My dear Theo,
This morning I was at Van der Weele’s and saw the studies he brought back from Gelderland.1 And my desire to go to Drenthe wasn’t diminished by what I heard from him. He happened to know that one of the villages I had in mind had a beautiful natural setting full of character.
I told him again that I wished I’d learned more about painting this year. Well, his answer was: Oh, don’t go moaning about that. In the first place everyone has his personal doubts, if he learns from someone else, often the result is that in addition to his own weaknesses he acquires those of his master as well. Carry on calmly without worrying about that. Well, basically I think just the same, except that I would find it too conceited if I didn’t continue to try to be on the qui vive to learn from others. But what one sees or hears from someone else in this way should perhaps be seen as a stroke of luck.
You can see a small indication of how unstable the woman is in her character when I tell you this, that since her specific promise recently not to go to her mother’s she went there anyway. So I said to her that if she couldn’t keep such a promise for even 3 days, how could she expect me to think her suited to promising faithfulness for ever?
For I find this very wicked of her, and am almost forced to conclude that she belongs more with that lot than with me. Says again, though, that she’s sorry but — she’ll do it again tomorrow, that’s what I begin to think, but she says, Oh no.
1v:2 This almost makes me regret taking things seriously.
When I made her promise, I said to her: if you go there it’s associated with whoring in three ways, first because you were living at your mother’s at the time, and she herself urged you to go on the streets. Next because she lives in the middle of a vile neighbourhood which you have more reason to avoid than anyone else, and lastly your brother’s whore2 lives in that house.
But even now it isn’t absolutely impossible that she might turn out all right, for instance after being in the country for a time and away from that whole family mess, but who can assure me that over there it won’t be, ‘How miserable it is here, why did you bring me here?’ She makes me afraid of those things, even when I do my utmost not to resort to the extreme of abandoning her.
What Zola says seems to me to be true, ‘Yet these women are not bad, for their faults and their fall are due to “the impossibility” of living a straight life in the midst of the gossip and calumny of the corrupt suburbs’ — you know what I mean from L’assommoir.3
I know well enough that there’s a difference too, but still there are points of resemblance between how I stand in relation to her now and the passage in L’assommoir in which the smith sees that Gervaise is going down the wrong path and that he has no influence on her because she can’t decide to take sides, being two-faced and because everything before her eyes is cloudy.4
I feel more compassion for the woman than ever before because I see that she’s very unsettled. I believe that at the moment she has no better friend than me, who would sincerely help her more if she allowed me to. But she doesn’t seek my trust, and makes me absolutely powerless by giving her trust to those who are in fact her enemies. I truly believe that she doesn’t understand that there is evil in what she does — or doesn’t want to understand it, I sometimes think.
Long ago last year I went through the period when I got angry about things she did wrong. When I now see her lapsing into the same faults, it no longer surprises me, and if I knew it would be her salvation I believe I could accept it. Because the way I think of her is that ‘nonetheless I don’t believe she’s bad’. She has never seen, so to speak, what good was; how can she be good? I mean that she isn’t responsible in the same way as someone who understands that there’s a distinction between evil and good; fundamentally she has never reached that understanding other than by instinct, in a very vague and confused way. I believe that if she knew what she must do, she would do it.
What you said — that you thought it would do her good if she was away from me — is something I would probably agree with myself, were it not that she’d then fall back on her family in the first place and in the second would have to give up the only thing that’s now keeping her more or less on the right path — her children.
It’s a situation in which one sees no way out. She frets inwardly about many things, I know that, sometimes she frets so much that one takes pity on her, but that she — and long ago — from the very beginning could have, should have, fully trusted me — that was never the case, although I certainly told her that and showed it too, right in the beginning. What she listened to and believed more was that I would leave her in the lurch after all, which, if it were finally to happen in the end, precisely because she sees it like that, would be more the family’s fault than hers, because the family continually upset her with that.
I don’t know whether it’s understandable the way I put it, but this is the position — fundamentally she wants to be with me and is attached to me, but she’s blind to the fact that it’s she who’s taking herself away from me. And if I say anything about that it’s — yes, I know very well, you won’t take me anyway.
