He immediately traveled to Brussels and succeeded in arranging everything. At his own risk Vincent went to the Borinage, where he boarded at 30 francs a month with M. Van der Haegen, Rue de L'Église 39, at Pâturages near Mons. He taught the children in the evening, visited the poor, and held Bible classes; when the Committee met in January, he would again try to get a nomination. The inter-course with the people pleased him very much, and in his leisure hours he drew large maps of Palestine, of which his father ordered four at 10 francs apiece. At last, in January, 1879, he got a temporary nomination for six months at Wasmes at 50 francs a month, for which he would have to give Bible classes, teach the children, and visit the sick - the work of his heart. His first letters from there were very contented, and he devoted himself heart and soul to his work, especially the practical part of it; his greatest interest was in nursing the sick and wounded. Soon, however, he fell back into the old exaggerations - he tried to practice the doctrines of Jesus, giving away everything - his money, clothes and bed - leaving the good Denis boardinghouse in Wasmes, and retiring to a miserable hut where every comfort was wanting. Already his parents had been notified of it, and when, toward the end of February, the Reverend Mr. Rochelieu came for in-spection, the bomb exploded. So much zeal was too much for the Committee, and a person who neglected himself so could not be an example to others. The Church Council at Wasmes held a meeting, and it agreed that if he did not listen to reason, he would lose his position. He himself took it rather coolly. “What shall we do now?” he wrote. &ldJesus was also very calm in the storm; perhaps it must grow worse before it grows better.” Again his father went to him and succeeded in stilling the storm; he brought him back to the old boardinghouse and advised him to be less exaggerated in his work.
For some time everything was all right, at least he wrote that there were no complaints. About that time a heavy mine explosion occurred and a strike broke out, so Vincent could devote himself completely to the miners. In her naive reli-gious faith his mother wrote, “Vincent's letters, which contain so many interesting things, prove that with all his peculiarities, he yet shows a warm interest in the poor; that surely will not remain unobserved by God.” During that same period he also wrote that he had tried to sketch the dresses and tools of the miners and would show them when he came home. In July bad tidings came again. “He does not comply with the wishes of the Committee, and nothing will change him. It seems that he is deaf to all remarks that are made to him,” wrote his mother. When the six months of probation had passed, he was not appointed again, but was given three months to look for another position.
He left Wasmes and traveled on foot to Brussels to ask the Reverend Mr. Pietersen, who had moved there from Malines, for advice. The latter painted in his leisure hours and had a studio, which was probably why Vincent went to him for help. He arrived there tired and hot, exhausted and in a nervous condition; his appearance was so neglected that the daughter of the house who opened the door was frightened, called for her father and ran away. The Reverend Mr. Pietersen received him kindly; he procured him good lodgings for the night, invited him to his table the next day, showed him the studio, and as Vincent had brought some of his sketches of the miners, they probably talked as much about drawing and painting as about evangelization.
“Vincent impresses me as somebody who stands in his own light,” wrote the Reverend Mr. Pietersen to Vincent's parents.
Mother replies, “How lucky it is that he still always finds somebody who helps him on, as the Reverend Mr. Pietersen has now.”
In accordance with the latter's advice, Vincent resolved to stay in the Borinage at his own expense, as he could not do so in the service of the Committee, and board with the Evangelist Frank, in Cuesmes. About the middle of August, at their request, he visited his parents again at Etten. “He looks well, except for his clothes. He reads Dickens all day and speaks only when he is spoken to; about his future, not a single word,” wrote his mother. What could he say about his future? Did it ever look more hopeless than it did now? His illusion of bringing comfort and cheer into the miserable lives of the miners through the Gospel had gradually been lost in the bitter struggle between doubt and religion which took place within him at that time, and which made him lose his former faith in God. (The Bible texts and religious reflections, which had become more and more rare in his last letters, stopped entirely.) Nothing else had taken its place yet. He drew and read a great deal - among others Dickens, Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, and Michelet - but it was all done without system or purpose. Back in the Bori-nage he wandered about without work, without friends and very often without bread; for though he received money from home and from Theo, they could not give him more than was strictly necessary, and as it came very irregularly and Vincent was a very poor financier, there were days, even weeks, when he was quite without money.
In October Theo, who had secured a permanent position at Goupil's in Paris, visited him on his journey thither and tried in vain to induce him to adopt some fixed plan for the future. He was not yet ready to make any decision; before he became conscious of his real power, he was to struggle through the awful winter of 1879-80, that saddest, most hopeless time of his never very fortunate life. It was during these days that he undertook, with 10 francs in his pocket, the hopeless expedition to Courrières, the dwelling place of Jules Breton, whose pictures and poems he so much admired, and with whom he secretly hoped to come into contact in some way or other. But all he saw was the inhospitable exterior of Breton's newly built studio; he lacked the courage to introduce himself. Dis-appointed, his money spent, he made the long journey home; mostly he slept either in the open air or in a hayloft. Sometimes he exchanged a drawing for a piece of bread, but he suffered so much fatigue and want that his health never fully recovered.
