van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
» Home Family   |   Siblings   |   Vincent   |   His 20's   |   Brussels   |   The Hague   |   Drenthe   |   Antwerp   |   St. Remy   |   Auvers sur Oise
 Memoir of Vincent van Gogh

During the last days of his stay in Nuenen difficulties arose between him and the Catholic priest, who had for a long time looked askance at the studio next to his church, and now forbade his parishioners to pose for Vincent. The latter was already thinking about a change. He gave notice of leaving his studio May 1, but started for Antwerp toward the end of November, leaving all his Brabant work behind. When in May his mother also left Nuenen, everything belonging to Vincent was packed in cases, left in the care of a carpenter in Breda and - forgotten! After several years the carpenter finally sold everything to a junk dealer.

What Theo's opinion of his brother was at that time is shown in his letter to his sister on October 13, '85, in which he wrote: “Vincent is one of those who has gone through all the experiences of life and has retired from the world; now we must wait and see if he has genius. I think he has...If he succeeds in his work, he will be a great man. As to worldly success, it will perhaps be the same with him as with Heyerdahl 4: appreciated by some but not understood by the public at large. Those, however, who care whether there is really something in the artist more than mere superficial brilliance will respect him; and in my opinion that will be sufficient revenge for the animosity of so many others.”

In Antwerp Vincent rented for 25 francs a month a little room over a small paint dealer's shop at “194 Rue des Images.” It was only a very small room, but he made it cosy with Japanese prints on the wall. When be had rented a stove and a lamp, he felt himself safe and wrote with profound satisfaction, “I shall not easily get bored, I assure you.” On the contrary, he spent this three months' stay in one feverish intoxication of work. The town life which he had missed so long fascinated him; he had neither eyes enough to see nor hands enough to paint: to make portraits of all the interesting types he met was his delight, and in order to pay the models, he sacrificed everything he had. He did not bother about food. “…when I my greatest appetite is not for food, though I have fasted, but the appetite for painting is even stronger, and I at once set out to hunt for models, and continue until all the money is gone,” he wrote.

In January when he realized that he could not go on like that, the expenses being too heavy, he became a pupil at the academy, where the tuition was free and he found models every day. Hageman and De Baseleer were there among his fellow pupils, and from Holland there was Briët. In the evening he worked again in the drawing class and after that, often till late at night, at a club where they also drew from life. His health could not stand the strain, and in the beginning of February he wrote that he was literally worn out and exhausted; according to the doctor it was complete prostration. He seemed to have no thought of giving up his work, however, though he began to make plans for a change: the course at the academy was almost over and he had already had many dis-agreements with his teachers, for he was much too independent and self-willed to submit to their guidance. Something had to be done. Theo thought it best for Vincent to go back to Brabant, but he himself wanted to go to Paris. Theo asked him to put off the visit at least till June, when he would have rented a larger apartment; but with his usual impetuosity Vincent could not wait so long, and one morning toward the end of February Theo received in his office at the Boulevard a little note written in crayon: Vincent had arrived and awaited him in the Salon Carré of the Louvre. Probably he left all his work in Antwerp - perhaps his landlord the paint dealer kept it for the unpaid rent of the room. Certainly none of the studies which he wrote about - the view of the park, of the Cathedral, Het Steen [The Castle], etc. - has ever been found again.

After the meeting in the Louvre Vincent moved into Theo's apartment on the Rue de Laval. As there was no room for a studio, he worked during the first month at Cormon's studio, which did not satisfy him at all. When they moved in June to 54 Rue Lepic in Montmartre, he had a studio of his own and never went back to Cormon.

The new apartment on the third floor had three rather large rooms, a small room and a kitchen. The living room was comfortable and cosy with Theo's beautiful old cabinet, a sofa and a big stove, for both the brothers were very sensitive to the cold. Next to that was Theo's bedroom. Vincent slept in the small room and behind that was the studio, an ordinary-sized room with one not very large window. Here he first painted his immediate surroundings - the view from the studio window, the Moulin de la Galette viewed from every side, the window of Madame Bataille's small restaurant where he had his meals, little landscapes of Montmartre, which was at that time still quite countrified - all painted in a soft, tender tone like that of Mauve. Later he painted flowers and still life and tried to renew his palette under the influence of the French plein air painters such as Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, etc., for whom Theo had long since opened the way to the public.

