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

The principal events of both their lives are mentioned in the letters and are completed in this biographical notice by particulars, either heard from Theo himself, or found in the correspondence of the parents with Theo, also preserved in full. (Vincent's letters to his parents were unfortunately destroyed.) They date from January, 1873, when Theo, only fifteen years old, went to Brussels to be apprenticed as an art dealer also. These letters are full of the tenderest love and care for the boy who left home so young. “Well, Theo, you are quite a man now at fifteen,” said his mother in one of her letters. They clung fondly to him because he more than any of the other children repaid their love with never-failing ten-derness and devotion, and grew up to be, as they so often said, “the crowning glory of their old age.” The letters tell of all the small events of daily life at the parsonage; what flowers were growing in the garden, and how the fruit trees bore, if the nightingale had been heard yet, what visitors had come, what the little sisters and brother were doing, what the text of Father's sermon was, and among all this, many particulars about Vincent.

In 1873 the latter had been transferred to the firm in London. When leaving The Hague, he got a splendid testimonial from Mr. Tersteeg, who also wrote to the parents that at the gallery everybody liked to deal with Vincent - art lovers, clients, as well as painters - and that he certainly would succeed in his profession. “It is a great satisfaction that he can close thc first period of his career in that way, and withal he has remained just as simple as he was before,” wrote Mother. At first everything went well with him in London; Uncle Vincent had given him introductions to some of his friends, and he threw himself into his work with great pleasure. He earned a salary of £90 a year, and though the cost of living was high, he managed to lay by some money to send home now and then. He bought himself a top hat like a real businessman - “You cannot be in London without one” - and he enjoyed his daily trips from the suburbs to the gallery on Southampton Street in the city.

The first boardinghouse he stayed in was kept by two ladies who owned two parrots. The place was nice, but somewhat expensive; therefore, he moved in August to the house of Mrs. Loyer, a curate's widow from the south of France, who with her daughter Ursula ran a day school for little children. There he spent the happiest year of his life. Ursula made a deep impression upon him. “I never saw or dreamed of anything like the love between her and her mother,” he wrote to one of his sisters; and, “Love her for my sake.”

He did not mention it to his parents, for he had not even confessed his love to Ursula herself - but his letters home were radiant with happiness. He wrote that he enjoyed his life so much - “Oh fullness of rich life, your gift O God.” 1

In September an acquaintance was going over to London and undertook to bring a parcel for Vincent. Characteristically, it contained, among other things, a bunch of grass and a wreath of oak leaves made at home during the holidays by Theo, who had meanwhile been transferred from Brussels to the House of Goupil at The Hague. Vincent had to have something in his room to remind him of the beloved fields and woods.

He celebrated a happy Christmas with the Loyers. He would send home now and then a little drawing, from his house and the street and from the interior of his room, “so that we can imagine exactly how it looks, it is so well drawn,” wrote his mother. In this period he seems to have weighed the possibility of becoming a painter; later he wrote to Theo from Drenthe, “... how often I stood drawing on the Thames Embankment, on my way home from Southampton Street in the evening and it came to nothing. If there had been somebody then to tell me what perspective was, how much misery I should have been spared, how much further I should be now!”

At that time he occasionally met Matthijs Maris 2, but was too bashful to speak out freely to him and shut all his longings and desires within himself - he still had a long road of sorrow to go ere he could reach his goal.

In January his salary was raised, and until spring his letters remained cheerful and happy. He intended to visit Holland in July, and before that time he apparently spoke to Ursula of his love. Alas, it turned out that she was already engaged to the man who boarded with them before Vincent came. He tried everything to make her break this engagement, but he did not succeed.

With this first great sorrow his character changed; when he came home for the holidays he was thin, silent, dejected - a different being. But he drew a great deal. Mother wrote, &ldVincent made many a nice drawing: he drew the bedroom win-dow and the front door, all that part of the house, and also a large sketch of the houses in London which his window looks out on; it is a delightful talent which can be of great value to him.”

Accompanied by his eldest sister, who wanted to find a situation, he returned to London. He took furnished rooms in Ivy Cottage, 395 Kennington New Road; there, without any family life, he grew more and more silent and depressed, and also more and more religious.

His parents were glad he left the Loyers. “His living at the Loyers' with all those secrets has done him no good, and it was not a family like others...but not realizing his hopes must have been a great disappointment to him,” Father wrote. Mother complained, “The evenings are so long already and his work finishes early; he must be lonely. If only it does not harm him.”

