[Reprinted from the column “Among People" (Onder de
mensen) by M. J. Brusse in the Nieuwe Rotterdamse
Courant, a well-known Rotterdam newspaper, of May 26 and
June 2, 1914.]
VINCENT VAN GOGH AS BOOKSELLER'S CLERK
Among a group of art lovers not long ago the conversation
turned to Vincent van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, which
his sister-in-law, Mrs. J. van Gogh-Bonger, was busily and
painstakingly arranging and annotating for publication in
three heavy volumes. Dr. Jan Veth 1 told us about
it. A long time ago, he said, he had been allowed to read them
in manuscript. He was very impressed by the noble sentiment
expressed in them and by their occasional utter simplicity.
Those of his English period had struck him as especially
For a while the conversation continued spontaneously about
the artist and the art dealer, the close friendship between the
two brothers, which, particularly on Theo's part was not less
than heroic in its self-sacrifice.
Johan de Meester 2 knew instances of this,
observed during his own years in Paris. He also showed us the
precious collection of Vincent's letters to their mutual
friend, the young painter Van Rappard, most of them illustrated
with pen drawings
And in the course of this interesting discussion, in which
among others the director of the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam,
Mr. Schmidt Degener 3, as well as that excellent
young art critic Dirk Coster, took part, Jan Veth observed with
a smile: “I never spoke to Vincent van Gogh - however, as
a boy in Dordrecht, I often used to see him when he sold those
coloured halfpenny prints to the schoolchildren at
Blussé and Van Braam's bookshop.
“In case you should think it worth your while to
investigate this Dordrecht episode,” Dr. Veth suggested,
“just make a note of the name of Mr. Braat. His father
was the owner of the bookshop where Van Gogh worked. It is
certain that the son, Mr. D. Braat, witnessed Vincent's
behavior there. And he still has an interest in the firm of
Blussé and Van Braam.”
That same night I wrote to the address given me, requesting,
if possible, some particulars about Vincent van Gogh as a ...
Mr. Braat very kindly replied:
“On the strength of a letter from my brother Frans,
who in those days was an employee of the firm of Boussod
Valadon & Co., where he often came into contact with Mr.
Theo van Gogh (Vincent's brother), my father decided to give
Vincent a job in the shop operated by the firm of
Blussé & Van Braam.
In those days it never occurred to anybody that Vincent van
Gogh possessed so much talent; as for myself, he always made a
queer impression on me.”
A few days later I stood before the still imposing bookshop
on the ground floor of the big old-fashioned house on Voor
Street where Vincent van Gogh once wrote delivery notes,
standing at his small desk. But I was urged to go upstairs to
the enormous living room which resembled a hall, taking up the
full width of this patrician house; in their sedate stateliness
thc appointments were probably much the same as in the days
when Vincent knew it.
And my host, with his beautifully trimmed white beard,
sitting at his old-fashioned writing desk, was already telling
me some of his brother Frans's stories; he had often met Theo
van Gogh in Paris, and had written to Father Braat about
Vincent “…For if you ask me, I am under the
impression that the family did not really know what to do with
the boy in those days. First he had been employed at Goupil's
in The Hague, in which his uncle Vincent was a partner; then he
was sent to England and Paris by them, and after he returned to
Holland, his parents were extremely worried about him. In point
of fact, there was no vacancy in my father's shop. The staff
was quite sufficient… But you know how it is - my father
did not like to turn down Frans's request, and so he came here;
he had a little desk downstairs where he stood working
But when all this happened, Mr. Braat could no more
remember than Dr. Veth.
However, perhaps there was somebody who knew; Mr. Rijken,
now a retired corn chandler, with whom Vincent boarded in those
days in Tolbrugstraatje [Tollbridge Alley] over the way.
“We might call on him after a while.”
Mr. Braat knew that Van Gogh had come as an apprentice and
Theo had been very grateful to Mr. Braat's father for this. In
theory Vincent had the show goods, and now and then the
delivery goods, under his care… but when ever anyone
looked at what he was doing, it was found that instead of
working, he was translating the Bible into French, German and
English, in four columns, with the Dutch text in addition.
He was puttering at this mostly. At other times when you
happened to look, you caught him making little sketches, such
silly pen-and-ink drawings, a little tree with a lot of
branches and side branches and twigs - nobody ever saw anything
else in it. (Although it turned out that afterward, when this
work had come so much into vogue, Mr. Braat had taken a good
look through Vincent's little desk from top to bottom! ... But
not the slightest vestige of his handiwork was to be found,
neither outside nor in.)
“No, as for business...” My aged host laughed
with a scarcely concealed twinkling of mockery in his eyes.
“For he had taken it into his foolish head to study
theology and become a clergyman. At the time the Reverend Mr.
