My dear Theo,
Thanks for your letter — Ma’s doing well — at the outset the doctor said it would be six months before the leg had healed — now he’s talking about a good 3 months1 — and he said to Ma — ‘but that’s your daughter’s fault, for I seldom, very seldom, see such good care as she gives’. What Wil does is exemplary, exemplary, I shan’t easily forget that.
Almost everything has fallen on her shoulders from the outset, and she’s spared Ma a great deal of misery.
To mention just one thing, it’s definitely her fault that Ma has so few bedsores (which started very badly at the beginning and had deteriorated). And I assure you that the chores she has to do aren’t always pleasant.
Now listen — when I’d read your letter about the drawings, I immediately sent you a new watercolour of a weaver and five pen drawings.2 For my part, too, I’ll tell you frankly that I think that what you say is true, that my work will have to get much better, but at the same time also that your efforts to do something with it might also be a little more decisive. You have never yet sold a single thing of mine — not for a lot or a little — and IN FACT HAVEN’T TRIED TO YET. As you can see, I’m not getting angry about it — but — there’s no need to beat about the bush.
I certainly wouldn’t put up with it in the long run.
For your part, you can also continue to speak frankly.
As far as saleability and unsaleability are concerned, that’s an old file I don’t intend to blunt my teeth on.3
Well, you see that my answer is that I send some new ones — and I’ll very willingly go on doing so — Id like nothing better than that. Only you must be totally frank for once — which is what I’d prefer — as to whether you think you’ll bother yourself with them in the future, or whether your dignity won’t permit it. Leaving aside the past — I’m facing the future, and not counting what you think of them, I fully intend to try to do something with them.
You recently told me yourself that you’re a dealer — very well — one doesn’t lapse into sentimentality with a dealer; one says, sir, if I give you drawings on commission, may I count on your showing them? The dealer has to decide for himself
1v:3 whether he wants to say yes — no — or something in between.
But the painter would be foolish to send them on commission if he could tell that the dealer considered his work to be something that shouldn’t see the light of day.
Now, old chap — we both live in the real world — and precisely because we don’t want to put a spoke in each other’s wheels, we must speak candidly. If you say — I can’t be bothered with them — very well, I won’t get angry about it — but then I’m not obliged to believe that you’re an absolute oracle either, am I?
You say: the public will be annoyed by this little spot and that, &c. &c. Now listen, that may be so, but this or that bothers you, the dealer, much more than the public in question, I’ve already remarked on that so often — and you start with that. I have to fight my way through, too, Theo, and with you I’m still at precisely, precisely the same level as a few years ago. What you say of my current work — ‘it is almost saleable but’ — is word for word the same as what you wrote to me when I sent you my first Brabant sketches from Etten.4 So I say — it’s an old file.
And my reasoning is that I foresee that you’ll always say the same thing — and that I, who until today have been consistently rather chary of making approaches to dealers, will now change tactics and become very assiduous in trying to sell my work.5
I do understand that you couldn’t care less about my doings. But if you couldn’t care less, for my part I always find it fairly wretched and rather dread things that will probably crop up — namely that people will ask me: what, don’t you do business with your brother or with Goupil? Well, then I’ll say — it’s beneath the dignity of those Messrs G&Cie, Van Gogh & Co. This will probably create a bad impression of me — which I’m quite prepared for — but which I foresee will consequently make me cooler and cooler towards you too.
I’ve now painted the little old church6 and another new weaver.7 Are the studies from Drenthe really so very bad?8 I don’t feel inclined to send you the painted studies from here, no, let’s not start on that — you can see them if you come here sometime in the spring, perhaps.
What you write about Marie is quite understandable — if a woman isn’t very milk and water I can very well imagine that she has little inclination to mope around with cantankerous fathers and pious sisters, at least a woman as much as a man would feel a fairly pressing temptation to end that stagnation, come what may.9
Stagnation that begins with a resignation that is perhaps fine in itself, but which alas one must come to regret, usually, when one feels one would eventually freeze. Read something by Daudet about pious women, ‘Those two faces looked at each other — they exchanged a spiteful, cold, closed look — what’s the matter with him/her? Always the same thing’.10 There you have it, that singular look of Pharisees and devout ladies. Yes, therefore we always lack — the same thing.
Yes — what am I supposed to think about what you say about my work? For example, I’ll now turn specifically to the studies from Drenthe — there are some among them that are very superficial, I said that myself — but what do I get served up for the ones that were simply painted quietly and calmly outdoors, trying to say nothing in them but what I saw? I get in return: aren’t you too preoccupied with Michel? (I’m talking here about the study of the little hut in the dark11 and about the largest of the sod huts, namely the one with the little green field in the foreground.)12 You would certainly say exactly the same thing about the little old churchyard.
And yet, neither looking at the little churchyard nor at the sod huts did I think about Michel, I thought about the subject I was looking at. A subject indeed such that I believe, if Michel had passed by, it would have brought him to a halt and struck him.
