Sometimes, I'm afraid, you cast a book aside because it is
too realistic. Have pity on, and patience with, this letter,
and in any case read it through, even though you may think it a
My dear Theo,
As I wrote to you from The Hague, I still have one or two
things to discuss with you now that I am back here again. It is
not without emotion that I think back on my short trip to The
Hague. When I arrived at M[auve]'s, my heart was beating quite
hard, because I was thinking to myself, is he going to try to
fob me off with fair words too or am I going to find something
And well, what I found was that in all sorts of practical
and friendly ways he helped and encouraged me. Mind you, not by
approving of what I did or said all the time, on the contrary.
But if he says to me, “This or that is no good,” he
immediately adds, “but just try it this way or
that,” which is a different matter altogether from
criticizing for the sake of criticizing. If somebody says,
“You have this or that illness,” that's not a great
deal of help, but if he says, “Do this or that and you
will get better,” and his advice is reliable, then you
see, he has told you the truth, and, and, it's a help as
Anyway, I came away from him with some painted studies and a
few watercolours. They are not masterpieces, of course, yet I
really believe that there is some soundness and truth in them,
more at any rate than what I've done up to now. And so I reckon
that I am now at the beginning of the beginning of doing
something serious. And because I can now call on a couple of
technical resources, that is to say, paint and brush,
everything seems fresh again, as it were.
But - now we have to put it all into practice. And so the
first thing I must do is find a room large enough for me to
keep at a proper distance.
As soon as he saw my studies Mauve told me, “You are
sitting too close to your model.” In many cases that
means it's virtually impossible to achieve the proper
proportions, and so that is definitely one of the first things
I must attend to. I simply must find a large place to rent
somewhere, be it a room or a shed. And it won't be all that
terribly expensive. It costs 30 guilders a year to rent a
workman's cottage in these parts, so I reckon that a room twice
as large as one in a workman's cottage would come to, say, 60
guilders. And that's feasible.
I have already seen a shed, but it may have too many
drawbacks, especially in wintertime. But I could work there, at
least when the weather is a bit milder. And then there are
models to be found here in Brabant, I think, and not just in
Etten but in other villages too, should objections be raised
However, though I am very fond of Brabant I still have a
feeling for figures other than the Brabant peasant type. Thus I
still think Scheveningen is beautiful beyond words. But I
happen to be here, and most probably it works out more cheaply
here. In any case, I have promised M. to do my best to find a
good studio, and besides,
For studies and sketches, though, the Ingres paper is
excellent. And it works out much cheaper to make my own
sketchbooks in various sizes from that than to buy the
I still have a small supply of Ingres paper, but if you
could include some more of the same kind when you send those
studies back to me, I should be greatly obliged to you. Not
snow-white, but rather the colour of unbleached linen, no cold
Theo, what a great thing tone and colour are. And those who
fail to learn to have feelings for them will remain far removed
from real life. M. has taught me to see so many things that I
used not to see and one day I shall try to tell you what he has
told me, as there may well be one or two things you do not see
properly either. Anyway, I hope we'll have a good discussion
about artistic matters some day.
And you cannot imagine the feeling of liberation I am
beginning to have when I remember the things M. has told me
about earning money. Just think of how I have been muddling
along for years, always in a kind of fausse [false] position.
And now there is a glimmering of real light.
I wish you could see the two watercolours I have brought
back with me, for you would realize that they are watercolours
just like any other watercolours. They may still be full of
imperfections, que soit, I am the first to say that I am still
very dissatisfied with them, and yet they are quite different
from what I have done before and look fresher and brighter.
That doesn't alter the fact, however, that they must get
fresher and brighter still, but one can't do everything one
wants just like that. It will come little by little.
However, I need those two drawings I did, for I must be able
to compare them with the ones I am going to do here, in order
to keep the standard at least up to what I did at M.'s. Now
although M. tells me that if I muddle along here for another
few months and then go back to him, say in March, I shall be
producing saleable drawings on a regular basis, I am still
passing through a fairly difficult period right now. The cost
of model, studio, drawing and painting materials keeps going up
and I'm not earning any money yet.
