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Thanks for your letter and the enclosure. Your letter
explains the reason for your silence to me. You thought that
“feeling well off for the moment,” I offered
you an “ultimatum,” like, for instance, the
Nihilists might send the Czar.
Fortunately, for you and for me, there is no question of
such a thing here.
However, I understand your idea now that I know it,
but it is indeed the last straw. In the first place, I meant
something quite different - I simply meant, “I wouldn't
want to thrive if you were the loser by it” - I would not
want to develop the artist in me if you had to suppress your
artistic talent for my sake. I would never approve of your
repressing the artist in yourself, no matter whose sake it were
for, for the sake of either father, mother, sister, brother or
wife. That was my meaning - perhaps nervously expressed, and in
wrong terms - but I most decidedly meant no more, or nothing
You understand it now, don't you?
With reference to what I wrote in my last letter, it was
occasioned by your silence, which was an absolute mystery to
me, was inexplicable until I knew what was the matter.
But know this, brother,
that I am absolutely cut off from the outer world - except from you - so that it made me
crazy when your letter did not come at the moment when, far
from “being well off,” I was very hard pressed,
though I did not mention it, because I feel I am rather
above the cares that gnaw at my heart, which torture I can
perhaps explain, but do not consider merited.
Regarding “I should not want to thrive if another were
the loser by it,” I hope this, the real
meaning of what you took for an ultimatum, will always remain
my conviction, either in prosperity or in “agony.”
Your conclusion of my “being well off” was rather
fatuous, or rash I think, though the fault must have lain in my
way of expressing it, but certainly not in my mood.
I will tell you once more that, since I have been here, I
have had to put my material in good order, I have had to get a
supply of colours, I have had to make some trips, I have had to
pay my board and lodging, to send something to the woman, to
pay off some debts. All these things put together kept me
very hard up, to use a mild expression.
I say loneliness, and not solitude, but that loneliness -
which a painter has to bear, whom everybody in such isolated
areas regards as a lunatic, a murderer, a tramp, etc. etc.
Indeed, this may be a small misery, but it is a sorrow after
all: A feeling of being an outcast - particularly strange and
unpleasant - though the country may be ever so stimulating and
But for the rest I only look upon it as a bad time, which
must be got through, and which one can change but little
oneself, that is to say, in the relations with people whom one
would love to have as models, but cannot get.
Looking back, I see clearly enough now how it came to a
misunderstanding between you and me.
Well - then I told you frankly all my thoughts about the
possibility of your becoming a painter; I said, “You
can do it if only you want to, and I believe in you
as an artist, from the moment you take up the
brush,” though nobody else might.
What I told you about this I said to you in order to make it
clear that whatever misfortune - calamity - may overtake you in
the future, to me the real misfortune is the one which prevents
you from deciding on “a complete renewal” now. I am
of the opinion that, if you, a human being, were overtaken by a
catastrophe, you would be the greater man for it - with - with
- with - a scar that always hurts.
In your case I assume it would lift you up and not
pull you down, that hurt which only calamity can cause.
But your later letters are so different in tone and contents
that now I say, “If your rigged ship is all trim, just
stay on it.”
However, I shall stick to what I said through thick and thin
if a calamity forced you to enter into new relations with
society. If this should happen, what I have to say is, Let it
be the signal for a total change of profession, sooner than
starting the same thing all over again.
But as long as you have your rigged ship, I do not advise
you to put out to sea in a fishing boat. Although, speaking for
myself, I should certainly not want that rigged vessel of
Goupil & Co.'s back. At the time what I thought was,
Calamity, burst out for Heaven's sake! And so on.
At first I did not know how to interpret the change in the
tone of your letters. On looking back - remembering your
somewhat melancholy but to me so touching letter, written at a
moment when G. & Co. was treating you horribly
unfairly (a moment I passed through in something of the
same way) - on looking back, I say that I believe you took
a different view of the moment at which I myself said to
Messrs. Goupil & Co.: “If you are bent on inducing
me to go, I shall not refuse to go.” And that things
have really calmed down, for good and all perhaps - and
with your assent - que soit - I do not protest against it. Now
I do not think it wicked of you - because I think in
such a case conditions may be offered which really are
acceptable, and I am convinced that you would not
have accepted them if there had been anything dishonest in the
But my saying something about “If you stay, then I
shall refuse your financial support” referred to your
saying, Let me stay where I am, for I must provide for those at
home and myself (though you did not mention me) - a delicacy on
your part not to mention me, which I had to return with
delicacy on my part. I do not want that, namely such a
sacrifice of yourself that you should stay there against your
inclination for other's sakes; that is what you took as an
ultimatum from me.
