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My Dear Theo,
I am writing to you rather reluctantly because, for a good
many reasons, I have kept silent for such a long time. To some
extent you have become a stranger to me, and I to you perhaps
more than you think. It is probably better for us not to go on
like that. It is probable that I would not have written to you
even now, were it not that I feel obliged, compelled, to do so
- because, be it noted, you yourself have compelled me to.
I heard in Etten that you had sent 50 francs for me. Well, I
have accepted them. With reluctance, of course, with a feeling
of some despondency, of course, but I have reached a sort of
impasse, am in trouble, what else can I do? And so I am writing
to thank you.
As you may know, I am back in the Borinage. Father said he
would prefer me to stay somewhere near Etten, but I refused and
I believe I was right to do so. To the family, I have,
willy-nilly, become a more or less objectionable and shady sort
of character, at any rate a bad lot. How then could I then be
of any use to anyone? And so I am inclined to think the best
and most sensible solution all round would be for me to go away
and to keep my distance, to cease to be, as it were. What the
moulting season is for birds - the time when they lose their
feathers - setbacks, misfortune and hard times are for us human
beings. You can cling on to the moulting season, you can also
emerge from it reborn, but it must not be done in public.
The thing is far from amusing, not very exhilarating, and so
one should take care to keep out of the way. Well, so be
Now I must trouble you with certain abstract matters, hoping
that you will listen to them patiently. I am a man of passions,
capable of and given to doing more or less outrageous things
for which I sometimes feel a little sorry. Every so often I say
or do something too hastily, when it would have been better to
have shown a little more patience. Other people also act rashly
at times, I think.
This being the case, what can be done about it? Should I
consider myself a dangerous person, unfit for anything? I think
not. Rather, every means should be tried to put these very
passions to good effect.
To mention just one by way of an example, I have a more or
less irresistible passion for books and the constant need to
improve my mind, to study if you like, just as I have a need to
eat bread. You will understand that. When I lived in other
surroundings, surroundings full of pictures and works of art, I
conceived a violent, almost fanatical passion for those
surroundings, as you know. And I do not regret that, and even
now, far from home, I often feel homesick for the land of
You may remember that I knew very well (and it may be that I
know it still) what Rembrandt was or what Millet was or Jules
Dupré or Delacroix or Millais or Matthijs Maris.
Well, today I am no longer in those surroundings, yet they
say that what is known as the soul never dies but lives on for
ever, continuing to seek for ever and again.
So instead of succumbing to my homesickness I told myself:
your land, your fatherland, is all around.
Now anyone who becomes absorbed in all this is sometimes
considered outrageous, `shocking,' sinning more or less
unwillingly against certain forms and customs and proprieties.
It is a pity that people take that amiss.
You know, for example, that I have often neglected my
appearance. I admit it, and I also admit that it is `shocking.'
But look here, lack of money and poverty have something to do
with it too, as well as a profound disillusionment, and
besides, it is sometimes a good way of ensuring the solitude
you need, of concentrating more or less on whatever study you
are immersed in. One essential study is that of medicine. There
is scarcely anybody who does not try to acquire some knowledge
of it, who does not at least try to grasp what it is about (and
you see, I still know absolutely nothing about it). And all
these things absorb you, preoccupy you, set you dreaming,
musing and thinking.
Now for the past five years or so, I don't know how long
exactly, I have been more or less without permanent employment,
wandering from pillar to post. You will say, ever since such
and such a time you have been going downhill, you have been
feeble, you have done nothing. Is that entirely true?
What is true is that I have at times earned my own crust of
bread, and at other times a friend has given it to me out of
the goodness of his heart. I have lived whatever way I could,
for better or for worse, taking things just as they came. It is
true that I have forfeited the trust of various people, it is
true that my financial affairs are in a sorry state, it is true
that the future looks rather bleak, it is true that I might
have done better, it is true that I have wasted time when it
comes to earning a living, it is true that my studies are in a
fairly lamentable and appalling state, and that my needs are
greater, infinitely greater than my resources. But does that
mean going downhill and doing nothing?
