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Some time ago you wrote me about a certain difference in our
respective physiognomies. All right. And your conclusion was
that I was more of a thinker. What can I say to that? I do feel
in myself a faculty for thinking, but that faculty is not what
I feel specially organized in me. I think myself to be
something other than specially a thinker. When I think of you,
I see very characteristic action that is well and good, but
also most decidedly not isolated but on the contrary
accompanied by so much sentiment, and real thought too,
that for me the conclusion is that there is more resemblance
than difference between you and me. I do not say there is no
difference - but having learned to know you better of late, the
difference seems smaller to me than I used to think sometimes
in former years.
When I consider our temperament and type of physiognomy, I
find similarity, and a very pronounced resemblance between, for
instance, the Puritans and ourselves besides. I mean the people
in Cromwell's time or thereabouts, the little group of men and
women who sailed from the Old World to America in the
Mayflower, and settled there, firmly resolved to live
Times are different - they cut down forests - we would turn
to painting. I know that the initiative taken by a small group,
called in history The Pilgrim Fathers, however small in itself,
had great consequences; and as to ourselves, I think that in
the first place we should philosophize but little about great
consequences, and only try to find a path for ourselves to
travel through life as straightforwardly as possible. To
meditate on consequences is not our way, neither yours nor
If I mention The Pilgrim Fathers, it is because of the
physiognomy, to show you that certain reddish-haired people
with square foreheads are neither only thinkers nor only men of
action, but usually combine both elements. In one of Boughton's
pictures I know a little figure of one of those Puritans, for
which I should think you had posed if I didn't know
better. It is exactly, exactly the same physiognomy - a small
silhouette on a rock against a background of sea and fog; I can
show you myself also, that is to say, that variation of
the same physiognomy, but my profile is less
Father used to ponder over the story of Jacob and Esau with
regard to you and me - not quite wrongly - but fortunately
there is less discord, to mention only one point of
difference, and in the Bible itself there are plenty of
examples of better relations between brothers than existed
between the venerable patriarchs mentioned above.
I myself have sometimes thought about that being a thinker,
but more and more it becomes clear to me that it was not my
vocation, and because of the unfortunate prejudice that a man
who feels the need to think things over is not
practical, and belongs only among the dreamers, because this
prejudice is greatly respected in Society, I often met with
rebuffs because I didn't keep things to myself enough.
But since then that very history of the Puritans, and the
history of Cromwell, as for instance Carlyle gives it, made me
see that thinking and acting do not exclude each other, and
that the sharp dividing lines which are drawn nowadays between
thinking and acting - as if the one excluded the other - do not
really exist. As to doubting whether one is an artist or not -
that question is too much of an abstraction.
I confess, however, that I don't object to thinking it over,
provided I can draw and paint at the same time.
I wish painting would become such a fixed idea in your mind
that the problem of “Am I an artist or am I not?”
would be placed in the category of abstractions, and the more
practical questions of how to put together a figure or a
landscape) being more amusing, would come to the fore.
Theo, I declare I prefer to think how arms, legs, head are
attached to the trunk, rather than whether I myself am more or
less an artist or not.
I suppose that you prefer thinking of a sky with grey
clouds, and their silver lining above a muddy field, to being
engrossed in the question of your own personality. Oh, for all
that, I know sometimes the mind is full of it, which is only
natural. But look here, brother, even if our mind is now and
then full of the problem, “Is there a God or is
there not?” it is no reason for us to commit an
ungodly act intentionally.
In the same way, in the matter of art, the problem,
“Am I an artist or am I not?” must not induce us
not to draw or not to paint. Many things defy
definition, and I consider it wrong to fritter one's time away
on them. Certainly when one's work does not go smoothly and one
is checked by difficulties, one gets bogged in the morass of
such thoughts and insoluble problems. And because one feels
sorely troubled by it, the best thing to do is to conquer the
cause of the distraction by acquiring a new insight into the
practical part of the work.
Now I, for my part, seeing both in you and in myself
something of the Puritan character, which so unites thinking
and acting and is so far removed from wanting to be only a
thinker or only a machine, which needs principles of
sim-plicity as well as of sensible work, I do not
admit a difference or divergence, much less a contrast between
you and me.
In my view, it would be an erreur de point de vue [error of
judgment] were you to continue in business in Paris. The
conclusion then: two brother painters. Would that suit your
nature? You may be involved in a difficult and fruitless
struggle against it, a struggle that would impede your
own liberation, just because you doubt whether you can do it. I
know all this, alas, from my own experience.
Après tout, no matter how much we may be our own
enemies, I am beginning to realize more and more:
“L'homme s'agite, Dieu le mène [Man proposes and
God disposes].” An infinitely powerful force prevails
over our doing right and wrong. The same is true of your
circumstances - act sensibly in them - perhaps even sensibly
enough, in the end, to become a painter. Ultimately I should
feel so reassured were you to take up a brush that I should
consider the momentary calamity and shipwreck of lesser
importance than the certain knowledge that your future is
moving in a direction you will never regret.
But I wish that at the same time you may find rest for your
heart in the matter of women. If this were possible, you would
be even stronger, as being loved gives one
certain wings, a certain surprising courage and energy. Then
one is more of a complete man than otherwise. And the
more one is this, the better.
At all events, I count it among the possibilities that you
yourself may become conscious that painting is your vocation,
and then, dear brother, Puritan “sans le savoir”
[without knowing it], it might be that your days in Paris were
numbered, that an old world closed itself to you, in a rather
ungenerous way - but that at the same time a new world opened
itself to you.
Well, think it over, a long or a short time. But it would be
of little use if you said, Vincent, keep silent about it; for
to that my answer is: Theo, it will not keep silent within
On le contient plus malaisément
Que la source des grands fleuves.
[It is more difficult to repress
Than the source of great rivers.]
Theo, I have heard from the poor woman a few times; she
seems to be doing her best, working, washing for people, going
out as a charwoman. Her writing is almost indecipherable and
incoherent, she seems to regret some things in the past. The
children are well and happy.
My pity and affection for her are certainly not dead, and I
hope that a bond of affection may remain between us, though I
do not see the possibility or the good of living together again
- pity may not be love, but for all that it can be rooted
Well, brother, to change the subject, it is snowing here
today, in the form of enormous hailstones. I call it snow
because of the effect.
I don't speak about the beauty of the scenery here because I
should have to say too much about it to you. As to the
work, I am almost too preoccupied with the idea that you should
take it up too, which quite absorbs me. I wish it were settled,
then we could make definite plans for working together. Drenthe
is so beautiful, it absorbs and satisfies me so absolutely that
if I could not be here forever, I should wish I had never seen
it. It is inexpressibly beautiful.
With a handshake,
Yours sincerely, Vincent
At this time, Vincent was 30 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 19 November 1883 in Drenthe. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 338.
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