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My hearty congratulations for Father's birthday, and thanks
for your letter, which I was very glad to receive just now. I
congratulate you especially on the operation being
over.1 Such things as you describe make one shudder!
May the worst be over now, at least the crisis is past! Poor
And though they do not always understand our thoughts, they
are sometimes truly capable of understanding when one is good
to them. Not always, though, but “the spirit is
willing,” and there is in women sometimes a
curious kind of goodness.
There must be a great load off your mind now that the
operation is over.
What a mystery life is, and love is a mystery within a
mystery. It certainly never remains the same in a literal
sense, but the changes are like the ebb and flow of the tide
and leave the sea unchanged.
Since I wrote to you last, I have given my eyes some rest
and it has done me good, though they still ache now and
Do you know what has come into my mind, that in the first
period of a painter's life one unconsciously makes it very hard
for oneself - a feeling of not being able to master the work -
by an uncertainty as to whether one will ever master it - by a
great ambition to make progress, by a lack of self-confidence -
one cannot banish a certain feeling of agitation, and one
hurries oneself though one doesn't like to be hurried.
This cannot be helped, and it is a time which one must go
through, and which in my opinion cannot and should not be
In the studies, too, one is conscious of a nervousness and a
certain dryness which is the exact opposite of the calm, broad
touch one strives for, and yet it doesn't work well if one
applies oneself too much to acquiring that broadness of
This gives one a feeling of nervous unrest and agitation,
and one feels an oppression as on summer days before a
thunderstorm. I had that feeling again just now, and when I
have it, I change my work, just to make a new start.
That trouble one has at the beginning sometimes gives an
awkwardness to the studies.
But I do not take this as a discouragement, because I have
noticed it in myself as well as in others, who afterwards just
slowly got rid of it.
And I believe that sometimes one keeps that
painful way of working one's whole life, but not always
with so little result as in the beginning. What you write about
Lhermitte is quite in keeping with the review of the exhibition
of Black and White. They, too, speak about the bold touch which
can almost be compared only to Rembrandt's. I should like to
know such an artist's conception of Judas; you write of his
having drawn Judas before the scribes, and I think that Victor
Hugo could describe that in detail, so that one would see
it, but to paint those expressions would be more difficult
I found a page by Daumier: “ceux qui ont vu un
drame” [those who have seen a Drama] and “ceux qui
ont vu une vaudeville.” [those who have seen a vaudeville
show] I have developed a growing longing to see more of
Daumier's work. There is pith and a sober depth in him, he is
witty and yet full of sentimental passion; sometimes, for
instance in “The Drunkards,” and possibly also in
“The Barricade,” which I do not know, I find a
passion which can be compared to the white heat of iron.
The same thing occurs in certain heads by Frans Hals, for
instance, it is so sober that it seems cold; but when you look
at it for a short while you are astonished to see how someone
working apparently with so much emotion and so completely
wrapped up in nature had at the same time the presence of mind
to put it down with such a firm hand. I found the same thing in
studies and drawings by de Groux; perhaps Lhermitte operates
also at that white heat. And Menzel too.
There are sometimes passages in Balzac or Zola, for
instance in Père Goriot, where words reach a
degree of passion that is white-hot.
I sometimes think I will make an experiment, and try to work
in quite a different way, that is, to dare more and to risk
more, but I am not sure that I should not first do more by way
of studying the figure directly from the model.
I am also looking for a way to shut off the light in the
studio, or to let it in as I please. It doesn't fall enough
from above, I think, and there is too much of it. For the time
being I shut it off with cardboard now and then, but I must try
and get the landlord to produce some shutters.
What was in the letter I told you I had torn up was quite in
keeping with what you say.
But while finding more and more that one is not perfect
oneself, and makes mistakes, and that other people do likewise,
so that difficulties continually arise which are the opposite
of illusions, I think that those who do not lose courage and
who do not become indifferent, ripen through it, and one must
bear hardships in order to ripen.
Sometimes I cannot believe that I am only thirty years old,
I feel so much older.
I feel older only when I think that most people who
know me consider me a failure, and how it really might be so,
if some things do not change for the better; and when I think
it might be so, I feel it so vividly that it
quite depresses me and makes me as downhearted as if it were
really so. In a calmer and more normal mood I am sometimes glad
that thirty years have passed, and not without teaching me
something for the future, and I feel strength and energy for
the next thirty years, if I should live that long.
And in my imagination I see years of serious work before me,
and happier ones than the first thirty.
How it will be in reality doesn't depend only on
myself, the world and circumstances must also contribute to
What concerns me and is a source of responsibility is that I
should make the most of the circumstances and try my best to
The age of thirty is, for the working man, just the
beginning of a period of some stability, and as such one feels
young and full of energy.
But, at the same time, a phase of life is past. This makes
one melancholy, thinking some things will never come back. And
it is no silly sentimentalism to feel a certain regret. Well,
many things really begin at the age of thirty, and certainly
all is not over then. But one doesn't expect out of life what
one has already learned that it cannot give, but rather one
begins to see more and more clearly that life is only a kind of
sowing time, and the harvest is not here.
Perhaps that's the reason that one sometimes feels
indifferent toward the opinion of the world, and if that
opinion depresses us all too strongly, one may throw it
Perhaps I had better tear up this letter as well.
For one must throw oneself headlong into it, and the English
saying is true: “If you want it well done, you must do it
yourself, you mustn't leave it to others.” That means
that one must keep in hand the care in general and the
management of the whole.
We had a few real spring days, for instance last Monday,
which I enjoyed very much.
The cycle of the seasons is a thing which is strongly felt
by the people. For instance, in a neighbourhood like the Geest
and in those courts of almshouses or “homes of
charity,” the winter is always a difficult, anxious and
oppressive time, and spring is a deliverance. If one pays
attention, one sees that such a first spring day is a kind of
And it is pathetic to see so many grey, withered faces come
out of doors on such a day, not to do something special, but as
if to convince themselves that spring is there. So, for
instance, all kinds of people, of whom one would not expect it,
throng the market around the spot where a man sells crocuses,
snowdrops, bluebells and other bulbs. Sometimes a dried-up
government clerk, apparently a kind of Jusserand in a
threadbare black coat with greasy collar - that he
should be beside the snowdrops is a pretty picture! I think the
poor people and the painters have in common that feeling for
the weather and the cycle of the seasons. Of course everybody
feels it, but for the well-to-do middle-class it is not so
important, and it doesn't affect much their frame of mind in
general. I thought it a characteristic saying for a navvy:
“In winter I suffer as much from the cold as the winter
Now for your patient too spring will be welcome, may it do
her good! How terrible that operation was, at least I was
frightened by the description.
Rappard is recovering, did I tell you he had brain fever? It
will be some time before he can go to work again, but he is
starting to take a walk now and then.
If my eyes do not improve, I'll follow your advice and bathe
them with tea. As it is they are getting better, so for the
present I'll leave them alone. For they never troubled me
before, except once this winter when I had toothache, so I
believe it is nothing but strain and overwork.
On the contrary, lately my eyes can stand the fatigue of
drawing better than previously.
Write soon again if you can, and believe me, with a
I do not know whether you know those little almshouses on
the Brouwersgracht opposite the hospital. I should like to draw
there when the weather permits. This week I made a few
scratches there already. They are a few rows of small houses
with little gardens which I think belong to the charity
A young woman whom Theo had befriended when she was sick
and alone in Paris - to Vincent's great pleasure, since
this paralleled his own behaviour towards Sien - had had to
be operated on for a tumour of the foot.
At this time, Vincent was 29 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 8 February 1883 in The Hague. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 265.
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