In order to put Van Gogh’s correspondence in context and understand his place within the family it is necessary to know more about the relationships between the relatives and family members, about the nineteenth-century letter-writing culture, and about the financial positions of Theo, Vincent and their parents.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) grew up in a vicar’s family. His grandfather Vincent van Gogh (1789-1874), of respectable middle-class parents, married Elisabeth Huberta Vrijdag (1790-1857) in 1811. He took up his ministry in Breda on 3 November 1822, and was curator of the city’s Latin School from 1828, chaplain of the Military Academy, and a member of the board of the Protestant ‘Society for the Promotion of Well-Being, chiefly among Agricultural Workers’ (Maatschappij tot bevordering van Welstand, voornamelijk onder Landlieden). In 1843 he was also appointed vicar of the City Orphanage. He delivered his valedictory sermon in 1853. He retained his interest in scientific matters until his death. The large family was lively and devout. His wife often expressed the desire that her children would all be ‘pious, clever and well-behaved, but would not strive for riches or high positions on earth. She repeated many time: “Be humble and small, God will be your succour”’, according to their youngest daughter Mietje.1
A family tree of the Van Gogh and Carbentus families is available here.

1.1 Theodorus van Gogh and his brothers

When the Reverend Van Gogh took up his living in 1822, his seventh child, Theodorus, was nine months old, and four more children were to follow.2 Some of Theodorus’s brothers had an influence on the lives of his children, and of Vincent and Theo’s in particular.
Theodorus and his brother Vincent (Uncle Cent) were particularly close, and this bond was strengthened when they married two sisters. Vincent, who had no children of his own, took a close interest in his brother’s sons. It was on his recommendation that they went to work for the art dealers Goupil, of which he was a partner, Vincent in 1869 and Theo in 1873. His whole life long he kept an eye on Theo, who followed in his footsteps, but when Vincent abandoned his career with Goupil and declared his ambition to become a clergyman in 1877, his uncle washed his hands of him.3
Relations between the family members were long-lived (as is also shown by the close collaboration between the brothers Hendrik, Vincent and Cor in the art trade), and the uncles Vincent and Cor had a great influence on the lives of Vincent and Theo.4 Nor was that strange. The ties with relatives and the immediate family circle were intense in the nineteenth century. Care was taken to ensure that no one became detached from the family.5 The Van Goghs were all in close touch and were constantly visiting one another. There were also practical reasons for this, because networks of that kind could be of great social and economic importance.6
As joint owner of Goupil, Uncle Cent, for example, played a decisive role in the appointments and postings of Vincent and Theo. He was higher up the social ladder and was a member of the wealthy middle class, while Theodorus belonged to the lower middle class.7 The latter felt that his sons should do what his respected brother thought best. He told Theo: ‘I believe, from what Uncle Cent has told me, that Vincent will be going to Paris for a short time. Uncle is so eager that he should work for a while at the main branch and become more familiar with everything that goes on in the Paris office before the new house in London is opened. As I wrote to you recently, I deliberately refrain from asking for anything. I cannot judge what is desirable, and therefore believe that the decision is in good hands with Uncle Cent, who takes such a real interest in both of you’.8
That the rich uncle, who loved Theo ‘so very much’,9 also advised and assisted the family emerges from a letter that Theo received from his father in 1885: ‘Uncle Cent does not forget us, but does so incognito, because he expressly wishes it. We have received proof of that through the good offices of Mr Tersteeg’.10 It is impossible to say whether that ‘proof’ took the form of money, merchandise or a good word.
Just how influential and paternalistic Uncle Cent was is revealed in a letter from the Reverend Van Gogh to Theo of 1874: ‘I also believe that we must adhere to the rule to leave it entirely up to Uncle Cent regarding the arrangement of plans for the pair of you’,11 and on 7 October 1878 it was he who told Theo that a new posting would offer better prospects for his career: ‘You know, it is still my opinion that I consider it best for you if you return to The Hague for a while, and I will hold to that idea so long as nothing better can be found for you. ... Now and then I hear of the good letters that you write home, which do Pa and Ma so much good. They need good news every now and then, and you know that you are never out of their thoughts for a moment. ... You must write to me again soon and tell me how you are getting on and what you have been doing lately’.12 In the same month, on 20 October 1878, the Reverend Van Gogh then wrote (and one can see just how inescapably Theo was being guided in his actions): ‘I believe that I understand from Uncle Cent that he was awaiting a letter from you. Can that be? Perhaps in connection with your future? I just wanted to tell you, since I think it possible that Uncle will be coming to Paris before long. Completely between ourselves!’13
Uncle Cent’s influence continued unabated, and Theodorus consulted his brother in Princenhage his whole life long. The latter did not hide his displeasure about Vincent living with the former prostitute Sien (which was regarded as a gross violation of the social rules and as a scandal that reflected badly on the entire family) and that she profited from the money that Theo sent. On 1 October 1883, Theo’s parents wrote to him: ‘Uncle Cent advised against sending Vincent too much money, in order to reduce the risk of prolonging that connection. But make no mistake, we will happily cooperate for what he needs’.14 That final remark makes it absolutely clear that Vincent’s parents wanted the best for their eldest son. Exactly one year previously they had sent him, in addition to a winter coat and a pair of trousers, a warm woman’s coat.15 It was in any event a sign that, despite their reservations, they did not go so far as to deny Sien’s very existence.
Given their close involvement in Theo’s career, it is strange that both Uncle Cent and Uncle Cor were not prepared to help him financially when he wanted to open his own art gallery with Andries Bonger in 1886. He had come to Holland especially to ask for their support. They disapproved of the plan, and Theo was so disappointed that he fell ill.16 One would have thought that they could have come to a different decision, given the close-knit family structure. It is not known why they turned him down, but they probably felt that the type of art that Theo wanted to sell was so modern that he had only a minimal chance of success and declined to give their backing for this uncertain adventure.17 Vincent considered their indifference to Theo’s plans to be ‘a serious error’.18
The surviving documents make it clear that there was a joint effort within the Van Gogh family to lead decent and dedicated lives, with the underlying thought that he who garners respect will reap the rewards. The basic principle was a form of sincere affection and love of one’s fellow-man. Mietje, the Reverend Van Gogh’s youngest sister, observed, undoubtedly without exaggerating: ‘On the whole there is a strong family bond and much love between the members of the family of the Reverend Van Gogh of Breda’.19 That bond was still as strong in the next generation, even if it was sometimes put severely to the test and could be quite oppressive.

