Isleworth, 13 October 1876

Dearest Mother and Theo,
The boys will be going home tomorrow and then I’ll get my money. I asked Mr Jones to let me go and see you in these three days, my heart is so much with you. It now depends on you two, if you say, ‘you may come’, then Mr Jones will let me go. Besides wanting so much to sit at Theo’s bedside, I should also like so very much to talk to my Mother, and if possible to go to Etten once more to see and speak to my Father again. It would be but a short visit, I could stay with you one or two days.
Last Monday I was in Richmond again and took as my text1 ‘He hath sent me to preach the gospel to the poor’.2 But he who wants to preach the gospel must first have it in his own heart, oh, that I might find it, for it is only the words spoken in singleness and from the abundance of the heart3 that can bear fruit.
One of these days, perhaps, I’ll go to London or Lewisham again.4
I just gave Mr Jones’s girls5 a German lesson, and after the lesson I told them Andersen’s story The snow queen.6
If you can, write and tell me by return of post if I may come. I was glad to have Ma’s last letter.  1v:2
I hope to visit Mr Stokes’s school one of these days. And then I hope to buy a new pair of shoes to prepare myself. The view from the window in your room is no doubt beautiful now, I know it from days past, you know.
We’re having a lot of rain here; it’s probably the same where you are.
I’ll have two or three weeks around Christmas to go to Holland, should Anna be able to come as well we could perhaps travel together. And now we’re gradually heading towards winter again, make sure you’re completely better when it arrives. It is indeed wonderful that Christmas falls in the winter. Oh how I’m looking forward to it, old boy, to make my rounds here and there at Turnham Green when it’s cold.7 When I think of you like this, as of ‘one whom his Mother comforteth and who is worthy of being comforted by his Mother’,8 it is with envy. Do get well soon, in any case.
Yesterday I asked Mr Jones to let me go, but he didn’t want to give his consent and said at last, write to your Mother, if she thinks it’s all right then so do I.
It is indeed a beautiful poem, that one by De Génestet:

On the lofty heights of suffering,
Steep the path to the Holy Land,
Steep the path one upward strives,
Steep the path to better lives.
On these lofty heights of suffering,
Led by God’s own loving hand.
From their peaks – it did seem nearer
To the starry, holy sphere,
And the dwelling of the Father –
Down upon the world I peered.
And yet I thought of that one morning,
Of a morning long ago,
When I, laughing without caring,
Glimpsed, O Lord, Thy world below.9

And now I’ll copy out something for my brother:

I love the Lord, because He hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because He hath inclined His ear unto me, therefore will I call upon Him as long as I live.
The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul. Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our Lord is merciful. The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and He helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee. For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted: I said in my haste, all men are liars. What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord. O Lord, truly I am Thy servant; a son of Thine handmaid: Thou hast loosed my bonds. I will offer to Thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the Lord’s house.10
I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place. The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? The Lord taketh my part with them that help me. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.11

‘For he knoweth not that which shall be.’12 May our shortsightedness ask to know no more than the Omniscient wanted to make known to us, and may our dependence slowly yield to the Almighty. That is the lesson for the day.13

When I was a lad14

When I was a lad, my life carefree as ever,
I girt myself up, did whatever I chose,
Free to go wand’ring, to seek, to endeavour,
Free in my travels, my dreams, my repose.

Even for me, though, the hour was nearing
Of calling, of mercy, of seriousness,
When in my bosom the voice I’d been hearing
Enquired ‘Do you love me?’ – my soul answered ‘Yes’.

Since that hour of waking my dreams are no longer,
Another now leads me, at times ’gainst my will,
Teaches my hands to reach eagerly further,
To follow and carry, oh, happy and still.

Yet now that life’s governed by the Supreme Being,
Despite pain and fetters, my soul torn apart –
I find what in life I’d once vainly been seeking:
More rest and more peace for my uneasy heart.

And now a handshake to you both and to Mr and Mrs Roos and to Willem,15 and to anyone else you might see whom I know. And let me know soon how you are and believe me

Your most loving brother,

Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?16 is a question that often springs to one’s lips, and often we must ask, Oh, bless that which I shall do. May that prayer of ours be heard: Father, I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil.17 So be it.