To be sure, Father has said that I needn't worry about any
unavoidable expenses, and he is pleased with what M. himself
has told him and also with the studies and drawings I brought
back. But I still think it is quite dreadful that Father should
be out of pocket as a result. Of course, we hope it will turn
out all right later on, but still, it is a load on my mind. For
since I have been here Father has made really nothing at all
out of me, and more than once, for instance, he has bought me a
coat or a pair of trousers that I would really rather not have
had, although I needed them, but Father should not have to be
out of pocket because of that. The more so as the coat or
trousers in question don't fit and are of little or no use.
Well, here is yet another petite misère de la vie
Besides, as I told you earlier, I loathe not being
completely independent. For though Father doesn't expect me to
account literally for every cent, he always knows exactly how
much I spend and on what. And though as far as I am concerned I
have no secrets, I still don't like showing my hand to people.
As far as I am concerned even my secrets are not secrets to
those with whom I am in sympathy.
Whenever I tell Father anything, it goes in one ear and out
the other, and that certainly applies no less to Mother, and
similarly I find Father and Mother's sermons and ideas about
God, people, morality and virtue a lot of stuff and nonsense. I
too read the Bible occasionally, just as I sometimes read
Michelet or Balzac or Eliot, but I see quite different things
in the Bible from what Father does, and what Father in his
little academic way gleans from it I cannot find in it at
Now that the Rev. Mr. ten Kate has translated Goethe's
Faust, Father and Mother have read it, for since a clergyman
has translated it, it cannot be all that immoral (???qu'est ce
que ça? [What's that?]). But they see it as no more than
the disastrous consequences of an indelicate love.
And they certainly understand the Bible no better. Take
Mauve, for example. When he reads something profound, he
doesn't immediately come out with: that man means this or that.
For poetry is so deep and intangible that one cannot define it
systematically. But Mauve has a keen sensibility and, you see,
I find that sensibility worth a great deal more than
definitions and criticisms. And when I read, and actually I
don't read all that much and then only a few writers, men whom
I have discovered by accident, then I do so because they look
at things more broadly and generously and with more love than I
do and are acquainted better with reality, and because I can
learn from them. But I really don't care for all that twaddle
about good and evil, morality and immorality. For to be sure, I
find it impossible always to tell what is good and what is bad,
what is moral and what is immoral.
Morality or immorality brings me back willy-nilly to K. V.
Ah! I wrote to you at the time that it was beginning to seem
less and less like eating strawberries in the spring. Well,
that is indeed the case.
Forgive me if I repeat myself, but I don't know if I've
already written to you exactly what happened to me in
Amsterdam. I went there thinking, perhaps the no, never, ever
will thaw, the weather is so mild.
And so one fine evening I trudged along the Keizergracht
looking for the house, and indeed I found it. And naturally I
rang the doorbell and was told the family were still at dinner.
But then I was told to come in all the same. And all of them
were there, including Jan and that very learned professor -
except for Kee. And there was a plate in front of each person,
but no extra plate. This small detail struck me. They had
wanted to make me think that Kee wasn't there and had taken
away her plate, but I knew that she was there, and I thought it
all a bit of a farce or charade.
After a while I asked (after the usual small talk and
greetings), “But where is Kee?”
Then J. P. S. repeated my question to his wife,
“Mother, where is Kee?”
And Mother, the wife, said, “Kee is out.”
So for the moment I inquired no further, but chatted with
the professor about the exhibition at Arti which he had just
seen. Well, then the professor disappeared and little Jan
disappeared and J. P. S. and his spouse and yours truly
remained alone and squared up to each other.
J. P. S. took the floor, as clergyman and Father, and said
that he had been on the point of sending yours truly a letter
and that he would read that letter out.
First, however, interrupting the Rev. or Very Rev.
gentleman, I asked again, “Where is Kee?” (For I
knew she was in town.)
Then J. P. S. said, “Kee left the house the moment she
heard you were here.” Now I know a few things about her
and I must make clear to you that I did not know then nor do I
know now with any certainty whether her coldness and rudeness
are a good or a bad sign. This much I do know, that I have
never seen her so apparently or actually cold and stern and
rude to anyone else but me. So, staying perfectly calm, I did
not say much.
“Let me hear the letter then,” I said, “or
not, I don't much care either way.”