In spring he returned to the vicarage of Etten and spoke again about going to London. “If he really wants to, I shall help him go,” wrote his father. But finally he went back to the Borinage, and that summer of 1880 he lived in the house of the miner Charles Decrucq at Cuesmes. There he wrote in July the wonderfully touching letter (133) which tells what is going on in his innermost self, “...my only anxiety is, how can I be of use?...Can't I serve some purpose and be of any good ?” It is the old wish, the old longing to serve and comfort humanity, which made him write later, when he had found his calling, “And in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting.” Now, in the days of deepest discouragement and darkness, at last the light began to dawn. Not in books would he find satisfaction, nor find his work in literature, as his letters sometimes suggest-ed; he turned back to his old love, “I said to myself...I will take up my pencil...I will go on with my drawing. From that moment everything has seemed trans-formed for me...” It sounds like a cry of deliverance, and once more, “...do not fear for me. If I can only continue to work...it will set me right again.” At last he had found his work, and his mental equilibrium was restored; he no longer doubted himself, and however difficult or hard his life became, the inner serenity, the conviction of having found his own calling, never deserted him again.
The little room in the house of the miner Decrucq, which he had to share with the children, was his first studio. There he began his painter's career with the first original drawings of miners going to work in the early morning. There he copied with restless activity the large drawings after Millet, and when the room got too narrow for him, he took his work out into the garden.
When the cold autumn weather prevented this, and because his surroundings at Cuesmes were getting too cramped for him, he moved in October to Brussels, where he settled in a small hotel on the Bd. du Midi 72. He was longing to see pictures again, but above all he hoped to become acquainted with other artists.
Deep in his heart there was such a great longing for sympathy, for kindness and friendship, and though his difficult character generally prevented him from finding this and left him isolated in life, yet he always kept on longing for somebody with whom he could live and work.
Theo, who meanwhile had acquired a good position in Paris, could now assist him in word and deed. He brought Vincent into contact with the young Dutch painter Van Rappard, who had worked some time in Paris and was then studying at the academy in Brussels. At first the acquaintance did not progress, for the out-ward difference between the rich young nobleman and the neglected wanderer from the Borinage was too great; yet the artistic taste and opinions of both were too similar for them not to find each other eventually. A friendship arose - perhaps the only one that Vincent ever had in Holland; it lasted for five years and then was broken through a misunderstanding which Van Rappard always regretted, though he acknowledged that intercourse with Vincent was very difficult.
“I remember as if it happened yesterday the moment of our first meeting at Brussels when he came into my room at nine o'clock in the morning, how at first we did not get on very well together, but so much the better after we had worked together a few times,” wrote Van Rappard to Vincent's mother after his death. And again, “Whoever had witnessed this wrestling, struggling and sorrowful existence could not but feel sympathy for the man who demanded so much of himself that it ruined body and mind. He belonged to the breed that produces the great artists.
“Though Vincent and I had been separated the last years by a misunderstanding which I have often regretted - I have never ceased to remember him and the time we spent together with great sympathy.
“Whenever in the future I shall remember that time, and it is always a delight for me to recall the past, the characteristic figure of Vincent will appear to me in such a melancholy but clear light, the struggling and wrestling, fanatic, gloomy Vincent, who used to flare up so often and was so irritable, but who still deserved friendship and admiration for his noble mind and high artistic qualities.”
Vincent's own opinion of Van Rappard is clearly shown in his letters. A second acquaintance that Vincent made through Theo, with the painter Roelofs, was of lesser importance. Vincent did not take Roelofs' advice to enter the academy; perhaps he was not admitted because he was not far enough advanced, but prob-ably he had more than enough of academical institutions and theories. In painting as well as in theology he preferred to do his own way; that is why he did not come into contact with other Dutch painters who were at that same time at the Brussels Academy, for instance, Haverman.
He studied anatomy by himself, drew diligently from living models, and from a letter to his father it seems that he took lessons in perspective from a poor painter at 1.50 francs for a two hour lesson; it has not been possible to ascertain the name of the painter, but it may have been Madiol.
At the end of the winter, with the departure of Van Rappard, in whose studio he had often worked because his own little bedroom was too small, he longed for other surroundings, especially for the country. Expenses in Brussels were also somewhat heavy, and he thought it would be cheapest to go to his parents in Etten, where he had board and lodging free and could use all the money he received for his work.
He stayed there for eight months, and the summer of 1881 was again a happy time for him. First, Van Rappard came to visit him, and he too always remembered with pleasure his stay at the vicarage. “And my visit to Etten! I can still see you sitting at the window when I came in,” he wrote to Vincent's mother in the letter quoted above. “I still enjoy the beautiful walk we all took together that first evening, through the fields and along the small path! Our excursions to Seppen, Passievaart, Liesbosch - I often look through my sketchbooks for them.”
< Previous Next >