Amsterdam, 19 May 1877
My dear Theo,
What a good day we spent together,1 one we shall certainly remember. I want to make sure that you find a letter when you return from Etten.2 You’ll certainly have had a good time at home, write soon to say how you spent the day.
Herewith you receive something for your portfolio, namely a lithograph after J. Maris,3 beneath which one might write: a poor man in the kingdom of God,4 and a lithograph after Mollinger.5 Had you seen this one before? I hadn’t. From a Jewish bookseller, who gets me the Latin and Greek books I need, I had the opportunity of choosing what I wanted from a large batch, and not at all expensive, 13 for 70 cents. Thought I’d take several for my room, to give it some atmosphere, which is necessary to get and refresh ideas.
I’ll give you a list, then you’ll know what it looks like and what’s hanging there.
1 after Jamin6 (which is also hanging in your room), one after M. Maris, that little boy going to school,7 5 after Bosboom8 — Van der Maaten, Funeral in the cornfield9 – Israëls, a poor man walking on a snowy road in winter,10 and Van Ostade, studio.11 Then there’s Allebé, a little old woman who has collected water and coals on a winter morning with snow on the streets.12 I sent that last one to Cor for his birthday.13 The Jewish bookseller had many more beautiful things but I can’t afford any more, and even though I’m hanging a few up, I’m not going to start collecting.
Yesterday Uncle Cor sent me a batch of old paper, such as the sheet on which I’m writing to you. Isn’t it wonderful for doing my work on?
I have a lot of work already, and it isn’t easy, but meekness14 will help one to get used to it. I only hope to bear in mind the ivy, ‘which stealeth on though he wears no wings’.15 Like the ivy on the walls, so the pen must cover the paper.
Every day I go for a long walk. I recently came across a very nice part when I walked all the way down Buitenkant16 to the Hollandsche Spoor station,17 where there were people working with sand-carts &c. on the IJ,18 and I walked along all kinds of narrow little streets with gardens full of ivy. It was somehow similar to Ramsgate.
At the station I turned left where all those mills are, down a street running alongside a canal lined with elm trees.19 Everything there puts one in mind of Rembrandt’s etchings.20
One of these days I’ll be starting General History from the book by Streckfuss,21 or rather, I’ve already started it. It won’t be easy, but taking it one step at a time and doing it well must surely produce results, this I fervently hope. But it will take time: this has been attested to by many, and not just Corot: ‘It took only forty years of work, thought and care.’22 For the work of men like Pa and the Rev. Keller van Hoorn, Uncle Stricker and so many others, a lot of practice is necessary, just as it is for painting. And a man says once in a while: however will I manage that?
And one’s own deeds, ideas and observation aren’t enough, we need the comfort and blessing and guidance of a higher power, and anyone with any earnestness and a desire to illumine his soul will recognize and experience this. Godly sorrow23 acts like leaven in dough.24 May that also be seen in the story of both our lives.
Let us only believe in God and, holding fast to that belief, have faith in Him:
God firmly spoke on mount and rock
And set this word in stone
And all who view this sacred writ
May read the words intoned.
The hardest rock will one day crumble
The highest mount come tumbling down
But this my covenant with Thee,
O Upright One, remaineth sound.25
He who lets the Lord provide,
And hopes for His aid in times of peril,
Will find protection at God’s side,
Be saved as by a miracle.
He whose faith rests in God’s hands
Will not have built on shifting sands.26
Doing whatever the hand finds to do,27 and, if we are pushed in the right direction and a door is opened unto us,28 as it were, proceeding in that direction, we may have something of the faith of old,29 which God pours into many a heart,30 into that of the mean as well as that of the mighty,31 into that of Aertsen32 as well as that of Pa or Uncle Jan or Uncle Cor — Rembrandt, Millet, Bosboom and how many others experienced the same thing. Yes, we can observe it, or at least traces of it, in nearly everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. He is not far from every one of us.33
Is Mrs Tersteeg continuing to do well,34 and have you already been to see Mauve? Just be steadfast, as you are doing, there can be good days in store for us if God wishes to spare our lives and give His blessing to what we do. Will you ever attend some little church of mine? May God grant it, and I believe that He shall. Meanwhile let us simply be grateful for our everyday life – if we are not confronted with anything unusual, and if we know a good prayer, then let us say it, like the one Pa once said on New Year’s Eve when it was very cold and the winter was not easy on anyone, our own household either – that prayer came from the secret recesses of his heart: O Lord, join us intimately to one another and let our Love for Thee make that bond ever stronger,35 preserve us from all evil,36 especially the evil of sin. Father, we pray not that Thou shouldest take us out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep us from the evil.37 ‘Preserve us from too much self-reproach.’ Let us find grace in the eyes38 of those to whom we are closest and in the eyes of those who shall come after us. Whenever I look at a painting by Ruisdael, Van Goyen, Bosboom and so many others, I always think of the words ‘as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing’.39 Of woe-spiritedness.40
Will you come again on a Sunday to my study,41 and shall we go again together to the little church at Scheveningen?42 I hope so.
Give my regards to your housemates, and accept in thought a handshake from
Your most loving brother,
Yesterday I saw a portrait of Michelet43 and looked at it again closely and thought of ‘his life of ink and paper’.44 In the evenings I’m tired and can’t get up as early as I’d like, but that will surely improve, and I hope I can force myself to do so.
On Whit Monday I hope to be at Uncle Stricker’s in the afternoon and evening.