van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
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Letter from Louis Piérard to n/a
Belgium, 1939

[Reprinted from Louis Piérard, La vie tragique de Vincent van Gogh, Edition revue, Paris, Editions Correa & Cie, 1939.]

Reading an article by M. Pierre Godet in L'Art Décoratif and the comments it prompted from a certain Protestant publication, Fol et Vie, induced me one day to start investigating in my native country this disturbing period of Vincent van Gogh's life. I knew that Vincent had once been sent as a missionary to the Borinage; nothing more. I have patiently interrogated the pastors of numerous villages and a certain number of their congregations. And at last I had the information I sought.

It was during a strike. Before the Village Hall an old miner, squatting with his knees drawn up to his chin, a pipe between his teeth - in the favorite resting position of “tapeurs à la veine" - said in his rude patois, "L'pasteur Vincent? Si j'mein souviés? Je l'crois bé!" [Pastor Vincent? Do I remember him? I should think so!]...I did my best to make him specify his memories more precisely. In his mind's eye he saw Van Gogh again, sitting on a campstool in the yard at the mine (at pit No. 10, Grisoeul), making sketches of the cage and “la belle fleur,” the iron framework, and then of the emerging miners, black with coal dust, their eyes blinking at the sudden daylight, their lamps in their fists...

At last I learned that Van Gogh had boarded at the house of a certain Jean-Baptiste Denis, a baker, and had preached in the old “Salon de Bébé” (in the Borinage, a hall for dancing and meetings is always called a salon). The old house, which at the time was something between a farm and a salon, has been much altered during the last thirty years. But when I found the vast kitchen intact, with its mighty beams covered with white stucco, the big open hearth, and in a corner the stone table at which Vincent liked to eat, I was moved...The Salon, or as some said, L'timpe [the temple] of Bébé, was situated at the edge of the Colfontaine forest. The whitewashed walls of the meeting hall were bluish-white. Behind the preacher one could see the sloping gardens, the square vegetable plots, through the window...

So here Van Gogh lived after November 1878 in the Borinage, vast mining district in the neighborhood of Mons...The Reformed religion has always possessed, and does to this day, important nuclei here. In every mining village, or in nearly every one, there is a Protestant church, and in some, two (one of the National Church, and the other of the Free Church, which refuses State subsidies)...

At last, after a long search, I found in the Tournaisis district an old pastor, M. Bonte, who was installed in Warquignies, a village in the neighborhood of Wasmes, in 1878, and received Vincent van Gogh with the greatest kindness. Here are the notes he was good enough to send me:

I should like to satisfy you as much as possible by putting together some reminiscences of Vincent van Gogh. In fact, I knew him some forty-five years ago in the Borinage where he was an evangelist (not a pastor, as he had no theological degree). He worked at Wasmes about one year.

He was the son of a Dutch minister. I remember well his arrival at Pâturages;

He expressed himself in French correctly, and was able to preach quite satisfactorily at the religious gatherings of the little Protestant group in Wasmes which they had entrusted to his care. Another community in Wasmes had a pastor. He worked near the edge of the forest, in the direction of Warquignies; he led divine service in a former dance hall.

Our young man took lodgings in an old farm at Petit-Wasmes. The house was relatively pretty - it differed considerably from the dwellings in the neighborhood, where one saw only little miners' cottages.

The family which had taken Vincent in had simple habits, and lived like working people.

Faced with the destitution he encountered on his visits, his pity had induced him to give away nearly all his clothes; his money had found its way into the hands of the poor, and one might say that he had kept nothing for himself. His religious sentiments were very ardent, and he wanted to obey the words of Jesus Christ to the letter.

He felt obliged to imitate the early Christians, to sacrifice all he could live without, and he wanted to be even more destitute than the majority of the miners to whom he preached the Gospel.

I must add that also his Dutch cleanliness was singularly abandoned; soap was banished as a wicked luxury; and when our evangelist was not wholly covered with a layer of coal dust, his face was usually dirtier than that of the miners. Exterior details did not trouble him; he was absorbed in his ideal of self-denial, but for the rest he showed that his attitude was not the consequence of laisser-aller, but a consistent practicing of the ideas governing his conscience.

He no longer felt any inducement to take care of his own well-being - his heart had been aroused by the sight of others' want.

He preferred to go to the unfortunate, the wounded, the sick, and always stayed with them a long time; he was willing to make any sacrifice to relieve their sufferings.