The change of surroundings and the easier and more comfortable life, without any material cares, at first greatly improved Vincent's health. In the summer of '86 Theo wrote to his mother, “We like the new apartment very much; you would not recognize Vincent, he has changed so much, and it strikes other people more than it does me. He has undergone an important operation in his mouth, for he had lost almost all his teeth through the bad condition of his stomach. The doctor says that he has now quite recovered his health; he makes great progress in his work and has begun to have some success. He is in much better spirits than before and many people here like him...he has friends who send him every week a lot of beautiful flowers which he uses for still life. He paints chiefly flowers, especially to make the colours of his next pictures brighter and clearer. If we can continue to live together like this, I think the most difficult period is past, and he will find his way.”

To continue living together, that was the great difficulty; of all that Theo did for his brother, there was perhaps nothing that entailed a greater sacrifice than his having endured living with him for two years. For when the first excitement of all the new attractions in Paris had passed, Vincent soon fell back into his old irritability; perhaps the city life did not agree with him either and overstrained his nerves. Whatever might be the cause, his temper during that winter was worse than ever, and made life very hard for Theo, whose own health was not of the best at that time. Circumstances put too heavy a strain on him, his own work was very strenuous and exhausting, he had made the gallery on the Boule-vard Montmartre a center of the impressionists; there were Monet, Sisley, Pis-sarro and Raffaelli, Degas - who exhibited nowhere else - Seurat, etc. But to introduce that work to the public, which filled the small entresol every afternoon from five until seven, what discussions, what endless debates, had to be held. On the other hand, how he had to defend the rights of the young painters against ces messieurs, as Vincent always called the heads of the firm. When he came home tired out in the evening, he found no rest; the impetuous, violent Vincent would begin to expound his own theories about art and art dealing, which always con-cluded that Theo ought to leave Goupil and open a gallery for himself. This lasted till far into the night; indeed, sometimes he sat down on a chair beside Theo's bed to spin out his last arguments. “Do you feel how hard it sometimes is to have no other conversation than with gentlemen who speak of business matters and with artists whose life generally is difficult enough - but never to come into contact with women and children of your own sphere? You can have no idea of the loneliness in a big city,” Theo once wrote to his youngest sister, and to her he sometimes opened his heart about Vincent. “My home life is almost unbearable. No one wants to come and see me any more because it always ends in quarrels, and besides, he is so untidy that the room looks far from attractive. I wish he would go and live by himself. He sometimes mentions it, but if I were to tell him to go away, it would just give him a reason to stay; and it seems I do him no good. I ask only one thing of him, to do me no harm; yet by his staying he does so, for I can hardly bear it.” “It seems as if he were two persons one, marvellously gifted, tender and refined, the other, egoistic and hard-hearted. They present themselves in turns, so that one hears him talk first in one way, then in the other, and always with arguments on both sides. It is a pity that he is his own enemy, for he makes life hard not only for others but also for himself.” But when his sister advised him to “leave Vincent for God's sake,”' Theo answered, “It is such a peculiar case. If only he had an other profession, I would long ago have done what you advise me. I have often asked myself if I have not been wrong in helping him continually, and have often been on the point of leaving him to his own devices. After receiving your letter I have thought it over again, but I think in this case I must continue in the same way. He is certainly an artist, and if what he makes now is not always beautiful, it will certainly be of use to him later; then his work will perhaps be sublime, and it would be a shame to have kept him from his regular study. However unpractical he may be, if he succeeds in his work there will certainly come a day when he will begin to sell his pictures…

“I am firmly resolved to continue in the same way as till now, but I do hope that he will change his lodgings in some way or other.”

However, that separation did not take place. The old love and friendship which had bound them together since childhood did not fail them, even now. Theo managed to restrain himself, and in the spring he wrote, “As I feel much stronger than last winter, I hope to be able to bring a change for the better in our relations; there will be no other change for the present, and I am glad of it. We are already most of us so far from home that it's no use causing still more separa-tion.” Full of courage, he continued to help Vincent bear the burden of his life.

With spring everything improved. Vincent could work in the open air again and painted much at Asnières, where he painted the beautiful triptych of “L'Isle de la grande Jatte,” the borders of the Seine with their gay, bright restaurants, the little boats on the river, the parks and gardens, all sparkling with light and colour. At that time he saw much of Émile Bernard, a young painter fifteen years younger than himself, whom he had met at Cormon's. He had a little wooden studio in his parents' garden at Asnières where they sometimes worked together and where Vincent began a portrait of Bernard. But one day he had a violent quarrel with old Mr. Bernard about the latter's projects for his son. Vincent could bear no contradiction; he ran away in a passion with the still-wet portrait under his arm, and he never set foot again in the Bernards' house. But the friendship with young Bernard continued, and his Letters of Vincent van Gogh (published by Vollard in Paris) contain the most beautiful pages ever written about Vincent.

