My dear Theo,
Though I’ve nothing special to tell you, I wanted to write to you again. As against what I wrote to you, that I’m often heavy-hearted about many things, can’t see everything as progress, &c., there’s what I also said on a previous occasion: there are things that are worth doing one’s best for, either because they gain approval or because, just the opposite, they have their own raison d’être. Blessed is he who has found his work, says Carlyle,1 and that’s absolutely true. And as for me, when I say that I want to make figures from the people for the people, then it goes without saying that the course of events will influence me only indirectly, that is to the extent that my work is made harder or easier, but making the drawings themselves is my main preoccupation. And so, as against a feeling of dejection, there’s the fact that it’s a delight to work on something that becomes more interesting the deeper you get into it. I said in my last letter that I sometimes had a feeling of being in a sort of guardhouse or prison, by which I simply mean that there are many things I can’t pursue which I would like to — they’d only become possible if I could pay for them — but I don’t at all mean by this that I don’t appreciate the present or am discontented. Far from it. It’s precisely by doing what is attainable that one has a chance of working one’s way up, so be assured that if you ever know of work I could do for the illustrated magazines there, I would be happy to do my best for them.
When I write: I don’t think the illustrated magazines are going about it the right way, that’s no reason for me not to want to work for them. It’s just that I fear what I do wouldn’t suit them. If this is due to genuine mistakes, I’ll try to correct them, but if it was because of conception or mood in general, there’s little I could do about it. You’ll have received the drawing in a smaller format, and I repeat once more that if you like I’ll make a series in that size to try it out.  1v:2
I now have two more drawings — one is a man reading the Bible2 and the other is a man saying his prayers before his midday meal, which is on the table.3 Both are most decidedly in what one might call an old-fashioned sentiment, they are ditto figures as the old man with his head in his hands.4
The grace is the best, I believe, but they complement each other. In the one there’s a view through the window of snow-covered furrows.
My intention with these two and with the first old man is one and the same, namely to express the special mood of Christmas and New Year. At that time, in both Holland and in England, there’s still always a religious element, everywhere in fact, at least in Brittany and Alsace too. Leaving aside whether or not one agrees with the form, it’s something one respects if it’s sincere, and for my part I can fully share in it and even feel a need for it, at least in the sense that, just as much as an old man of that kind, I have a feeling of belief in something on high5 even if I don’t know exactly who or what will be there. I like what Victor Hugo said: religions pass, but God remains.6 And Gavarni also said a fine thing: the point is to grasp what does not pass in what passes.7 One of the things that will not pass is the something on high and belief in God, even if the forms change, a change as necessary as the renewal of greenery in the spring. But you will understand from one thing and another that my aim in these drawings is not to pay homage to the form but to show that I greatly respect the Christmas and New Year sentiment.
And if there’s any sentiment or expression in it, that’s because I myself share it.  2r:3
What I feel more and more is that it’s difficult to discover the best way to work. There’s so much that is fine on the one side, and so much on the other side too, moreover so much that is wrong, that sometimes one doesn’t know which way to choose. But at all events one must work. Yet for my part I do not think that I couldn’t make a mistake, am too aware of many mistakes to be able to say: this or that is the right way, that is the wrong one. This goes without saying. But I’m not indifferent, I believe it’s wrong to be so, I believe that it’s a duty — even though one knows that one can’t get through the world without making mistakes, without remorse or sorrows — to try to do right. I once read somewhere, Some good must come by clinging to the right.8 What do I know of whether I’ll attain this or that goal — how can I know in advance whether or not the difficulties will be insuperable? One must work on in silence and await the outcome accordingly. If one prospect vanishes another will perhaps open up — there must be a prospect and a future too, even though its geography is unknown. The conscience is a man’s compass,9 and although the needle deviates sometimes, although above all one detects inaccuracies in one’s orientation, one must nevertheless do one’s best to set one’s course by it.
I must copy out something for you that I had in mind when working on that old man, though it doesn’t apply to it literally, since it isn’t nighttime in the drawing, for example.

Oft, in the stilly night.10

Oft in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm’d and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain hath bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

Laurillard after Moore.

