Sometimes, I fear, you throw a book away because it’s too realistic. Have
compassion and patience with this letter, and read it through, despite its
My dear Theo,
As I already wrote to you from The Hague,1
have some things to discuss with you now that I’m back here. It’s not without
emotion that I look back on my trip to The Hague. When I went to see M.2
my heart was beating rather hard, because I was
thinking to myself, will he too try and fob me off or will I find something else
here? And well, what I experienced with him was that he instructed and
encouraged me in all manner of kind and practical ways. Though not merely by
always approving of everything I did or said, on the contrary. But if he tells
me, this or that isn’t good, then it’s because he’s saying at the same time ‘but
try it this way or that way’, and that’s entirely different from criticizing for
the sake of criticizing. Or if someone says ‘you’re ill with this or that’, that
doesn’t help much, but if someone says ‘do this or that and you’ll get better’,
and his advice isn’t deceit, look, that’s the real thing, and – and – it
naturally helps. Now I’ve come from him with a few painted studies and a couple
Of course they aren’t
masterpieces and yet I truly believe there’s something sound and real in them,
more at least than in what I’ve made up to now. And so I now consider myself to
be at the beginning of the beginning of making something serious. And because I
now have a few more technical resources at my disposal, namely paint and brush,
all things are made new again,4
as it were.
But – now we have to put it into practice. And the first thing is
that I must find a room large enough to be able to take a sufficient distance.
just said to me, when he saw my studies, ‘you’re too close to your model’.
In many cases this makes it next to impossible to take the
necessary measurements for the proportions, so this is certainly one of the
first things I have to watch out for. Now I must arrange to rent a large room
somewhere, be it a room or a shed. And that won’t be so terribly expensive. A
labourer’s cottage in these parts costs 30 guilders a year to rent, so it seems
to me that a room twice as large as that in a labourer’s cottage would cost
something like 60 guilders.
And that isn’t insurmountable. I’ve already seen a shed, though it
has too many inconveniences, especially in the winter. But I’d be able to work
there, at least when the weather is milder. And here in Brabant, moreover, there
are models to be found, I believe, not only in Etten but also in other villages,
if difficulties were to arise here.
Still, though I love Brabant very much, I also have a feeling for
other figures than the Brabant peasant types. Scheveningen, for example, I again
found unspeakably beautiful. But after all I’m here, and it would very probably
be cheaper to stay here. However, I’ve definitely promised M.
that I’ll do my
utmost to find a good studio, and now I must also use better paint and better
Nevertheless, Ingres paper is excellent for studies and scratches.
And it’s much cheaper to make sketchbooks in all formats from it oneself than to
buy ready-made sketchbooks. I still have a small supply of Ingres paper, but
you’d be doing me a big favour if you could send some more of the same kind when
you send back those studies. Not pure white, though, but the colour of
unbleached linen, no cold
Theo, what a great thing tone and colour are! And anyone who
doesn’t acquire a feeling for it, how far removed from life he will remain! M.
has taught me to see so many things I didn’t see before, and when I have the
opportunity I’ll try and tell you about what he’s told me, because perhaps there
are still one or two things that you don’t see properly either. Anyway, we’ll
talk about artistic matters sometime, I hope.
And you can’t imagine the feeling of relief I’m beginning to get
when I think of the things M.
said to me about earning money. Just think of how
I’ve slogged away for years, always in a kind of false position. And now, now
there’s a glimmer of real light.
I do wish that you could see the two watercolours I’ve brought
with me, because you would see that they’re watercolours just like any other
watercolours. There may be many imperfections in them, be that as it may, I’d be
the first to say that I’m still very dissatisfied with them, and yet, it’s
different from what I’ve done up to now, and it looks fresher and sounder. All
the same, it must become much fresher and sounder, but one can’t do what one
wants all at once. It comes gradually. I need those couple of drawings myself,
however, to compare with what I’ll be making here, because I have to do them at least
as well as what I did at M.