Then came the epistle. The document was Very Reverend and
Most Learned and so did not really amount to anything, but it
did seem to say that I was requested to cease my correspondence
and advised to make energetic efforts to put the matter out of
my mind. Finally the reading came to an end. I felt just as if
I had been listening to the clergyman, after his voice had been
doing a sing-song, saying amen in church. It left me as cold as
any ordinary sermon.
And then I began and said as calmly and civilly as I could,
well, yes, I had heard this kind of argument very often before,
but what now? - et après ça [and after that]? J.
P. S. looked up then…indeed, he seemed faintly alarmed
that I was not completely convinced that the utmost limit of
the human capacity to think and feel had been reached.
According to him, no `et après ça' was possible
And so we continued, and every so often Aunt M. would add a
peculiarly Jesuistical word, and I got a bit steamed up and for
once I did not pull my punches. And J. P. S. did not pull his
punches either, going as far as a clergyman could. And although
he did not exactly say `God damn you,' anyone other than a
clergyman in J. P. S.'s mood would have expressed himself
But you know that I love both Father and J. P. S. in my way,
despite really detesting their system, and I shifted my ground
a bit, and gave and took a little, so that at the end of the
evening they told me I could stay for the night if I
Then I said, “Thank you very much, but if Kee walks
out of the house as soon as I come calling, I don't think this
is the right moment to spend the night here. I'll go to my
And then they asked, “Where are you
I said, “I don't know yet,” and then Uncle and
Aunt insisted on taking me themselves to a good cheap
And my goodness, those two old people went with me through
the cold, foggy, muddy streets and they did indeed show me a
very good and very cheap hotel. I absolutely insisted on their
not coming and they absolutely insisted on showing me. And, you
see, I found something very human in that and it calmed me down
I stayed in Amsterdam another two days and had another talk
with J. P. S., but I didn't see Kee, who spirited herself away
every time. And I said that they ought to know that though they
wanted me to consider the matter over and done with, I for my
part was unable to do so. And to that they continually and
steadily replied that I would learn to understand things better
I saw the professor too, again a few times, and I have to
say he improves upon acquaintance, but, but, but, what else can
I say about the gentleman? I told him I wished he might fall in
love one day. There you are. Can professors fall in love? Do
clergymen know what love is?
I read Michelet's La femme, la religion et le prêtre
the other day. [The correct title is Du prêtre, de la
femme, de la famille.] Books like that are filled with reality,
but what is more real than reality itself and where is there
more life than in life itself? And we who are doing our best to
live, if only we lived a great deal more!
Time hung heavily on my hands those three days in Amsterdam.
I felt thoroughly miserable and found all that grudging
kindness of Uncle's and Aunt's and all those discussions very
hard to take. Until in the end I began to find myself hard to
take as well and said to myself, “You don't want to get
melancholy again, do you?” And then I said to myself,
“Don't let yourself be browbeaten.”
And so it was that on a Sunday morning I went to see J. P.
S. for the last time, and said, “Look here, dear Uncle,
if Kee V. were an angel, then she would be too exalted for me
and I don't think I could stay in love with an angel. If she
were a devil, I shouldn't want to have anything to do with her.
In the present case I see in her a real woman, with feminine
passions and whims and I love her very much indeed and that is
a fact and I'm glad of it. As long as she doesn't become an
angel or a devil, then the present case is not over.”
And J. P. S. couldn't add much to that and even said
something about feminine passions, I don't quite know what he
said, and then J. P. S. went off to church. No wonder one grows
hardened there and turns to stone, as I know from my own
And so, as far as the person in question, your brother, is
concerned, he refused to allow himself to be browbeaten. But
that didn't alter the fact that he had a browbeaten feeling, as
if he had been standing too long against a cold, hard
whitewashed church wall.
And yes, if I may say so, my dear fellow, it is a little
risky to remain a realist, but Theo, Theo, you are a realist
yourself after all, well, please put up with my realism! I told
you that as far as I am concerned even my secrets are no
secrets, well, I am not taking that back, think of me what you
will, and whether or not you approve of what I did does not
really affect the issue.
I continue - from Amsterdam I went to Haarlem and spent a
very enjoyable time with our dear little sister Willemien and
went for a walk with her and in the evening I left for The
Hague and ended up at M.'s at about seven o'clock.