When I remember all
The friends, so link’d together,
I’ve seen around me fall,
Like leaves in wintry weather;
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain hath bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.b

Well, I hope that you too will be able to enjoy something of nature in the coming days, either in the appearance of the short winter days or in the winter figures. For how very different passers-by on the street look in winter and in summer.
I’ve studied your information as to the Buhot paper sent. If you think it advisable for me to do some work on it, I would need a few sheets, and I take it that they’re perhaps made in suitable formats so that I can adapt to them. This paper is not obtainable here, otherwise I would already have tried it.
After reading your explanation I’m also left with the question: if one takes a photograph of the drawing, and then transfers the photo to zinc, is it only the drawings done on this particular paper that are suitable for this, and isn’t it possible to reproduce all drawings in black and white, even if they’re on ordinary paper? Also: doesn’t the photographer then have it in his power to reduce the format, should the drawing be larger than desirable for the format of the magazine? The latter is certainly what I would deduce from some American reproductions that appeared in Scribner’s Magazine. Well, adieu, I hope you’ll write again towards the twentieth. With a handshake in thought.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 295 | CL: 253
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: The Hague, between about Wednesday, 13 and about Monday, 18 December 1882

a. Means: ‘soldatengevangenis’ (guardhouse).
2. Three reading men are known from this period: Man reading a book (F 1001 / JH 278); Old man reading (F 966 / JH 280) and Man, standing, reading a book (F 1683 / JH 279 [2421]). The additional comment a little later in the letter that there is ‘a view through the window of snow-covered furrows’ makes it likely that it is the last one; this view may have been overdrawn at the top left.
[448] [2421]
3. Prayer before the meal (F 1002 / JH 281 [2422]), called ‘Le bénédicité’ (Saying grace) by Van Gogh.
4. The lithograph ‘At eternity’s gate’ (F 1662 / JH 268 [2417]), which Theo knew.
5. Cf. for this phrase, letter 288, n. 15.
6. By ‘Religions pass, but God remains’ Van Gogh means Jules Michelet’s ‘Les dieux passent, et non Dieu’, from La sorcière: Ed. Paul Viallaneix. Paris 1966, p. 285. In letter 300 he alludes to the immediate sequel in La sorcière, where he likewise gives the author as Hugo: see letter 300, n. 10. Cf. also Merlhès 1989, p. 108 (n. 1). Quoted again in letter 507, n. 2.
7. From the introduction to La mascarade humaine, in which Ludovic Halévy writes: ‘But it is not enough to search for the truth, we have to know how to search for it. Prevost-Paradol, talking one day about Madame Sand’s novels in the Journal des Débats, said that while it was legitimate and necessary to take one’s models from life, one had to be able to grasp what is not happening through what is happening ... If Gavarni is not merely a fine draughtsman, if he is a great painter of human behaviour, it is precisely because he has been able to grasp what is not happening through what is happening’ (Seulement, le vrai, il ne suffit pas de le chercher, il faut savoir le chercher. Prevost-Paradol, parlant un jour des romans de madame Sand dans le Journal des Débats, disait que, s’il était légitime et nécessaire de prendre ses modèles dans la nature, il fallait savoir atteindre ce qui ne passe à travers ce qui passe ... Si Gavarni n’est pas seulement un admirable dessinateur, s’il est un grand peintre des moeurs, c’est qu’il a su précisément atteindre ce qui ne passe pas à travers ce qui passe). Gavarni 1881, pp. 6-7. In letter 302 Van Gogh says he has this book. Quoted again in letter 480.
8. In her novel The mill on the Floss (1860) George Eliot wrote: ‘But they will believe me. I will confess everything. Lucy will believe me – she will forgive you, and – and – O, some good will come by clinging to the right.’ Ed. Leipzig 1860, ‘The great temptation’ (book 6), ‘Waking’ (chapter 14), vol. 2, p. 292.
9. For this ‘conscience’, see letter 133, n. 12.
10. Eliza Laurillard’s Dutch translation ‘Bij stillen nacht’ of ‘Oft, in the stilly night’ by Thomas Moore was included in Rust een weinig. Oudejaarsavond-gedachten. Amsterdam 1869, pp. 39-40. A second edition appeared in 1872. For the original, see Moore 1910, p. 238 (‘National Airs. Scotch Air’).
b. After ‘around me’ Van Gogh wrote ‘Laurillard, after Moore.’ We quote the original poem here.