Etten, 3/9 1881

My dear Theo,
There’s something on my mind that I want to tell you. Perhaps you already know something about it, and what I’m telling you isn’t news.
I wanted to tell you that this summer I’ve come to love Kee Vos so much that I could find no other words for it than ‘it’s just as if Kee Vos were the closest person to me and I the closest person to Kee Vos’. And — I said these words to her. But when I told her this, she replied that her past and her future were all one to her and so she could never return my feelings.1
Then I was in an awful dilemma about what to do, to resign myself to that no, nay, never, or — not yet to regard the matter as over and done with, and to take courage and not give up yet.
I chose the latter. And until now I haven’t regretted that decision, even though I’m still confronted with that no, nay, never.
Since then, of course, I’ve suffered a great many ‘petty miseries of human life’,2 which, if they were written down in a book, could perhaps serve to amuse some people, though they can hardly be considered pleasant if one experiences them oneself. Nonetheless, up to now I’ve been glad that I left the resignation or ‘how-not-to-do-it’ method3 to those who prefer it and, as for myself, plucked up a little courage. You understand that in cases like this it’s surprisingly difficult to know what one can, may and must do. But ‘wandering we find our way’,4 and not by sitting still.  1v:2
One of the reasons I haven’t written to you about it before now is that the position in which I found myself was so vague and undecided that I couldn’t explain it to you.
Now, though, we’ve progressed to the point where I’ve spoken about it — in addition to her — to Pa and Ma, to Uncle and Aunt Stricker5 and to Uncle and Aunt at Princenhage.6 The only one who said to me, though very informally and in private, that I did indeed have a chance if I worked hard and prospered, is one from whom I didn’t expect it at all, Uncle Cent. He was amused at the way I took Kee’s no, nay, never, i.e. by making light of it and sort of joking about it, bring no grist to Kee Vos’s mill of no, nay, never, for example, I wish her all good things, apart from hoping that the aforementioned flour-mill will go bankrupt. Likewise I didn’t much mind when Uncle Stricker said there was a danger I ‘would sever friendly relations and break old ties’, to which I replied that in my opinion the case in question, far from breaking old ties, could renew the old ties where they were in need of repair. At any rate, I hope to go on like this and to keep well away from melancholy and pessimism. Meanwhile working hard, and since meeting her my work is going much better.
I said that now the situation is becoming somewhat clearer. First, Kee says no, nay, never, and furthermore I believe that I’ll have tremendous difficulty with the elders who already regard the matter as over and done with and will try and force me to give up. For the time being, though, I believe they’ll proceed with caution,  1v:3 keeping me dangling and fobbing me off until Uncle and Aunt Stricker’s big celebration (in December)7 is over. Because they want to avoid scandal. After that, though, I fear that steps will be taken to get rid of me.
Forgive the rather harsh terms I’m using to make my position clear to you. I admit that the colours are a little harsh and the lines drawn a bit too hard, but it will nevertheless give you a clearer picture of the situation than if I were to beat about the bush. So don’t suspect me of lack of respect for those Elder persons.
Only I believe that they’re decidedly against it, and I want to make you see this. They’ll try and see to it that Kee and I can neither see nor speak nor write to one another, just because they understand very well that if we were to see, speak or write to one another there would be a chance of a change of heart in Kee. Kee herself thinks she‘ll never change her mind and, though the elder persons are trying to convince me that she can’t change, they fear that change nonetheless.
The elder persons will change their minds about this matter not when Kee changes her mind but when I become someone who earns at least 1,000 guilders a year. Again, forgive the hard contours with which I outline things. While I find little sympathy from the elders, I think that some of the younger ones will be able to understand my attitude. Perhaps you, Theo. Perhaps you’ve heard it said of me that I want to force the issue and suchlike expressions. But who doesn’t understand how senseless it is to try and force love! No, that’s far, far from my thoughts.  1r:4 But it’s not unfair or unreasonable to wish that Kee and I, instead of not being allowed to see one another, will see, speak and write to one another so that, getting to know each other better, we’ll be able to see for ourselves whether or not we’re suited to each other. A year of contact with one another would be beneficial for her and for me, yet the elders won’t budge on this point. If I were rich they’d talk altogether differently.
Yet by now you understand that I mean to leave no stone unturned in my endeavours to bring me closer to her, and I declare that

