When at last in September he started alone for Drenthe, he had made all possible provisions for the woman and the children. There was a sorrowful parting, especially from the little boy, to whom he had become attached as if to his own child.
The trip to Drenthe proved a failure, instead of doing him any good. But some of his most beautiful letters date from those days. The season was too far advanced, the country too inhospitable, and what Vincent so ardently desired - to come into contact with some artists, for instance, Liebermann - was not realized.
Bitter loneliness and lack of money put too heavy a strain on his nerves. He was afraid of falling ill, and in December, 1883, hastened back to the parental vicarage, the only place where he could find a safe shelter.
His father had meanwhile left Etten and been called to Nuenen, a village in the neighborhood of Eindhoven. The new place and surroundings pleased Vincent so much that instead of paying a short visit, as he originally intended, he stayed there for two years. He wanted to paint the Brabant landscape and the Brabant types, and in doing so he ignored every obstacle.
Living with his parents was very difficult for him as well as for them. In a small village vicarage, where nothing can happen without everybody's knowing it, a painter was obviously an anomaly; how much more a painter like Vincent, who had so completely broken with all formalities, conventionalities and with all religion, and who was the last person in the world to conform himself to other people. On both sides there must have been great love and patience for it to have lasted so long.
When his letters from Drenthe to his parents had become more and more melancholy, his father had anxiously written to Theo, &ldIt seems to me that Vincent is again in a wrong mood. He seems to be in a melancholy state of mind; but how can it be otherwise? Whenever he looks back into the past and recalls how he has broken with all former relations, it must be very painful to him. If he only had the courage to think of the possibility that the cause of much which has resulted from his eccentricity lies in himself. I don't think he ever feels any self-reproach, only spite against others, especially against the gentlemen in The Hague. We must be very careful with him, for he seems to be in a contrary mood.”
And they were so careful. When he came back to them of his own will, they received him with so much love and tried everything in their power to make him comfortable. They were proud, too, of the progress in his work, of which it must be said they had no great expectations at first. “Do you not like the pen drawings of the tower that Vincent sent you? It seems to come to him so easily,” wrote his father in the first days of December to Theo. Then on December 20, “You will be eager to know how Vincent is getting on. At first it seemed hopeless, but by and by things arranged themselves, especially since we approved of his staying here for some time to make studies. He wanted the mangling room fitted up for him, although we did not think it was suitable. We had a nice stove put in; as the room had a stone floor, we had it covered with boards and made it as comfortable as possible: we put in a bed on a wooden stand, so that it might not be too damp. Now we will make the room nice and warm and dry, so that it may turn out better than we expected. I proposed having a large window made in it, but he did not want that. In short, we undertake this experiment with real confidence, and we in-tend to leave him perfectly free in his peculiarities of dress, etc. The people here have seen him anyhow, and though it is a pity he is so reserved, we cannot change the fact of his being eccentric...” “He seems to occupy himself a great deal with your plans for the future, but you will be wise enough not to let yourself be influenced into doing things that are not practical, for alas, that certainly is his foible. One thing is certain, he works hard and finds lots of subjects here; he has already made several drawings which we like very much.”
Such was the feeling from their side; but Vincent was not satisfied with all that kindness and craved a deeper understanding of his innermost self than his parents could give, however much they tried. About the middle of January, '84, when his mother had an accident and was brought home from Helmond with a fractured thighbone, the relations became less strained. Vincent, who had become an expert nurse in the Borinage, helped to nurse his mother with the greatest devotion, and in every letter during that period they praised him for his faithful help. “Vincent is untiring, and the rest of his time he devotes to his painting and drawing with the greatest zeal.” “The doctor praised Vincent for his ability and care.” “Vincent proves an ideal nurse and at the same time he works with the greatest ambition.” “I fervently hope that his efforts may find success, for it is edifying to see how much he works,” stated the February letters.
Vincent's own letters at that time were gloomy and full of complaints and unjust reproaches to Theo that he never sold anything for him and did not even try, ending at last with the bitter cry: “A wife you cannot give me, a child you cannot give me, work you cannot give me. Money, yes. But what good is it to me if I must do without the rest!” Theo, who always understood him, never gave a sharp or angry answer to those reproaches: a light sarcasm was the only reply he sometimes allowed himself.