You might say, but why didn't you go through with
university, continue as they wanted you to? To that I can only
reply that it was too expensive, and besides, the future then
looked no better than it does now, along the path I am now
And I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do
nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is
me, I am lost. That is how I look at it - keep going, keep
going come what may.
But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will
become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the
rough draught turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a
painting through the serious work done on it, through the
elaboration of the original vague idea and through the
consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought.
You should know that it is the same with evangelists as it
is with artists. There is an old academic school, often odious
and tyrannical, the `abomination of desolation', in short, men
who dress, as it were, in a suit of steel armour, a cuirass, of
prejudice and convention. When they are in charge, it is they
who hand out the jobs and try, with much red tape, to keep them
for their proteges and to exclude the man with an open
Their God is like the God of Shakespeare's drunken Falstaff,
“the inside of a church.” Indeed, by a strange
coincidence, some evangelical (???) gentlemen have the same
view of matters spiritual as that drunkard (which might
surprise them somewhat were they capable of human emotion). But
there is little fear that their blindness will ever turn into
This is a bad state of affairs for anyone who differs from
them and protests with heart and soul and all the indignation
he can muster. For my part, I hold those academicians who are
not like these academicians in high esteem, but the decent ones
are thinner on the ground than you might think.
Now, one of the reasons why I have no regular job, and why I
have not had a regular job for years, is quite simply that my
ideas differ from those of the gentlemen who hand out the jobs
to individuals who think as they do. It is not just a question
of my appearance, which is what they have sanctimoniously
reproached me with. It goes deeper, I do assure you.
I am telling you all this not to complain, not to make
excuses for matters in which I may perhaps have been somewhat
at fault, but simply to tell you the following: during your
final visit last summer when we were walking together near that
abandoned mineshaft which they call “La
Sorcière,” you reminded me of another walk we once
took at another time near the old canal and the mill at
Rijswijk, and, you said, we used to agree about many things,
but, you added, “You have changed since then, you are no
longer the same.” Well, that is not entirely true. What
has changed is that my life then was less difficult and my
future seemingly less gloomy, but as far as my inner self, my
way of looking at things and of thinking is concerned, that has
not changed. But if there has indeed been a change, then it is
that I think, believe and love more seriously now what I
thought, believed and loved even then.
So you would be mistaken should you continue to think that I
have become less keen on, say, Rembrandt, Millet, or Delacroix
or whoever or whatever, for the reverse is the case, but there
are many different things worth believing and loving, you see -
there is something of Rembrandt in Shakespeare, something of
Correggio or of Sarto in Michelet and something of Delacroix in
Victor Hugo, and there is also something of Rembrandt in the
Gospel or, if you prefer, something of the Gospel in Rembrandt,
it comes to much the same thing, provided you understand it
properly, do not try to distort it and bear in mind that the
elements of the comparisons are not intended to detract in any
way from the merits of the original individuals.
And in Bunyan there is something of M. Maris or of Millet, a
reality that, in a manner of speaking, is more real than
reality itself, something hitherto unknown that, if only you
can read it, will tell you untold things. And in Beecher Stowe
there is something of Ary Scheffer.
Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in
pictures, perhaps you will also grant that the love of books is
as sacred as that of Rembrandt, indeed, I believe that the two
complement each other.
I very much admire the portrait of a man by Fabritius that
we stood looking at for a long time in the gallery in Haarlem
one day when we took another walk together. Admittedly, I am as
fond of Dickens's `Richard Cartone' [Sydney Carton] in his
Paris & Londres in 1793 [A Tale of Two Cities], and I could
point to other particularly gripping characters in other books
with a more or less striking resemblance. And I think that
Kent, a character in Shakespeare's “King Lear,” is
as noble and distinguished a man as that figure by Th. de
Keyser, though Kent and King Lear are reputed to have lived
Let me stop there, but my God, how beautiful Shakespeare is,
who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are
like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy. But one
must learn to read, just as one must learn to see and learn to
So please don't think that I am renouncing anything, I am
reasonably faithful in my unfaithfulness and though I have
changed, I am the same, and what preys on my mind is simply
this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of
service or use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable
and study some subject or other in depth? That is what keeps
preying on my mind, you see, and then one feels imprisoned by
poverty, barred from taking part in this or that project and
all sorts of necessities are out of one's reach. As a result
one cannot rid oneself of melancholy, one feels emptiness where
there might have been friendship and sublime and genuine
affection, and one feels dreadful disappointment gnawing at
one's spiritual energy, fate seems to stand in the way of
affection or one feels a wave of disgust welling up inside. And
then one says “How long, my God!”
