soon as possible, but it’s so rotten of Tersteeg to be such a troublemaker. And to whom? — a poor, weak woman who gave birth a fortnight ago.
No, it’s an ugly business, but he doesn’t feel that. With him it’s always and forever the same old thing, money. He has no other God, it seems. For my part I feel that one should be kind and gentle to women, children and the weak, and I have a sort of respect and emotion for them. He had another gibe — I would make the woman unhappy, &c. I said that he wasn’t in a position to judge that now, and I asked him not to say such a thing again. Sien loves me and I love Sien. We want to and can live together, the two of us, on what I would otherwise have on my own — we can scrimp and scrape in every way and as much as possible. You know well enough how I’ve talked about this before.
I can’t repeat too often, brother, how my whole future depends on this. A person can get over it once if he is crippled and wounded in love and in his affairs and plans. But that mustn’t happen too often. And now I have recovered or am in the process of recovering in body and soul, and Sien too, but it could be fatal if we were again hammered into the ground, so to speak. So give this some thought and, if you’re able to do anything, try to prevent Tersteeg or others from working against me too much. I can’t yet defend myself as I could if I were back to normal. I must become immersed in my work again, carefully, very carefully, but I really can’t yet bear visits like the one this morning.
You at least know more about the matter than Tersteeg, but you still know Sien too little to know how much we love each other and how well we get on together.
If Tersteeg had his way, and others too, they’d of course tear Sien and me apart.
That’s what he’s after, and they wouldn’t shrink from using force.
It depends on whether we have the monthly sum from you to allow us to stay together.
For my part, I shall refuse the monthly sum from you as soon as you adopt the same point of view as Tersteeg. I don’t want to leave Sien in the lurch. If I don’t have her I’ll be broken, and then I would also be broken in my work and everything else. Then I would never get over that and, not wishing to be a burden or expense to you any longer, would only say to you: Theo, I’m a broken man and everything is shattered into pieces, there’s no use in your helping me any more. Staying with the woman, I’m in good spirits, and then I say: the monthly sum from you will make a capable painter of me. With Sien, I can make the effort and put all my strength into work, but without her I give up.
So that’s the way it is. You have so often shown that you understand me better and treat me infinitely better than others. I hope that this will continue to be the case now. There really is a sympathy between you and me in many things, and it seems to me, Theo, that all your trouble and all my trouble won’t be in vain. You have always gone on helping me, and I’ve always gone on working and now feel new powers developing as I get better. You see, what exists between you and me is, I believe, more serious than that lecture from Tersteeg, and can’t be spoiled by his meddling or that of others. Yet for the sake of peace and good order we must calmly put an end to this meddling. Just excuse me for being rather upset. For the woman and me it was the first awful hour since we came out of hospital.
If you agree, we’ll take no further notice of it, however, and not let ourselves be upset.
But write to us soon, for I’m in great need of a letter from you. I don’t want my head to be full of worry and care, since my getting better depends on keeping calm.
Otherwise I’m getting on well; the woman and the child are so sweet, so good and quiet that one can’t help cheering up. But Sien changed on the spot when she heard Tersteeg speak — and so did I.
I’ve seen the doctor again, and again have something to take, just to hasten my recovery if possible. Passing water continues to go well, thank God. Nearly normal for several days. And I’m growing stronger; the chronic fever is getting less.
Now, because of Tersteeg, I want to write to Pa and Ma a little sooner, although I believe later would be preferable. I’ll write as soon as you’ve sent something around the twentieth, although I would rather have waited until they’d finished moving and the woman was stronger. And even now I think it would be much, much better to wait till then, except that Tersteeg might beat me to it. Enclosing the money for the journey for Pa is a sign of my feelings, I believe, and a courtesy from which they’ll understand, I hope, that I appreciate them.
So write soon, and if one thing or another proves to be a reason, brother, for us to become more attached and understand and trust each other more, instead of letting us be driven apart through the meddling of Tersteeg or anyone else, then I don’t regret this morning’s unpleasantness. Let me repeat, I make no claim to keep up a social position or to live well. The bare essentials for the woman are the only expenses she brings with her, and they must be met not by receiving more but by making do ourselves. Because of the love between us, this making do is a joy, so to speak, rather than a burden for her and me. The sense of getting better sets her and me aglow, the desire to be back at work in a very short time and to be entirely absorbed in it.