Now those are the good moods and what the bad moods are is still more desperate. Then she says frankly, well, yes, I am indifferent and lazy, and I always have been and there’s nothing to be done about it — or, well, yes, I’m a whore, or ‘it’s bound to end up with me jumping into the water.’5
When one thinks for a moment about that neglected, half or rather wholly corrupted character of hers — which I would say has been dragged through the sewer — then I for one say, in the end she cannot be other than she is, and I would find it stupid and arrogant of myself if I condemned her in grand, solemn-sounding words. Perhaps you’ll understand better now than in the past how I came to apply to her what the priest Bienvenu in Victor Hugo’s Misérables used to say to ugly, even poisonous beasts: Poor beast, it isn’t her fault that she’s like that.6 And you’ll understand that I would so dearly like to stop her going under that, if that could be achieved by marrying her, for instance, I would marry her even now. But would it be achieved? If, say, in Drenthe she were to start nagging: why did you bring me here?, one wouldn’t have made the slightest progress. One can’t fully explain everything in a case like this all at once, nor understand everything all at once. But you can see, can’t you, that she’s a creature who is most unhappy and not very suited — such a restless temperament — to any position in service, of whatever kind? By the way, in Leiden7 they said she wasn’t allowed to do heavy work. On top of that she’s weak, and nursing the child has exhausted her, which in my view is a reason for forgiving her great lack of activity.
I held this letter back for a few days. Pa wrote me a letter in the meantime. My main intention in writing the letter to Pa that you read at home8 was that both Pa and you would know that if I rarely write home it’s because that’s the simplest thing as long as there are reasons for preferably not referring to this and that. However, because there was the issue of my not being sufficiently confiding, I wanted to show that I wasn’t trying to conceal my motives or anything like that, but understood myself that it was better to be silent about a great deal. I don’t believe that Pa saw that in my letter. Anyway, that makes no difference. He’s taken it more as a complaint by me or a request for advice — and that was not the tone of my letter, which was simply a statement of my motives for doing as I do, so that no doubt would be left as to my openness.
To which I hope you won’t object, given how things are, given the necessity of advancing, given that we’ve thought about it — given my intention to stay with her if possible, namely if she herself doesn’t make it absolutely impossible — to which, I say, I hope you won’t object if my immediate decision for now is — to push ahead with the move to Drenthe. Whether the woman comes along or not depends on her. i know she’s consulting her mother. I don’t know what about. Nor do I ask.
So right up to the last, very last moment of leaving she can come up with this or that, which she doesn’t say now.
But if she wants to come, well, let her come. To abandon her would be to drive her back into prostitution; the same hand that tried to help her out of it could not do that, could it?
In my view, Drenthe is the best thing we can do both for the work and for economizing, and I think that you see it that way too. So however she may be for the moment, we’ll press on with carrying out that plan, if you approve. On leaving I’ll say to the woman: are you coming or are you staying?
If she comes, then I believe I’ll have more influence over there, and be able to make her stronger.
Today I’m sending a number of studies to C.M. I’m still very pleased with your revised opinion of the work. Your revised opinion agrees with Rappard’s.9 Van der Weele also thinks that my work has something. For my part I believe that there’s a period of doing rubbish in the life of every painter, and I believe that in my case that was some considerable time ago. Also that I’m making gradual but steady progress, and that later, through better work, there will come a reflection about what I’m doing now which will make it clearer that even now it already has an element of simplicity and truth and, because you say it yourself, of a manly approach and perception.10 So, if you find something in a study, you won’t have to take back what you find in it, and later, better work won’t make you entirely cool towards it. Weissenbruch said something similar to me last year — you carry on quietly, and when you’re old you’ll look back calmly on your earliest studies.11
Now, however, painting a lot isn’t something that may not be postponed. That, and being steeped once more in the serenity of nature in a heath area — have no doubt — will bring us to victory in the end, and to progress from one month to another.
I’ve been rather busy painting in the last few days, again I have studies from the woods mainly.12 Regards, and write soon.
It will be the same with the painted studies as with the drawn ones. Later, when I’ve found more, it will be seen that there’s already a certain personal character in this figure or that fragment of landscape. Anyway, if everything goes according to plan I hope to be sending you studies from Drenthe this autumn.