1. The last surviving letter dates from between about 11 and 14 August 1879 (letter 154). There is now a gap of one whole year in the correspondence, also in that of the family as a whole. Tension, conflicts and disagreements about Vincent’s future led to ill will and seem to have been the cause of letters being withheld from publication or destroyed. One gathers from remarks made by Vincent later on that in 1880 his father had planned to have him committed to a lunatic asylum in Geel (Belgium); the earliest mention of this occurs in letter 185. Cf. Hulsker 1990-2 and Jansen et al. 2003-2. The tone of the letter suggests that Vincent felt compelled to respond to Theo’s reproaches.
Mr van Gogh’s letter to Theo of 5 July contains his reaction to the mention of Vincent’s letter: ‘That letter from Vincent really gives me pleasure, but oh, what will become of him, and is it not ridiculous to choose a life of poverty and to let an opportunity slip by, without seeking a means of earning a living? That really is absurd, but we have to resign ourselves to the fact. Nothing of all that we have tried has had any effect. Do write back to him. At the end of June I sent him 60 francs, upon which he sent a reply. Later on we sent him a box of clothes. It always pains us to think of him. And we think of him constantly’ (FR b2494). Part of the letter has been cut out (probably a postscript). Mrs van Gogh wrote the same day: ‘Have you sent him an answer, if not, be sure and do it. We were so glad he thought of you again and found it so sad when he didn’t want to see anyone here’ (FR b2495). This also reveals that Vincent had not written to Theo for a long time.
2. In March 1880, Van Gogh had been to stay with his parents in Etten, as emerges from a letter Mr van Gogh wrote to Theo on 11 March: ‘Vincent is still here. But oh, it is a struggle and nothing else. Now he’s talking about going to London and speaking to Rev. Jones. If he persists in this, I’ll make it possible for him. But it’s hopeless! ... Oh, Theo, if only some light would shine on that distressing darkness of Vincent’ (FR b2496). Hulsker links this remark to the next sentence in the present letter – ‘As you may perhaps know, I am back in the Borinage, my father spoke to me about staying instead in the vicinity of Etten, but I said no’ (ll. 14-16) – and assumes both that Vincent’s stay in Etten lasted until shortly before this letter was written and that Vincent spent all that time in Brabant. (Note sent by J. Hulsker to the museum, dated May 1995). However, Vincent must have left quite a while before 25 June, for Mrs van Gogh said on 5 July: ‘We’ve heard nothing for a long time and shall write again soon’ (FR b2495).
3. This is the first time in the correspondence that mention is made of Theo’s financial contribution to Vincent’s upkeep; it was only later that Theo began to provide Vincent with regular financial assistance. Cf. also letter 163, n. 4. Van Gogh also received financial support now and then from his parents; at the end of June they sent him 60 francs (FR b2494).
4. The metaphor of the moulting bird occurs in Hippolyte Taine, History of English literature (1863), in his discussion of the ideas of Thomas Carlyle. See Pollock and Orton 1978, p. 8. In this context, see also letter 325, in which Van Gogh speaks – after reading Carlyle’s Sartor resartus (1837) – of ‘old clothes’ that are cast off.
5. It is possible that ‘Les temps difficiles’ is an allusion to the translation of Charles Dickens’s Hard times. Van Gogh had, after all, advised his brother in letter 153 to read this ‘masterly’ French translation.
a. Written in English.
6. Reference to the years 1869-1876, when Van Gogh worked for the art dealership of Goupil & Cie.
7. Van Gogh no doubt came across this saying in the passage from Souvestre, which he quotes later on in this letter (see n. 24 below). Cf. Seneca, De consolatione ad Helviam 9, 7: ‘Omnem locum sapienti viro patriam esse’.
8. Jules Michelet, L’histoire de la Révolution française. 7 vols. Paris 1847-1853.
9. As emerges from letter 358, Van Gogh derived his knowledge of Aeschylus from Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare. Paris 1864. Other places in this passage also betray the fact that he had read Hugo’s book with profound interest. The term ‘shocking’ (l. 76 and l. 80), for example, could have been taken from this book (pp. 274, 484). The list of analogies – ‘There is something of... in...’ (ll. 159-161) – has a syntactic parallel in Hugo: ‘Il y a du Voltaire dans Socrate’ (There is something of Voltaire in Socrates) (p. 206). In chapter 2 (on geniuses), Hugo continually makes connections between luminaries in the arts, something that Van Gogh does as well. The underlying thought is that, in reflections on art, opposites can provide mutual enrichment. Regarding the influence of Hugo’s William Shakespeare on Van Gogh, Dorn stated: ‘There is hardly a book in Van Gogh’s correspondence that has left a clearer or more profound mark – probably on his thinking as well.’ See exhib. cat. Vienna 1996, pp. 32-33 (quotation on p. 32).
Van Gogh had sent his parents one of Hugo’s books in an attempt to make them understand his ideas. Mrs van Gogh, however, found the work of the Frenchman ethically reprehensible and wrote on 5 July to Theo: ‘We think it’s true, what you write about Vincent, but if reading books yields such impractical results, is it good? And what kind of ideas does his reading give him? He sent us one by Victor Hugo, but he takes the side of criminals and calls no evil by its real name. What would the world be like if one were to call evil good? Even with the best will in the world, that is not possible’ (FR b2495). Vincent perhaps sent Le dernier jour d’un condamné, which he mentions in letter 158. Hulsker assumes that it was Les misérables (Hulsker 1990-1, p. 185).
b. Written in English.
c. Written in English.