In the winter of '87 - '88, Vincent again painted portraits - the famous self-portrait before the easel, and many other self-portraits, as well as father Tanguy, the old merchant of colours in the Rue Clauzel who allowed his customers to exhibit their pictures in his show window. He has occasionally been described as a Maecenas; but the poor old man completely lacked the necessary qualities, and even if he had possessed them, his shrewd wife would not have allowed him to use them. He sent, and justly too, very meticulous bills for the colours he furnished and did not understand very much about the pictures on view in his window.

The famous picture “Interior with Lady by a Cradle” was created during that time. When Theo, who had that winter bought a few pictures from young artists to help them, wanted to do the same for Vincent, the latter painted for him the beautiful “Still Life in Yellow,” sparkling and radiant as from an inner glow, and in red letters he dedicated it “To my brother Theo.”

Toward the end of the winter he became tired of Paris; city life was too much for him, the climate too grey and chilly. In February, '88 he traveled south. “After all these years of care and misfortune his health has not grown any stronger, and he decidedly wanted to be in a milder climate,” Theo wrote. “He has first gone to Arles to look about him, and then will probably go to Marseilles.

“Before he went away I went a few times with him to hear a Wagner concert; we both enjoyed it very much. It still seems strange that he is gone. He has meant so much to me of late.” And Bernard tells how busy Vincent was that last day in Paris arranging the studio, “so that my brother will think me still here.”

At Arles, Vincent reached his peak. After the oppressiveness of Parisian life he, with his innate love of nature, revived in sunny Provence. There followed a happy time of undisturbed and immense productivity. Without paying much attention to the town of Arles itself, with its famous remains of Roman architec-ture, he painted the landscape, the glorious wealth of spring blossoms in a series of orchards in bloom, the wheatfields under the burning sun at harvest time, the almost intoxicating richness of the autumn colours, the glorious beauty of the gardens and parks, “The Poet's Garden,” where he saw as in a vision the ghosts of Dante and Petrarch. He painted “The Sower,” “The Sunflowers,” “The Starry Night,” the sea at Sts.-Maries: his creative impulse and power were inexhaustible. &ldI have a terrible lucidity at moments, these days when nature is so beautiful, I am not conscious of myself any more, and the picture comes to me as in a dream.” And he exclaimed rapturously, “Life is almost enchanted after all.”

Thereafter his letters, written in French, completely reflected what was going on inside him. Sometimes when he had written in the morning, he sat down again in the evening to tell his brother how splendid the day had been. “I have never had such a chance, nature being so here extraordinarily beautiful.” And a day later, “I know...that I have already written you once today, but it has been such a lovely day again. My great regret is that you cannot see what I am seeing here.”

Completely absorbed in his work as he was, the great loneliness that surrounded him in Arles was no burden. Except for a short acquaintance with McKnight, Bock and the Zouave lieutenant Milliet, he had no friends whatever. But after he had rented a little house of his own on the Place Lamartine and arranged it after his own taste - decorating it with his pictures, and making it a maison d'artiste - he again felt the old longing which he had already expressed at the start of his painting career in 1880: to associate with another artist and live and work together. Just then he received a letter from Paul Gauguin in Brittany; he was in the greatest pecuniary embarrassment and was trying in this roundabout way to ask Theo to sell some of his pictures for him: “I wanted to write to your brother but I am afraid to bother him because he's so busy from morning until night. The little I have sold is just enough to pay some urgent debts and in a month I shall have absolutely nothing left. Zero is a negative force...I do not want to importune your brother, but a little word from you on this subject would set my mind at ease or at least help me to have patience. My God, how terrible are these money questions for an artist.”

At once Vincent grasped at the idea of helping Gauguin. He had to come to Arles, and they would live and work together. Theo would pay the expenses and Gauguin would give him pictures in exchange. Again and again he insisted on this plan with his innate perseverance and stubbornness, though Gauguin did not at first seem at all inclined to it. They had met in Paris, but it had been no more than a superficial acquaintance, and they were too different in talent and character ever to harmonize in daily intercourse.

