To Willemien van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 2 July 1889.
My dear sister,
In recent days I already began another letter in reply to yours, but I became aware that I didn’t have sufficient mastery of my mind to write. I thank you and Lies for the Rod book which I’ve finished and which I’ll return to you soon. The terrible title, Le sens de la vie, terrified me a little, but as it’s happily scarcely spoken of in this volume, I was quite content to read something which has a family resemblance to Souvestre’s Le philosophe sous les toits or with Monsieur, madame et bébé by Droz. The moral of it is that in some cases a gentleman ends up preferring to live with a nice, devoted wife and his child, to the life of the restaurant, boulevard and café which he had previously led without too much excess. That’s undoubtedly very pleasant.
It is indeed remarkable that good Mrs du Quesne’s illness came to an unexpected end after all. It must have been a day of great deliverance for her all the same.
If you say in your letter that when you see so many others in life who come and go, seeking their own path, appearing to you perhaps to be making more headway than you, what can I tell you, that I too sometimes have a feeling of stupefaction in the face of my own life, and as regards several other lives of workers in my profession besides. I’ve just sent Theo a dozen drawings after canvases which I have on the go, while all the rest of my life is absolutely as inept as it was at the time when, at the age of 12, I was at a boarding school where I learned absolutely nothing.
An enormous number of painters who certainly couldn’t do my 12 canvases either in 2 months or in 12 are regarded as artists and as intelligent people in town or in the countryside. But believe me, I say this in order to be explanatory and not because I would see any urgency or possibility or desire to change things. We scarcely know life, we’re so unaware of its hidden aspects, anyway we’re living in an age when everything appears to be in its dotage and tottering, and it isn’t unfortunate to find a duty which forces us to stay calmly in our corner, occupied with a little simpler toil, with certain duties that retain some raison d’être.
In these days in which we live we risk coming back from a battle ashamed of having done battle.
So my friend who was with me in Arles and a few others have thus organized an exhibition in which, in good health, I would have taken part.
And what have they been able to do – almost nothing – and yet in their canvases there was something brand new, good, something to give me pleasure and make me enthusiastic for example, me, I can assure you of that. Among artists, we no longer know what to say to each other, we don’t know if we ought to laugh or cry about it, and doing, my word, neither one thing or the other, we are happiest when we find ourselves in possession of a little paint and canvas, the thing we also lack sometimes and which at least we can work on. But any idea of a regular life, any idea of awakening in ourselves or in others gentle ideas or sensations, all of this must necessarily appear pure utopia to us.
So although yesterday more than half a million francs were paid for Millet’s Angelus, don’t go believing that more souls will feel what was in Millet’s soul. Or that middle-class people or workers will begin to put in their houses the lithograph of that Millet Angelus, for example. Don’t go believing that the painters who are still working in Brittany among the peasants will have more encouragement for that matter, less of the same black famine that always surrounded Millet, above all more courage.
Alas, we often lack breath and faith, wrongly certainly but – and here we come back to the point – if, however, we want to work we must submit both to the stubborn harshness of the time and to our isolation, which is sometimes as hard to bear as exile. Now before us, after our years which have thus been lost, relatively speaking, poverty, illness, old age, madness and always exile. It is indeed the moment to say ‘blessed be Thebe, daughter of Telhui, priestess of Osiris, who never complained about anyone’.
Cherishing the memory of good people, wouldn’t that be worth more than being among the ambitious ones on the whole?
I’m quite absorbed in reading the Shakespeare that Theo sent me here, where at last I’ll have the calm necessary to do a little more difficult reading. I’ve first taken the kings series, of which I’ve already read Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and a part of Henry VI – as these dramas were the most unfamiliar to me. Have you ever read King Lear? But anyway, I think I shan’t urge you too much to read such dramatic books when I myself, returning from this reading, am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself.
So if you want to do as artists do, gaze upon the white and red poppies with the bluish leaves, with those buds raising themselves up on stems with gracious curves. The hours of trouble and battle will assuredly come and find us without our going to look for them.
The separation from Cor will be hard. And it’s going to happen really soon. What else can one do, thinking of all the things whose reason one doesn’t understand, but gaze upon the wheatfields. Their story is ours, for we who live on bread, are we not ourselves wheat to a considerable extent, at least ought we not to submit to growing, powerless to move, like a plant, relative to what our imagination sometimes desires, and to be reaped when we are ripe, as it is?
I tell you, as for myself I think it would be wisest not to wish to get better, not to wish to regain more strength than now, and I’ll probably grow accustomed to it, to being cracked. A little sooner, a little later, what can that matter to me?
What you write about Theo’s health I know completely, nevertheless it is my hope that married life will completely restore him. I believe his wife to be wise and loving enough to take lots of care of him and to see that he doesn’t just eat restaurant food, but that he gets back to Dutch cooking. Dutch cooking is good, and so let her turn herself into something of a cook, let her take on a reassuring outer appearance, even if it’s a little rough. Theo himself is obliged to be a Parisian, but with that he absolutely needs what reminds him of his youth and his past. I, who have neither wife nor child, I need to see the wheatfields, and it would be difficult for me to exist in a town for long. So, knowing his character, I’m optimistic that his marriage will do him an enormous amount of good. Before we can form an idea of his health we must allow them a little time to take root within each other.
And afterwards, I dare also hope, she’ll have found lots of ways to make his life a little more pleasant than was the case before. For he has seen hard times.
Anyway I must close this letter if I want it to go off today, and I don’t even have time to re-read it. So, if I’ve said too many silly things you will kindly excuse me. Look after yourself, don’t get too bored, and by cultivating your garden as you do, and the rest that you do, be well assured that you’re getting through a lot of work. I kiss you affectionately in thought.