But even though Mauve
tells me that if I continue to slog away
here for a couple of months and then go back to him again in March, for
instance, I’ll then be able to make saleable drawings on a regular basis, I’m
nevertheless going through a rather difficult period. The cost of models,
studio, drawing and painting materials are multiplying, and there are no
earnings as yet.
said that I needn’t be afraid of the inevitable
expense, and Pa is pleased with what M.
himself said to him, and also with the
studies and drawings I brought back. But I do find it utterly, utterly wretched
that Pa should suffer by it. Of course we hope that things will turn out well
later, but still, it weighs heavily on my heart. Because since I’ve been here Pa
really hasn’t profited from me, and more than once he’s bought a coat or
trousers, for example, which I’d actually rather not have had, even though I
really needed it, but Pa shouldn’t suffer by it. The more so if the coat and
trousers in question don’t fit and are only half or not at all what I need.
Anyway, still more petty vexations of human life.5
And, as I’ve told you before, I find it absolutely terrible not to be free at
all. Because even though Pa doesn’t ask me to account for literally every penny,
always knows exactly how much I spend and what I spend it on. And now, although
I don’t necessarily have any secrets, I don’t really like people being able to
look at my cards. Even my secrets aren’t necessarily secrets to those for whom I
isn’t the kind of man for whom I can feel what I feel for
you, for example, or for Mauve
. I really do love Pa and Ma
, but it’s a very
different feeling from what I feel for you or Mauve. Pa cannot empathize or
sympathize with me, and I cannot settle in to Pa and Ma’s routine, it’s too
constricting for me — it would suffocate me.
Whenever I tell Pa
anything, it’s all just idle talk to him, and
certainly no less so to Ma
, and I also find Pa and Ma’s sermons and ideas about
God, people, morality, virtue, almost complete nonsense.6
I also read the Bible sometimes, just as I sometimes
, but I see completely different things in the
Bible than Pa sees, and I can’t agree at all with what Pa makes of it in his
petty, academic way. Since the Rev. Ten Kate
Pa and Ma
have read that book, because now that a
clergyman has translated it, it can’t be all that immoral (??? what is that?).
Yet they don’t see anything in it but the catastrophic consequences of an
And they certainly understand the Bible just as little. Take
, for instance, when he reads something deep he doesn’t immediately say,
that man means this or that. Because poetry is so deep and intangible that one
can’t simply define it all systematically, but Mauve has a refined sensibility
and, you see, I find that sensibility to be worth so much more than definition
and criticism. And oh, when I read, and I actually don’t read so much and even
then, only one-and-a-half writers, a couple of men whom I accidentally found,
then I do so because they look at things more broadly and milder and with more
love than I do, and are better acquainted with reality, and because I can learn
something from them. But all that drivel about good and evil, morality and
immorality, I actually care so little about it. For truly, it’s impossible for
me always to know what is good, what is evil, what is moral, what is immoral.
Morality or immorality coincidentally brings me to K.V.
written to you that it was beginning to seem less and less like eating
strawberries in the spring.9
Well, that is of
course true. If I should lapse into repetition, forgive me, I don’t know if I’ve
already written to you about what happened to me in Amsterdam. I went there
thinking, who knows whether the no, nay, never isn’t thawing, it’s such mild
weather. And so one evening I was making my way along Keizersgracht, looking for
the house, and indeed found it.10
I rang the bell and heard that the family were still at table. But then I heard
that I could come in all the same. And there they were, including Jan
, the very
all of them except Kee
And they all still had a plate in front of them, and there wasn’t a plate too
many. This small detail caught my eye. They wanted to make me think that Kee
wasn’t there, and had taken away her plate, but I knew she was there, I thought
it so much like a comedy or game. 1r:4
After a while I asked (after chatting a bit and greeting
everyone), But where’s Kee
? Then J.P.S.
repeated my question, saying to his
, Mother, where’s Kee? And the missus said, Kee’s out. And for the time
being I didn’t pursue the matter but talked a bit with the professor about the
exhibition at Arti he’d just seen.12
disappeared and little Jan Vos
disappeared, and J.P.S. and the wife of
the same and yours truly remained alone and got ourselves into position. J.P.S.,
as priest and Father, started to speak and said he’d been on the point of
sending a certain letter to yours truly and he would read that letter aloud.
However, first I asked again, interrupting His Hon. or the Rev., Where’s Kee?