Gauguin, born in Paris in 1848, was the son of a Breton father, a journalist in Paris, and a Creole mother. His youth was full of adventures; he had gone to sea as a cabin boy, had worked in a banker's office and had painted only in his leisure hours. Then, after he had married and had a family, he devoted himself wholly to his art. His wife and children returned to her native city, Copenhagen, as he was not able to provide for them. He himself made a journey to Martinique, where he painted, among others, his famous picture, “The Negresses.” He was now in Pont Aven in Brittany, without any source of income; the great need of money made him accept Vincent's proposition and come to Arles. The whole undertaking was a sad failure and ended fatally for Vincent.

Notwithstanding the months of superhuman exertion which lay behind him, he strained every nerve in a last manifestation of power before Gauguin's arrival. “I am vain enough to want to make a certain impression on Gauguin with my work...I have...pushed what I was working on as far as I could in my great desire to show him something new, and not to be subjected to his I can show him indubitably my own originality,” wrote Vincent in letter 556. When we realize that to this last work belongs one of Vincent's most famous pictures, “La chambre à coucher” [The Bedroom], and the series, “The Poet's Garden,” we are rather skeptical about Gauguin's later assertion that before his arrival Vincent had merely been bungling along, and that he made progress only after Gauguin's lessons. It gives us some perspective on Gauguin's whole description of the episode at Arles, which is such a mixture of truth and fiction. 5

The fact is that Vincent was completely exhausted and overstrained, and was no match for the iron Gauguin with his strong nerves and cool arguing. It became a silent struggle between them, and the endless discussions held while they sat smoking in the little yellow house were not calculated to calm Vincent. “Your brother is indeed a little agitated, and I hope to calm him by and by,” Gauguin wrote Theo shortly after his arrival at Arles. And to Bernard he related more frankly how little sympathy there really was between Vincent and himself. “Vincent and I generally agree very little, especially about painting. He admires Daudet, Daubigny, Ziem, and the great Rousseau - all people whom I cannot bear. And on the contrary he detests Ingres, Raphael, Degas - all people whom I admire. I answer, “Brigadier, you are right,” in order to have peace. He loves my pictures very much, but when I make them he always finds I am wrong in this or that. He is romantic, and I am rather inclined to the primitive state.” 6 In later years when Gauguin again remembered this period, he wrote, “Between the two of us, he like a Vulcan, and I boiling too, a kind of struggle was preparing itself…”7

The situation became more and more strained. In the latter half of December Theo received from Gauguin the following letter: “Dear Mr. van Gogh, I would he greatly obliged to you for sending me part of the money for the pictures sold.

After all, I must go back to Paris. Vincent and I simply cannot live together in peace because of incompatibility of temper, and we both need quiet for our work. He is a man of remarkable intelligence; I respect him highly, and regret leaving; but I repeat, it is necessary. I appreciate all the delicacy in your conduct toward me and I beg you to excuse my decision.” Vincent also wrote, in letter 565, that Gauguin seemed to be tired of Arles, of the yellow house, and of himself. But the quarrel was made up; Gauguin asked Theo to consider his return to Paris as an imaginary thing, and the letter he bad written as a bad dream. But it was only the calm before the storm.

The day before Christmas - Theo and I had just become engaged and intended to go to Holland together (I was staying in Paris with my brother, A. Bonger, a friend of Theo's and Vincent's) - a telegram arrived from Gauguin which called Theo to Arles. On the evening of December 24 Vincent had in a state of violent excitement, un accès de fièvre chaude (an attack of high fever), cut off a piece of his ear and brought it as a gift to a woman in a brothel. A big tumult had ensued. Roulin the postman had seen Vincent home; the police had intervened, had found Vincent bleeding and unconscious in bed, and sent him to the hospital. There Theo found him in a severe crisis, and stayed with him during the Christ-mas days. The doctor considered his condition very serious.

“There were moments while I was with him when he was well; but very soon after he fell back into his worries about philosophy and theology. It was painfully sad to witness, for at times all his suffering overwhelmed him and he tried to weep but he could not; poor fighter and poor, poor sufferer; for the moment nobody can do anything to relieve his sorrow, and yet he feels deeply and strongly. If he might have found somebody to whom he could have disclosed his heart, it would perhaps never have gone thus far,” Theo wrote to me after he had come back to Paris with Gauguin. And a day later, “There is little hope, but during his life he has done more than many others, and he has suffered and struggled more than most people could have done. If it must be that he dies, so be it, but my heart breaks when I think of it.”

