Etten, 12/9-1881

My dear Rappard,
Because I’ve not yet had a letter from you I thought: perhaps Rappard didn’t like my last letter at all, there seems to have been something in it that has made him a little peevish. What to do? Supposing that were so, is it truly good of you? I myself am not always able to judge to what extent my reasoning is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. But I do know this, that even if I occasionally address you in what are possibly coarse and harsh terms, I nevertheless feel such warm sympathy for you that you will surely see and feel when calmly reading or re-reading my letter – the person who speaks to me thus is not my enemy. And knowing this, is it then so utterly unbearable for you to swallow somewhat coarse and harsh expressions even if they later appear to be less coarse and harsh than you at first thought? Rappard, why do you think it is that I speak or write to you as I do? Could it be because I want to lay a trap for you or am a kind of tempter who wants to make you fall into a pit, or could it possibly be that I really had a reason to think ‘Rappard is venturing onto thin ice!’ I now know that there are people who not only maintain their footing on thin ice but even manage to perform tours de force on it – but even if you stood so firmly in your shoes (I’m not saying that you don’t stand so firmly in them), even then I’d prefer to see such a one walking on a footpath or street.  1v:2
Don’t get angry now – read on – until the end – if you get angry, don’t tear up this letter without reading it – first count to ten.
One – two – three &c.......
That’s calming.. something really bad is coming, though! What I want to say is this:
Rappard, I believe that even when you’re working at the academy you’re striving to become more and more of a true realist, and at the academy, too, you stick to reality. However, without being aware of it yourself, without knowing it, that academy is a mistress who prevents a more serious, a warmer, a more fertile love from awakening in you. Let the mistress go and fall madly in love with your true love, Dame Nature or Reality.
I’ve also fallen in love like that, madly in love with a Dame Nature or Reality, and have felt so happy ever since, even though she’s still resisting me strenuously and doesn’t want me yet, and often raps my knuckles if I dare over-hastily to think of her as mine. So I’m far from saying that I’ve already got her, but I’m courting her and seeking the key to her heart despite the painful knuckle-rapping.
Now you don’t have to think that there is but one Dame Nature or Reality, no, that’s only the surname of various sisters, who have a variety of Christian names. So we don’t have to be rivals. Do you understand, my dear chap? Of course it’s purely artistic, is it not?  1v:3
Now in my opinion there are two kinds of mistress. One is the kind with whom one can give and take love, one or both of you being aware, meanwhile, that it isn’t forever, neither does one surrender to it whole-heartedly and unreservedly.
Such mistresses get on one’s nerves, they coax, they spoil one, then – then — ... they burn up a good many men.
The second kind of mistress is of an entirely different disposition. The strait-laced – Pharisees – Jesuits!!! They are the kind of women of marble – sphinx – cold vipers1 — who would like to bind men to themselves, entirely, for ever and ever, without her ever surrendering whole-heartedly, entirely, unreservedly. They suck your blood. Such mistresses freeze men, and petrify them.
But I said it was purely artistic, my dear chap – and so I compare the first kind of mistress, those who burn, with that school of art that lapses into generalities. And then I compare the other kind of mistress (the strait-laced), those who freeze and petrify, with academic reality or – or – if you want me to gild the pill, with not unacademic reality – more gilding won’t stick to the pill, I’m afraid you’ll see through it. The pill is bitter, but salutary; it’s a quinine pill.2
Do you understand, my dear chap!
Now there are – thank God – other women besides these two kinds – that is the family of Dames Nature and Reality, but it costs a great deal of inner struggle to win one.
They demand nothing more nor less than complete surrender of the heart, soul, mind in one certain direction, all the love that’s in us, and then – then – they also give themselves. However, these true Dames Nature, though harmless as doves, are also wise as serpents,3 and know very well how to distinguish between who is sincere and who is insincere.  1r:4 She renews, she reinvigorates, she gives life! This Dame Nature, this Dame Reality.
Rappard, there are people, and perhaps you and I are such, who don’t understand, until they really love, that before that time, consciously or unconsciously, they’ve had mistresses of one or other of these dispositions, or perhaps aren’t unacquainted with both varieties.
You have, in my opinion, a mistress who freezes you, petrifies you and sucks your blood.
So, friend, I say you must tear yourself from the arms of that woman of marble (or is it but plaster??? how horrible!), otherwise you’ll freeze to death!
Believe, meanwhile, that if I’m a tempter who wants to pull you down into a deep pit, this pit could be the ‘well of truth’. In short – no longer sing the praises of not unacademic mistress (artistically)! In my opinion she’s a shrew. My dear chap, it’s my opinion that she’ll deceive you if you allow yourself to be taken in. The devil with her! Send her packing, and the sooner the better! But it’s purely artistic, is it not — my dear chap?
Indeed it is! If, apart from and in addition to that, it was something else altogether — so much the better — I’m not eating my words. As long, that is, as you’d take my words in a non-figurative sense. Do you understand, my dear chap, and — and — tell me — will you write to me now, the sooner the better, eh? Believe me always, with a handshake