In addition, his profound sensitivity was not limited to the human race. Vincent van Gogh respected every creature's life, even of those most despised.

A repulsive caterpillar did not provoke his disgust; it was a living creature, and as such, deserved protection.

The family with whom he had boarded told me that every time he found a caterpillar on the ground in the garden, he carefully picked it up and took it to a tree. Apart from this trait, which perhaps will be considered insignificant or even foolish, I have retained the impression that Vincent van Gogh was actuated by a high ideal: self-forgetfulness and devotion to all other beings was the guiding principle which he accepted wholeheartedly.

It will not revile the memory of the man to confess that in my opinion he retained one weakness: he was an incorrigible smoker. At times I teased him about it; a loather of tobacco myself, I told him that he did wrong not to give it up, but he ignored me - Painters cannot do without a little spot of shade in the picture.

As far as his painting is concerned, I cannot speak as a connoisseur; besides, he was not taken seriously.

He would squat in the mine fields and draw the women picking up pieces of coal and going away laden with heavy sacks.

It was observed that he did not reproduce the pretty things to which we are wont to attribute beauty.

He made some portraits of old women, but for the rest, nobody attached any importance to an activity that was considered a mere hobby.

But it would seem that as an artist, also, our young man had a predilection for all that seemed miserable to him.

These, sir, are a few reminiscences which my aged memory has tried to collect...

Here is another letter. I did not have the heart to make any alteration in it. The good baker who wrote it and who had lived on intimate terms with Vincent van Gogh will not take it amiss if I reproduce it completely and faithfully.

Monsieur Piérard, 1

One fine spring day, when I saw our young friend Vincent van Gogh arrive, richly dressed, I could not stop looking at him, next day he paid a visit to the pastor, M. Bonte.

Having arrived at the stage where he had no shirt and no socks on his feet, we have seen him make shirts out of sacking. I myself was too young then.

My kind-hearted mother said to him: Monsieur Vincent, why do you deprive yourself of all your clothes like this - you who are descended from such a noble family of Dutch pastors? He answered: I am a friend of the poor like Jesus was. She answered: You're no longer in a normal condition.

The same year there was a firedamp explosion in Pit No. 1 of the Charbonnage Belge, and many miners were burned. Our friend Vincent did not give himself a moment's rest day and night cutting up the last remnants of his linen to make bandages with wax and olive oil on them, and then ran to the wounded to dress their burns.

The humanity of our friend continued to grow day by day, and yet the persecutions he suffered grew, too. And still the reproaches and insults and stoning by the members of the Consistory, though he always remained in the deepest abasement! One day when he came to our house he started vomiting on the basement floor. It had been too great a luxury for him, he ought to have stayed in a thatched hovel. His food consisted of rice and treacle, no butter on his bread.

Yet he was always at his studies; in a single night he read a volume of 100 pages; during the week he taught a school he had founded for the children teaching them to fear God, and at the same time he was busy making drawings of photography and the mines.

On a very hot day a violent thunderstorm burst over our region. What did our friend do? He went out to stand in the open field to look at the great marvels of God, and so he came back wet to the skin. So it came about that our friend was turned out of his ministry, he went away to Paris and we have not heard from him since. And when he walked [it was always] on the edge of the road, dear friend, Monsieur Piérard, I could not tell you more, I was only fourteen years at the time.

Some of his characteristics have been remembered vividly. When the miners of Wasmes went to the pits, they put old vests made of sacking over their linen work clothes, using them like pea jackets to protect themselves in the cages, from water spurting from the walls of the shafts. This miserable raggedness kindled Vincent van Gogh's pity most deeply. One day he saw the word fragile printed on the sackcloth on one miner's back. He did not laugh. On the contrary, for many days he spoke about it compassionately at mealtimes. People did not understand. This and the thunderstorm episode were enough to convince Madame Denis “that the young gentleman was not like all the others.” Her motherly heart bled for him... She wrote a letter to Van Gogh's mother, describing the miserable life Vincent led in his cabin.

An epidemic of typhoid fever had broken out in the district. Vincent had given everything, his money and his clothes, to the poor sick miners. An inspector of the Evangelization Council had come to the conclusion that the missionary's “excès de zèle” bordered on the scandalous, and he did not hide his opinion from the consistory of Wasmes. Van Gogh's father went from Nuenen [sic] to Wasmes. He found his son lying on a sack filled with straw, horribly worn out and emaciated. In the room, dimly lit by a lamp hanging from the ceiling, some miners with faces pinched with starvation and suffering crowded round Vincent. Large, fantastic shadows danced all over the walls plastered with green.