If you stay because you “take renewed pleasure in
it,” all right then, and I congratulate you on your newly
rigged ship, though I for my part do not want to go back to
What you wrote me about Serret greatly interests me. Such a
man, who finally produces something poignant as the blossom of
a hard, difficult life, is a wonder, like a black hawthorn, or
better still, the gnarled old apple tree which at a certain
moment bears blossoms which are among the most delicate and
most virginal things under the sun.
When a rough man bears blossoms like a flowering
plant, yes, that is beautiful to see; but before that time
he has had to stand a great deal of winter cold, more
than those who later sympathize with him know.
The artist's life, and what an artist is, it
is all very curious - how deep it is - how infinitely deep.
Because of your unaccountable silence, and because I
connected it with possible new difficulties on the director's
part, and because of the suspicion of the people at the inn, I
wrote a note to Father saying that as I had not heard from you,
I did not know what to think of it, and begging Father to lend
me some money. I added that I was anxious both about you and
about myself, especially when thinking of the future, and that
I wished that you and I, as boys, had become painters then, and
that I didn't see why we two brothers could not be painters
So if Father should write you about it, you know how it is,
but I myself (up to now, I have had no answer from Father), I
shall write Father that your last letter has made it clear to
me that for the moment G. & Co. has an influence on our
family, a curious mixture of good and evil, but at all
events, as it prevents much stagnation, the evil is for the
moment not prevalent. That my heart knoweth its own bitterness
is a thing which I think you understand, and in consequence
“Ultimatum” - it is you who speak of it,
not I (at least my meaning was something quite
different) - if you want to take it that way, it is all
right with me, but I shall not be the
first to say it - nor was I. For the moment your
interpretation anticipated my intention by a
long stretch. I should possibly contradict you as little
as I did Goupil & Co. in the past if you really
wanted to carry it into effect. Then I should say
you, not I, talked first of an ultimatum. If you want to
interpret it this way, I shall not protest against this
With a handshake,
Yours sincerely, Vincent
Brother, all my worst, vague anxieties have been quieted
since your last letter; I mean that I have perfect confidence
in you as a man.
I simply think you will get into certain financial
difficulties in consequence of the trend of trade.
Therefore I advise you, if you can economize, then by all means
economize; if you can save up, then save up. At
the moment I have nothing myself - but I shall try to rouse
some interest in certain plans of mine - and in case nobody
should be willing to return to Drenthe with me later on, I may
try to find some credit for the purpose of settling there. I am
not affluent; I have nothing. For a long time I have seen you
tottering financially - you have taken too much on your
shoulders - now you think the future will redress it - what I
think is that you will find the future hostile in Paris. Once
again, if I am wrong, you can laugh at me, all of you - and I
myself shall join in this laughter. If it is only my
nerves that are deluding me, well then, it is my nerves - but I
am afraid fatality is too effectively against you.
I shall be able to write you more calmly from home
[Apparently he intended to go to his parent's house in Nuenen
for a short time; but he did not go back to Drenthe, and stayed
in Nuenen for two years].
There is certainly a field of action for me in Drenthe, but
from the very beginning I must be able to undertake it somewhat
differently, and have more financial security. I must calculate
on a small scale; for now, for instance (I admit, of course,
it's the first time you skipped a whole term entirely), the
difference of 25 guilders is for me a thing that may well
handicap me for another six weeks. I readily believe that you
can't imagine this - you cannot know how again and again
a number of difficulties, each very small in itself, makes a
thing possible or impossible. For instance, last week I got a
note from my former landlord, who more or less insinuates that
he might appropriate the things I left behind (among which are
all my studies, prints, books, which I could hardly do without)
if I did not send him the 10 guilders I had promised him as
payment for the use of a garret for my things and a debt of the
woman's, which he had a doubtful right to claim, but I yielded
on condition of an arrangement to store my things. Against New
Year's I have still other things to pay. I still have to pay
Rappard, and I saved all I could. In short, it is just the
opposite of being “in clover.”
It cannot go on the way it is now. I must try and
find a way out.
Of course, I do not say it is your fault, but even last year
I was not able to save more than I did. And the harder I work,
the harder I am pressed. We have now arrived at a point when I
say, For the moment I cannot go on.
At this time, Vincent was 30 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 1 December 1883 in Drenthe. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 343.
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