My dear Theo,
If I’m to give you a better understanding of what I’ve already written to you about, you’ll have to know where its origin lies. And I mustn’t tone down anything about my visit to Amsterdam. But I begin by asking you not to regard it as impertinent if I have to disagree with you. And first of all thank you sincerely for the 50 francs you enclosed. If I don’t put it forcefully it will be no use to you, but I would keep silent if you made it a precondition that I give in. I don’t believe that you’re making such a precondition, and you yourself will perhaps not find it unnatural that there are aspects of life that are less developed in you than your understanding of business, about which I freely grant that you’re far better informed than I, and shan’t lightly dare to say to you this or that isn’t so. On the contrary, especially when you explain a little to me, I often feel that your grasp of things is better than mine. But on the other hand, when it comes to love — I’m sometimes astonished by your views. And I even want — please forgive me — to add something new. Your last letter about M. and H.G.T. proved to me that you appear to have a firm foothold in the circle and class of M. and H.G.T. and a way of behaving that isn’t mine, so that you get on well with them whereas I do not. But outside that class your view is superficial and prejudiced. For your last letter gave me more food for thought than you may realize. My mistake lies here, it seems to me, and this is the true reason for my being fobbed off. If one has no money, one is by definition ineligible from the start, and so it was a mistake and short-sighted of me to take what M. said literally, and to think even for a moment: H.G.T. will remember that I’ve already been through so much trouble.
These days, money is what might is right was in the past. Contradicting someone is fatal, and if you do it their reaction is not to reflect but to give you a punch in the throat. That’s to say, in the shape of ‘I shan’t buy anything by him any more’ or ‘I won’t help him again’.
This being the case, I risk my head if I argue with you but, Theo, I don’t know what else I can do — if it must go, here’s my neck. You know my circumstances and that my living or not living, as it were, depends on your help. But I’m caught in a dilemma. If I reply to your letter: Yes, Theo, you’re right, I’ll give up Christien, then in the first place I’ll be telling an untruth by saying you’re right, and in the second I’ll be committing myself to do something terrible. If I contradict you, and you do the same as H.G.T. and M., I get it in the neck, in a manner of speaking.
Well, in God’s name off with my head if you must. The alternative is even worse.
So here begins a short text in which I’ll state some things frankly which I think you may take in such a way that you withdraw your help, but to be silent in order to keep your help seems to me a poor way to act, and I would rather risk the worst. If I can make clear to you what I believe you do not yet understand, things will go better for Christien and her child and myself. And to achieve that, I must venture to say what I shall say.
To express what I felt for Kee Vos, I said plainly: she and no other.1 Her ‘no, nay, never’ wasn’t enough to make me give her up. I still had hope, and despite that — which I believed was a block of ice that would melt — my love remained strong.
Yet I had no rest. The tension became unbearable because she stayed silent all the time, because I never received so much as a syllable in reply.
Then I went to Amsterdam. There I was told... When you are in the house Kee will leave it. Your ‘she and no other’ is opposed by her ‘certainly not him’ — your persistence is sickening. I put my fingers in the flame of the lamp and said, let me see her for as long as I hold my hand in the flame, and it’s no wonder that later H.G.T. might have looked at my hand.
But they blew the lamp out, I believe, and said, you shall not see her. And then afterwards I had a talk with her brother,2 who said, officially or unofficially, that nothing but rijksdaalders3 would have any effect. Official or unofficial, I find both equally vile, and when I left Amsterdam I felt as if I had been on the slave market. You see, to me that was just crass, especially when they spoke of my coercion, and I felt that the things they told me were meant to beat me to death, and that my ‘she and no other’ was beaten to death. It wasn’t straightaway but still quickly enough that I felt that love die, to be replaced by a void, an infinite void. Now, as you know, I believe in God, I did not doubt the power of love. But then I felt something like, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?4 And nothing made sense any more. I thought, have I deluded myself?......... O God, there is no God!5
1r:4 I couldn’t bear that horrible, cold reception in Amsterdam —people reveal their true colours when it comes to settling accounts.
Would the Rev. J.P.S. and the Rev. T. v. G., looking so respectable in their robes and with their grey hair, dare to preach about love from the pulpit the way they talk about it behind closed doors? They would not.
I thought of the words of the prophet: ‘Ancients of Israel, what do ye in the dark?’,6 words directed at deceitful priests who were influenced by bribes.