Keller van Hoorn was at his peak in Dordrecht, and Van Gogh
went to ask his advice. But the clergyman thought the
preliminary study too hard for him. Not that he lacked the
energy - but it was a fact that he had never been to a grammar
school. The Reverend Mr. Van Hoorn wanted to show him the way
to become a missionary, but Vincent did not care for this idea
at all; he much preferred to study.
“For that matter, his father was a clergyman. `I want
to be a shepherd like my father,' he would say to me sometimes.
`But my dear boy,' I once warned him, `don't you think it's too
bad that after so many years your father has not been able to
get anything better than Etten and De Leur?'
“This was the only time I ever saw Van Gogh angry: His
father was absolutely in the right place; a true shepherd.
“Well, shortly afterward Vincent went to Amsterdam and
was taken in by his uncle, the rear admiral, in whose house he
started studying Latin and Greek in an attic. Since then I have
lost sight of him I cannot say I was particularly interested.
“And then I remember well that he always preferred to
wear a top hat, a bit of respectability he had brought back
from England; but such a hat - you were afraid you might tear
its brim off if you took hold of it. I have often puzzled over
his exact age, hut I cannot find out, for instance, whether he
was old enough to he called up for the militia.”
But he was certainly obliging, and physically very strong,
though he did not look it. During one of those frequent floods
Mr. Braat had admired his physical strength and good nature. At
the time he lived in Tolbrugstraatje - in a room with
whitewashed walls, my informant believed, on which he had made
all kinds of sketches and crude drawings. But his landlord, who
did not like this at all, had repainted them later on. However
this may have been - that particular night everything was
flooded. Without hesitating for a moment, Van Gogh rushed out
of the house and waded through the water to his employer's
house in order to warn him. For Blussé and Van
Braam's storehouse was next door to his boarding-house All the
next morning he was lifting those heavy wet stacks of paper and
carrying them upstairs. After all these years Mr. Braat still
spoke with admiration of so much physical strength.
Also, Van Gogh was always as compliant as possible. For all
that, he now and then could irritate the old gentleman into
peevishness: “Good heavens! that boy's standing there
translating the Bible again.” But he could not be trusted
to serve the public and such, except perhaps to sell a quire of
letter paper or a halfpenny print once in a while. For he had
not the slightest knowledge of the book trade, and he did not
make any attempt to learn....
On the contrary, he was excessively interested in religion.
“On Sunday he always went to church, preferably an
orthodox one… And during the week, well, we started work
here at eight o'clock in the morning; at one o'clock he went
home to lunch until three; and then he came back in the evening
for a few hours.
“But his behavior was beyond reproach. He went
straight home from here. Think of it, not once did he visit the
family upstairs; he never said a single word to me, when as a
young girl I used to pass through the shop. And so, when he
became obsessed with the idea of being a preacher, Pa told him,
`My lad, if you believe your road in life lies that way, you
should take it, by all means.' ”
“Apart from this I do not believe there is anybody in
Dordrecht who knew him,” was Mr. Braat's opinion.
“Upon my word, he was such a queer fish. Intercourse with
painters, for instance? Member of Pictura? Never! In our
business, too, he was really next to useless... For he had been
at Goupil's, the art dealer's, for quite a while before then.
My father bought his prints from them. But never think that Van
Gogh left his desk when the samples arrived. No, it looked as
if he were suffering from a sense of injury - there was
something lonesome about him. When you saw him, you pitied
A moment later Mr. Braat pointed out to me in the shop,
which was arranged a bit differently at the time, the spot
where Vincent had stood through the day. And across the way, in
the same little square, the ancient facade of the former public
weighhouse behind the elms… To one side was the
delicious view of the Voorstraat Harbor, surrounded by
old-fashioned houses, with their picturesque little roofs and
railings and skylights, standing in the water with wet feet, as
it were - the lower walls juicily moist and weather-beaten.
Vincent van Gogh could reach his home across this square in
half a minute - that house in funny, narrow Tollbridge Alley.
It is a little old alley in which there are some condemned
houses. But the corn chandler's shop is still there, clean and
neat, with trim, carefully painted flour bins and a nice little
white archway leading to the back of the house. On the fanlight
one may read, as of old, the words painted with graceful
flourishes: “All Corn Chandler's Wares, Wheaten and Rye
Flour. P. Rijken.” And this although the shop has been
sold and Vincent's former landlord has retired and is now
living at the Boerenvismarkt (Peasant Fish Market).
Mr. Rijken received us kindly and hospitably. He is a
well-preserved, lively man considering his years; a blithe
“retired gentleman” in a small way, with side
whiskers and a long Gouda clay pipe.... But we should realize
that his wife often had some four or five young gentlemen as
boarders; he had his business to attend to and could not take
too much notice of them - though for that matter he remembered
Mr. Van Gogh quite well.... He was a queer chap, and no
mistake. Many a time during those days Mr. Rijken would go
upstairs to his room, where he would be drawing in one of those
blue smocks: “Come on, Van Gogh, you should go to
He had his moods, you see? For instance, sometimes he did
not go home to dinner in the afternoon. He simply kept on
walking.... Well, such things would never do for Mrs. Rijken.