It happened that we found ourselves alone, my mother and I, at an open window, where we had a view of the garden of the house to which we had betaken ourselves at the harbour of Ostia. There, far from the crowd, we were awaiting the time of the crossing after the fatigue of a long journey. We were alone, conversing with inexpressible pleasure; and, forgetting the past and dwelling completely on the future, we talked about what that eternal life of the saints would be like, which no eye hath seen, nor ear heard, nor any heart conceived. And, transported on the wings of Love to Him who is, we wandered in spirit to those heavenly spheres, whence the stars, the moon and the sun send us their light. And rising ever higher in our thoughts, in our words, in the admiration of Thy works, O Lord, it was as though we left our bodies, in order to attain uncreated wisdom, which is what it was, what it ever will be, or rather, in which there is no ‘having been’ or ‘what must still be’ but only ‘being’, because it is eternal, because ‘having been’ and ‘what must still be’ exclude eternity. And as we were speaking thus, in the flight of our thoughts towards that life, we touched it for an instant in spirit, and we groaned and allowed to be caught the first-fruits of the spirit, and descended again to the sound of voices, to words that begin and end.
Thus we spoke: If there is a soul in which the voice of the flesh falls silent, which imposes silence on itself, and, forgetting itself, oversteps its innermost bounds; if the last voice is lost in silence, after our soul has raised itself to the origin of all things, and He alone speaks, not through His creatures but through himself, if He speaks to us, He alone whom we hold dear above all else; if He speaks to us while everything drains out of us and while all beholding of a lower order stops, holding the viewer in thrall, enraptured, in his quiet joy and carrying him away; if eternal life is ultimately the same as this brief bliss that makes us go on groaning; is that not the promise held by the words ‘Enter thou into the joy of Thy Lord’? Such were our thoughts as we spoke.

For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.19

I just received Pa’s letter. Thank God. May God make us brothers.20

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not Charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not Charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; Charity envieth not; Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not  2v:6 in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, Charity; but the greatest of these is Charity.21

As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as chastened, but not killed.22

As one whom his mother comforteth.23

From here I see a lady, I see her walking, pensive, in a garden that is not very big and has lost its flowers quite early, but is sheltered, like the ones one sees behind our cliffs in France or the dunes of Holland. The exotic shrubs have already gone back into the greenhouse. The fallen leaves reveal some statues which one is all the more eager to look at now that the flowers have gone. A sumptuousness of art, which contrasts slightly with the very simple attire of the lady — modest, grave — the black or grey silk of which is barely brightened by a plain lilac ribbon. Unadorned, this we can say, she is no less elegant. Elegant for her husband and simple for the benefit of the poor. She reaches the end of the avenue, turns. We can see her. But have I not seen her before in the museums of Amsterdam or The Hague? She reminds me of a lady by Philippe de Champaigne, who had found her way into my heart, so ingenuous, so honest, sufficiently intelligent, yet simple, without the subtlety to extricate herself from the snares of this world. This woman has remained with me for thirty years, obstinately returning to me, worrying me, making me say, But what was she called? What became of her? Did she have a little happiness? And how did she manage to get through life? She reminds me of another portrait, a Van Dyck, a poor woman, very pale, unhealthy. The pale satin of the incomparably delicate skin clothes a sickly body, which is beginning to slacken. A great melancholy fills her lovely eyes, the melancholy of old age? Of heartbreaks, of the climate too, perhaps. It is the vague, distant look of someone who has lived within sight of the vast North Sea, the great grey sea, deserted but for the flight of the seagull.

Michelet, Les aspirations de l’automne.24

Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.25 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. She riseth while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. Her candle goeth not out by night. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her, saying: Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.26 Two things have I required of the Lord; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me.27 It is better to be in the house of mourning than in the house of feasting. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.28 O Lord, join us intimately to one another and let our Love for Thee make that bond ever stronger,29 and let our latter days be closer to Thee and therefore better than these. When once life’s evening overcomes me, worn down by ills and strife always, for every day Thou hast allowed me, I’ll bring Thee higher, purer praise.30 Intreat me not to leave Thee, Lord, or to return from following after Thee. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.31


Br. 1990: 093 | CL: 77
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Anna van Gogh-Carbentus and Theo van Gogh
Date: Isleworth, Friday, 13 October 1876