And I said, “Look here, M., you were supposed to come
to Etten to try to initiate me, more or less, into the
mysteries of the palette. But it occurred to me that that would
take more than just a few days, so I have come to you, and if
you agree I shall stay here for about four to six weeks, or for
as long or as short a time as you like, and then we shall see
what is to be done. It's a bit impertinent of me to ask so much
of you, but, well, j'ai l'épée dans les
reins.” [I am under great pressure.]
Anyway, then M. said, “Have you bought anything with
“Certainly, here are a few studies,” and then he
said many, far too many, kind things about them, but he also
made a few, far too few, criticisms. Well, the next day we set
up a still life and he started by saying, “This is how
you must hold your palette.” And since then I have done a
few painted studies and then later two watercolours.
So that is the summary of the work, but working with one's
hands and head is not the whole of life.
I still felt chilled to the marrow, that is, to the marrow
of my soul, by the above-mentioned imaginary or non-imaginary
church wall. And I said to myself, you don't want to let that
fatal feeling browbeat you. Then I thought to myself, I should
like to be with a woman for a change, I cannot live without
love, without a woman. I wouldn't give two cents for life if
there were not something infinite, something deep, something
But, said I to myself then, you said “she and no
other” and now you want to go to another woman? But
that's unreasonable, isn't it, that's illogical, isn't it?
And my answer to that was: who is the master, logic or I,
does logic exist for me or do I exist for logic, and is there
no reason or sense in my unreasonableness or my lack of sense?
And whether I do right or wrong, I have no choice, that damned
wall is too cold for me, I need a woman, I cannot, will not,
may not, live without love. I am only a man and a man with
passions, I must have a woman, otherwise I shall freeze or turn
to stone or, in short, I shall have let things browbeat me.
I had in the circumstances, however, fought a great battle
with myself and in that battle some of the things I believe
concerning one's constitution and hygiene, that I have come to
know more or less through bitter experience, gained the upper
hand. One cannot forgo a woman for too long with impunity. And
I do not believe that what some call God and others the supreme
being and others nature, is unreasonable and pitiless, in short
I came to the conclusion: I want to see whether I can find a
And, my goodness, I didn't have to look all that far. I
found a woman, by no means young, by no means beautiful,
nothing special if you like. But perhaps you are a little
curious. She was fairly tall, and strongly built, she didn't
have the hands of a lady, like K. V., but the hands of a woman
who does a great deal of work. But she was not coarse or common
and had something very feminine about her. She reminded me of
some quaint figure by Chardin or Frère or perhaps Jan
Steen. Anyway, what the French call “un
ouvrière” [a woman worker]. She had had many
cares, you could see, and life had been hard for her. Oh,
nothing refined, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing
Tout femme à tout âge, si elle aime et si elle
est bonne, peut donner â l'homme non l'infini du moment,
mais le moment de l'infini. [Any woman, at any age, if she
loves and is a good woman, can give a man not the infinity of a
moment, but a moment of infinity.]
Theo, for me that faded je ne sais quoi, that something over
which life has passed, has infinite charm. Ah! For me she did
have charm, something of Feyen-Perrin, of Perugino. See here, I
am not quite as innocent as a “bec blanc”
[greenhorn], much less a baby in a cradle.
It was not the first time that I was unable to resist that
feeling of affection, that special affection and love for those
women who are so damned and condemned and despised by clergymen
from the lofty heights of their pulpits. I do not damn them, I
do not condemn them, I do not despise them.
See here, I am nearly thirty and do you really think that
[I] have never felt the need for love? K. V. is even older than
I am, she has also known love in the past, but she is all the
dearer to me for it. She is not inexperienced, but neither am
I. If she wants to hold on to an old love and have nothing to
do with a new, that is her affair, but if she insists on doing
that and cold-shoulders me, I shan't stifle my energy and my
mental powers on her account. No, I refuse to do that, I love
her but I will not allow myself to become frozen and my mind
crippled because of her. And the spur, the spark we need, is
love, and not mystical love either.
That woman has not cheated me - oh, he who takes all such
women for cheats is so wrong and has so little understanding.