1.2 The Van Gogh family

The family of Theodorus van Gogh (1822-1885) and Anna Carbentus (1819-1907) was an ordinary nineteenth-century village parson’s family in which Christian values formed the basis for a virtuous and hard-working life.20 The parents’ task was to set a good example, and they were loving towards their children. Relations between the members reflected the family tradition, as well as the rules associated with their class.
Theodorus went to the Latin School in Breda. Despite poor health, he succeeded in studying theology in Utrecht. After filling various appointments he was called to the living in the village of Zundert on 11 January 1849. On 1 April that year his father confirmed him as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. On 21 May 1851 he married Anna Carbentus, daughter of the Hague bookbinder Willem Carbentus (1792-1845). He was 29 at the time, and Anna 31. Theodorus van Gogh belonged to the so-called Groningen School (Groninger Richting), a nineteenth-century Dutch theological tendency that wanted nothing to do with the old orthodox Reformed straitjacket. Its supporters put the emphasis on man’s training by God, and less on dogma and conversion (‘not doctrine, but the Lord’). Life and religious feeling had to prevail over doctrine and the intellect. In their view, the mind and the heart enabled mankind to partake of divine reality.21
The modest livings occupied by the Reverend Van Gogh, who attached great importance to ethical behaviour and could count on much sympathy from his parishioners, were all peasant villages in the province of North Brabant.22 In chronological order they were:
  • Zundert: from 11 January 1849 to 29 January 1871,23
  • Helvoirt: from 5 February 1871 to 17 October 1875,24
  • Etten: from 24 October 1875 to 6 August 1882,25
  • Nuenen: from 13 August 1882 to 26 March 1885.26