They felt uneasy and worried about his solitary, secluded life. Uncle Vincent also insisted on his mixing more with other people: “That is just as necessary as learning your business.” But the depression continued. Letters home grew more and more scarce, and Mother began to think that the London fog depressed him and that even a temporary change might do him good: “Poor boy, he means so well, but I believe things are very hard for him just now.”

In October, 1874, Uncle Vincent did indeed effect a short removal to the firm in Paris. Vincent himself was little pleased by this, in fact, he was so angry that he did not write home, to the great grief of his parents. “He is only in a bad temper,” his sister said; and Theo comforted, &ldHe is doing all right.”

Toward the end of December he returned to London, where he took the same rooms and led the same solitary life. For the first time he was described as eccentric. His love for drawing had ceased, but he read a great deal. The quotation from Renan which closes the London period clearly shows what filled his thoughts and how high he aimed even then: “... to sacrifice all personal realize great attain nobility and to surmount the vulgarity of nearly every individual's existence.” He did not know yet how to reach his goal.

In May, 1875, he was transferred permanently to Paris and assigned especially to the picture gallery, where he felt quite out of place. He was more at home in his “cabin,” the little room in Montmartre where, morning and evening, he read the Bible with his young friend, Harry Gladwell, than among the mundane Parisian public.

His parents inferred from his letters that things were not going well. After he had come home at Christmas and everything had been talked over, Father wrote to Theo, “I almost think that Vincent had better leave Goupil within two or three months; there is so much that is good in him, yet it may be necessary for him to change his position. He is certainly not happy.” And they loved him too much to persuade him to stay in a place where he would be unhappy. He wanted to live for others, to be useful, to bring about something great; he did not yet know how, but not in an art gallery. On his return from Holland he had a decisive inter-view with Mr. Boussod (the son-in-law and successor of Mr. Goupil) that ended in his dismissal as from April 1, and he accepted it without offering any excuses for himself. One of the grievances against him was that he had gone home to Holland for Christmas and New Year's, the busiest time for business in Paris.

In his letters he seemed to take it rather lightly, but he felt how gloomily and threateningly the clouds were beginning to gather around him. At the age of twenty--three he had been thrown out of employment, without any chance of a better career; Uncle Vincent was deeply disappointed in his namesake and had washed his hands of him; his parents were well-meaning, but they could not do much for him, as they had been obliged to touch their capital for the education of their children. (The pastor's salary was about 820 guilders a year.) Vincent had had his share, now the others had to have theirs. It seemed that Theo, who was soon to become everybody's helper and adviser, had already at that time suggested Vincent's becoming a painter; but for the moment he would not hear of it. His father suggested a position in a museum or opening a small art gallery for himself, as Uncle Vincent and Uncle Cor had done before him; he would have then been able to follow his own ideas about art and have been no longer obliged to sell pictures which he considered bad. But his heart again drew him to England, and he planned to become a teacher.

Through an advertisement, in April, 1876, he got a position in Ramsgate at Mr. Stokes's, whose school moved in July to Isleworth. He received only board and lodging, no salary. He soon accepted another position at the somewhat richer school of Mr. Jones, a Methodist preacher, where Vincent finally acted as a kind of curate.

His letters home were gloomy. “It seems as if something were threatening me,” he wrote. His parents perceived full well that teaching did not satisfy him. They suggested his studying for a French or German college certificate, but he would not hear of it. “I wish he could find some work in connection with art or nature, wrote his mother, who understood what was going on within him. With the force of despair he clung to religion, in which he tried to satisfy his craving for beauty as well as his longing to live for others. At times he seemed to become intoxicated with the sweet, melodious words of the English texts and hymns, the romantic charm of the little village church, and the lovely, holy atmosphere that enveloped the English service. His letters in those days contained an almost morbid sensitivity. Over and over he spoke about a position connected with the church - but when he came home for Christmas, it was decided that he would not go back to Isleworth because there was absolutely no prospect for the future. He remained on friendly terms with Mr. Jones, who later came to stay a few days at the Etten parsonage, and whom he subsequently met in Belgium.

