To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 23 July 1882.
My dear Theo,
I received your letter and the 50-franc note enclosed. I thank you right heartily for both, and I’m delighted that you gave me some details about your visit.
Do you think we could agree that while you’re here we’ll spend the time together that’s left after your business and visits and then do our best, on both sides, to be in the same sort of mood as in the past at the Rijswijk mill?
As for me, old chap — although the mill has gone and with it the years and my past youth, just as irrevocably — what has reawakened deep inside me is the belief that there’s something good and that it’s worthwhile making an effort and doing one’s best to take life seriously. This is now perhaps, or rather certainly, more firmly rooted in me than in the past, when I had experienced less. For me the point now is to express the poetry of those days in drawings.
Your letter to me crossed mine, in which I told you I’d decided to carry on working regularly, well or not well.
Well, that’s what I’ve done and I feel fine, though I have to take more to keep it up. But the work itself makes me much more clear-headed, of course — towards the end I couldn’t bear not being able to draw. I’ll have a couple of watercolours for you when you come, brother. By Jove, the studio works so nicely. You remember, last winter I said: in a year you’ll have watercolours.
These ones are simply intended to show you that if I work at drawing, the correctness of perspective and proportion, it also benefits the watercolouring. And for myself I did them to test whether now, after doing nothing but drawing for a time (around six months), I found watercolours easier, and secondly to see where I still need to do more work on the foundation or basic drawing on which everything depends.
They’re landscapes, very difficult in their delineation, with complicated perspective — but precisely because of that there’s a true Dutch character and sentiment to them.
They look like the last ones I sent, and are no less conscientiously delineated, only now there’s also: colour — the gentle green of the meadow contrasting with the red tiled
roof, the light in the sky set off by the matt tones of the foreground, a yard with earth and damp wood.
In judging me and my behaviour, Tersteeg always starts from the premise that I’m incapable of anything and am good for nothing. He told me that himself... ‘Oh, it will be the same with that painting of yours as with all the other things you’ve started — it won’t come to anything.’
That’s how he talked last winter, that’s how he talks now — whereupon I told him that it would please me not to visit him or see him here for the next six months. Since that sort of talk only impedes and upsets me.
You must understand this, as a result I couldn’t care less about him and I’m quite content for him finally to understand now, clearly and plainly, that I’ve taken a thorough dislike to him in recent months, and would rather not have anything to do with him.
I carry on working quietly, and he can say, to his heart’s content, all the absurd things about me that pop into his head.
As long as he doesn’t impede me in my work, I’ll forget all about him. It was different when he said last winter that he would intervene to see that I didn’t get any more money from you. Then I immediately wrote to you about it.
But I won’t write to you about him any more until something similar happens again. I would think myself foolish if I were to chase after him and say: Mr T, Mr T, I’m a true painter like other painters, despite all your arguments.
No, it seems to me more self-restrained, precisely because it (the artistic) is in fact in my very marrow, to go on bivouacking with my things in meadows or dunes very calmly, or to work in the studio with a model without taking the slightest notice of him.
But what I find rather pleasing is that you too have read Le ventre de Paris recently. I’ve also read Nana. Listen, Zola is actually Balzac II.
Balzac I portrays the society of 1815-1848, Zola begins where Balzac leaves off and goes on to Sedan or rather to the present day.
I think it’s absolutely superb. Now I must ask you what you think of Mme François, who picks up poor Florent as he lies unconscious in the middle of the road where the vegetable carts are passing, and lets him ride with her. Although the other vegetable sellers shout: ‘Leave him lying there, the drunk! We’ve no time to pick up men lying in the gutter,’ &c. The figure of Mme François stands against the background of the Halles throughout the book, contrasting with the brutal egoism of the other women, so calm and so dignified and so sympathetic.
You see, Theo, I believe Mme François’ act showed true humanity, and in relation to Sien I have done and will continue to do what I believe someone like Mme François would have done for Florent if he hadn’t cared more about politics than about her. So there you have it, and that humanity is the salt of life, without that I wouldn’t care about life. Enough. I care as little about what Tersteeg says as Mme François cared about what the other vegetable sellers and women shouted: leave him alone — we’ve no time. In short, the whole commotion and racket. Besides, it won’t be long before Sien is supporting herself entirely through posing. She posed for my very best drawing, Sorrow, at least I think it’s the best thing I’ve done, and in less than a year there’ll be regular drawings of figures as well, that I promise you. For make no mistake — much as I love landscape, I love figures even more. Still, it’s the hardest part, and of course takes me a great deal of study and work, and time too. But don’t let them fool you into thinking that she’s keeping me from the work; you’ll see for yourself in the studio. If it were so that I was working less because of her, I would agree with you, but now the absolute opposite is true, really. Well, we’ll gradually reach agreement on that, I hope, not so much through words as through drawings. I’m coming to hate words — but anyway.