For she was thoroughly generous - a true mother to the boys -
and when he arrived at last, she would give him a piece of her
mind. But somehow it made no impression. And he called eating a
Consequently, the other young gentlemen made fun of him. But
the landlord would not stand for it. As a matter of fact, he
pitied Vincent a little. And the young fellow liked the Rijkens
very much. Van Gogh liked talking to them about London once in
a while best of all. But during dinner, for instance, he was
singularly silent. If Mrs. Rijken were still alive, she might
have told a lot about his peculiarities.
As for Mr. Rijken himself - when he was in business, he
never used to get up to go to the cornloft later than three
o'clock in the morning. And then, again and again, there was
that shuffling in Van Gogh's room. The walls were full of
drawings; he simply fixed them with nails ruthlessly driven
into the good wall-paper....
“Wasn't his room whitewashed?” I ventured.
“Dear me, no! Whoever told you such nonsense?”
he answered. “In our house everything was neat and trim
upstairs, and that was why I could not stand this Van Gogh
covering the walls with those drawings and driving nails into
the wallpaper.... In fact, in my heart I made fun of him, too,
about those drawings. For they were not a bit good, you see.
The most childish stuff. Kind of small landscapes -
images, if you know what I mean.
“Occasionally, well, speaking frankly, it was as if
the fellow was out of his mind. And then I sometimes kicked up
a row, for we really were like a father and mother to those
boys… But that spooky business in the night. And he
bought the candles for it himself - don't get the idea that he
got so much light from me! Oil cost good money, too. Besides, I
was afraid of a fire - because he was so queer. What young
gentleman would ever think of sitting about in a smock? He
looked like an immigrant....
“And yet those lads had a very cosy life together. At
the back of the house they had a glorious view of some gardens.
And especially during the second half of the month, when they
hadn't a penny to bless themselves with, they would huddle
together, smoking each other's tobacco, and having fun…
Orelio 4 later came and sang there hundreds of
“You see, I had killed a fat pig, and the young
gentlemen had to eat of it too.... But all the things this Van
Gogh drew, well, I thought them just trash.... laughable.
“ `Van Gogh, you ought to eat.' How often I used to
say this to him.
“But no. `I am not in want of any food; eating is a
“On the other hand, the others told me that during his
walks he would buy a roll, munching it in the streets. This
really mortified us - as if we didn't give him enough to eat!
But after all, he was a bit like the Wandering Jew. And if they
are buying those drawings of his now, all I can say is, One
folly buys the other....
“ `Mind my wallpaper; you ruin everything with your
nails.' For he hammered away like mad. But nothing could
influence him - not even the scoldings he got from my wife for
staying away all through Sunday... on the other hand, he never
“It was always the same: `I don't want food, I don't
want a night's rest.' But then I had a word with your pa, Mr.
Braat… for at first he said his late bouts were due to
the pressure of business. Later on he told us he kept roaming
about because he needed quiet... And yet I could not stand the
young gentlemen teasing him. I don't know why, but I kept
seeing him as a scapegoat....”
Rijken had told me that Mr. P. C. Görlitz, then
a young schoolmaster, now retired History Master of the
Secondary School at Nimeguen, had been a fellow boarder of
Vincent van Gogh's. I received from Nimeguen a most courteous
reply to my letter on this subject, the greater part of which
At the time when I was an assistant teacher boarding with
Mr. Rijken and his wife together with an apprentice in the book
and art shop of the firm of Blussé & Van
Braam, lodgings were applied for there by Mr. Vincent van Gogh,
employed by the same firm as a bookkeeper and an art salesman.
The boss, as we called our landlord, asked me, “Would you
object to sharing your room with Mr. Van Gogh, sir? Otherwise,
I haven't enough room for him, and I should very much like to
take him in.”
“Oh yes, provided he is a decent fellow.” So it
came about that Mr. V. v. G. and I became fellow boarders and
Van Gogh provoked
laughter repeatedly by his attitude and behavior - for
everything he did and thought and felt, and his way of living,
was different from that of others of his age. At table he said
lengthy prayers and ate like a penitent friar for instance, he
would not take meat, gravy, etc. And then his face had always
an abstracted expression - pondering, deeply serious,
melancholy. But when he laughed, he did so heartily and with
gusto, and his whole face brightened.
He was thrifty by nature, and also from necessity, for his
means were limited like mine - even more so, for he was only a
novice in business. Besides, he did not want to ask his parents
to supplement his income (his father was a clergyman at Etten
In the evening, when he came home, he used to find me
studying - at the time I was working for my teaching
certificate - and then, after an encouraging word to me, he
would start working, too.