1. On Monday evenings Van Gogh attended the prayer meetings at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Richmond. See also letter 92.
3. Van Gogh combines ‘eenvoudigheid des harten’ (singleness of heart; Acts 2:46, Eph. 6:5 and Col. 3:22) with ‘overvloed des harten’ (abundance of the heart; Matt. 12:34 and Luke 6:45).
4. Mr Slade-Jones occasionally sent Van Gogh to London and Lewisham on errands, such as collecting money (probably from the parents of the boys at his boarding school). The Gladwell family happened to live in Lewisham.
5. Mr Slade-Jones’s daughters.
6. H.C. Andersen, ‘De sneeuwkoningin’, Andersen 1872, pp. 44-81, also published as ‘The snow queen’ in Andersen 1861, pp. 150-184. In this fairy tale, splinters of glass in people’s hearts and eyes prevent them from seeing anything but ugliness or evil. The boy Kay falls under the spell of the snow queen: he is abducted, and his heart becomes a lump of ice. His friend Gerda goes in search of him, and is strengthened in this endeavour by prayer. The hot tears of love that flow at their reunion thaw the lump of ice and melt the glass, the message being that ‘if you don’t become like children, you will never set eyes on the kingdom of God’.
7. Van Gogh was permitted to work on behalf of the Congregational Church of Reverend Slade-Jones in Turnham Green. On 19 November, he was ‘formally accepted as a co-worker’. See exhib. cat. London 1992, p. 67 and Bailey 1990, p. 94.
9. Based on the poem ‘Op de bergen’ (On the lofty heights) by P.A. de Génestet (beginning and end of the second part of the poem):

To the lofty heights of suffering,
– Steep the path to the Holy Land –
On the lofty heights of suffering,
I was led there by Love’s hand.

And the final stanza reads thus:

And I thought of that one morning,
Of that morning long ago,
When I laughing, without caring,
From lofty Alps looked down below.

(Op de bergen van het Lijden,
– Steile weg naar ’t heilig Land –
Op de bergen van het Lijden
Voerde mij der Liefde hand.’

En ik dacht weer aan dien morgen,
Aan dien morgen van weleer,
Toen ik lachend, zonder zorgen,
Blikte hoog van de Alpen neer.)

Van Gogh’s version (or the version his father had once sent him – see letter 104) has been Christianized. It is however possible that Vincent was following yet another version; indeed, the rhyming lines

Steep the path one upward strives
steep the path to better lives

(Steile weg naar hooger streven
Steile weg naar beter leven)

which do not occur in the 1869 edition, seem to suggest this possibility. See De Génestet 1869, vol. 2, pp. 115-117.
10. Ps. 116:1-19. Van Gogh evidently thought it suitable, in the light of Theo’s illness, to skip verse 15: ‘Kostelijk is in de oogen des Heeren de dood zijner gunstgenooten’ (Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints).
13. A ‘lesson for the day’ is an edifying text printed on calenders and in booklets for the pious to reflect upon.
14. Based on P.A. de Génestet, ‘Toen ik een knaap was’ (When I was a lad). See De Génestet 1869, vol. 2, pp. 13-14.
18. Taken from Augustine, Belijdenissen (Confessions), book 9, chapter 10 (conversation with his mother about the kingdom of heaven). No nineteenth-century Dutch edition has been traced, so it is not known which text Van Gogh transcribed. In letter 104 of 28 February 1877, Van Gogh also quotes a line from the Confessions.
19. Matt. 18:20. We have placed this biblical passage outside the quotation marks because it does not occur in the passage quoted from Augustine.
20. Like the exclamation ‘Goddank’ (Thank God) (see Arrangement), this prayer for brotherly fellowship is often uttered by Vincent during this period; see letters 87, 92 and 111.
22. 2 Cor. 6:9-10 (in reverse order).
24. Taken from the chapter ‘Les aspirations de l’automne’ in L’amour (part 5, chapter 5). See Michelet, L’amour, pp. 387-396; see also letter 14. Van Gogh introduced a few small changes.
26. Prov. 31:11-31. Van Gogh skipped several verses.
28. Cf. Eccl. 7:2-3. Van Gogh left out the second half of verse 2.
29. A prayer written and often recited in the family circle by Mr van Gogh; see letter 113.