Well, that's how it is, can you tell what goes on within by
looking at what happens without? There may be a great fire in
our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it, all that
passers-by can see is a little smoke coming out of the chimney,
and they walk on.
All right, then, what is to be done, should one tend that
inward fire, turn to oneself for strength, wait patiently - yet
with how much impatience! - wait, I say, for the moment when
someone who wants to comes and sits down beside one's fire and
perhaps stays on? Let him who believes in God await the moment
that will sooner or later arrive.
Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly
for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may
continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that
everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong.
I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there
should be a change for the better I should regard that as a
gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was
something after all!
But, you will say, what a dreadful person you are, with your
impossible religious notions and idiotic scruples. If my ideas
are impossible or idiotic then I would like nothing better than
to be rid of them. But this is roughly the way I see things. In
Le Philosophe sous les Toits by Souvestre you can read what a
man of the people, a simple craftsman, pitiful if you will,
thinks of his country: “Tu n'as peut-être jamais
pensé à ce que c'est la patrie, reprit-il, en me
posant une main sur l'épaule; c'est tout ce qui
t'entoure, tout ce qui t'a élevé et nourri, tout
ce que tu as aimé. Cette campagne que tu vois, ces
maisons, ces arbres, ces jeunes filles qui passent là en
riant, c'est la patrie! Les lois qui te protègent, le
pain qui paye ton travail, les paroles que tu échanges,
la joie et la tristesse qui te viennent des hommes et des
choses parmi lesquels tu vis, c'est la patrie! La petite
chambre où tu as autrefois vu ta mère, les
souvenirs qu'elle t'a laissés, la terre où elle
repose, c'est la patrie! Tu la vois, tu la respires partout!
Figure toi, tes affections et tes besoins, tes souvenirs et ta
reconnaissance, réunis tout ça sous un seul nom
et ce nom sera la patrie.” [You may never have thought
what your country really is, he continued, placing his hand on
my shoulder; it is everything around you, everything that has
raised and nourished you, everything that you have loved. This
countryside that you see; these houses, these trees, these
young girls laughing as they pass, that is your country! The
laws that protect you, the bread that rewards your labour, the
words you speak, the joy and sorrow that come from the people
and things in whose midst you live, that is your country! The
little room where you used in days gone by to see your mother,
the memories she left you, the earth in which she rests, that
is your country! You see it, you breathe it, everywhere!
Imagine your rights and your duties, your affections and your
needs, your memories and your gratitude, gather all that
together under a single name, and that name will be your
In the same way I think that everything that is really good
and beautiful, the inner, moral, spiritual and sublime beauty
in men and their works, comes from God, and everything that is
bad and evil in the works of men and in men is not from God,
and God does not approve of it.
But I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God
is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this
thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to
understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself.
But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy,
with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time
to understand Him more, better and yet more. That will lead to
God, that will lead to an unshakeable faith.
To take an example: one man will love Rembrandt, genuinely,
and that man will surely know that there is a God, he will
really believe it. Another will make a thorough study of the
French Revolution - he will not be an unbeliever, he will see
that there is a supreme authority that manifests itself in
great affairs. Yet another has recently attended a free course
of lectures at the great university of sorrow and has heeded
the things he saw with his eyes and heard with his ears, and
has reflected upon them. He too will come to believe in the end
and will perhaps have learned more than he can tell.
Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, the
serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again
find God in them. One man has written or said it in a book,
another in a painting. Just read the Bible and the Gospel, that
will start you thinking, thinking about many things, thinking
about everything, well then, think about many things, think
about everything, that will lift your thoughts above the
humdrum despite yourself. We know how to read, so let us
Now then, you may well have bouts of being a little
absent-minded, a little dreamy, indeed there are some who
become too absent-minded, a little too dreamy. That may indeed
have happened with me, but all in all that is my own fault,
maybe there as a reason for it, perhaps I was lost in thought
for one reason or another, anxious, worried, but one gets over
that in the end. The dreamer sometimes falls into the doldrums,
but is said to emerge from them again. And the absent-minded
person also makes up for it with bouts of perspicacity.