(Because I knew she was in town.) Then J.P.S. said, Kee left the house as soon
as she heard you were here. Well, I know some things about her, and I must say
that I didn’t know then and still don’t know with certainty whether her coldness
and rudeness is a good or bad sign. This much I do know, that I’ve never seen
her so seemingly or actually cool and callous and rude towards anyone but me. So
I didn’t say much in reply and remained dead calm. Let me hear that letter, I
said, or not, I don’t really care either way. Then came the epistle. The writing
was reverent and very learned and so there wasn’t really anything in it, though
it did seem to say that I was being requested to stop corresponding and I was
given the advice to make vigorous attempts to forget the matter. At last the
reading of the letter was over. I felt exactly as though I were hearing the
minister in the church, after some raising and lowering of his voice, saying
amen – it left me just as cold as an ordinary sermon. And then I began, and I
said as calmly and politely as I could, well yes, I’ve already heard this line
of reasoning quite often, but now go on – and after that? But then J.P.S. looked
up... he even seemed to be somewhat amazed at my not being completely convinced
that we’d reached the extreme limit of the human capacity to think and feel.
There was, according to him, no ‘after that’ possible. We went on like this, and
once in a while Aunt M.13
put in a very
Jesuitical word, and I got quite warm and finally lost my temper. And J.P.S.
lost his temper too, as much as a clergyman can lose his temper. And even though
he didn’t exactly say ‘God damn you’, anyone other than a clergyman in J.P.S.’s
mood would have expressed himself that way. But you know that I love both Pa
J.P.S. in my own way, despite the fact that I truly loathe their system, and I
changed tack a bit and gave and took a bit, so that at the end of the evening
they said to me that if I wanted to stay at their house I could. Then I said,
thank you. If Kee walks out of the house when I come, then I don’t think it’s
the right moment to stay here, I’m going to my boarding-house. And then they
asked, where are you staying? I said, I don’t know yet, and then Uncle and Aunt
insisted on bringing me themselves to a good, inexpensive boarding-house. And
heavens, those two old dears came with me through the cold, misty, muddy
streets, and truly, they showed me a very good boarding-house and very
inexpensive. I didn’t want them to come at all but they insisted on showing me.
And, you see,
I thought that rather humane of them and it calmed me down somewhat. I stayed in
Amsterdam two more days and talked with J.P.S. again, but I didn’t see Kee, she
made herself scarce each time. And I said that they ought to know that although
they wanted me to consider the matter over and done with, I couldn’t bring
myself to do it. And they continued to reply firmly: ‘Later on I would
understand it better’. Now and then I also saw the professor again, and I have
to say he wasn’t so bad, but – but – but – what else can I say about that gentleman? I
said I hoped that he might fall in love one day. Voilà. Can professors fall in
love? Do clergymen know what love is?
I recently read Michelet
, La femme, la religion et le
Books like that are full of
reality, yet what is more real than reality itself, and what has more life than
life itself? And we who do our best to live, why don’t we live even more!
I walked around aimlessly those three days in Amsterdam, I felt
damned miserable, and that half-kindness on the part of Uncle and Aunt
those arguments, I found them so tedious. Until I finally began to find myself
tedious and said to myself: would you like to become despondent again? And then
I said to myself, Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. And so it was on a Sunday
morning that I last went to see J.P.S. and said to him, Listen, my dear Uncle,
if Kee Vos
were an angel she would be too lofty for me, and I don’t think that I
would stay in love with an angel. Were she a devil, I wouldn’t want to have
anything to do with her. In the present case, I see in her a real woman, with
womanly passions and whims, and I love her dearly, that’s just the way it is,
and I’m glad of it. So long as she doesn’t become an angel or a devil, the case
in question isn’t over. And J.P.S. couldn’t say very much to that, and spoke
himself of womanly passions, I’m not really sure what he said about them, and
then J.P.S. left for the church. No wonder one becomes hardened and numb there,
I know that from my own experience. And so as far as your brother in question is
concerned, he didn’t want to let himself be overwhelmed. But that didn’t alter
the fact that he felt overwhelmed, that he felt as though he had been leaning
against a cold, hard, whitewashed church wall for too long. Oh well, should I
tell you more, old chap? It’s rather daring to remain a realist, but Theo, Theo,
you too are a realist, oh bear with my realism! I told you, even my secrets
aren’t necessarily secrets. Well, I won’t take those words back, think of me as
you will, and whether you approve or disapprove of what I did is less important.