For my part, I certainly don’t put myself on a par with master Michel — but I definitely don’t therefore imitate Michel either.
Well, I may perhaps try to sell something in Antwerp, and I’d like to put a couple of those selfsame Drenthe studies in black wooden frames — which I’m looking for at a carpenter’s here — I prefer to see my work in a deep black frame, and he makes them cheaply enough.13
You mustn’t take it amiss that I mention it, brother.
I’m seeking something calm and something cool in my work. No more than I approve of its just lying about, do I want my work to be displayed in fluted frames in the leading galleries, you see.
And now it’s time to begin on that middle way, in my view, and I have to know fairly definitely how I stand with you, or rather I tell you that, although you’re still evading the issue in what you say, I believe that you will not in fact show it. And I don’t even believe that you’ll change your mind for the time being.
Whether you’re right or wrong about this — I’m not going into that. You’ll tell me that I’ll be treated by other dealers exactly the same as by you, except that, although you can’t be bothered with my work, you furnish me with money anyway, and other dealers certainly won’t do that, and without money I’ll become completely stuck.
I say in reply that things aren’t as clear-cut as that in real life, and that I’ll see how far I get living from day to day.
I told you beforehand that I wanted to settle these matters this month, and so it must be done.14 Well, because you probably plan to come as early as the spring I don’t insist that you make a final decision immediately, but realize that I can’t accept it as it is now — for myself, wherever I go and especially at home, too, I’m always being watched — what I do with my work, whether I get anything for it &c., in short in society almost everyone looks out for it all the time and wants to know all about it.
And this is very understandable. Well, it’s very wretched for me always being in a false position.
Come on — things can’t stay the same as they are now. Why not? Because they can’t.
If I’m as cool as can be to Pa — to C.M. — why should I behave any differently towards you were I to observe in you precisely the same tactics of never speaking out. Do I consider myself better than Pa or you? Perhaps not, perhaps I divide things less and less into good and bad — but I do know that these tactics don’t befit a painter and that, as a painter, one must speak out and resolve certain things.
2r:8 In short — I believe that a door should either be open or shut.15
Well, I think you do understand that a dealer cannot be neutral towards painters — that it makes exactly the same impression whether you say no with or without mincing your words, and that it may be even more infuriating when it’s said wrapped up in compliments.
Now here’s something that you’ll perhaps understand later on better than you do now — I pity dealers when they get old — even if they’ve already made their piles — that doesn’t solve everything — at least not then. Everything has its price, and an ice-cold wilderness is what it often becomes for them then.
Well — but you’ll perhaps think differently about it. And you’ll say that it’s also pretty sad when a painter dies miserably in a hospital and is buried with the whores in the common grave — where a lot of them lie, after all — particularly when one considers that dying may not be as difficult as living.
Well, one can’t take it amiss that a dealer doesn’t always have the money to help, but one can, in my view, take it amiss if one notices that this respectable dealer or that speaks very cordially, but he’s ashamed of me in his heart and he completely ignores my work. So frankly, I won’t take it amiss if you say straight out that you don’t think my work is good enough or that there are, moreover, yet other reasons why you can’t be bothered with it, but if you leave it in a corner somewhere and you don’t show it, this isn’t kind if it’s accompanied by the assurance — WHICH IS NOT LIKELY — that you yourself see something in it. I don’t believe that — you mean practically none of it. And precisely because you say yourself that you know my work better than anyone else, I may assume that you must think very badly of it indeed if you don’t want to soil your hands with it. Why should I force myself on you? Well, regards.
Apart from a few years which I find hard to understand myself, when I was confused by religious ideas — by a sort of mysticism — leaving aside that period,16 I’ve always lived with a certain warmth. Now it’s all becoming bleaker and colder and duller around me. And when I tell you that in the first place I WILL not stand it like this, never mind whether or not I can, I refer to what I said right at the very beginning of our relationship. What I’ve had against you in the last year is a sort of relapse into cold decency, which I find sterile and of no use to one — diametrically opposed to everything that is action, especially to everything that is artistic.
I say it as I see it, not to make you wretched but to get you to see and feel if possible the reason that I no longer think of you as a brother and friend with the same pleasure as before. There has to be more zest in my life if I want to get more brio into my brush — I won’t get a hair’s breadth further by exercising patience. If, for your part, you relapse into the above-mentioned, don’t then take it amiss if I’m not the same towards you as I was in the first year, say.
About my drawings — at this moment it seems to me that the watercolours, the pen drawings of the weavers, the latest pen drawings I’m working on now, aren’t so dull on the whole that they’re nothing at all. But if I come to the conclusion: they’re no good, and Theo is right not to show them to anyone — then — then — it will be all the more proof that I have good reason to dislike our present false position, and will try all the more to change, come what may — better or worse, but not the same.