Once again Uncle Vincent used his influence and procured a place for him in the bookshop of Blussé and Van Braam in Dordrecht. He accepted it, but without great enthusiasm. The words written to Theo by one of the sisters were charac-teristic: “You think that he is something more than an ordinary human being, but I think it would be much better if he thought himself just an ordinary being.” Another sister wrote, “His religion makes him absolutely dull and unsociable.”

To preach the Gospel still seemed to him the only desirable thing, and at last an attempt was made to enable him to begin the study of theology. The uncles in Amsterdam promised to give their aid. He could live with Uncle Jan van Gogh, Commandant of the Navy Yard, which would be a great saving; Uncle Stricker found the best teacher in the classical languages, the well-known Dr. Mendes da Costa, and gave Vincent some lessons himself; he could satisfy his love for pictures and prints in Uncle Cor's art gallery. Everybody tried to make it easy for him, all except Uncle Vincent, who was strongly opposed to the plan and would not help promote it - in which he proved to be right after all. Vincent set to work full of courage; first, he had to prepare himself for a State examination before he could he admitted to the university, and then it would take seven years to become fully qualified. His parents anxiously asked themselves whether he would have the strength to persevere, and whether he, who had never been used to regular study, would be able to force himself to it at the age of twenty-four.

That period in Amsterdam, from May, 1877, to 1878, was one long tale of woe. After the first half year Vincent began to lose ardour and courage. Writing exercises and studying grammar was not what he wanted to do; he wanted to comfort and cheer people by bringing them the Gospel - and surely he did not need so much learning for that! He really longed for practical work, and when at last his teacher also perceived that Vincent would never succeed, he advised him to give up his studies. In the Handelsblad of December 2, 1910, Dr. Mendes da Costa wrote his personal recollections of the pupil who later became so famous. He recorded many characteristic particulars: Vincent's nervous, strange appearance that yet was not without charm; his fervent intention to study well; his peculiar habit of self-discipline, self-chastisement; and finally, his total unfitness for regular study. Not along that path was he to reach his goal! He confessed openly that he was glad things had gone so far and that he could look forward to his future with more courage than when he devoted himself hopelessly to his theological studies, which period he afterward called “the worst time of my life.”

He would remain “humble,” and now wanted to become an evangelist in Belgium; for this no certificates were required, no Latin or Greek - only three months at the School of Evangelization at Brussels. There the lessons were free, the only charges being board and lodging, and he could get his nomination. In July he traveled thither with his father, accompanied by Mr. Jones, who on his way to Belgium had spent a few days with them at Etten. Together they visited the members of the Committee of Evangelization: the Reverend Mr. Van den Brink from Rousselaere; the Reverend Mr. Pietersen from Malines; and the Reverend Mr. De Jong from Brussels. Vincent explained his case clearly and made a very good impression. His father wrote: “His stay abroad and that last year at Amsterdam have not been quite fruitless after all, and when he takes the trouble to exert himself, he shows that he has learned and observed much in the school of life.” Vincent consequently was accepted as a pupil.

But the parents regarded this new experiment with fresh anxiety: “I am always so afraid that wherever Vincent may be or whatever he may do, he will spoil everything by his eccentricity, his queer ideas and views on life,” his mother wrote. His father added, “It grieves us so to see that he literally knows no joy of life, but always walks with bent head, whilst we did all in our power to bring him to an honorable position! It seems as if he deliberately chooses the most difficult path.”

In fact, that was Vincent's aim - to humble himself, to forget himself, to sacrifice himself, mourir à soi-même (to mortify himself) - that was the severe ideal he tried to reach as long as he sought his refuge in religion, and he never did a thing by halves. But to follow the paths trodden by others, to submit to the will of other people, that was not in his character; he wanted to work out his own salvation. Toward the end of August be arrived at the school in Brussels which had been opened only recently and had but three pupils. He certainly was the most advanced in Mr. Bokma's class, but he did not feel at home at the school, he was &ldlike a fish out of water,” he said, and was ridiculed for his peculiarities in dress and manners. He also lacked the ability to extemporize, and was therefore obliged to read his lectures from manuscript. But the greatest objection against him was, “He is not submissive”; and when the three months had elapsed, he did not get his nomination. Though he wrote (in letter 126) in an offhand way to Theo, he seems to have been greatly upset by it. His father received a letter from Brussels, probably from the school, saying that Vincent was weak and thin, did not sleep, and was in a nervous and excited state, so that it would be best to come and take him home.

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