3 February

My dear Theo,
I dearly long for your letter again, and since it’s 3 Feb. already (and it’s past the postman’s time today) I’m writing as a precaution. If it’s because you wrote a few days later it will be all right, but owing to what happened with the letter this winter I’m letting you know in case you wrote before the first. Then it might be as well if you made enquiries.
I’ve noticed that the postmen sometimes give letters for Schenkweg to people living there instead of delivering them themselves. For the postmen it’s sometimes a long way off their route, and I know this because the postman asked me to deliver something for him the other day, which of course I did — though I thought about the lost letter. Oh well.
We’ve had storms here of late, especially last night. There’ll be rough seas.
How is your patient getting along? In what you write I see things that touch me deeply (such as that she paid the debt of the man who had deceived her), that are really noble. That not finding that member of parliament ‘at home’ reminded me of the name that Punch gives to the secretary of home affairs (the Home Secretary is his title). In Punch this personage is never called anything but the Seldom at Home Secretary.1 What a lot of these Seldom-at-home people there are! And Dickens calls all of them together the circumlocution office.2 a
A great many people stand sighing before the door of these how-not-to-do-it institutions, and their sighs may be no less deep than those on the old Bridge of Sighs.3  1v:2
I’ve been feeling very weak of late — I fear that I’ve rather overworked myself — and those ‘dregs’ of working, those afterpains of exertion, how horrible they are. Then life has the colour of dirty water, it’s like a rubbish dump.
At those times one would like to have a friend near one. Sometimes that clears up the dim mist.
On such days I sometimes worry terribly about the future and am melancholy about my work, and feel powerless. But it’s dangerous to speak too much of this or to keep thinking about it, so enough.
I’ve nevertheless been working on a watercolour sketch, again of diggers, or rather road-menders, here in Schenkweg,4 but it’s no good.
I’ve also drawn a few figures in conté5 that are better, I believe.
Not just with conté, but making the whole thing wet and letting the shadows flow, the lights heightened again. It may also be that I’ve caught a cold — but before I can really do anything I must get over this lack of energy.
I’m reading Uit mijne gevangenistijd by Fritz Reuter, which is most amusing.6 The Germans have their own distinctive humour that’s different from that of the English. Herkomer once did a peasant carnival,7 rather like Peasant Bruegel,8 in which that’s also strong.  1v:3
Speaking of Herkomer, I recently read a sort of biography of him, though pretty incomplete.9
But this struck me, among other things. He lived and painted for a time in an empty house, or perhaps one that wasn’t even finished, for he hadn’t got the rent. Then he was taken on by The Graphic and was relatively free of cares. But even when he was employed there, he still enjoyed little respect. To the point even that the first idea for Last muster at Chelsea Hospital, which is a drawing that differs relatively little from the final composition but has a certain rough look, was almost rejected. No one in The Graphic administration approved of it, except for the manager at the time. (I’d be most surprised if he’s still in the management.) He made sure that the sketch was placed and asked Herkomer if he would do it again in greater detail for him. So that’s the origin of a painting that has since astounded the best in Paris and London.
NOW nearly everyone would find the first sketch very beautiful.
It also said that he’s not someone who works easily; on the contrary, from the beginning and ever since he has struggled with a kind of awkwardness, and can’t do a painting without racking his brains a very great deal.  1r:4
That even now he’s still described by many as disagreeable is something I find nearly incomprehensible.
It’s almost impossible to imagine anything deeper than his work.
When you come I’ll show you the woodcut of the old women’s home, less well known but no less fine than the old men.
A little like The sewing school at Katwijk by Israëls.10
Well, write soon if you haven’t already done so. I’m longing for news of your patient. Best wishes for that and for everything. Also, my congratulations on Pa’s birthday.11 I sent Pa a drawing that I did after he made some comments about the first old man in the lithograph.12 Not because I entirely agreed with Pa, but I thought, now that I know how you would like it to be, I’ll try and make it for you. Yet I fear I haven’t succeeded. One doesn’t always manage to please people when one does one’s best. Pa didn’t write that he didn’t like it, but that was what came across anyway. It may indeed be that it’s no good. Well, when you come home they’ll show it to you. Adieu — but don’t say anything to them about it.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 308 | CL: 263
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: The Hague, Saturday, 3 February 1883

1. This ‘Seldom-at-Home Secretary’ has been identified as Sir William Vernon Harcourt. He was a barrister who served in five British governments, and was Home Secretary under Gladstone from 1880 to 1885. He is referred to as the ‘Seldom-at-Home Secretary’ in satirical pieces in Punch. See e.g. Punch 79 (6 November 1880), p. 207, and Punch 81 (9 July 1881), p. 6.
2. The Circumlocution Office features repeatedly in Little Dorrit (particularly vol. 1, chapter 10). It is a highly bureaucratic ministry and the most proficient of all departments in the art of How not to do it, that is, the avoidance and even obstruction of any action at all. See Dickens 1979, p. 500. See also letters 155, 179 and 291.
a. Van Gogh wrote this in both Dutch and English.
3. The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ in Venice.
4. Diggers in Schenkweg (F 927 / JH 161 [2381]). For the identification of this watercolour, see exhib. cat. The Hague 1990, pp. 33-34.
5. These figures drawn in conté cannot be identified.
6. Fritz Reuter was a much-loved popular writer in the tradition of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Ut mine Festungstid (1862), which is part of the autobiographical series Olle Kamellen, is about the last four years of Reuter’s captivity in the prison of Mecklenburg among other places. His account is written with calm objectivity and is sometimes humorous, without glossing over the moments of despair and disappointment. The original version was in broad Mecklenburg dialect; Van Gogh would have read a Dutch translation which appeared under the general title Gedroogde kruiden. In this Ut mine Festungstid became Herinneringen uit mijne gevangenissen (printed in 1867, 1868, 1879 and 1883).
9. The short, anonymous biography ‘Hubert Herkomer’, The Graphic 18 (26 October 1878), p. 438, from which Van Gogh borrowed the anecdote that follows.
[2022] [2034] [171]
11. Mr van Gogh would be 61 on 8 February.
12. The first lithograph Vincent sent to Theo was Old man (F 1658 / JH 256 [2408]); after that Theo got Old man drinking coffee (F 1657 / JH 266 [2415]) and ‘At eternity’s gate’ (F 1662 / JH 268 [2417]), which Vincent often referred to as ‘little old man’. Which drawing he sent to his father as a follow-up to the lithograph cannot be determined.
[2408] [2415] [2417]