I’ll continue – from Amsterdam I went to Haarlem and sat very
agreeably with our dear sister Willemien
, and I took a walk with her, and in the
evening I went to The Hague, and I landed up at M.
’s around seven o’clock. 2v:6
And I said: listen M.
, you were supposed to come to Etten to try
and initiate me, more or less, into the mysteries of the palette. But I’ve been
thinking that that wouldn’t be possible in only a couple of days, so now I’ve
come to you and if you approve I’ll stay four weeks or so, or six weeks or so,
or as long or as short as you like, and we’ll just have to see what we can do.
It’s extremely impertinent of me to demand so much of you, but in short, I’m
under a great deal of pressure. Well, Mauve said, do you have anything with you?
Certainly, here are a couple of studies, and he said many good things about
them, far too many, at the same time voicing some criticism, far too little.
Well, and the next day we set up a still life and he began by saying, This is
how you should hold your palette. And since then I’ve made a few painted studies
and after that two watercolours.
This is a summary of my work, but there’s more to life than
working with the hands and the head.
I remained chilled to the marrow, that’s to say to the marrow of
my soul by that aforementioned imaginary or not-imaginary church wall. And I
didn’t want to let myself be overwhelmed by that deadening feeling, I said. Then
I thought to myself, I’d like to be with a woman, I can’t live without love,
without a woman. I wouldn’t care a fig for life if there wasn’t something
infinite, something deep, something real. But, I said to myself in reply: you
say ‘She and no other’15
and should you go to a
woman? But surely that’s unreasonable, surely that goes against logic? And my
answer to that was, Who’s the master, logic or I? Is logic there for me or am I
there for logic, and is there no reason and no understanding in my
unreasonableness or my stupidity? And whether I act rightly or wrongly, I can’t
do otherwise, that damned wall is too cold for me, I’ll look for a woman, I
cannot, I will not, I may not live without love. I’m only human, and a human
with passions at that, I need a woman or I’ll freeze or turn to stone, or anyway
be overwhelmed. In the circumstances, however, I struggled much within myself,
and in that struggle some things concerning physical powers and health gained
the upper hand, things which I believe and know more or less through bitter
experience. One doesn’t live too long without a woman without going unpunished.
And I don’t think that what some call God and others the supreme being and
others nature is unreasonable and merciless, and, in a word, I came to the
conclusion, I must see whether I can’t find a woman. 2v:7
And heavens, I didn’t look so
very far. I found a woman, by no means young, by no means pretty, with nothing
special about her, if you will.16
you’re rather curious. She was fairly big and strongly built, she didn’t exactly
have lady’s hands like K.V.
but those of a woman who works hard. But she was not
coarse and not common, and had something very feminine about her. She slightly
resembled a nice figure by Chardin
or possibly Jan Steen
. Anyhow, that
which the French call ‘a working woman’. She’d had a great many cares, one could
see that, and life had given her a drubbing, oh nothing distinguished, nothing
exceptional, nothing out of the ordinary.
Every woman, at every age, if she loves and if she is kind, can give a man not
the infinite of the moment but the moment of the infinite.17
Theo, I find such infinite charm in that je ne sais quoi
withering, that drubbed by life quality. Ah! I found her to have a charm, I
couldn’t help seeing in her something by Feyen-Perrin
, by Perugino
. Look, I’m
not exactly as innocent as a greenhorn, let alone a child in the cradle. It’s
not the first time I couldn’t resist that feeling of affection, particularly
love and affection for those women whom the clergymen damn so and superciliously
despise and condemn from the pulpit. I don’t damn them, I don’t condemn them, I
don’t despise them. Look, I’m almost thirty years old, and do you think I’ve
never felt the need for love?
is older than I am, she also has love behind her, but she’s
all the dearer to me for that very reason. She’s not ignorant, but neither am I.
If she wants to subsist on an old love and if she wants to know nothing of new
ones, that’s her business, but the more she perseveres in that and avoids me,
the more I can’t just stifle my energy and strength of mind for her sake. No, I
don’t want that, I love her, but I don’t want to freeze and deaden my mind for
her sake. And the stimulus, the spark of fire we need, that is love and I don’t
exactly mean mystic love.