I shall love her so long
That in the end she’ll love me too.8

The more she disappears, the more she appears.9

Theo, aren’t you in love too, at times? I wish you were, for believe me, the ‘petty miseries’ of it are also of some value. Sometimes one is desolate, there are moments when one is in hell, as it were, but — it also brings with it other and better things. There are three stages, first not loving and not being loved, second loving and not being loved (the case in question), third loving and being loved.
I’d say that the second stage is better than the first, but the third! That’s it.
Now, old boy, go and fall in love and tell me about it sometime. Keep quiet about the case in question and sympathize with me. I’d much rather have a yea and amen, of course, but meanwhile I’m really rather happy with my ‘no, nay, never’. I consider that something, but older and wiser people say it’s nothing. Rappard was here, brought along watercolours that are becoming good. Mauve is coming soon, I hope, otherwise I’ll go to him. I’m drawing a great deal and think it’s getting better, I’m working much more with the brush than I used to. Now it’s so cold that practically all I do is draw figures inside, seamstress,10 basket-maker &c.11
A handshake in thought, and write soon, and believe me

Ever yours,

They wanted me to promise not to say or write anything more on this subject, but I wouldn’t promise that; no one in the world, in my opinion, can reasonably demand such a thing of me (or of anyone else in the same situation). I’ve only given assurances to Uncle Cent that I would stop writing to Uncle Stricker for the time being, until unforeseen circumstances should make it necessary. A lark can’t help singing in the spring.

If you should ever fall in love and receive a no, nay, never, by no means resign yourself to it! But you’re such a lucky dog that something like this will probably never happen to you, I hope.


Br. 1990: 177 | CL: 153
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Etten, Thursday, 3 November 1881

1. Christoffel Vos, the husband of Kee Vos, had died on 27 October 1878. In the summer of 1881 Kee came to Etten for a lengthy stay, and she and Vincent spent a great deal of time together (cf. letter 183). Probably thinking that she was just as fond of him as he was of her, he made her a proposal of marriage (180). He did not tell Theo about it, however.
3. Van Gogh frequently used this expression, which he borrowed from Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit: ‘How to do it must obviously be regarded as the natural and mortal enemy of How not to do it.’ See Dickens 1979, p. 500. The expression recurs in letters 212, 214, 220, 244, 289, 291, 306 and 401.
4. Taken from the poem ‘Onvermoeid’ (Tireless) by P.A. de Génestet. See De Génestet 1869, vol. 2, p. 90. See also letter 193, n. 25.
5. Kee Vos was the daughter of J.P. Stricker and Willemina Catharina Gerardina Carbentus, a sister of Mrs van Gogh, which made her Vincent’s first cousin.
a. Meaning: ‘onder vier ogen’ (in private).
b. Meaning: ‘verwachtte’ (expected).
c. Meaning: ‘duidelijk wordt welke standpunten men inneemt’ (it’s becoming clear what the situation is, i.e. what the various standpoints are).
7. The celebration held to mark the Strickers’ 40th anniversary on 7 December 1881.
8. The closing lines of the poem ‘De edelmoedige wedervergelding’ (The noble retaliation) by Hieronymus van Alphen. See Van Alphen 1857, vol. 1, pp. 405-406. Also quoted in letter 180.
9. Possibly a quotation.
d. Meaning: ‘houd u stil’, ‘doe alsof u van niets weet’ (keep quiet about it, pretend to know nothing).
10. During this period Van Gogh made a number of drawings of women sewing in which he used watercolour: Woman sewing (F 867 / JH 67), Woman sewing (F 885 / JH 71), Woman sewing (F 886 / JH 69), Woman sewing (F 887 / JH 73), Woman mending stockings (F 888 / JH 68) and Woman sewing (F 1221 / JH 70).
[331] [331] [251] [332] [331]
11. Drawings of basket-makers are not known, but there are various drawings of models engaged in other indoor activities. It is impossible to say which drawings Van Gogh is referring to here.