And his work was not, as one might have expected, art, but
religion. Night after night Van Gogh sat reading the Bible,
making extracts from it, and writing sermons; for in those days
(I presume he was twenty-five then), strict piety was the core
of his being. Only when we took a walk together did the superb
views and distant prospects in which Dordrecht is so rich
occasion him to expatiate upon what seemed beautiful to
His religious feelings were broad and noble, the reverse of
narrow-minded; although in those days he was an orthodox
Protestant, he not only went to the Dutch Reformed Church on
Sunday, but also on the same day to the Jansenist, the Roman
Catholic and the Lutheran churches. And when I once expressed
my astonishment and lack of understanding, he answered with a
good-natured smile, “Do you really think, G., that God
cannot be found in the other churches?”
He lived like a kind of ascetic, and permitted him self only
one luxury - a pipe. Cigars were too expensive, and, for that
matter, he liked to smoke pipe tobacco and in large
In the midst of his bookkeeping a
beautiful text or a pious thought would occur to him, and he
would write it down; he could not resist the impulse, ce fut
plus fort que lui. And when he had to give ladies and other
customers information about the prints, exhibited by Mr. Braat,
he paid no attention to his employer's interests, but said
explicitly and unreservedly what he thought of their artistic
value. Once more: he was unfit for business. To be a minister
of religion, that was his ideal, and it was an obsession with
him; but he condemned, or at least did not approve of, the
necessity of a knowledge of Latin and Greek for the
So religion occupied all his spare time and thoughts - not
art; though what he had to say about art now and then was
sound, instructive and to the point. Religion had also inspired
him when he was in London acting as a curate to an old
preacher, who endeavored to educate neglected boys and worse.
About this he would tell quite poignant stories.
So he struggled on, deluding his parents into thinking he
was contented. But when, in consequence of an application, I
once stayed with his parents, I frankly told Mrs. Van Gogh what
was wrong with him, and that V. was unhappy in his profession,
though his employer was a kind sort of man; and that he had
only one ardent desire, to become a preacher. I told him what I
had done, and he said, “I regret this, but it is
true.” His parents then forced him to tell the truth
unreservedly, and he went to Amsterdam, to his uncle Van Gogh,
the rear admiral. But we who knew his sober and simple ways
realized he would feel extremely lonely there. His stay did not
last long, which was to be expected.
When he took leave of me, he gave me as a keepsake
L'oiseau by Michelet, a book he passionately admired. At
the time Spurgeon too was one of his favorite authors. Mr.
Rijken and his wife were very kind to him, for they held his
earnestness and gentleness in high esteem....
… However, this modest investigation into Vincent van
Gogh's stay in Dordrecht left a number of questions
unanswered. And the more I heard about it, the more I was
captivated by the subject.
Therefore I wrote to Mrs. Van Gogh, Theo's widow, asking
whether there were any letters pertaining to the Dordrecht
episode which might shed more light on this period of Vincent's
life. Part of Mrs. Van Gogh's reply follows:
I should take the greatest of pleasure in letting you
examine the Dordrecht letters, but I have not got here ... the
proofs of the first volume… But the book may be
published any day now....
The letters written at that time are excellent. He tells
about living with Rijken the corn chandler, and about Nico
Mager, and a certain Görlitz, a teacher. I still
have a letter about Theo from Mr. Braat, the father; Theo had
been an intimate friend of Frans Braat's in Paris.... The
letters impart so much.... I have been working on them for
years. The last two years I have been doing nothing else, often
working on far into the night.
Out of his 652 letters, jumbled together in utter confusion,
with loose sheets, and hardly ever dated...
And how many family letters have I not hunted through in
order to find a date that might clarify some point....
In a postscript Mrs. Van Gogh-Bonger adds that, when
choosing Mr. Simons to undertake publication of the three
volumes for her, she put the price at the lowest possible
figure, in order to enable as many people to buy the book as
The very day after I received this letter, the publisher was
kind enough to send me the weighty first volume of The
Letters of Vincent van Gogh to his Brother.
The book had arrived from the binders that very morning, and
it was to be published in a few days.
Now this has happened, the preceding remarks may serve as a
very, very modest amplification of the ten letters from
Dordrecht in this collection of 239 letters....
A well-known portrait painter and aesthetic essayist
(1864 - 1925). The Amsterdam University conferred an
honorary degree on him on the occasion of the Rembrandt
Festival of 1906.
Dutch novelist and dramatic and literary critic, art
editor of the Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant (1860 -
Later director of the National Museum at Amsterdam, and
also a writer of note.
Then a highly popular Dutch basso.
At this time, Vincent was 61 year old
M. J. Brusse. Letter to Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant. Written May 26 1914 in Rotterdam. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number htm.
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