van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
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Letter from Theo van Gogh to His Family
Paris, 1885 - 1887

Extracts from family letters 1885 - 1887, Paris

Theo to Lies.

13the October 1885

The more people one meets, the more one sees that they hide behind conventional forms of conversation, and that what they say when they pretend to be honest, is often so empty and so false. Bonger, who is a good friend, is different, and we often say to each other that although we meet many people, we meet so few people who we find sympathetic.

You ask me about Vincent. He is one of those people who has seen the world from nearby and has retreated from it. We shall now have to wait and see whether he has genius. I do believe it, and a few others with me, amongst them Bonger. Once his work becomes good he will become a great man. As to success, it may go with him as with Heyerdahl, valued by some but not understood by the masses. Those, however, who really care whether there is actually something in an artist or whether it is just tinsel will respect him, and in my opinion, that will be sufficient revenge for the displeasure expressed by so many.

Theo to mother

2nd half June 1886

Fortunately we're doing well in our new apartment. You would not recognize Vincent, he has changed so much, and it strikes other people even more than it does me. The doctor says that he has now quite recovered.

Theo to mother

July 1886

He is progressing tremendously in his work and this is proved by the fact that he is becoming successful. He has not yet sold paintings for money, but is exchanging his work for other pictures. In that way we obtain a fine collection, which, of course, also has a certain value. There is a picture dealer who has now taken four of his paintings and has promised to arrange for an exhibition of his work next year. He is mainly painting flowers - with the object to put a more lively colour into his next set of pictures. He is also more cheerful than in the past and people here like him. To give you proof: hardly a day passes that he is not asked to go to the studios of well-known painters, or they come to see him. He also has acquaintances who give him a bunch of flowers every week which may serve him as models. If we are able to keep it up, I think his difficult times are over and he will be able to make it by himself.

Theo to mother

February 1887

He has painted a few portraits which have turned out well, but he always does them for no payment. It is a pity that he does not seem to want to earn something, for if he did he could make some money here; well, you can't change a person.

Theo to brother Cor

11 March 1887

Vincent continues his studies and he works with talent. But it is a pity that he has so much difficulty with his character, for in the long run it is quite impossible to get on with him. When he came here last year he was difficult, it is true, but I thought I could see some progress. But now he is his old self again and he won't listen to reason. That does not make it too pleasant here at home and I hope for a change. That change will come, but it is a pity for him, for if we had worked together it would have been better for both of us.

[…] Have you heard they are going to make an iron tower 300 meters high here? That must mean a lot of work. It seems it has been terribly difficult to figure out in what way it would be possible to keep it standing, and the designer [Eiffel] tells us that ten years ago it would have not been possible to make that calculation.

Theo to Wil

14 March 1887

I cannot tell you how much good your latest letter has done me. In difficult days it is so much to know that there is someone who wants to help bring things to a good end and I am often ungrateful enough to imagine that I stand all alone and then the difficulties seem insurmountable and it seems there is no way out. Your letter proves to me that I am wrong. This is such a special case. If he was someone who had a different kind of job, I would certainly have done what you advised me a long time ago, and I have often asked myself whether it was not wrong always to help him; I have often been on the verge of letting him muddle along by himself.

After getting your letter I again seriously thought about it and I feel that in the circumstances I cannot do anything but continue. It is certain that he is an artist and what he makes now may sometimes not be beautiful, but it will surely be of use to him later and then it may possibly be sublime, and it would be a shame if one kept him from his regular studies. However impractical he may be, when he becomes more skilful the day will undoubtedly come when he will start selling.

You should not think that it is the money side that worries me the most. It is mostly the idea that we sympathize so little any more. There was a time when I loved Vincent a lot and he was my best friend but that is over now. It seems to be even worse from his side, for he never loses an opportunity to show me that he despises me and that I revolt him. That makes the situation at home almost unbearable. Nobody wants to come and see me, for that always leads to reproaches and he is also so dirty and untidy that the household looks far from attractive. All I hope is that he will go and live by himself, and he has talked about this for a long time, but if I told him to leave that would only give him a reason to stay on. Since I cannot do any good for him I only ask for one thing and that is that he won't do any harm to me and that is what he does by staying, for it weighs heavily on me.

It appears as if there are two different beings in him, the one marvellously gifted, fine and delicate, and the other selfish and heartless. They appear alternately so that one hears him talk now this way and then that way and always with arguments to prove pro and contra. It is a pity he is his own enemy, for he makes life difficult not only for others but also for himself.

I have firmly decided to continue as I have done up to now, but I hope that for some reason or another he will move to other quarters, and I will do my best for that.

Theo to Lies

19 April 1887

I don't remember when I wrote you last and if I have already told you my secret. To get straight to the point, if you don't know yet; I am planning at one time or another to ask for Jo Bonger's hand. I surely don't know her enough to be able to tell you much about her. As you know, I have only seen her a few times, but the things I know about her appeal to me. She gives me the impression that I could trust her in a completely undefinable way, more than anyone else. I think I could talk with her about anything and I believe that if she wanted it, she could mean very much to me.

It is extremely doubtful whether Johanna would want me. However, I can't stop thinking of her. She is always with me, and very often I curse the terrible distance that lies between us. Why can't I see her more often and get to know her better, in order to know what she would wish and what she thinks of all kinds of things? How could I possibly get in contact with her in another way than I do now, being in Amsterdam once a year for one or two days, and then: finished? I have thought of beginning to write to her, but that is not possible either at the moment, since I was stupid enough last year not to ask her if she wanted to correspond with me.

[…] Don't think that when I don't go into details it is all other people's fault.

Theo to Wil

26 April 1887

A lot has changed since I last wrote you. We have made peace, for it did not do anybody any good to continue in that way, I hope it will last. So there will be no change and I am glad. It would have been strange for me to live alone again and he would not have gained anything either. I asked him to stay. That will seem strange after all I wrote you recently, but it is no weakness on my side and as I feel much stronger than this winter, I am confident that I will be able to create an improvement in our relationship. We have drifted apart enough than that it would not serve any purpose to make the rift any larger.

Theo to Lies

15 May 1887

Vincent is working hard as always and keeps progressing. His paintings are becoming lighter and he is trying very hard to put more sunlight into them. He is a curious chap, but what a head he has got, most enviable.

At this time, Vincent was 33 year old
Theo van Gogh. Letter to His Family. Written 1885 - 1887 in Paris. Translated by Robert Harrison, edited by Robert Harrison, number .

This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.
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