The missionary allowed himself to be led away like a child, and returned to the home of Madame Denis.

Van Gogh made many sensational conversions among the Protestants of Wasmes. People still talk of the miner whom he went to see after the accident in the Marcasse mine. The man was a habitual drinker, “an unbeliever and a blasphemer,” according to the people who told me the story. When Vincent entered his house to help and comfort him, he was received with a volley of abuse. He was called especially a mâcheux d'capelets [rosary chewer], as if he had been a Roman Catholic priest. But Van Gogh's evangelical tenderness converted the man.

People still tell how, at the time of the tirage au sort, the drawing of lots for conscription, women begged the holy man to show them a passage in the Holy Scripture which would serve as a talisman for their sons and ensure their drawing a good number and being exempted from service in the barracks!...

Traces of Van Gogh's sojourn in the Borinage are to be found in the records of the Protestant communities. One is a report of the “Eglise du Bois à Wasmes,” drawn up under the ”hauspices (sic) du synode." I have copied this report and this is how it reads:

Monsieur le pasteur Peron, of Dour, has come to Wasmes. Considering the number [of members, doubtless] and the works they could do, Messieurs Neven, Jean Andry and Peron aforenamed, all three pastors of the governing body of the Sté Synodale, agreed to send our situation (sic) to the Synodal Board in order to learn whether it can come to our aid.

After being commissioned, Mr. Peron came to Wasmes, and reaching an agreement, they thought it proper to take turns holding the service in a hall which Mr. Peron had visited together with the members of the consistory.

After a lapse of about a year and a half the Societé Synodale was good enough to send us M. Vincent; after him came M. Huton, both of them evangelists during four years or thereabouts.

We have been powerfully assisted in the work of evangelization.

And here is the 1879-80 report of the Union of Protestant Churches in Belgium, chapter “Wasmes” [twenty-third report of the Synodal Board of Evangelization (1879-80)]:

The experiment of accepting the services of a young Dutchman, Mr. Vincent van Gogh, who felt himself called to be an evangelist in the Borinage, has not produced the anticipated results. If a talent for speaking, indispensable to anyone placed at the head of a congregation, had been added to the admirable qualities he displayed in aiding the sick and wounded, to his devotion to the spirit of self-sacrifice, of which he gave many proofs by consecrating his night's rest to them, and by stripping himself of most of his clothes and linen in their behalf, Mr. Van Gogh would certainly have been an accomplished evangelist.

Undoubtedly it would be unreasonable to demand extraordinary talents. But it is evident that the absence of certain qualities may render the exercise of an evangelist's principal function wholly impossible.

Unfortunately this is the case with Mr. Van Gogh. Therefore, the probationary period - some months - having expired, it has been necessary to abandon the idea of retaining him any longer.

The evangelist, M. Hutton (sic), who is now installed, took over his charge on October 1, 1879.

1879, the tragic year: epidemics of typhoid fever, “the mad fever,” broke out, and then a great catastrophe cast a pall of grief over the country (the firedamp explosion in the Agrappe at Frameries). Without a thought for himself, Vincent devoted himself to nursing the sick and the men suffering from burns, with their faces black and swollen.

A strike broke out; the mutinous miners would no longer listen to anyone except “l'pasteur Vincent,” whom they trusted.

In the meantime Van Gogh was increasingly busy with his drawings. One day he started for Brussels on foot. He arrived at Pastor Pietersen's house in rags, his feet bleeding, but carrying with him some of his drawings (Pietersen was an amateur watercolourist). The reception was cordial and soothing. It was decided that Van Gogh would go back to the Borinage, but this time to another parish, Cuesmes.

One of my Protestant fellow citizens, M. G. Delsaut, who knew him at Cuesmes in 1880, sent me some notes which I reproduce without a word changed:

He was an intelligent young man, speaking little - always pensive.

Apart from his meals, he drank only water. He always had his meals alone, and took pains to avoid eating in company. While eating, he made drawings in his lap or he read. All his spare time was given to drawing. He often went to Ghlin Wood, to the cemetery of Mons, or into the country.

He drew chiefly landscapes, castles, a shepherd with his flock, cows in the meadows.

The most striking picture, which my sister-in-law, with whom he boarded, still remembers, was a drawing showing the family gathering in the crop of potatoes, some digging, others (the women) picking up the potatoes.