She’s a very, very sweet mother, so simple, so touching — once you know her. But there was a nasty expression of pain or I don’t know what in her when she heard Tersteeg talking to me and caught a few words. It may be that Tersteeg was like that because he was taken by surprise — still I can’t consider it nice or entirely excuse it.
Whatever he may be for others — even now I’m willing to believe that he’s actually better — for me he is insufferable. If Tersteeg had his way, I would be miserable and a lost man. I believe he would very cold-bloodedly watch Sien drown or something, and then claim it was beneficial for civilized society.
As long as I can drown with her, I don’t much care. But we felt sufficiently that her life and my life were one when we saw each other again beside the baby’s cradle in the hospital.
Hallo, brother! But I mustn’t lapse into things like that. It’s healthier to continue thinking calmly about working and getting better, and living quietly day by day.
Sien and I have an agreement, however, in the extreme event that force is used against us. This is that if we can’t live together, at least we can emigrate together. It’s 10 to one that that means certain death if one has no money and isn’t strong, but we’d prefer that to being parted.
There is love between her and me, and promises of mutual loyalty between her and me.
There may be no tampering with this, Theo, for it’s the holiest thing there is in life.
Her wish and mine is that matters shouldn’t take a dramatic turn. We’re too full of new zest for life, too full of a desire to work and to plough on, for us not to want to do everything to avoid extremes.
Yet if there were many people — especially you — who felt towards us as Tersteeg does, we couldn’t hold out, and the end would inevitably be tragic. If things stay quiet, we’ll fight our fight here by working, and that may be just everyday and ordinary but it isn’t easy either, and courage and energy are needed to set about it vigorously and keep it up. We came through the whole winter, and with God’s help we’ll get a little further.
I say with God’s help, because I’m grateful to God as well as to you for the help I’ve received and still receive from you.
Tersteeg is an energetic man, but I hope he won’t devote his energy to persecuting Sien and me or anything. Perhaps he’ll realize that he isn’t obliged to interfere, and quietly stay out of it. He doesn’t care about me — I’m really a matter of complete indifference to him — he does it because he thinks he will please or be of service to Uncle Cent or Pa. He doesn’t spare or take the slightest account of my interests or feelings. He comes in here, takes in the woman breast-feeding the baby with a look that makes her cringe, and without one kind word to her (which you would expect for a mother, even if one doesn’t know her) he says to me ‘Is that your model or is it something else?’ You see, that’s neither humane nor tactful.
I may not always be polite to men, but I watch my manners in front of a weak woman. He says nothing about drawings, about the studio, &c. No, but he does talk about my uncle in Princenhage, about whom I care nothing, whom I have nothing to do with. And about my father — immediately taking it for granted a priori that I’m on bad terms with him, whereas in fact relations have long been improving.
Enough now. But write soon, old chap, for I assure you a warm-hearted letter from you helps me more than my pills, &c. As for my constitution — Tersteeg isn’t my doctor and doesn’t understand my constitution in the slightest — if I need information about that I’ll ask my own doctor, but I never wish to discuss the subject with him again. But there’s no doubt at all that few things can do either the woman or me more harm than visits like the one we’ve just had. Avoiding them is definitely one of the first rules I must observe. Never has a doctor told me I was in any way abnormal in the tone and the sense in which Tersteeg dared to say it to me this morning. That I couldn’t think or that I wasn’t right in the head. Never in the past, or now, has a doctor said that. I have a nervous constitution, but there’s absolutely no harm in that. With Tersteeg these things become serious insults. The same as with Pa when he wanted to send me to Geel, but more so. I may not let that kind of thing go unchallenged. I long to talk to you about my illness and how that happened and so on. If Tersteeg were to persist in his rash efforts, he would sow a great deal of unrest, that I know for sure. Well, adieu old chap — you know, Sien, when she’s calm, has become so quiet, so fine, so touching a mother, like an etching or drawing or painting by Feyen-Perrin. I long for drawing, for posing, for her and me to be completely better — for order and tranquillity and some sympathy from you above all.
Regards from Sien and a handshake in thought, and believe me