To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Thursday, 8 February 1883.
My dear Theo,
My sincere congratulations to you too on Pa’s birthday, and thank you for your letter, which I received just now and am delighted by. I congratulate you especially on the operation being behind you. Things such as you describe make one shudder. May it now be overcome — and at least the crisis over. Poor woman!
If women sometimes don’t have the same energy and resilience in their thinking as men who have striven to think things through and analyze them — are they to be blamed for that? I believe not, because in general they must devote so much more strength than we to suffering pain. They suffer more and are more sensitive. And even if they sometimes don’t understand what one is thinking, they’re sometimes quite capable of understanding whether one is good for them. Not in every respect perhaps, but ‘the spirit is willing’ and there’s a sort of goodness in women at times that is entirely peculiar to them.
It must be a weight off your mind that the operation has been done.
What a riddle life is, and love is a riddle within a riddle. Staying the same is the only thing that it certainly doesn’t do in a literal sense, but on the other hand the changes are a kind of ebb and flow and make no difference to the sea itself.
I’ve rested my eyes a little since I last wrote to you and felt better for it, although they still sting.
Do you know what I couldn’t help thinking? — that in the first part of life as a painter one sometimes unintentionally makes things difficult for oneself — through a feeling of not yet having mastered the business — through the uncertainty one feels about whether one will master it — through the fierce desire to make progress — through not yet trusting oneself — one cannot put aside a certain feeling of being harried, and one harries oneself despite not wanting to be harried when one works. There’s nothing to be done about it, and this is a time that one also can’t do without, and that should not and cannot be otherwise, in my view.
In the studies, too, one sees for oneself the agitation and a certain precision that’s diametrically opposed to the calm breadth one seeks — and yet one feels bad if one works specifically for that breadth and devotes oneself to that.
As a result there’s sometimes a bottling up of nervous restlessness and stress, and one feels an oppressiveness as on some summer days before a storm. I’ve just had that again, and when I feel like that I change to different work, precisely in order to start from scratch. The difficulties one faces in the first phase give the studies a painful quality at times.
I don’t regard this as something that discourages me, though, because I’ve noticed it in others as much as in myself, and in them it has increasingly gone away of its own accord.
And work remains difficult at times throughout one’s life, I believe, but not always with so few results as in the beginning.
What you write about Lhermitte is entirely in accord with what it said in a review of an exhibition of Black and White.
That also talks about a rude assault that is almost impossible to compare with anything else except Rembrandt.
I’d like to know how someone like that sees Judas — you write about a drawing of Judas before the scribes by him. I believe Victor Hugo could describe that in detail so that one saw it. But it would be even more difficult to paint the expressions.
I’ve found a Daumier print, Those who have seen a tragedy and those who have seen a vaudeville. I begin to long for Daumier more and more as time passes. There’s something pithy and ‘considered’ in him. He’s amusing and yet full of emotion and passion. Sometimes, it seems to me I find a passion that might be likened to white-hot iron, in the drunkards, for instance, and probably in the Barricade too (which I don’t know). That’s also in some heads by Frans Hals, for example. It’s so subdued that it seems cold, and when one takes a look at it — — — one is amazed that someone evidently working with so much emotion and becoming completely absorbed and lost in nature at the same time has that presence of mind to set it down with such a steady hand. I found something similar in studies and drawings by Degroux. Perhaps Lhermitte is another white-hot one. And Menzel too. There are sometimes passages in Balzac and Zola – in Père Goriot, for example – in which one finds a degree of passion in words that’s white-hot.
I sometimes think about experimenting with a completely different way of working, namely daring and risking more. But I don’t know whether I ought not to study the figure more directly, definitely with a model.
I’m also looking for a way of shutting out the light in the studio or letting it in as desired. At present not enough comes from above, I believe, and there’s too much. I’ve sometimes closed it off with cardboard temporarily, but I’ll see if I can get shutters from the landlord.