10. Matt. 24:15 and Mark 13:14, cf. Dan. 11:31.
11. An allusion to the Circumlocution Office that occurs in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit: See letter 306, n. 2. In August 1879, Mrs van Gogh had remarked that Vincent spent whole days reading Dickens (FR b2492).
12. In William Shakespeare, King Henry iv, act 3, scene 3, Sir John Falstaff, a gluttonous and pusillanimous drunkard, screams: ‘And I have not forgotten what the inside of a church is made of, I am a peppercorn, a brewer’s horse: the inside of a church! Company, villainous company, hath been the spoil of me.’ The first part of King Henry iv. Ed. A.R. Humphreys. 6th ed. London 1960, pp. 109-110.
d. Van Gogh wrote this in both French and English.
13. Van Gogh later added the sentence ‘But... subject’.
14. For this visit in August 1879, see letter 154. It took place in Mons, where Theo stopped on his way to Paris to spend several hours with Vincent.
15. This is the mine ‘Petite Sorcière’ or ‘Turlupu’ in Jemappes, a few kilometres to the west of Mons. This mine was not worked on a permanent basis. See Statistique des houillères en France et en Belgique publiée sous la direction d’Emile Delecroix. Mons 1891, p. 301.
16. Vincent often talks about their walk to the mill at Rijswijk; it is first mentioned in letter 11.
17. Similarities between the work of Rembrandt and Shakespeare, both of whom portrayed subjects ranging in nature from sublime loftiness to moral depravity, were also described by Hippolyte Taine in Philosophie de l’art, iii, iv. 2 vols. 6th ed. Paris 1918, pp. 77-78.
18. Van Gogh mentions a portrait (of a man) by Carel Fabritius five times, three times explicitly as the Self-portrait, c. 1648-1650 (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen). Ill. 1885 [1885]. See letters 175, 536 and 798. This painting had already been enthusiastically described by the French art critic E.J.T. Thoré (writing under the pseudonym W. Bürger) in Musées de la Hollande. See Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 2, pp. 166 ff. and exhib. cat. The Hague 2004, pp. 111-115, cat. no. 7.
Van Gogh names the Haarlem Museum as the place where he saw this portrait, though before 1880 it had no Fabritius (not even on loan), and the portrait in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen – still housed at the time in the Schielandshuis – was, as far as we know, never lent to another museum. This could mean that Vincent and Theo had once gone to Rotterdam, or else that they saw, in Haarlem, another portrait that is no longer attributed to Fabritius.
19. Charles Dickens, A tale of two cities, translated by Mme Loreau as Paris & Londres en 1793 (Paris 1861), appeared in the series ‘Bibliothèque des meilleurs Romans étrangers’ (the same series Van Gogh mentions in letter 154) as part of the Oeuvres de Charles Dickens. It had been reprinted at least seven times by 1880.
Here Van Gogh confuses two names: Richard Carstone appears in Bleak house; the protagonist of A tale of two cities is Sydney Carton.
20. Van Gogh considers the character Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606-1607) to be just as noble as ‘any figure of Th. de Keyser’. King Lear wants to disinherit his daughter Cordelia. When the Earl of Kent, an honest nobleman, tries to prevent this, he is sentenced to banishment. Though he risks being put to death if he stays in England, Kent is determined to serve his king loyally. He therefore disguises himself so that he can remain a devoted subject and stand by his sovereign.
Apparently Theo knew which portrait by Thomas de Keyser Vincent was referring to. Perhaps it was his Portrait of a scholar, which they might have seen together at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Ill. 1886 [1886]. It was also reproduced in Kunstkronijk 13 (1872), NS, between pp. 14-15.
21. Van Gogh later added the sentence ‘But... live’.
22. Isa. 6:11.
23. Mark 9:50.
24. Emile Souvestre, Un philosophe sous les toits. Journal d’un homme heureux. Paris 1867. The quotation was taken from chapter 10, ‘La patrie’, p. 190. There are several small differences between Vincent’s transcription and the source text.
25. Cf. 1 John 5:1-2.
26. Cf. Matt. 13:16.
27. Van Gogh uses the word ‘abstrait’ consistently to mean ‘absent’, ‘brooding’, etc.
28. Van Gogh later added the phrase ‘you may... such a one’, evidently after he had written almost exactly the same thing in ll. 296-297, which served to make the phrase even more convincing when repeated.
29. Van Gogh’s ideas about the caged bird could have been inspired by Michelet’s L’oiseau. Cf. Hammacher 1975, esp. pp. 7-8.
e. Read: ‘en prennent soin’.
30. Van Gogh’s assertion that he has everything he needs is clearly meant to be sarcastic.
31. Van Gogh rented a room (‘atelier’) at rue du Pavillon 3 in Cuesmes from the mine-worker Charles Louis Decrucq, who was married to Jeanne Heeren (he gives the correct house number in letters 156 and 157). The Decrucq family thus lived next door to the evangelist Francq (AEM 1876-1890, fol. 499). A drawing of the house appears in Eeckaut 1990, ‘Annexes’, p. 24; cf. Mahieu 1990, p. 39, and Georges Duez, Vincent van Gogh au Borinage. ‘A la recherche du soleil et de soi-même’. Mons 1986, p. 40.