He left his drawings and his books behind, but now they have all disappeared because the family was scattered.

His board was paid by his father, who sent him money. He spent much money on Bibles and New Testaments, which he gave away when he went out to draw.

Once his father had to come to Cuesmes to put a stop to his spending money on books.

When he was annoyed he rubbed his hands as if he could not stop.

[In the Groene Amsterdammer (Amsterdam weekly) of September 19, 1925, Piérard added the following to his account.]

I thought I had collected all the particulars, until old Mr. Denis, whom I met some days ago, told me that one fine morning, when, as he put it, “the dew had, as it were, strewn the trees and flowers in the garden with pearls of silver,” he was on the point of crushing a caterpillar underfoot when Van Gogh stopped him with the exclamation, “Why do you want to kill that little animal? God created it...”

Louis Piérard used to be the socialist senator for Hainaut, the province to which the Borinage belongs; after the liberation (1918) he was sometimes called the cultural ambassador of Belgium. To my question as to what grounds he had for his statements about Vincent's alleged endeavours to calm the strikers, he wrote the following letter a few weeks before his death.

Club des écrivains belges de langue française.

Pen Club

President: Louis Piérard

47, av. Victor Rousseau, Forest (Brux.)

telephone 44.39.17.

Dear Mr. Van Gogh, Brussels, October 8, 1951

I hasten to answer your letter of October 4. I am happy to hear that you are preparing a new edition of The Letters of Vincent. Thank you for kindly conferring importance on the particulars I gave in my book on Van Gogh's sojourn in the Borinage.

The catastrophe to which I referred, and in the course of which Vincent exerted himself with the utmost unselfishness (which is confirmed by Pastor Bonte's letter), was one of those firedamp explosions that occurred again and again in the Agrappe Pit at Frameries, near Wasmes. There were hundreds of victims. Most of them were miners, killed on the spot by the explosion. But others, the wounded, were possibly burned by ignition of the coal dust.

Vincent tried to relieve the atrocious sufferings of these unfortunate wretches, applying compresses drenched in olive oil to their burns.

These frequent mining disasters (there had been three, one after the other, at the Agrappe and at the Boule) at last prompted an outbreak of anger and mutiny among the mining population. They believed that the inspection of the mines was not conducted in such a way as to protect the miner and guarantee his safety. So there were strikes which were in fact strikes of despair. Because of this, the strikers were tempted to commit acts of violence and destruction. The gendarmes and even the army were mobilized to maintain order. It is highly probable 2 that, in order to prevent bloodshed, Vincent intervened and used his great moral authority to restore the miners' self-control.

I would also allude to the depth at which people have to work in the mines. Do you know that there is a pit at Quaregnon in which at this very hour people are working at a depth of 1400 meters (about 4,700 ft.) ?

Will you please give my kind regards to Mrs. Van Gogh.

Bien a vous

Louis Piérard,

47, av. V. Rousseau, Bruxelles


You of course know the documentary about Vincent van Gogh which won an award at the Film Festival in Venice. But what has become of those many projects for films on Van Gogh, his life and work?

During an exhibition of Vincent's pictures at Mons (Dec. 1946 - Jan. 1947), I received the following letter:

To Mr. V. W. van Gogh,


A few notes on the subject of V. van Gogh's life at Wasmes, collected by my grandmother from Mr. and Mrs. Denis (my grandmother came from Wasmes, Borinage)

To Esther (Madame Denis, who expostulated with him for tearing up his linen so that he could take it to families where there were sufferers from firedamp burns):

“Oh, Esther, the good Samaritan did more than that! Why not apply in life what one admires in the pages of the Bible?”

To the same, who expostulated with him for dashing out of the house in the morning to the unfortunate victims, without taking the time to wash himself or to lace his shoes:

“Oh, Esther, don't worry about such details, there is nothing for heaven in them.”

To the same, who expostulated with him for leaving her hospitable home to go and sleep on a miserable pallet in the hovel of a needy family:

“Esther, one should do like the good God; from time to time one should go and live among His own.”

P. Driutte,

Directrice d'école moyenne,

12, Rue du Grand Jour,


  1. The original French letter is grammatically and orthographically an amusing document indeed!

  2. The word “probable” (vraisemblable) indicates that this is only Louis Piérard's supposition. It has already found its way into one film script, not a little inflated by promoting Vincent to strike leader.

At this time, Vincent was 86 year old
Louis Piérard. Letter to n/a. Written 1939 in Belgium. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number htm.

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