at Courrières1

It was about 25 years ago that a man from Granville left for England.
After his father’s death, his brothers fell out over the inheritance, and attempted above all to deprive him, in particular, of his share. Tired of quarrelling, he gave up his share to them and left as a poor man for London, where he obtained a post as a French teacher in a school.
He was 30 when he married an Englishwoman, a good deal younger than himself; he had 1 child, a daughter. After he had been married for 7 or 8 years, his chest complaint became worse.
One of his friends then asked him if he still had any wish, to which he replied that before he died he would like to see his own country again.
His friend paid his travelling expenses.
And so he left for Granville, deathly ill, with his wife and his 6-year-old daughter.  1v:2 There he rented a room from some poor people living near the sea.
In the evening he would have himself carried to the shore and would watch the sun setting in the sea.
One evening, seeing that he was close to death, the people advised his wife that it was time to send for the priest, so that he could give the sick man the last rites.
His wife, who was Protestant, objected, but he said, ‘let them’.
And so the priest arrived and the sick man made his confession before all the household.
Then all those present wept, hearing of this just and pure life.
Afterwards, he wished to be left alone with his wife, and when they were alone he kissed her and said, ‘I have loved you’.
And then he died.  1v:3
He loved France, Brittany especially, and nature, and he saw God in it; for that reason you should mourn him as a brother.
In many respects he was your brother, that is why I am telling you about the life of this ‘stranger on the earth’2 who nevertheless was one of its true citizens.
Farewell, Sir, think of him sometimes.

I wrote the same letter to Alphonse Karr in Nice, only instead of what follows I put:3
‘I believed I ought to tell you this, you, my friend the author of Voyage autour de mon jardin and of Clovis Gosselin,4 you who loved the poor lady who was with you on the boat from Lyon, you who love Normandy’s cottages, surrounded by apple trees in blossom’.5

‘And you, too, love Brittany and the last Bretons’.6 That is why I am telling you about the life of this stranger on the earth who nevertheless was one of its true citizens.

I loved that unusual and slightly sad town (Granville), which lives on deep-sea fishing of the most dangerous kind. The family knows that it is fed from the hazards of that lottery, of man’s life and death.
That adds overall a serious note to the wild character of that coast.
I have many times savoured the melancholy of evening, either when walking down to the already darkened beach, or when from the top of the town that crowns the rock, I could see the sun going down on the slightly misty horizon.
Its huge globe, often strongly marked by black and red stripes, would sink, without stopping to create fantasies in the sky, landscapes in light, which often enliven the view elsewhere.
In August, it was already autumn. There was scarcely any dusk. No sooner had the sun set than the wind would grow chill, the waves would run fast, green and dark. There was little to be seen but a few shadowy women in their black capes, lined with white. The sheep straggling on the poor pastures of the slopes that overhang the beach from 80 or 100 feet would make it sad with their plaintive bleating.

Michelet, La mer7

And Naomi’s husband died, and she remained.
And Ruth said: Intreat me not to leave thee, in order to take myself from thee, for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord grant that nothing but death part thee from me.
So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is not Naomi here? And she replied unto them: Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.
I went out full of good things and the LORD hath brought me back empty. Why then call ye me Naomi, since the LORD hath brought me low and and the Almighty hath afflicted me.8

How pure her features! Something sour
Yet charming played about her untamed lip;
She was indeed the daughter of the shore,
Strong, as if tempered by the exhalations of the sea.


Br. 1990: - | CL:
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: unknown, between May and June 1875

1. The authorship of this piece of prose is problematic. There are no other examples of feigned letters to artists written by Van Gogh (salutation, date and signature are lacking, and Souvestre had already died in 1854). However, the appearance of Van Gogh’s name below the fragment in the album from Theo, Elisabeth’s remark about ‘That piece from Vincent’, as well as the lack of a source on the sheet, suggest that the text was written by Van Gogh. It is possible that he wrote it first in Dutch (see Date). Martin Bailey assumed that Van Gogh based this romantic little story on the life of Jean Baptiste Loyer – the husband of Sarah Ursula Wilson, Van Gogh’s landlady in London. See Martin Bailey, ‘Vincent van Gogh, the writer’, The Art Newspaper (February 1994), no. 35, pp. 16-17, also published as ‘Long-hidden skeletons in the Van Gogh family cupboard’, The European, 10 February 1994, pp. 8-9.
Nevertheless, the idiom is unusual for Van Gogh: the use of the simple past tense, the choice of words and the completeness of the sentences are very sophisticated for a 22-year-old Dutchman. Knowledge of the imperfect subjunctive in ‘pour qu’il donnât’ and ‘qu’on le laissât’ is not apparent elsewhere in the correspondence. One possibility, therefore, is that he had the French corrected by a native speaker in Paris. It is unlikely that the grammatical mistake ‘s’agravit’ (instead of ‘s’aggrava’) would occur in a publication read by Van Gogh. This mistake could have been caused by confusion with the verb ‘gravir’, which is ‘gravit’ in the third person singular of the simple past tense, but Van Gogh might also have copied the word incorrectly from an as yet undiscovered source. Granville, incidentally, is in Normandy, not Brittany.
For the texts included in the album that Theo made for Lies, see Louis van Tilborgh, ‘Notes on a donation: the poetry album for Elisabeth Huberta van Gogh’, Van Gogh Museum Journal 1995. Amsterdam 1995, pp. 86-101. Van Tilborgh does not believe that Van Gogh is the author of the story.
3. Van Gogh made a mark in the margin before line 42 to indicate that this passage should be read at that place. He made the same mark before line 55.
4. Alphonse Karr wrote Voyage autour de mon jardin (1845) and Clovis Gosselin (1851). On 10 August 1874 Vincent emphatically urged Theo to buy Voyage (see letter 28, n. 10).
5. Van Gogh derived this information from the books he mentions. The story of the lady on the boat to Lyon occurs in Karr’s Voyage autour de mon jardin (ed. Paris 1851, pp. 209-214). In Clovis Gosselin, the protagonist lives with his mother in Normandy in a little house surrounded by blossoming apple trees (ed. Paris 1861, pp. 24-25).
6. Les derniers Bretons (The last Bretons) is the title of a book by Emile Souvestre. Van Gogh quotes from this book in letter 143 of 3 April 1878.
7. Jules Michelet, La mer (The sea), book 1, ‘Un regard sur les mers’ (A look at the seas), chap. 2: ‘Plages, grèves et falaises’ (Beaches, shores and cliffs). Ed. Paris 1861, pp. 14-15. Vincent referred to this fragment in letter 143, and he also copied it into an album he made for Theo (see Pabst 1988, p. 13).
9. Fourth verse of Jules Breton’s poem ‘Yvonne’, in the volume Les champs et la mer. See Breton 1875, p. 34. Also quoted in letter 435.