van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
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 Memoir of Vincent van Gogh

On March 30, 1852, a dead son was born at the vicarage of Zundert, but a year after on the same date Anna van Gogh gave birth to a healthy boy who was called Vincent Willem after his two grandfathers, and who, in qualities and character as well as in appearance, took after his mother more than his father. The energy and unbroken strength of will which Vincent showed in his life were, in principle, his mother's traits; from her also he took the sharp, inquisitive glance of the eye from under the protruding eyebrows. The blond complexion of both the parents became reddish in Vincent; he was of medium height, rather broad-shouldered, and gave the impression of being strong and sturdy. This is also confirmed by his mother's words, that none of the children except Vincent were very strong. A weaker constitution than his would certainly have broken down much sooner under the heavy strain Vincent put upon it.

As a child he was of a difficult temper, often troublesome and self-willed; his upbringing was not fitted to counterbalance these faults, as the parents were very tender-hearted, especially toward their eldest. Once Grandmother Van Gogh, who had come from Breda to visit her children at Zundert, witnessed one of little Vincent's naughty fits. Having learned from experience with her own twelve babies, she took the little culprit by the arm and, with a sound box on the ears, put him out of the room. The tender-hearted mother was so indignant at this that she did not speak to her mother-in-law for a whole day, and only the sweet-tempered character of the young father succeeded in bringing about a reconcilia-tion. In the evening he had a little carriage brought around, and drove the two women to the heath where, under the influence of a beautiful sunset, they forgave each other.

Little Vincent had a great love for animals and flowers, and made all kinds of collections. There was as yet no sign of any extraordinary gift for drawing; it was only noted that at the age of eight he once modelled a little clay elephant that drew his parents' attention, but he destroyed it at once when, according to his notion, such a fuss was made about it. The same fate befell a very curious drawing of a cat, which his mother always remembered. For a short time he attended the village school, but his parents found that the intercourse with the peasant boys made him too rough, so a governess was sought for the children of the vicarage, whose number had meanwhile increased to six. Two years after Vincent a little daughter had been born, and two years later, May 1, 1857, came a son who was named after his father. After him came two sisters and a little brother. (The younger sister, Willemien, who always lived with her mother, was the only one to whom Vincent wrote on rare occasions.) Theo was more tender and kind than his brother, who was four years older. He was more delicately built and his features were more refined, but he had the same reddish fair complexion and the same light blue eyes which sometimes darkened to a greenish-blue.

In letter 338 Vincent himself described the similarity and the difference in their looks. In 1889 Theo wrote to me about Rodin's marble head of John the Baptist: “The sculptor has conceived an image of the precursor of Christ that exactly re-sembles Vincent. Yet he never saw him. That expression of sorrow, that forehead disfigured by deep furrows which denotes high thinking and iron self-discipline, is Vincent's, though his is somewhat more sloping; the shape of the nose and struc-ture of the head are the same.” When I later saw the bust, I found in it a perfect resemblance to Theo.

The two brothers were strongly attached to each other from childhood, whereas the eldest sister, recalling their childhood, spoke of Vincent's teasing ways. Theo remembered only that Vincent could invent such delightful games that once they made him a present of the most beautiful rosebush in their garden to show their gratitude. Their childhood was full of the poetry of Brabant country life; they grew up among the wheatfields, the heath and the pine forests, in that peculiar sphere of a village parsonage, the charm of which remained with them all their lives. It was not perhaps the best training to fit them for the hard struggle that awaited them both; they were still so very young when they had to go out into the world, and during the years following, with what bitter melancholy and inexpressible homesickness did they long for the sweet home in the little village on the heath.

Vincent at thirteen

Vincent came back there several times, and always appeared the “country boor”; Theo, who had become quite a refined Parisian, also kept in his heart something of the &ldBrabant boy,” as he laughingly liked to call himself.

As Vincent once rightly observed, “There will always remain in us something of the Brabant fields and heath.” When their father had died and their mother had to leave Brabant, he complained, “It will be a strange feeling to think that none of us has stayed in Brabant.” Later, when the faithful brother visited him in the hospital of Arles and in tender pity laid his head on the pillow beside him, Vincent whispered, "Just like Zundert.” Shortly afterward he wrote, “During my illness I saw again every room in the house at Zundert, every path, every plant in the garden, the view of the fields outside, the neighbors, the graveyard, the church, our kitchen garden at the back - down to a magpie's nest in a tall acacia in the graveyard” (letter 573). So ineffaceable were those first sunny childhood's recollections.

When Vincent was twelve years old he was sent to Mr. Provily's boarding school in Zevenbergen; about this period not a single particular has been found, except that one of the sisters wrote to Theo, “Do you remember how on Mother's birthday Vincent used to come from Zevenbergen and what fun we had then?” Nothing is known of friends in that time.

When he was sixteen years old, the choice of a profession became urgent, and Uncle Vincent was consulted about this.

The latter, who meanwhile had acquired a large fortune as an art dealer, had been obliged by his feeble health to retire early from the strenuous business life in Paris - though still financially connected with the firm. He had settled at Prin-senhage, near his old father in Breda and his favorite brother in Zundert. Generally he passed the winter with his wife at Mentone in the South of France, and on his journey thither he always stayed some time in Paris, so that he remained in touch with the business. His beautiful country house at Prinsenhage had been enlarged by a gallery for his rare picture collection, and it was here that Vincent and Theo received their first impressions of the world of art. There was a warm, cordial intercourse between the Zundert parsonage and the childless home at Prinsen-hage. “The carriage” from there was always loudly cheered by the children at Zundert, for it brought many surprises - flowers, rare fruits and delicacies; on the other hand, the bright, lively presence of the brother and sister from Zundert often cast a cheerful sunbeam on the life of the patient at Prinsenhage. These brothers, also called Vincent and Theo, differed but one year in age; they were thoroughly attached to each other, and their wives being sisters strengthened the bonds between them. What was more natural than that the rich art dealer destined the young nephew who bore his name to be his successor in the firm - perhaps even to become his heir?

Thus in 1869 Vincent entered the house of Goupil & Co., at The Hague, as youngest employee under the direction of Mr. Tersteeg. His future seemed bright. He boarded with the Roos family on the Beestenmarkt, where Theo later lived also. It was a comfortable home where his material needs were perfectly provided for, but there was no intellectual intercourse. This he found with various relations and friends of his mother's, whom he often visited: the Haanebeeks, the Van Stockums, and Aunt Sophie Carbentus and her three daughters. One of the latter married our famous Dutch painter, A. Mauve; a second, the less known painter, A. le Comte. Tersteeg sent the parents good reports about Vincent's zeal and capacities, and like his grandfather in his time, he was “the diligent, studious youth” whom everybody liked.

When he had been at The Hague for three years, Theo, who was still at school at Oisterwijk (near Helvoirt, to which village their father had been called), came to stay with him for a few days. It was after that visit in August, 1872, that the correspondence between the two brothers began, and from this now faded, yellow, almost childish little note it is carried on uninterruptedly until Vincent's death, when a half-finished letter to Theo was found on him. The desponding que veux-tu? at the end seems like the gesture of resignation with which he parted from life.

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