Enough. I was distracted and cheered up by Mauve. I threw myself into my work with all my strength. Then, after M. let me down and I was ill for a few days, at the end of January I met Christien.7
Theo, you say that if I had truly loved K.V. I wouldn’t have done that. But now do you understand better that I couldn’t go on after what had been said in Amsterdam? — should I have despaired then? — why should an honest man despair? — I’m no blackguard, I do not deserve to be treated so dreadfully. Well, what can they do? True, they had the whip hand, they thwarted me in Amsterdam. But now I no longer ask their advice and, being of age, I ask: am I at liberty to marry, yes or no? Am I at liberty to put on a working man’s clothes and to live as a working man, yes or no? To whom am I accountable? Who will try to coerce me?
If anyone wants to stop me, let him come forward!
2r:5 You see, Theo, I am faint and weary.8 Think it over and you will understand. Pa, Uncle Stricker, H.G.T. and I don’t know who else call themselves well-mannered, civilized people and they behave with a coarseness, a Jesuitism, an injustice that my soul abhors. Never ever is there a hint or shadow of remorse or an honest turning back to say, I did this or that, it was wrong.
They have too much support, they know all too well that most people want to have things that way, and they keep in with everybody.
If they take pleasure in that, if they think that it will work out well for them and that they’ll also be at peace with it at the end — well, let them go ahead — I can’t stop them. But for myself I may and must act according to my own conscience. And is my way less right because someone says, ‘You are straying from the right way’? C.M. always talks about the right way too, just like H.G.T. and the clergymen.9 But C.M. also calls Degroux a common fellow,10 so what is C.M.? In future I’ll let him talk; my ears are tired. To put it out of my mind, I’m going to lie in the sand in front of the roots of an old tree and draw them.11 Wearing a linen smock and smoking my pipe and looking at the deep blue sky... or at the moss or the grass.
That calms me down. And I feel equally calm when, for example, Christien or her mother poses and I work out the proportions and try to make the body with its long, undulating lines palpable under the folds of a black dress.
Then I’m a thousand miles away from C.M., J.P.S. and H.G.T., and much happier.
But... alas, then the cares come and I have either to speak or write about money and it starts all over again. Then I think: H.G.T. and C.M. would do so much better if they didn’t interfere with my ‘way’ and just encouraged me to draw. You will say: C.M. does that, but let me explain why the order hasn’t been completed yet. Mauve said to me: that uncle of yours only did that because he’d paid you a visit, but you should realize that it doesn’t mean anything and that immediately afterwards it will all be over, and then you won’t have anyone left.
You must understand, Theo, that I can’t bear that; if something like that is said to me, my hand goes limp as if paralyzed. Especially since C.M. has also made remarks about manners, I believe.
For C.M. I’ve done 12 drawings for 30 guilders, that’s 2.50 apiece. It’s a tricky job involving more than 30 guilders’ worth of effort, and it isn’t fair to ask me to see it as a favour or something like that. I had already gone to a great deal of trouble for the other 6, I had done studies for them. That’s as far as I got. I’ve already put the effort in for the new ones, so it’s not laziness
2v:7 — I am paralyzed.
Then I reason with myself: I shan’t take it to heart, but I’m nervous and a thing like that stays with me and comes back when I start work again. So that I have to change tack and work on other things.
I don’t understand Mauve — it would have been kinder of him never to have bothered with me. What do you advise: should I carry on with the order for C.M. or not? I didn’t know what to do.
Years ago there was a different tone among painters — now they devour each other and are fine gentlemen living in villas and intriguing. I prefer to be in Geest or another back street — drab, down at heel, muddy, sombre — but I’m never bored there, whereas I’m bored stiff in those mansions, and I think it’s a bad thing to be bored and so I say: I don’t belong there and I’m not going there any more. Thank God I have my work, but in order to work I still need money instead of earning it, and that’s the difficulty. If in a year’s time, or I don’t know how much longer or shorter, I can draw that Geest district or another street as I see it with the figures of old women, workers, girls, then H.G.T. &c. will be very pleasant, but then they’ll get my ‘go to hell’ and I’ll say, you left me in the lurch when I was in trouble, friend, I don’t know you, go away, you’re standing in my light.
Oh Lord, why should I be afraid? What do I care about H.G.T.’s ‘disagreeable’ and ‘unsaleable’? If occasionally I lose heart, I look at The diggers by Millet12 and The paupers’ pew by Degroux13 and then H.G.T. seems so small, so negligible, and all those remarks so pathetic that my good humour comes back and I light my pipe and get on with drawing. But if at such a moment, sooner or later, someone from civilization were to cross my path, he might just hear some things that were pretty sobering.