Now if I saw that, if you didn’t think I’d improved enough, you did something about it to get me further along by introducing me to another capable painter, for instance, because Mauve has dropped out, or anyway something, some sign or other that proved to me that you really believed in my progress or promoted it. But no, there’s — yes, the money — but otherwise nothing except that ‘just keep on working’, ‘be patient’ — as cold, as dead, as arid and as insufferable, just as if, for instance, Pa said it. I can’t live on that — it’s too lonely, too cold, too empty and too lacklustre for me.
I’m no better than anyone else, in so far as I have my needs and desires like everyone, and it’s very understandable that one reacts knowing for sure that one is really being kept dangling, in the dark.
If one goes from bad to worse — this wouldn’t be impossible in my case — what would it matter? If one is badly off, one has to take a chance of making things better.
Brother — I really must remind you of how I was at the very beginning of what we began. Right from the outset I’ve talked to you about the question of women. I still recall that I took you to the station in Roosendaal in the first year, and that I said to you then that I was so against being alone that I would rather be with a common whore than alone. Perhaps you remember that.17
I found the idea that our relationship might not last almost unbearable at first. And I so very much wished that it had been simple to change things. However I can’t always keep on fooling myself that this can be done against the grain.
The depression about it has thus been one of the reasons I wrote to you so assertively from Drenthe, become a painter yet.18 Which cooled off immediately when I saw that your dissatisfaction about business matters vanished when you were on better terms with Goupil again.
At first I thought it was only half sincere — then later, and now, still, I think it very understandable and think it more a mistake on my part that I wrote to you, become a painter, than on yours that you resumed your affairs with enthusiasm when they became more possible to resume and the machinations making it impossible for you ceased.
What remains, though, is that I still feel depressed by the falseness of the position between us. At this moment it’s more important for me to sell for 5 guilders than to receive 10 guilders by way of patronage. Well, you repeatedly write, actually most definitely, that you haven’t made, aren’t making, nor believe for the present you’re able to make the least or slightest effort for my work; first, not as a dealer (I let that pass, and at least don’t take it amiss of you) but, secondly, not in private either (and that I do take somewhat amiss of you).
In this case I mustn’t sit doing nothing or be a funker, so straight out, if you do nothing with my work, I don’t want your patronage. I state the reason plainly and I’ll state it precisely the same way, when giving a reason for it is hard to avoid.
So it isn’t that I want to ignore or belittle your help from the start until now. It’s a matter of my seeing more benefit in even the poorest, most wretched muddling along than in patronage (which it’s degenerating into).
One can’t do without it at the very, very beginning, but now I must for God’s sake, God knows how, just start muddling along rather than acquiesce in something that would take us no further anyway. Brotherly or not brotherly, if you can do nothing other than absolutely the financial alone, you might as well keep that too. As it has been in the last year, I almost dare to say, it was confined solely to money.
And although you say you give me a completely free hand, it seemed to me, at bottom, that if I do this or that with a woman, for instance, that you and others don’t approve of
4v:13 (perhaps rightly disapprove of, but sometimes I don’t give a damn about that), there comes one of those little tugs on the purse-strings just to make me feel that it’s ‘in my interest’ to go along with your opinion.
So you got your way regarding the woman, and it was finished,19 but — — — — — — what damn good is it to me to get a bit of money if it means I have to practise morality? Yet in itself I don’t think it something absurd in you when you disapproved this summer of my still wanting to go through with it. But I can foresee the following in the future: I’ll have another relationship in what you people call the lower orders — and again, if I still have a relationship with you, meet the same opposition. Opposition that you people could only carry through with any semblance of fairness if I received so much from you that I could do something different. Which you don’t give and can’t or won’t give, after all — neither you, nor Pa, nor C.M. or the rest, who are always first off the mark to disapprove of this or that — and which I don’t after all want from you either, since I don’t give much thought to the lower or upper orders.
Do you see why it wasn’t an irresponsible action on my part, and wouldn’t be if I were to try it again?
Because first I don’t have any pretension, don’t feel any desire at all, and secondly don’t receive the means from anyone whatsoever, or earn them, to keep up some sort of position or whatever you call it — I consider myself completely at liberty to consort with the so-called lower orders if the opportunity arises.
We’d perpetually return to the same questions.
Just ask yourself now if I’m alone among those in the same profession who would most definitely turn down patronage if it entails obligations to maintain some sort of position while the money wasn’t enough to be able to do it, so that one gets into debt rather than make progress. If it could be done on the money, I might perhaps not refuse to bend, any more than others do. But we’re certainly not that far at present — I have a stretch of years in front of me, as you say yourself, when my work will have very little commercial value. Very well — THEN I WOULD RATHER FALL INTO THE HANDS OF MUDDLING ALONG and of living through hard times20 — which I’ve done more than once — than into the hands of Messrs Van Gogh.
My only regret about arguing with Pa when I did is that I didn’t do it 10 years earlier. If you carry on in the footsteps of Pa &c. — you’ll just see how you’ll gradually get annoyed — and — how you would also become annoying to certain people. But those are awkward customers21 and, you’ll say — they’re of no consequence.