That woman was good to me, very good, very dear, very kind, in
a way I shall not even tell my brother Theo, because I strongly
suspect that my brother Theo has had a similar experience. Tant
mieux pour lui. [So much the better for him.]
Did we spend much money? No, because I didn't have much, and
I said to her, “Look here, you and I don't have to make
ourselves drunk to feel something for each other, you had best
put what I can spare in your pocket.” And I wish I could
have spared more, for she was worth it. And we talked about
everything, about her life, about her worries, about her
misery, about her health, and I had a more exhilarating
conversation with her than, for instance, with my learned,
professorial cousin Jan.
Now I am telling you these things not least because I hope
you will realize that though I do have some sentiment, I don't
want to be sentimental in a silly way. That I want quand bien
même [all the same] to keep some warmth and vitality and
my mind clear and my constitution sound in order to be able to
work. And that I conceive my love for K. V. in this light, that
for her sake I don't want to get down to work feeling
melancholy and will not allow myself to be thrown off
That is something you will understand, you who have written
something on the question of hygiene in your letter. You
mentioned the fact that you haven't been enjoying good health
lately - make every effort you can to get better again.
The clergymen call us sinners, conceived and born in sin.
Bah! What confounded nonsense that is. Is it a sin to love, to
feel the need for love, not to be able to live without love? I
consider a life without love a sinful and immoral state.
If there is anything I regret then it is that period when I
allowed mystical and theological profundities to mislead me
into withdrawing too much into myself. I have gradually come to
change my mind. When you wake up in the morning and find you
are not alone but can see a fellow creature there in the
half-light, it makes the world look so much more welcoming.
Much more welcoming than the devotional journals and
whitewashed church walls beloved of clergymen. She lived in a
modest, simple little room lent a quiet grey tone by the plain
wallpaper, yet warm like a picture by Chardin, a wooden floor
with a mat and a piece of old dark-red carpet, an ordinary
kitchen stove, a chest of drawers, a large, perfectly simple
bed, in short, a real ouvrière's home. The next day she
had to work at the washtub. Fair enough, I should have found
her no more charming in a purple camisole jacket and a black
skirt than I did now in a dress of brown or reddish-grey. And
she was no longer young, perhaps the same age as K. V., and she
had a child, yes, life had left its mark and her youth was
gone. Gone? - il n'y a point de vielle femme [there are no old
women]. Ah, and she was strong and healthy - and yet not
coarse, not common.
Are those who set such great store by distinction always
able to spot the distinguished? Good heavens, people search
high and low for what is right under their noses, and I do too,
now and then.
I am glad I did as I did because I can think of no earthly
reason that would keep me from my work or cause me to lose my
good humour. When I think of K. V., then yes, I still say,
“she and no other,” then I still think as I did in
the summer about “looking for another girl in the
meanwhile.” But it isn't since yesterday that I have been
taking a warm interest in those women whom the clergy condemn,
despise and damn, indeed my love for them is rather older than
that for Kee Vos. Many times when I walked the streets all
alone with time hanging heavily on my hands, half sick and down
in the dumps, with no money in my pocket, I would look at them
and envy the people who would go with one, and I felt that
those poor girls were my sisters in respect of circumstances
and experience in life. And, you see, that is an old feeling of
mine, and goes deep. Even as a boy I would often look up with
infinite sympathy, indeed with respect, at a woman's face past
its prime, inscribed as it were with the words: here life and
reality have left their mark.
But my feeling for K. V. is quite new and something quite
different. Sans le savoir [without realizing it], she is in a
kind of prison, she too is poor and cannot do as she pleases,
she feels a kind of resignation, and it is my belief that the
Jesuitisms of clergymen and devout ladies often make a greater
impression on her than on me, Jesuitisms which, precisely
because I have acquired some dessous de cartes [inside
information], no longer have any hold on me now. But she is
devoted to them and would be unable to bear it if the system of
resignation and sin and God and I know not what else, proved to
And I don't think it ever occurs to her that God may only
appear once we say the words, those words with which Multatuli
ends his prayer of an unbeliever: “Oh God, there is no
God.” You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead
as a doornail. But does that make me an atheist? Clergymen
consider me one - que soit - but you see, I love, and how could
I feel love if I were not alive myself or if others were not
alive, and if we are alive there is something wondrous about
it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but
there is a certain something I cannot define systematically,
although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me
that something is God or as good as God. You see, when in due
course my time comes, one way or other, to die, well, what will
keep me going even then? Won't it be the thought of love (moral
or immoral love, what do I know about it?)