Now you will ask, Theo, whether this applies to you too. In reply I say: Theo, who has given me bread and helped me? You, I believe, so it certainly doesn’t apply to you. Only sometimes the thought occurs to me: why isn’t Theo a painter, won’t he eventually become bored in that civilization in the end? Won’t he later be sorry that he abandoned civilization to learn a craft, marry a woman, put on a smock? But there may be reasons that I can’t appreciate, so enough. As for love, I don’t know whether you already know what its ABC really is. Do you think me arrogant? By that I mean that you feel what love is best when you sit beside a sickbed, sometimes without a penny in your pocket. This isn’t picking strawberries in the spring14 — that only lasts a few days and most months are drab and more sombre, but in that sombreness one learns something new, and sometimes it seems to me that you know that, and sometimes I think, he doesn’t know it.
I want to go through the domestic joys and sorrows myself so that I can draw them from experience. After I had left Amsterdam I felt that my love, which was truly honest, truly unfeigned and strong, had been literally beaten to death — yet after death one rises from the dead. Resurgam.15 Then I found Christien. It was no time to hesitate or delay. Action was required. If I don’t marry her, it would have been kinder of me not to have taken any interest in her. Yet through this step a gulf opens; I then ‘marry beneath my station’, as they say, as decisively as I possibly can, but that is not forbidden and not bad, even if the world calls it wrong. My domestic arrangements will be like those in a worker’s household. I’m more at home with that, I wanted to do it before but couldn’t put it into practice then. I hope that you’ll still extend your hand to me across the gulf. I mentioned 150 francs a month. You say I need more. Wait a moment. My expenses have never been more than 100 francs a month on average since I left Goupil, except for occasional travelling. And at Goupil I first had thirty guilders and later 100 francs.
Now, these last months I’ve had more expenses, but I’ve had to settle in, and I ask you: are these expenses unreasonable or excessive? Especially since you know what else was involved. And how often in those long years I had much less than 100 francs. And if I sometimes had expenses because of travelling, have I not improved my knowledge of languages and developed my mind? Was that money down the drain?
Now I need to make a straight path for my feet.16 If I postpone marriage, there will be something false in my position that will be repugnant to me. She and I are willing to scrimp and scrape as long as we marry.
I am 30,17 she 32, so we’re not starting out as children. As for her mother and her child, the latter removes her stain; I have respect for a woman who is a mother and I don’t enquire into her past. I’m glad that she has a child; because of that she knows what she should know. Her mother is very hard-working and deserves a medal for the way she has raised a family of 8 children18 for years and kept their heads above water. She wouldn’t want there to be any dependence, she earns her living by going out to work.
I’m writing to you late at night. Christien is unwell and the time of her departure for Leiden is at hand. You must forgive me if my writing is sloppy, for I’m tired.19
And yet, after your letter I wanted to write to you. In Amsterdam I was so flatly refused, so fobbed off that it would have been lunacy to persist.
But should I have despaired at that point? Jumped into the water or something like that? God forbid. I would have done that if I had been a bad person. I renewed myself, not on purpose but because I found an opportunity for renewal and didn’t refuse to begin again.
This time, though, things are different and Christien and I understand each other better. We needn’t take account of anyone, but of course are far from pretending to keep up a position.
Knowing the prejudices of the world, I’m aware that what I must do is withdraw from my social circle, which cast me out long ago anyway. But then there’s nothing more to be said and one may go no further. My personal liberty may not be infringed. I told my Father that plainly enough at the time of the Geel affair,20 when he wanted to pack me off to a madhouse. She and I are of age, so if Pa is opposed he’ll have to register his refusal formally according to the law and the judge will have to decide. However, I hope that this won’t be necessary and that we can reach a resolution by rather more peaceful means.
It may be that I wait a while before we start living together if our
3r:12 circumstances are particularly difficult, but even then I want to get married — without telling anyone, completely quietly. If anybody makes a fuss, I won’t take any notice. Since she’s a Catholic, the wedding will be all the simpler, for the church is naturally out of the question; neither she nor I want to have anything to do with it. You will say, that’s short and to the point. So be it. I want to be concerned with one thing only, drawing, and she too has one regular occupation, posing. I sincerely wish that it were possible for me to take the house next door. It’s exactly big enough, because the attic can be turned into a bedroom and the studio is a good size and light, much better than here. But would it be possible? But even if I had to live in a hovel, I would rather have a crust of bread beside my own hearth, however poor, than live without marrying her.