That woman didn’t cheat me – oh, anyone who thinks all those
sisters are swindlers is so wrong and understands so little.
That woman was good to me, very good, very decent, very sweet. In
what way? That I won’t repeat even to my brother Theo, because I strongly
suspect my brother Theo of having experienced something of this himself now and
The better for him.
Did we spend a lot together? No, because I didn’t have much and I
said to her, listen, you and I don’t have to get drunk to feel something for one
another, just pocket what I can afford. And I wish I could have afforded more,
because she was worth it.
And we talked about all kinds of things, about her life, about her
cares, about her destitution, about her health, and I had a livelier
conversation with her 2r:8
than with my learned professorial cousin Jan
, for instance.
I’ve actually told you these things because I hope you’ll see that
even though I perhaps have some feeling, I don’t want to be sentimental in a
senseless way. That, no matter what, I want to preserve some warmth of life and
keep my mind clear and my body healthy in order to work. And that I understand
my love for K.V.
to be such that for her sake I don’t want to set about my work
despondently or let myself get upset.
You’ll understand that, you who wrote in your letter something
about the matter of health. You talk of having been not quite healthy a while
back, it’s very good you’re trying to get yourself straightened out.
Clergymen call us sinners, conceived and born in sin.19
Bah! I think that damned nonsense. Is it a sin
to love, to need love, not to be able to do without
love? I consider a life without love a sinful condition and an immoral
condition. If there’s anything I regret, it’s that for a time I let mystical and
theological profundities seduce me into withdrawing too much inside myself. I’ve
gradually stopped doing that. If you wake up in the morning and you’re not alone
and you see in the twilight a fellow human being, it makes the world so much
more agreeable. Much more agreeable than the edifying journals and whitewashed
church walls the clergymen are in love with. It was a sober, simple little room
she lived in, with a subdued, grey tone because of the plain wallpaper and yet
as warm as a painting by Chardin
, a wooden floor with a mat and an old piece of
dark-red carpet, an ordinary kitchen stove, a chest of drawers, a large,
perfectly simple bed, in short, a real working woman’s interior. She had to do
the washing the next day. Just right, very good, I would have found her just as
charming in a purple jacket and a black skirt as now in a brown or red-grey
frock. And she was no longer young, perhaps the same age as K.V.
, and she had a
child, yes, life had given her a drubbing and her youth was gone. Gone? – there is
no such thing as an old woman.20
Ah, and she
was strong and healthy – and yet not rough, not common. Those who value
distinction so very highly, can they always tell what is distinguished? Heavens!
People sometimes look for it high and low when it’s close by, as I do too now
I’m glad that I did what I did, because I think that nothing in
the world should keep me from my work or cause me to lose my good spirits.
When I think of K.V.
, I still say ‘she and no other’, and I think
exactly the same as I did last summer about ‘meanwhile looking for another
But it’s not only recently that
I’ve grown fond of those women who are condemned and despised and cursed by
clergymen, my love for them is even somewhat older than my love for Kee Vos.
Whenever I walked down the street – often all alone and at loose ends, half sick
and destitute, with no money in my pocket – I looked at them and envied the
people who could go off with her, and I felt as though those poor girls were my
sisters, as far as our circumstances and experience of life were concerned. And,
you see, that feeling is old and deeply rooted in me. Even as a boy I sometimes
looked up with endless sympathy and respect into a half-withered female face on
which it was written, as it were: life and reality have given me a drubbing. 3r:9
But my feelings
for K.V. are completely new and something entirely different. Without knowing
it, she’s in a kind of prison. She’s also poor and can’t do everything she
wants, and you see, she has a kind of resignation and I think that the
Jesuitisms of clergymen and devout ladies often make more of an impression on
her than on me, Jesuitisms that no longer impress me for the very reason that
I’ve learned a few tricks. But she adheres to them and couldn’t bear it if the
system of resignation and sin and God and whatnot appeared to be a conceit. And
I don’t think it occurs to her that perhaps God
actually begins when we say those words with which Multatuli
closes his prayer
of an unbeliever: ‘O God, there is no God’.22
Look, I find the clergymen’s God as dead as a doornail. But does that make me an
atheist? The clergymen think me one – be that as it may – but look, I love, and
how could I feel love if I myself weren’t alive and others weren’t alive? And if
we live, there’s something wondrous about it. Call it God or human nature or
what you will, but there’s a certain something that I can’t define in a system,
even though it’s very much alive and real, and you see, for me it’s God or just
as good as God. Look, if I must die in due course in one way or another, fine,
what would there be to keep me alive? Wouldn’t it be the thought of love (moral
or immoral love, what do I know about it?). And heavens, I love Kee Vos for a
thousand reasons, but precisely because I believe in life and in something real
I no longer become distracted as I used to when I had thoughts about God and
religion that were more or less similar to those Kee Vos now appears to have. I
won’t give her up, but that inner crisis she’s perhaps going through will take
time, and I have the patience for it, and nothing she says or does makes me
angry. But as long as she goes on being attached to the past and clinging to it,
I must work and keep my mind clear for painting and drawing and business. So I
did what I did, from a need for warmth of life and with an eye to health. I’m
also telling you these things so that you don’t get the idea again that I’m in a
melancholy or distracted, pensive mood. On the contrary, I’m usually pottering
about with and thinking about paint, making watercolours, looking for a studio
&c. &c. Old chap, if only I could find a suitable studio. 3v:10
Well, my letter has grown long, but anyway.