But I’m so delighted you’re coming, old chap. Shall we actually go into the meadows again together? — with nothing before us except that still, gentle, delicate green and such a light sky. Excellent! And the sea! And the beach! And the OLD out-of-the-way Scheveningen. Marvellous.
By the way, recently I’ve been seeing some very beautiful small charcoal drawings by T. de Bock, mostly touched up with white and delicate blue in the sky — very good and more to my liking than his paintings.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoy the space in the studio — I immediately notice the effect on me now that I’m working again. We’ll teach them to say of my drawings: ‘they’re only old ones’. I wasn’t ill for the fun of it. So you must imagine me sitting at my attic window as early as 4 o’clock, studying the meadows and the carpenter’s yard with my perspective frame — as the fires are lit in the court to make coffee, and the first worker ambles into the yard.
Over the red tiled roofs comes a flock of white pigeons flying between the black smoking chimneys. But behind this an infinity of delicate, gentle green, miles and miles of flat meadow, and a grey sky as still, as peaceful as Corot or Van Goyen.
That view over the ridges of the roofs and the gutters in which the grass grows, very early in the morning and the first signs of life and awakening — the bird on the wing, the chimney smoking, the figure far below ambling along — this is the subject of my watercolour. I hope you’ll like it.
Whether I succeed in the future depends, I believe, more on my work than on anything else. Provided I can stay on my feet, well I’ll fight my fight quietly in this way and no other, that is by calmly looking through my little window at the things in nature, and drawing them faithfully and lovingly.
For the rest only adopting a defensive posture if attacked, but otherwise drawing is too dear to me for me to allow anything to distract from it.
The singular effects of perspective are more intriguing to me than human intrigues. If Tersteeg had better understood that my painting is an entirely different matter from other things, he wouldn’t make such a fuss. But now, in his eyes, I’ve deceived and disappointed Mauve. Moreover, he thinks I only do it on account of the money from you. I find it all absurd — too absurd to attach any importance to it. Mauve himself will realize later that he wasn’t deceived in me and that I was absolutely not unwilling. It’s just that he HIMSELF persuaded me to draw more conscientiously long before I did anything else. But back then we didn’t understand each other correctly, again because of H.G.T., who was behind it.
As to your letter, I would like to say again that I can’t help it that you didn’t know about Sien’s child, because when I told you about her I certainly mentioned it, but you probably thought I meant the child that hadn’t yet come into the world. But I had already spoken a few words about the humanity sometimes found in a person, as in Mme François in the book by Zola. But I have no humanitarian plans or ideas, as if I thought I could do the same for everyone. Yet I’m not ashamed to say (though I know very well that the word humanity is out of favour) that for my part I’ve always felt the need to love one creature or another, and will continue to do so. Preferably an unfortunate or spurned or abandoned creature, I don’t know why. Once I nursed a poor burnt miner for six weeks or 2 months — I shared my food with an old man a whole winter long — and I don’t know what else, and now Sien. But to this day I don’t believe that this was foolish or bad, I see it as so natural and self-evident that I can’t understand how people can be so indifferent to each other normally. Let me add that if I did wrong, you also did wrong in helping me so loyally — that would be wrong too, but that would surely be absurd. I’ve always believed that ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ isn’t an exaggeration but the normal state of affairs. But anyway. And you know that I’ll make the greatest possible effort to ensure that I start selling soon, precisely to avoid abusing your goodness.
I also firmly believe, brother, that if, in response to suggestions that you should stop sending me the money — which I think may possibly be made, you calmly reply that you’re confident I’ll turn out to be a good painter and that you’ll therefore continue to support me. That you’ve left me free as regards my private life and affairs, and won’t coerce or help to coerce me, and then there will very soon be a stop to the gossip, and then only in certain circles will I be seen as a social pariah and be cast out. Which leaves me pretty indifferent, and to which I’m already accustomed. Which will make me concentrate on art more and more. And though some may damn me irrevocably and for all time, in the nature of things my profession and my work will open up new connections, all the fresher for not being made cold, stiff and sterile by old prejudices about my past. Connections with people like Tersteeg, who persist in their prejudices, are absolutely sterile and useless. Well, old chap, thank you for your letter and the fifty francs — my drawing has dried somewhat in the meantime and I’m going to touch it up. The lines of the roofs and gutters now shoot away nicely like arrows from a bow — drawn without hesitation. Adieu, with a handshake.
P.S. Read lots of Zola, it’s healthy stuff and clears the mind.