In May Vincent's spirits rose somewhat when he moved into a new, larger studio - two rooms in the house of the sexton of the Catholic church. Shortly after, Van Rappard came to spend some time with him again. Besides, during his mother's illness Vincent had increasingly come into contact with neighbors and friends in the village, who daily came to visit the patient, so that he then wrote, “I have been getting on better with people here than I did at first, which is of great importance to me, for one decidedly needs some distraction, and if one feels too lonely, the work suffers from it.” But he continued prophetically, “…however, perhaps one must be prepared for it not to last.”
Indeed, difficult times were approaching again. With one of his mother's visitors, the youngest of three sisters who lived next door to the vicarage, he had soon got into a more intimate relation; she was much older than he and neither beautiful nor gifted, but she had an active mind and a kind heart. She often visited the poor with Vincent; they walked much together, and on her part at least the friendship soon changed into love. As to Vincent, though his letters do not give the impression of any passionate feeling for her (the fact is, he wrote very little about it), yet he seemed to have been inclined to marry her. However, the family vehemently protested against the plan, and violent scenes took place between the sisters, which were not conducive to keeping Vincent in a pleasant mood.
“Vincent works hard, but he is not very sociable,” wrote his mother in July. It was to get worse still, for the young woman, violently excited by the scenes with her sisters, tried to commit suicide. She failed, but her health had been so shocked that she had to be nursed at a doctor's in Utrecht. She recovered completely, and after half a year she came back to Nuenen; but their relations were broken forever, and the whole affair left Vincent in a gloomy, bitter mood.
For his parents the consequences were also painful, because the neighbors avoided the vicarage from that time on, not wishing to meet Vincent, “which is a great privation for me, but it is not your mother's way to complain,” Mother wrote in October of that year. During that period Van Rappard came to stay with them again. “He is not a talkative person, but a hard worker,” wrote Mother. Van Rappard himself wrote in 1890, in the letter to her quoted above, &ldHow often I think of the studies of the weavers which he made in Nuenen and the intensity of feeling with which he depicted their lives; what deep melancholy pervaded his work, however clumsy its execution may have been then. And what beautiful studies he made of the old church tower in the churchyard. I always remember a moonlight effect of it which particularly struck me at that time. When I think of those studies in these two rooms near the church, so many memories are conjured up, and I am reminded of all the surroundings - the cheerful, hospitable vicarage with its beautiful garden, the Begemann family, our visits to the weavers and peasants. How I did enjoy it all!”
After Van Rappard's visit Vincent had no distraction other than a few acquaint-ances in Eindhoven, with whom he had come into contact through the house painter, who furnished his colours. They were a former goldsmith, Hermans; a tanner, Kerssemakers ; and also a telegraphist whose name was not mentioned - all of whom Vincent initiated into the art of painting. Mr. Kerssemakers recorded his reminiscences of that time in the weekly De Amsterdammer 3 of April 14 and 21, 1912, and included the following description of Vincent's studio, which according to him looked quite &ldBohemian.”
“One was amazed at the way all the available hanging or standing room was filled with paintings, drawings in watercolour and in crayon: heads of men and women whose clownish turned-up noses, protruding cheekbones and large ears were strongly accentuated, the rough paws calloused and furrowed; weavers and weaving looms, women spooling yarn, potato planters, women busy weeding, innumerable still lifes, certainly as many as ten studies in oils of the little old chapel at Nuenen, which he was so enthusiastic about that he had painted it in all seasons and in all weathers. (Later this little chapel was pulled down by the Nuenen vandals, as he called them). A great heap of ashes around the stove, which had never known a brush or stove polish, a small number of chairs with cane bottoms, and a cupboard with at least thirty different birds' nests, all kinds of mosses and plants brought along from the moor, some stuffed birds, a spool, a spinning wheel, a complete set of farm tools, old caps and hats, coarse bonnets and hoods, wooden shoes, etc.”