What was in the letter I told you I had torn up was in the spirit of what you say. But as one realizes more and more that one isn’t perfect and has shortcomings, and that others do too, and thus there are continual difficulties that are the opposite of illusions, so I believe that those who don’t lose heart and don’t become apathetic as a result mature through it, and one must endure in order to mature.
Sometimes I can’t understand all the same that I’m only 30 and feel so much older.
I feel older especially when I think that most of the people who know me regard me as a failure, and I believe that if a few things don’t change for the better this really could be the case, and when I think, it could turn out like that, then I feel that with such reality that I’m totally oppressed by it and I lose all enjoyment, as if it were really so. When I’m in a more normal and calm mood, I’m sometimes glad that 30 years are past and haven’t gone by without my learning something in them for the future, and I feel strength and zest for the next 30 — if I last that long. And in my imagination I see years of serious work, and happier ones than the first 30.
How it will turn out in reality doesn’t depend on me alone — the world and circumstances must also cooperate.
What concerns me, and what I’m responsible for, is that I make the most of the circumstances I’m in, and do my best to make progress.
As a working man, at the age of 30 one is at the beginning of a period in which one feels steadiness in oneself. As such, one feels young and full of zest.
Yet at the same time a period of life is over, which makes one sad that this or that will never come back. And it isn’t weak sentimentality to feel a certain sorrow now and then. Anyway, much only begins when one is 30, and it’s certain that not everything is over by then. But one doesn’t expect from life what one already knows from experience that it cannot give. Rather, one begins to see much more clearly that life is only a time of fertilization and that the harvest is not here.
This is why one sometimes thinks, what do I care about the world’s judgement?, and if that judgement is too much of a burden, one can shrug it off.
Perhaps now I ought to tear up this letter as well. I can understand that you’re very much preoccupied with the woman’s condition, and that’s one of the things needed to save her and to ensure that she makes a good recovery.
For one must throw oneself into it, and the saying applies, If you want it well done you must do it yourself, you mustn’t leave it to others.
That is to say, one must keep hold of the general care and overseeing of the whole.
We’ve had a couple of true spring days, including last Monday, which I enjoyed. The change of the seasons is something the people feel very much. For example, in a neighbourhood like the Geest district and in the almshouses or so-called ‘gift houses’ winter is always an anxious and difficult and frightening time, and spring a deliverance. If one looks closely, one sees that there’s a kind of gospel on the first day of spring.
And on such a day it’s heart-rending to see so many grey, withered faces expressly coming out of doors, not to do anything in particular but as if to convince themselves that spring has come. So, for example, sometimes all kinds of people in whom one wouldn’t expect it crowd round a spot on the market where a trader is selling crocuses, snowdrops, goatsbeard and other bulbs. Sometimes a parchment ministry official, a sort of Josserand evidently, in a threadbare black coat with a felt collar — I find him beside the snowdrops beautiful.
I believe that the poor and the painters have the sentiment of the weather and the changing seasons in common. Of course everyone feels that, but for the better-off they’re hardly events at all, and don’t generally make much difference to their state of mind.
I like this remark by a polder worker: ‘In the winter I suffer as much cold as the winter corn’.
Now, your patient will certainly welcome the spring too. May she do well. What a difficult operation that is, at least I was shocked when I read the description.
Rappard is getting better — did I write to you that he’d had a nervous fever of the brain? It will be some time before he can work as before, but he has started going for walks now and then.
I’ll follow your advice to bathe my eyes with tea if it doesn’t go away. It’s lessening, so for the present I’ll let things take their natural course. Because I was never troubled by it in the past, except this winter along with toothache, and so I believe it to be something accidental caused by my unusual exertions. And now I can bear the tired eyes when drawing better than in the beginning. Write again soon if you can, and believe me, with a handshake,
I don’t know if you know the ‘gift houses’ on Brouwersgracht opposite the hospital. I’d like to draw there when the weather permits. I’ve already made a few scratches there this week. They’re some rows of houses with small gardens which belong to the poor board, I believe.