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[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
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
The family which had taken Vincent in had simple habits, and
lived like working people.
Besides this, the clothes he wore outdoors revealed the
originality of his aspirations; people saw him issue forth clad
in an old soldier's tunic and a shabby cap, and he went about
the village in this attire. The fine suits he had arrived in
never reappeared; nor did he buy any new ones. It is true he
had only a modest salary, but it was sufficient to permit him
to dress in accordance with his social position. Why had the
boy changed this way?
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'
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
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. Immediately
putting himself on a level with the working class, our friend
sank away into the greatest humiliations, and it was not long
before he had disposed of all his clothes.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A strike broke out; the mutinous miners would no longer
listen to anyone except “l'pasteur Vincent,” whom
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
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
[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
Club des écrivains belges de langue
President: Louis Piérard
47, av. Victor Rousseau, Forest (Brux.)
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
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
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
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.”
Directrice d'école moyenne,
12, Rue du Grand Jour,
The original French letter is grammatically and
orthographically an amusing document indeed!
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
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.