He also told about their trip to Amsterdam (in the autumn of 1885) to see the “Rijksmuseum,” how Vincent in his rough ulster and his inseparable fur cap calmly sat painting a few small views of the city in the waiting room of the station; how they saw the Rembrandts in the museum, how Vincent could not tear himself away from the “Jewish Bride” and said at last, “Would you believe it...I should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food?”
Dry bread was nothing unusual to him; according to Kerssemakers, Vincent never ate it any other way, in order not to “pamper” himself too much. His impression of Vincent's work is given as follows:
“On…my first visit to…Nuenen it was impossible for me to get the right insight into his work; it was so totally different from what I had imagined it would be...so rough and unkempt, so harsh and unfinished, that…I was unable to think it good or beautiful.
“On my second visit the impression...was considerably better, although in my ignorance I still thought that either he could not draw or that he carelessly neglect-ed to draw his figures, and I took the liberty of telling him so straight out. He was not at all cross at this, he only laughed and said, &ldLater on you will think differently.”
Meanwhile the winter days passed gloomily at the vicarage. &ldFor Vincent I should wish that the winter were over; he cannot work out of doors and the long evenings are not profitable for his work. We often think that it would be better for him to be among people of his own profession, but we cannot dictate to him,” wrote his father in December. Mother complained, “How is it possible to behave so unkindly? If he has wishes for the future, let him exert himself, he is still young enough; it is almost impossible to bear it. I think he wants a change - perhaps he might find something that would give him inspiration. Here it is always the same, and he never speaks to anyone.” But still she found one bright spot: &ldWe saw that Vincent received a book from you. He seems to enjoy reading it very much. I heard him say, `That is a fine book,' so you have given him great pleasure. I am glad that we get books regularly from the reading club; the illustrations in the magazines interest him most, and then there is the Nouvelle Revue, etc.; every week something new is a great pleasure to him.”
Incessantly Vincent continued his work in the gloomy cottages of peasants and weavers. “I've hardly ever begun a year with a gloomier aspect, in a gloomier mood,” he wrote on New Year's Day, '85. “He seems to become more and more estranged from us,” complained his father, whose letters became more and more melancholy, as if he was not equal to the difficulties of living with his gifted, unmanageable son, and felt helpless against Vincent's unbridled violence. &ldThis morning I talked things over with Vincent; he was in a kind mood and said there was no particular reason for his being depressed,” said the father. “May he meet with success anyhow,” are the last words he wrote about Vincent in a letter of March 25. Two days later, coming home from a long walk across the heath, he fell down on the threshold of his home and was carried lifeless into the house. Hard times followed in the vicarage; Mother could remain there another year, but for Vincent it brought immediate changes. As a result of several un-pleasant discussions with the other members of the family, he resolved to live no longer at the vicarage, but took up his abode in the studio, where he stayed from May to November. Henceforth there was not a single thing to distract him from his aim - to paint peasant life. He spent those months in the cottages of the weavers or with the peasants in the field. “It is a good thing to be deep in the snow in the winter; in autumn, deep in the yellow leaves, in summer, amid the ripe wheat; in spring, in the grass... always with the mowers and the peasant girls, with a big sky overhead in summer, by the fireside in winter, and to feel that it has always been so and always will be” (letter 413). He was now in harmony with himself and his surroundings, and when he sent Theo his first great picture, “The Potato Eaters,” he could say in good reason that it is &ldfrom the heart of the peasant's life.”
An uninterrupted series of studies follow; the cottages of the old peasants and their witchlike wives, the old church tower of the cemetery, the autumn landscapes and the bird's nests, a number of still lifes and the strong drawings of the Brabant peasants. In Nuenen he also wrote the beautiful passages about colour, in reference to Delacroix's laws of colours. It seems strange for him, afterward one of the first impressionists, even neo-impressionists, to declare, &ldThere is a school - I be-lieve - of impressionists. But I know very little about it” (letter 402), and in his usual spirit of contradiction he later adds, “From what you have told me about impressionism I have learned that it is different from what I thought; but as for me, I find Israëls, for instance, so enormous that I am not very curious about it or desirous of anything different or new. I think I shall change a great deal in touch and colour, but I expect to become rather darker in my colours than lighter.” A soon as he came to France, he thought differently.
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