My dear Theo
When I read your letter this morning I was deeply touched by what you wrote. These are matters of which the world sometimes says, ‘Why should he get involved?’, and yet it isn’t so much our own act as the circumstances that compel us to do so.1 And once we’ve grasped the situation, a compassion can be awakened that is so unfathomably deep that we no longer hesitate.
And in you — I believe it is so — and what can I say other than that it seems to me that we must follow our impulses in such cases? Victor Hugo says, ‘Over and above reason there is conscience.’2 There are things that we feel to be good and true, although from the point of view of intellect and calculation there remains much that is inexplicable and obscure in them. And even though now, in the society in which we find ourselves, such actions are regarded as ill-considered or reckless or foolish or I don’t know what all — what shall we say once the hidden forces of sympathy and love have been awakened deep inside us? And should we be unable to use other arguments entirely to refute those that society customarily invokes against letting oneself be led by feeling and against acting impulsively — refuting isn’t the point, and he who has retained a belief in a God sometimes hears the gentle voice of conscience, which he would then be well advised to follow with the naivety of a child. Without talking about it to the outside world more than one can help.  1v:2
When someone has a meeting like that, it’s to be expected that he’ll experience conflict, especially conflict with himself, because one sometimes literally doesn’t know what one should or should not do. Yet isn’t this conflict, and even the mistakes into which one will sometimes fall, better, and doesn’t it develop us more than systematically shutting out emotions? This last is what makes many so-called strong spirits in reality weak spirits, in my view.
You have my sympathy in this, and should you think it desirable, given that I too am faced by realities and can tell you what has befallen me since we last talked this over, to hear a thing or two about it, or if you want to talk about the future or confer about anything at all, I’m always entirely at your disposal.
The fact that you write that you’re thinking of coming to Holland before too long is very welcome news to me.
Persevering is the main issue in love once one has really started. That is if the love is requited, for if it’s definitely not requited then it’s a case in which one is literally absolutely powerless. Anyway. I thank you for your trust, and when I think it over I’m fairly at ease about the outcome. Such a thing isn’t ‘passion’, because an unfathomably deep compassion is involved.
Nor do I believe that it’s something that makes you unsuited to thinking about other matters; on the contrary, a thing like that has a serious nature that awakes and strengthens all the faculties, and  1v:3 can increase energy rather than decrease it. So you won’t hold it against me if I say one or two things about the drawings. It really pleases me that you found the old man’s head3 ‘true’ — the model is wonderfully true, I have more drawings of him. Today one that I drew with lithographic crayon.4 Then I tipped a bucket of water over the drawing and began to model with a brush in the soaking wet. In this way one gets very delicate tones if it works, for it’s a dangerous method that can turn out wrong on occasion. But if it works, the result is very ‘unburred’,5 delicate tones of black that most resemble an etching. In this way I also have a woman’s head, against the light, thus in tone with glancing lights on the profile &c.6 YOU ALSO RECEIVED THE SECOND ROLL, DIDN’T YOU, IN WHICH THERE WERE 5 MORE HEADS (sent from here on 5 or 6 January, I think) — as well as the first two.7
When you’ve had them for a while, I believe that you’ll find the same in them as in the first two, for there must be something of nature in them, since I really wrest them from nature, and I work from the model from beginning to end. I have a great desire to show you the studies — not because I’m content with my own work but because, though far from satisfied with it, I nonetheless see that it’s taking shape, and that something will naturally develop from it that will have some character. What struck me most when I came to the city was, for instance, the Geest district and those neighbourhoods. And it’s gaining substance little by little — but what a job to see something like that through.  1r:4
Today I saw photos after drawings by Barnard, figures from Dickens, the original drawings of which I saw in London at the time.8 There’s a power in them like that in Nicolaas Maes, for example, but an entirely modern feeling and approach. That kind of thing makes me so enthusiastic and thus cheers me up, because I imagine models from here as they’d appear if they were drawn in that way, and then naturally I say to myself, onward! and keep on working until we’ve got the hang of the Black and White. It’s the same in art and in love, one is swung between ‘I’ve had it for a long time’ and ‘I’ll never have it’, as Michelet puts it.9 So one goes from melancholy to cheerfulness and enthusiasm, and this will always remain and the swings will only get stronger. Victor Hugo speaks of ‘like a lighthouse whose beam flashes on and off’10 and that’s how it is too.