Ever yours,

I recently made a drawing, Mealtime, a worker drinking a cup of coffee and cutting a slice of bread. On the ground a spade he’s brought in from the field.4

She’s a little cold, though, my dear chap, the one that you say you love, the one who is your ideal for the time being. She is indeed as I had pictured her — marble, plaster, what can I say — a sleep-walker, at most. Alive — no.

So you say:  
where does she come from?... From heaven.
Where does she live?..... All over the world.
Her intentions?.... The beautiful and the sublime.

But, look, you’re sincere at least, and without knowing it you’re fully in agreement with me in that you admit to having a mistress. One of those whom I’ve dubbed strait-laced prudes &c. &c.
That’s just it, you describe her very well. But what a Pharisee she is, that beauty, and you, you’re so in love with her, what a pity!
Madame, who are you? I am ‘the beautiful, the sublime’. Tell me, though, my beautiful and sublime, the one who feels herself such, is she so in fact?
I certainly agree that in some of life’s crises, in great pain, in transports of joy, one may feel oneself beautiful and sublime, and of course I hope to be among those who know how to appreciate those things. But the fact remains that You, Madame, leave me cold and without any emotion whatsoever. How does that come about?
I don’t, after all, have too thick a skin, I do hope; people who weren’t even pretty, not exactly sublime, have often charmed me, but you, Madame, do not charm me in the very least. One doesn’t make a profession of the beautiful and the sublime!
Madame, I do not love you, and what’s more, I do not believe that you yourself could love unless in certain academic heavens, of course — but on the heath or in private, by the fireside, no, not at all. Don’t sing me that tune, Madame the beautiful, the sublime, you don’t know the first thing about it.  2v:6
Do you see, Madame, I’m just a man of human passions, and for as long as I walk ‘down here’ on the heath, I don’t have time to worry about a celestial, mystical love, as long as I feel another, of a more frank and earthly nature. I do need the beautiful and the sublime, I admit it, but first of all I also need something other than that — to start with — kindness and good will, tenderness; do you have much of those, Madame Pharisee? I’m inclined to doubt it. And, Madame, tell me, do you actually have a body and soul? I’m inclined to doubt it; as much, indeed, for the body as for the soul.
Listen, my lovely one, from wherever you may claim to come, you who say your fundamental intentions are ‘the beautiful and the sublime’ (which could only be results, never intentions), from wherever you may come, I say, it’s surely not from the Bosom of the living God, and it’s not from the bosom of a woman, either. Away with you, Sphinx, clear off, and the sooner the better — I tell you — you’re nothing but a joke. You don’t exist. (De debil ton’t exeest, Nucingen would say.)5
However, if you do exist, if in fact you come from somewhere, are you quite sure and certain that your origin isn’t Satan himself, father of lies? Are you any less a viper and a serpent than he, Madame, the beautiful, the sublime?
To say that as far as I’m concerned your mistress, ‘the beautiful, the sublime, who says she comes from heaven and lives over all the earth’, is a more than suspect person, that wouldn’t be putting things strongly enough.
Ask her if she’s good and useful, if she loves, and needs love. She’ll become flustered, and if she says yes, it’s a lie.  2v:7
    She – the other one, that is, not the one with the above-mentioned ‘intentions’, where does she come from?
I’m far from denying her divinity, her immortality; I believe in it very firmly, and in the first place, even; however, she’s definitely earthly, too, and definitely a woman,and born of a woman.
    She?– Where she lives, I know well where, and it’s not very far from each one of us.
    She– Her intentions? What do I know of them, how to say it — I’d like to keep silent — however, since we must speak — ah, well — it seems to me: to love and to be lovably — to live, to give life, to renew it, to heal it, to preserve it, to work, to give back spark for spark; above all, to be good, to be useful — to be of some use, to light the fire, for example, to give a child a piece of bread and butter, a sick man a glass of water.
    Ah, but all that is very beautiful, very sublime. Yes, but she didn’t know that it was called that, she believed that it was quite simple, she doesn’t do it on purpose, it wasn’t her intention to make as much noise as that, she believed nobody paid attention
    Her own ‘arguments’, you see, aren’t very brilliant, not very well thought out. Her sentiment is always right.
    To know what her duty is she doesn’t go to her head, she goes to her heart.6