1.3 The children

Vincent Willem was the eldest of six children, and was born precisely a year to the day after a stillborn baby, called Vincent. The other five children, in order, were Anna, Theo, Elisabeth, Willemien and Cor. It must have been a pleasant, peaceful life in the parsonage in Zundert. Mrs Van Gogh, a kindly and simple woman, shared the care of the family with her husband and the nursemaid Leentje Veerman. It was a very domestic household. Everything testifies to a strong marital bond and a respectful treatment of others. Seven years after leaving the village, the Reverend Van Gogh said after visiting it again: ‘What a delight it was for us to wander around together in Zundert and to relive the good days of the past’.27 Vincent, too, had deep-rooted memories of his childhood and youth in Zundert. When he was ill at the end of 1888 he wrote that ‘I again saw each room in the house at Zundert, each path, each plant in the garden, the views round about’.28 Sooner or later they all left those ‘good days of the past’ behind them. One or two returned to the nest, but rarely for long. Life was to exact a heavy toll from some of the children.
In the early years of the family there was not the slightest indication that most of them were to have such troubled lives. Expectations were high back then. Their parents ensured that they lacked for nothing for their moral education and general development. Both of them must have agreed on that, and they also ensured that there was an open window onto the world outside the parsonage. They subscribed to the newspaper Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant,29 and in the Nuenen period, at least, also to a weekly selection of national and international magazines, among them Eigen Haard,30 and Nouvelle Revue.31 The parents clearly believed that they had to give all six children the opportunity to develop their talents and receive a good education. As a result, they had difficulty making ends meet. Significantly, the decision to move from Helvoirt to Etten was not simply because the salary was better and life in the village cheaper, but also because the Reverend Van Gogh considered it a duty to accept the living ‘because we wish to economize for the sake of the children’s upbringing’.32 So in addition to it being a question of having to, it was a matter of wishing to.
In Etten, the Reverend Van Gogh was paid 960 guilders a year, with an additional 75 guilders for preaching in the hamlet of Hoeven. His calling also entitled him to a number of benefits, such as the parsonage and its garden, which were rent-free, as well as payment of his income tax by the municipality.33 Nevertheless, his total income was fairly modest.34 Mrs Van Gogh visited the sick of the parish, and ran a sewing and knitting class in the consistory which would have been considered part of the good deeds done by the parson’s wife and would definitely have been unpaid.35 During the time when their daughters Anna and Lies were away at boarding school in Leeuwarden they had great difficulty in finding the hundreds of guilders in fees.36 And from time to time there were large unforeseen expenses, as happened in 1873 when Vincent was selected for military service. Fortunately, the Reverend Van Gogh had taken out insurance to guard against this eventuality, but he still had to find 625 guilders to pay for a replacement.37 The schooling of their youngest son was also expensive. When it was decided in July 1884 that Cor was to take up an apprenticeship at the engineering works in Helmond, they had to pay 810 guilders a year, board and lodging included.38 The two eldest boys were quite soon earning salaries of their own as juniors with Goupil in The Hague, but it is doubtful whether they were always able to get by on that.
Although the parents wanted the very best for all their children, and were constantly warning them about worldly temptations of every kind,39 they seem to have been most preoccupied with finding a job for Vincent, and were very involved in Theo’s career, who began making a contribution to the family’s finances at a certain point.40 Anna married quite soon after finishing school, Lies found a permanent position, but Willemien had difficulty spreading her wings and helped in the household. It looks as if Cor struck on a plan of his own after a while. We do not have a very clear picture of the relationships in later years, because once the children had found their own feet there is little documentation of their contact with their parents. However, the letters that Theo received from his father and mother do contain detailed information, and it can be assumed that the words of wisdom they contained were also imparted to the other children. After Theodorus van Gogh’s death from a stroke on 26 March 1885, his widow continued living in Nuenen for a year, moving to Breda with Willemien at the end of March 1886. The inventory of the estate drawn up in May 1885 shows that the parsonage was soberly but decently furnished.41