I sometimes wish that the three months between now and going back
were already over, but such as they’ll be, they’ll bring some good. Write
to me, though, now and then. Are you coming again in the winter?
And listen, renting a studio &c., I’ll do it or I won’t,
depending on what Mauve
thinks of it. I’m sending him the floor plan as agreed,
and perhaps he’ll come and have a look himself if necessary. But Pa
has to stay
out of it. Pa isn’t the right man to get mixed up in artistic matters. And the
less I have to do with Pa in business matters, the better I’ll get along with
Pa. But I have to be free and independent in many things, that goes without
I sometimes shudder at the thought of K.V.
, seeing her dwelling on
the past and clinging to old, dead notions. There’s something fatal about it,
and oh, she’d be none the worse for changing her mind. I think it quite possible
that her reaction will come, there’s so much in her that’s healthy and lively.
And so in March I’ll go to The Hague again and – and – again to Amsterdam. But
when I left Amsterdam this time, I said to myself, under no circumstances should
you become melancholy and let yourself be overwhelmed so that your work suffers,
especially now that it’s beginning to progress. Eating strawberries in the
yes, that’s part of life, but
it’s only a short part of the year and it’s still a long way off.
And you should envy me because of this or that? Oh no, old chap,
because what I’m seeking can be found by all, by you perhaps sooner than by me.
And oh, I’m so backward and narrow-minded about so many things, if only I knew
exactly why and what I should do to improve. But unfortunately we often don’t
see the beams in our own eye.24
Do write to me
soon, and you’ll just have to separate the wheat from the chaff in my letters,
if sometimes there’s something good in them, something true, so much the better,
but of course there’s much in them that’s wrong, more or less, or perhaps
exaggerated, without my always being aware of it. I’m truly no scholar and am so
extremely ignorant, oh, like many others and even more than others, but I can’t
gauge that myself, and I can gauge others even less than I can gauge myself, and
am often wide of the mark. But even as we stray we sometimes find the track
anyway, and there’s something good in all movement25
(by the way, I happened to hear Jules Breton
and have remembered that utterance of his). Tell me, have you ever heard Mauve
preach?? I’ve heard him imitate several clergymen – once he gave a sermon on
(the sermon was divided into 3
parts: First, would he have bought it or inherited it? Second, would he have
paid for it in instalments or parts? Third, did he perhaps (banish the thought)
steal it?). Then he went on to preach on ‘the goodness of the Lord’27
and on ‘the Tigris and the Euphrates’28
and finally he did an imitation of J.P.S.
, how he had
. and Lecomte
But when I told him that I had once said in a conversation with Pa
that I believed that one could say something edifying even in church, even from
the pulpit, M.
said, Yes. And then he did an imitation of Father
God – God – is almighty – he
created the sea, he created the earth and the sky and the stars and the sun and
the moon, he can do everything – everything – everything – and yet – no, He’s
not almighty, there’s one thing He cannot do. What is the one thing that God
Almighty cannot do? God Almighty cannot cast away a sinner. Well, adieu, Theo,
do write soon, in thought a handshake, believe me