But she’s in no way a mistress, that one. Since a lady is a lady, as Michelet says.7

Meanwhile, Rappard, that business of the competition I find rather amusing.
No. 11 is first of all the fool’s number and, moreover, ‘last’ is also a good sign sometimes,8 so I offer you my sincere congratulations, for in my opinion one thing and another are good omens for you. It’s promising.
Now, I still have quite a lot against various principles of yours too, but because my bête noire9 in the circumstances is that particular mistress, I’ll leave the principles alone. If you could sack Mme the beautiful, the sublime, and fall in love with ‘the other’, it seems to me that that would put entirely different principles in your head and in your heart. And I perceive from certain signs that, no matter how much you’re still attached to Mme the beautiful and sublime, you won’t be able to stand her much longer. Unless she petrifies you and turns you to ice and transfixes you in that way, but that seems unlikely to me, you have too much good sense for that. Be on your guard — keep warm — you know — (a little precaution to take against her chilling influence), and take lots of walks — (especially when you feel a little petrification coming on). Forewarned is forearmed, so you’re forewarned, then.
Don’t be annoyed with me; if it wasn’t an academic expression, I would say, ‘it’s for your own good’.
Finally, much good may it do you, I have another bête noire to hunt down, but I shan’t tell you which, now. But listen, and I’ll tell you anyway. This other bête noire is ‘resignation in disappointments’. Another incredibly Jesuitical, Pharisaical invention. But that’s theological, very theological. My dear chap, never resign yourself and never be disappointed, that’s the best advice I could give you, it’s even better than my advice to send your cold mistress to the devil, all the more so since these two pieces of advice amount to only one. I shake your hand, believe me always

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 182 | CL: R4
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Anthon van Rappard
Date: Etten, Saturday, 12 November 1881

1. In L’amour Jules Michelet speaks of ‘women of marble’ (filles de marbre) as ‘women of sadness’ (filles de tristesse). See Michelet, L’amour, p. 438.
2. Quinine is a febrifuge, i.e. a substance used to dispel or reduce fever.
4. The motif of this unknown drawing could correspond to the lithograph Workman sitting on a basket, cutting bread (F 1663 / JH 272 [2418]), which Van Gogh would make a year later.
5. Baron Frédéric de Nucingen appears in several of the novels in the cycle La comédie humaine by Balzac. He is an English banker of Jewish descent and therefore speaks with a heavy accent. In Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, he says: ‘Le tiaple n’egssisde boinde’ (le diable n’existe point – the devil doesn’t exist). See Balzac, La comédie humaine vi. Etudes de moeurs. Scènes de la vie parisienne. Ed. Pierre Citron. Paris 1977, p. 494. Van Gogh made a note of this short sentence in his Antwerp sketchbook, but it is difficult to determine exactly when he wrote it down. See Van der Wolk 1987, p. 122.
6. Possibly a quotation; see also letter 183.
7. In the chapter ‘Il n’y a point de vieille femme’, Michelet writes: ‘For the rest, a lady is a lady’ (Du reste, une dame est une dame). (Michelet, L’amour, p. 385).
8. Evidently Van Rappard had finished in 11th (and last) place at a competition, probably having submitted one of his works that was shown at the ‘Levende Meesters’ (Living Masters) exhibition at Arti; the archives of Arti give no further information (cf. letter 176, n. 10). The number eleven has to do with ‘Carnaval’, or Shrovetide, the pre-lenten festivities beginning as early as St Martin’s Day (11-11).
9. Van Gogh used bête noir again in letters 188, 190 and 474.