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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.
Theo to mother
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
Theo to mother
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
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
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.