And good heavens, I love Kee Vos for a thousand reasons, but
precisely because I believe in life and in something real I am
no longer as given to abstractions as before, when I had more
or less the same ideas about God and religion as Kee Vos seems
to have now. I am not giving her up, but that spiritual crisis
with which she is perhaps struggling must be given time, and I
am prepared to be patient about it and nothing she says or does
now makes me angry. But while she cherishes and clings to the
old, I must work and keep my mind clear for painting and
drawing and for business. So I did what I did from a need for
affection and for reasons of mental hygiene.
I am telling you all this so that you won't think that I am
in a melancholy or abstracted, brooding mood. On the contrary,
most of the time I am fiddling around with and thinking about
paints, making watercolours, looking for a studio, etc., etc.
Old fellow, if only I could find a suitable studio!
Well, my letter has become rather long, but there you are.
Sometimes I wish that the three months before I can go back to
M. were already over, but as it is they may do me some good.
But do write to me now and then. Is there any chance of your
coming here this winter?
And believe me, I shan't rent a studio, etc., without first
finding out what Mauve thinks. I shall send him the floor plan,
as agreed, and he may come and have a look at it himself if
need be. But Father must stay out of it. Father is not the man
to get mixed up in artistic matters. And the less I am involved
in dealings with Father, the better I get on with him. I must
be free and independent in very many respects, that goes
I sometimes shudder when I think of K. V. and of her burying
herself in her past and clinging to old and dead ideas. There
is something fatal about it and, oh, it would not diminish her
if she were to change her views. I think it quite possible that
there will be some reaction, there is so much that is healthy
and spirited in her.
And so in March I shall go back to The Hague and, and, to
Amsterdam as well. But when I left Amsterdam that time, I told
myself: under no circumstances will you become melancholy or
allow things to get you down, letting your work suffer just
when you have started to make some headway. Eating strawberries
in the spring is indeed part of your life, but it is only one
short moment in the year and right now it is still a long way
And so you envy me for some reason or other? Oh, my dear
fellow, no need for that, since what I seek can be found by
everyone, perhaps even sooner by you than by me. And oh, I am
so backward and narrow-minded in many things, if only I knew
exactly where the trouble lay and how to go about putting it
right. But alas, we often do not see the beams in our own
Write to me soon and try to separate the wheat from the
chaff in my letters. If there is some good in them, some truth,
tant mieux, but there is, of course, much in them that is more
or less wrong, or exaggerated perhaps, without my always being
aware of it. I am anything but a man of learning, and I am so
amazingly ignorant, oh, just like so many others and even more
so than others, but I am unable to judge that myself and can
judge others even less than myself, and am often mistaken. But
we pick up the scent as we wander about and il y a du bon en
tout mouvement [there is some good in every movement] (I
chanced to hear Jules Breton say that, by the way, and
remembered the remark).
Incidentally, have you ever heard Mauve preach? I've heard
him mimicking several clergymen - once he preached about
Peter's boat. The sermon was divided into 3 parts:
1st, was he given the boat or did he inherit it?
2nd, did he purchase it in installments or by taking
out shares? 3rd, had he (dreadful thought) stolen
it? Then he went on to preach about “the Lord's good
intentions” and about “the Tigris and the
Euphrates” and finally he mimicked J. P. S. marrying A.
[Anna Carbentus, Vincent's cousin] and Lecomte.
But when I told him that I had once said during a discussion
with Father that I believed that even in church, even in the
pulpit, one could say something edifying, M. agreed. And then
he mimicked Father Bernhard: “God - God - is almighty -
He has made the sea, He has made the earth and the sky and the
stars and the sun and the moon, He can do everything -
everything - but - no, He is not almighty, there is one thing
that He cannot do. What is that thing that God Almighty cannot
do? God Almighty cannot cast out a sinner.”
Well, goodbye, Theo, write soon, a handshake in my thoughts,
and believe me,
Ever yours, Vincent
At this time, Vincent was 28 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written c. 21 December 1881 in Etten. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 164.
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