If you received my letter of 5 or 6 January with the second roll, you will recall that I was already running short then. And now today I had to pay the house rent and 3 models I had had to keep waiting, and I also absolutely had to have various drawing materials. I’m working very hard at present and I mustn’t stop, but the models are literally eating me out of house and home. In short, it would be very, very desirable if I could have a little extra. Would that be possible? I hesitate to ask because you’ve just written to me about one thing and another, and I understand so well how you yourself have cares as a result, which I respect and feel with you. But my position is that I’ve got a little behind precisely because I carried on working all the time, and even if I received the money now I would have to pay out more than half. I cannot live more thriftily than we do. Where economies could be made, we’ve economized, but the work is expanding just now, particularly in recent weeks, and I’m almost losing control, of the costs involved, that is. Is there a possibility that I could receive a little more soon? I believe you’ll understand when you see the studies. Well, forgive me for raising the subject, but I have little choice. I’ve got behind with the day-to-day expenses, and that means that in the last days of the 10 I’m always absolutely broke. In any event, write soon and be fully assured of my sympathy as regards what you write about, adieu, old chap, a handshake in thought.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 301 | CL: 259
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: The Hague, on or about Wednesday, 10 January 1883

1. Theo had confided in Vincent about his ‘dramatic’ (letter 336) meeting with his beloved Marie, who was ill in body and soul (letter 301). Her identity is not known. Born on the coast of Brittany (letter 301), she was a Roman Catholic (letter 351), childless and living alone. See also Hulsker 1990-1, pp. 127-129.
2. Very likely borrowed from Victor Hugo’s novel Quatre-vingt treize, which Van Gogh had recently read (letter 286). It does not contain the actual sentence ‘Par dessus la raison il y a la conscience’, but it describes how the character Gauvain is torn between his reason and his feelings: ‘Reasoning said one thing, feelings another; the two pieces of advice were contrary. Reasoning is only reason; feelings are often conscience; the one comes from man, the other from a higher place. That is what makes feelings have less clarity but greater force. And yet what power there is in severe reason!’ (Le raisonnement disait une chose; le sentiment en disait une autre; les deux conseils étaient contraires. Le raisonnement n’est que la raison; le sentiment est souvent la conscience; l’un vient de l’homme, l’autre vient de plus haut. C’est ce qui fait que le sentiment a moins de clarté et plus de puissance. Quelle force pourtant dans la raison sévère!). See Hugo 1965, p. 347.
a. Means: ‘weerleggen’ (refute).
3. It is impossible to say which head of a man this was. Vincent sent two to Theo (see letter 298).
4. Which head of a man this was is impossible to say.
5. For the term non ébarbé, see letter 217, n. 2.
6. It is impossible to say for certain which drawing this was, but Head of a woman (F 1005 / JH 292) is the result of a similar experiment. The ‘glancing lights’ Van Gogh talks about here are the lighter bands along her profile, where the paper has been left blank, and in the forehead, where it has been heightened with white. The face is shaded a fairly even grey (cf. the description ‘in tone’). Judging by the shadows and the fall of light, the light source is obliquely to the right of the woman. The white trim of her cap stands out clearly, despite the fact that the white body colour has turned grey. See cat. Amsterdam 1996, pp. 192-193, cat. no. 53.
7. The ‘second roll’, which contained five heads, was sent with letter 299; by ‘the first two’ Van Gogh means the first two studies of heads, which were sent with letter 298.
8. For these illustrations to Dickens by Frederick Barnard, see letter 235, n. 7. Where in London and when Van Gogh saw these drawings by Barnard is not known.
9. An allusion to ‘I can do nothing about it, I cannot keep her. She has been mine for a long time and I shall never have her’ (J’ai beau faire, je ne la tiens pas. Elle est à moi depuis longtemps et je ne l’aurai jamais), in Jules Michelet’s, La femme (Michelet 1863, p. 331).
10. A ‘phare à éclipse’ has not been traced in Hugo’s oeuvre, but a ‘phare à feux tournants’ does feature in the poem ‘Les quatre vents de l’esprit’. See Hugo 1972, vol. 2, p. 669.
Van Gogh was probably mistaken about the author. Jules Michelet, who had been mentioned just before, included the phrase in both La femme (but there the ‘phare à éclipse’ refers to France) and the epilogue to La sorcière (1862). Since Van Gogh later gives the quotation as ‘Dieu est un phare à éclipse’ (see letter 691), we take it that in the present letter too he was referring to the following passage in Michelet’s La sorcière: ‘Gods pass, but God does not. On the contrary, the more they pass, the more He appears. He is like a lighthouse whose beam flashes on and off but which comes back brighter each time’. (Les dieux passent, et non Dieu. Au contraire, plus ils passent, et plus il apparaît. Il est comme un phare à éclipse, mais qui à chaque fois revient plus lumineux). Ed. Paul Viallaneix. Paris 1966, pp. 285-286. Cf. also Merlhès 1989, p. 108 (n. 1) and letter 695, n. 5.
Van Gogh also attributed the beginning, ‘Les dieux passent, et non Dieu’, to Victor Hugo (he gave the quotation as ‘Les religions passent, mais Dieu demeure’): see letter 294, n. 6.