Sometimes he is a person whose right to exist has a
justification that is not always immediately obvious to you, or
more usually, you may absent-mindedly allow it to slip from
your mind. Someone who has been wandering about for a long
time, tossed to and fro on a stormy sea, will in the end reach
his destination. Someone who has seemed to be good for nothing,
unable to fill any job, any appointment, will find one in the
end and, energetic and capable, will prove himself quite
different from what he seemed at first.
I am writing somewhat at random, writing whatever flows from
my pen. I should be very happy if you could see in me something
more than a kind of fainéant [idler]. For there is a
great difference between one idler and another idler. There is
someone who is an idler out of laziness and lack of character,
owing to the baseness of his nature. If you like, you may take
me for one of those. Then there is the other kind of idler, the
idler despite himself, who is inwardly consumed by a great
longing for action who does nothing because his hands are tied,
because he is, so to speak, imprisoned somewhere, because he
lacks what he needs to be productive, because disastrous
circumstances have brought him forcibly to this end. Such a one
does not always know what he can do, but he nevertheless
instinctively feels, I am good for something! My existence is
not without reason! I know that I could be a quite a different
person! How can I be of use, how can I be of service? There is
something inside me, but what can it be? He is quite another
idler. If you like you may take me for one of those.
A caged bird in spring knows perfectly well that there is
some way in which he should be able to serve. He is well aware
that there is something to be done, but he is unable to do it.
What is it? He cannot quite remember, but then he gets a vague
inkling and he says to himself, “The others are building
their nests and hatching their young and bringing them
up,” and then he bangs his head against the bars of the
cage. But the cage does not give way and the bird is maddened
by pain. “What a idler,” says another bird passing
by - what an idler. Yet the prisoner lives and does not die.
There are no outward signs of what is going on inside him; he
is doing well, he is quite cheerful in the sunshine.
But then the season of the great migration arrives, an
attack of melancholy. He has everything he needs, say the
children who tend him in his cage - but he looks out, at the
heavy thundery sky, and in his heart of hearts he rebels
against his fate. I am caged, I am caged and you say I need
nothing, you idiots! I have everything I need, indeed! Oh!
please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds!
A kind of idler of a person resembles that kind of idler of
a bird. And people are often unable to do anything, imprisoned
as they are in I don't know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh
such terrible cage.
I do know that there is a release, the belated release. A
justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous
circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner.
You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures
you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive
bars, railings, walls. Is all this illusion, imagination? I
don't think so. And then one asks: My God! will it be for long,
will it be for ever, will it be for eternity?
Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep,
genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that
is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic
force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is
revived, there life revives. Moreover, the prison is sometimes
called prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance of one
thing or another, suspicion, false modesty.
But to change the subject - if I have come down in the
world, you have in a different way come up in it. And if I have
forfeited sympathy, you have gained it. I am glad of that, I
say that it in all sincerity, and it will always give me
pleasure. If you lacked seriousness or consideration, I would
be fearful that it might not last, but since I think that you
are very serious and very considerate, I tend to believe it
But if you could see me as something other than a idler of
the bad sort, I should be very happy.
For the rest, if I can ever do anything for you, be of some
use to you, know that I am at your disposal. Now that I have
accepted what you have given me, you are, should I be able to
render you some service, in a position to ask me. It would make
me happy, and I should take it a sign of trust. We have moved
rather far apart and may in certain respects have perhaps
different views, but some time, some day, one of us may be of
service to the other.
For now I shake your hand, thanking you once again for
having been so good to me. If, one of these days, you feel like
writing, my address is, chez Ch. Decrucq, Rue du Pavillon 8,
Cuesmes, near Mons, and know that it will do me good to hear
At this time, Vincent was 27 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written July 1880 in Cuesmes. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 133.
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