1.4 A close-knit family

When the children left their parents’ house they were given the following prayer to guide them on their way: ‘O Lord, join us intimately to one another and let our love for Thee make that bond ever stronger’.42 By leading devout lives and giving mutual support they could help each other get on in the world. Attending church services, singing uplifting songs,43 and reading ethical novels and poems, either to themselves or out loud, could strengthen the mind. All the members of the family were familiar with the novels of George Eliot, the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen and the religious poems of P.A. de Génestet and others.44 The Reverend Van Gogh quoted De Génestet’s poems, adding his own minor variations. Both Vincent and Theo had the collected works of this popular, liberal Protestant clergyman-poet, and passages from his poems regularly appear in the letters. Mrs Van Gogh attached great importance to the value of this musical lyricism: ‘Study De Génestet again; oh, how many true, good words it has, so fresh and beautiful. If something in it strikes you, just read it again, so that the words become your own, like so many words from the Bible, that are as weapons in life’s struggle’.45 The family evidently received reading matter from Uncle Cor’s shop, or from his own collection. In 1876, in any event, they had ‘a parcel of books from Uncle Cor at home’.46 Their uncle had a subscription library in his shop in Amsterdam.47
Together they did their best to embrace life wholeheartedly, with faith, the Bible and edifying literature as their aids.48 For Theo, the family was the basis for coping with the world, as he wrote to his friend Andries Bonger: ‘Even if the world is the greatest school, family life as we have known it since childhood was the ABC for it’.49 The need for solidarity and unanimity was typical of the Van Gogh family – they strengthened its members.
That unity lasted for a long time, but in 1880-1881 tensions arose between Vincent and his father, and lasted until the latter’s death in 1885. Vincent had venerated his father for years,50 but now he mercilessly toppled him from his pedestal because he felt that he attached too much importance to conventions, and from then on life at home was a battlefield. Their views were very different, and Vincent’s unseemly behaviour and appearance irritated his father time and again, while Vincent was annoyed by his father’s narrow-mindedness.51 In December 1881 he refused to go to church, which stretched the relationship to breaking point. After a furious row, in which Vincent’s love for his cousin Kee Vos also played a part, he left his parents’ home, and only returned two years later. He not only broke off his ties with the church (which Theo, too, must have done quite early on),52 but also with his parents for a long time.
Theo, who was named after his father, was the apple of his parents’ eye. Significantly, even at the age of 16 he was being spoken of as ‘our crown and our honour and our joy, just like Vincent, who has that wonderful pleasure’.53 A remark of Mrs Van Gogh’s shows that this crown metaphor embraced more than just the person who wore it but covered the honour and merits of the whole family. She wrote to Theo when it looked as if Vincent was going off the rails in the Borinage: ‘Now that the eldest has shaken the coronet it is our redoubled hope that the second one will straighten the coronet again’. And very exceptionally, going behind her husband’s back, she had said in the previous sentence: ‘Keep this to yourself, you don’t need to reply, no one saw me writing to you’.54 The act of being able to help hold the family’s honour high and add lustre to it derives from Proverbs 17:6, ‘Children’s children are the crown of old men; and the glory of children are their fathers’. This passage was used to justify the responsibilities on both sides.55 Theo continued to be his parents’ confidant. He never neglected his duties, and it was he who acted as the mediator between Vincent and their parents.
So it was only for a short while that Vincent had ‘that wonderful pleasure’ and did his parents credit, and he soon realized it. The first signs of the parents’ concern surfaced in 1875, when they spoke of him as being ‘different’ and were worried about his religious fanaticism, which would continue for a few years yet. In the period when he still wanted to become a clergyman, his father did not know what to make of the endless epistles riddled with quotations from the Bible. They used the word ‘worry’ a great deal when speaking of their eldest son. In 1879 they wrote that they were ‘tired and all but despondent’.56 From December 1878 until October 1880, when Van Gogh did his best to be an evangelist and carer of the poor and sick in the Borinage, they tried to make him change his mind on several occasions, and urged him to follow a practical profession. But he remained ‘obstinate and pigheaded and doesn’t listen to advice’.57
Vincent felt the gulf between them when he was back living at home in Nuenen in 1884-1885, and there were frequent clashes.58 It was his sister Anna who thought that life would be more peaceful for their mother after their father’s death in 1885 if Vincent moved out, and she arranged that he did so for good. Willemien said of this: ‘He took that so badly’.59 Events of that kind did anything but strengthen the family ties, as Vincent had already realized at the end of 1883: ‘In character I’m quite different from the various members of the family, and I’m actually not a “Van Gogh”.’60