She knows what poverty is, so do I. Tersteeg doesn’t know a damned thing about it, and neither do you, Theo. Poverty has its advantages and disadvantages. Despite poverty, we’ll take the chance. The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm fearsome, but could never see that the dangers were a reason to continue strolling on the beach. They leave that wisdom to those to whom it appeals. When the storm comes — when night falls — what’s worse: the danger or the fear of danger? Give me reality, the danger itself. Adieu Theo, it’s late. Pardon me for this letter, I’m tired but wanted to write anyway. I wish you could understand and that I could put it in a clearer and friendlier way, but don’t take offence, and believe me
I believe (or rather there’s a glimmer of beginning to believe) that there’s a possibility that the notion ‘Theo will withdraw his help if I argue with him’ &c. &c. may be utterly needless. But, Theo, I’ve seen things like that done so often that I wouldn’t respect you less and not be angry with you if you did likewise. Because I would think, he knows no better; they all behave like that, unthinkingly but not from malice. If I continue to receive your help, that will be something utterly new, a rare chance I haven’t counted on. Because for a considerable time I’ve gone around, so to speak, always with the prospect of the very worst before me, as has Christien, because I continually said to her ‘Lass, I fear a time will come when I’m completely penniless’. But I haven’t said that to you before it was necessary. If you continue your help
4v:14 it is a solution, a deliverance, so unexpected, so undreamt-of, that I would be utterly overwhelmed by joy. And now, I daren’t think about it and resolutely push the thought away, even while I write to you about it with a steady hand, so as not to weaken.
What I experienced this winter with Mauve has been a lesson to me, making me prepare myself since then for the worst... a death sentence from you, that is, the ending of your help.
You’ll say, but that help hasn’t stopped... but I received it with a certain reserve, thinking he doesn’t yet know everything he will know one day, and until the crisis comes I’ll have no rest and remain on guard, prepared for the worst.
Now the crisis is here and I still can’t decide, I don’t dare hope yet. I’ve told Christien: I’ll support you until Leiden. When you come back from Leiden, I don’t know how you’ll find me — with or without a penny — but
4v:15 what I have is as much yours and the child’s as mine. Christien doesn’t know the details — and doesn’t ask, knowing that I deal honestly with her and wanting to be with me come what may. The postscript in your last letter made me think... I thought, how does he mean that?... But up to now I’ve always thought of you as likely to turn away from me as soon as you knew everything.
So I lived by the day but with a sombre fear of the worst from which I dare not yet account myself freed. I also worked by the day, not daring to order more drawing or painting materials than I could pay for by the day, not daring to undertake anything in the way of painting, for example, not daring to tackle it as I would have done had I counted on relations with Mauve and H.G.T. being restored. Thinking that if their friendliness was superficial, their unfriendliness went deeper, and anyway, I took seriously what Mauve said, ‘it’s all over’, not when he said it to me (for then I took it coolly enough in a spirit of bravado like the Indians who say ‘it doesn’t hurt at all’ when they’re tortured), but since he wrote to me ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you for two months’. Since I broke the plaster casts.21
In short, I’ve always argued to myself: I can expect nothing more from Mauve and Tersteeg, and I’ll thank God if Theo carries on sending me the needful long enough for me to support Christien safely until Leiden, and then I’ll
4r:16 explain to him and say, stop, this is what I’ve done.
Do you understand any of this?...
So I’m writing to you now as I spoke to Mauve when he said, ‘it’s all over’ — almost as a challenge — prepared for the worst — cold-bloodedly — sarcastically — and yet deadly serious, not sparing you, criticizing you for your conventions, yet not frivolously but... IN DAMNED EARNEST.22
Do you understand now? Having just gone through the dreadful suspense with Christien, but she having pulled through, I am now pleading, declaring, Gentlemen, here is my neck. I plead guilty in that I hid from all of you something that has cost money, but there was a human life to be saved and I wanted to save it come what may, not talk about it. But now... if you condemn me I’ll be guilty and shan’t protest. I supply work for your money, but if it isn’t enough then I’m in your debt and can’t repay you. I’m prepared for your displeasure but not for your mercy... I’ve never counted on that and I don’t know how I stand...... what is it to be??? I’ve prepared myself for the worst and not hoped for anything less bad. What’s the position? But speak clearly.
In short, I knew very well that I was compromising myself in the eyes of the world by helping Christien, and I did not, or rather still do not, count on your wanting to have anything to do with me after knowing that I compromised myself. But I couldn’t leave her to her fate. I wanted to save her, even though my head might be at stake. And now I still don’t know whether it’s to be ‘POLLICE VERSO’,23 yes or no??? If it’s yes: ‘Morituri te salutant’.24 I’ve seen the thumbs move, but don’t know whether they’re pointing up or down.