1.5 The family ethic

The nineteenth-century middle class regarded mixing with the upper class as a way of getting on in the world. The Van Gogh children had to succeed in society, and their parents encouraged that in every way they could. The objective was to rise within your own class and maintain the appropriate lifestyle. One should not aim too high, though, but ensure that one progressed in the world, and above all not marry below one’s station.61 As a result, there was a great deal of guidance and the upholding of values and standards. The way in which the parents advised their children to make contacts, the books they recommended, and the courtesy calls they had them make can be regarded as a form of ceaseless supervision.
Understandably, this meddling could also create tensions. The relatives and family members were very closely involved with one another, and the parents had a great say about important choices, and consulted relatives and acquaintances about them.62 Two such individuals were Uncle Cent and Uncle Cor, who influenced the careers of Vincent and Theo through their connections in the art trade. Another one was H.G. Tersteeg, from whom they learned a lot about art and literature, and both of them kept in touch with him after they had gone to work elsewhere – Vincent in England and Theo in Paris.63 Uncle J.P. Stricker played a similar role as an adviser when Vincent was living in Amsterdam in 1877-1878 to prepare for his examinations to become a theology student.64
There was a great awareness in the family that it was important for the children’s general development to be out mixing with people, which preferably meant people of good standing, needless to say. The parents constantly urged the children to ‘get in touch’ with influential and respectable people,65 and there were repeated words of approval for visits made. On the other hand, contacts with certain other people were firmly discouraged.66 One naturally had to know one’s place, and great store was set by a certain degree of reserve and modesty. ‘Excessive expression of what goes on within one is certainly not necessary,’ Mrs Van Gogh told Theo.67
A sense of duty, self-control, willpower and decency were considered particularly important, and often found expression in such words as ‘well-behaved’, ‘clever’ and ‘respectable’. As the Reverend Van Gogh wrote to Theo: ‘May God bless you for your endeavour to be and become a respectable man’.68 And there were very clear-cut ideas about what was fitting within one’s class. Vincent sometimes asked Theo not to tell anyone else about how difficult he was finding life, because he was scared that he would be unable to cope with their reactions.69 This state of being unable to live up to expectations, and thus not come up to the mark, gave some of them a gnawing sense of guilt. Lies ‘always had such a feeling of self-reproach, as if I am not half enough for them. You all do a great deal, but what shall I do?’70 It must have been a difficult task for the children not to cause their parents any sorrow. In 1877, for instance, there was a meeting between Theo and a girl which had ‘pained’ his parents. She had a bad name, and he was asked not to see her again.71
As many members of the family as possible tried to be at home for Easter and Christmas and during the holidays. The letters written shortly after these visits conjure up a picture of peacefulness and feelings of solidarity. Seen from a modern vantage point, the children were extremely obedient, but given the bourgeois Christian culture that held sway at the time, that etiquette was perfectly explicable. Everything was done to develop as tightly-knit a family culture as possible.72
An eccentric person like Vincent must have caused problems in such a conservative family that conformed to the prevailing standards in many respects. He paid little attention to the rules of behaviour, and as an artist often looked as if he belonged to the working class, much to the horror of his parents and Theo. The latter was the role model in the family, because he had succeeded as an art dealer and had a respectable income. After his father’s death, the key members of the family were Theo, as the paterfamilias, and his mother. That also applied indirectly to Willemien, who continued living with her mother. They kept Vincent engaged in what was going on, in his difficult periods as well, even if it had to be by letter. Mrs Van Gogh went to live in Leiden at the end of her life so as to be close to her eldest daughter Anna and her grandchildren, and from there she continued to muse resignedly on everything that had happened and was happening.

1.6 Vincent and Theo

The interdependence between Vincent and Theo grew stronger as the years passed, but it had been preceded by a lot of argument. Vincent could be unpleasantly harsh and mean to Theo, and he always had to be in the right. By doing so he more than once put a strain on their relationship, so much so that at a certain point he was convinced that it would be better for them to go their separate ways. He accused Theo of being petit bourgeois, insufficiently cooperative and too reserved. Yet the brotherly friendship proved capable of overcoming such accusations, and Theo, who had his hands full with Vincent, dragged him through his difficult life with his moral and financial support. Theo, the good-natured soul who felt responsible his whole life long, took his brother with his impulsive and peevish character under his wing, remained true, and spared him in many respects.73