The anxiety lasted a few more days. Dr. Rey, the house doctor at the hospital, to whose care Theo had so urgently entrusted Vincent, kept him constantly informed. “I shall always be glad to send you tidings, for I too have a brother, I too have been separated from my family,” he wrote December 29 when the news was still very bad. The Protestant clergyman, the Reverend Mr. Salles, also visited Vincent and wrote Theo about his condition. Then, last but not least, there was the postman, Roulin, who was quite dismayed at the accident that had be-fallen his friend Vincent, with whom he had spent so many pleasant hours at Joseph Ginoux's Café de la Gare,” and who had painted such beautiful portraits of him and his whole family! Every day he went to the hospital for news and conveyed it faithfully to Paris; as he was not a good penman, his two sons, Armand and Camille, took turns serving as his secretary. His wife, too, who posed for “La Berceuse” (Mme. Ginoux was the original of the &ldArlésienne”), visited her sick friend, and the first sign of recovery was Vincent's asking her about little Marcelle, the handsome baby he had painted such a short time before.

Then his condition suddenly changed for the better. The Reverend Mr. Salles wrote on December 31 that he had found Vincent perfectly calm, and that he was longing to start work again. A day later Vincent himself wrote a short note in pencil to reassure Theo, and on January 2 another note came from him, to which Dr. Rey added a word of reassurance. On January 3 an enthusiastic letter from Roulin: “Vincent has quite recovered. He is better than before that unfortunate accident happened to him.” He, Roulin, would go to the doctor and tell him to allow Vincent to go back to his pictures. The following day they had been out and spent four hours together. &ldI am very sorry my first letters were so alarming, and I beg your pardon; I am glad to say I have been mistaken in this case. He only regrets all the trouble he has given you, and he is sorry for the anxiety he has caused. You may rest assured that I will do all I can to give him some distrac-tion,” wrote Roulin.

On January 7 Vincent left the hospital, apparently entirely recovered; but, alas, any great excitement or fatigue caused the nervous attacks to return...They lasted a varying length of time, but also left him periods of almost perfect health, during which he went back to work with the old vigour. In February he was taken back to the hospital for a short time. After his return to his little house the neighbors, who had grown afraid of him, petitioned the mayor, complaining that it was dangerous to leave him at liberty. Consequently he was actually sent to the hospital again on February 27 - this time without any cause. Vincent himself kept the deepest silence about this unhappy affair for a whole month, but the Reverend Mr. Salles sent Theo a faithful report. On March 2 he wrote, &ldThe neighbors have raised a fuss over nothing. The acts with which they have re-proached your brother (even if they were exact) do not justify charging a man with insanity or depriving him of his liberty. Unfortunately, the foolish act which necessitated his original removal to the hospital made people misunderstand anything singular which the poor young man does; from anyone else it would remain unobserved, from him, everything at once assumes a particular impor-tance...As I told you yesterday, at the hospital he has won everybody's favour; after all, the doctor - not the chief of police - is the judge in these matters.”

The whole affair made a deep impression on Vincent and caused another attack, from which he recovered with astonishing rapidity. Again, it was the Reverend Mr. Salles who told Theo of Vincent's recovery. On March 18 he wrote, “Your brother has spoken to me with perfect calmness and lucidity about his condition and also about the petition signed by his neighbors. The petition grieves him very much. `If the police,' he says, `had protected my liberty by preventing the children and even the grownups from crowding around my house and climbing the win-dows as they have done (as if I were a curious animal), I should have more easily retained my self-possession; in any event I have done no harm to anyone.' In short, I found your brother transformed; God grant that this favorable change he maintained. His condition has an indescribable quality: it is impossible to understand the sudden and complete changes which have taken place in him. It is evident that as long as he is in the condition in which I found him, there can be no question of interning him in an asylum; nobody, so far as I know, would have this sinister courage.” A day after this interview with the Reverend Mr. Salles, Vincent wrote again to Theo and justly complained that such repeated emotions might cause a passing nervous attack to change into a chronic evil. And with quiet resignation, he added, “ suffer without complaint is the one lesson that has to be learned in this life.”

He soon recovered his liberty, but continued to live in the hospital until the Reverend Mr. Salles could find him new lodgings in a different part of town. His health was so good that the Reverend Mr. Salles wrote on April 19, &ldSometimes not even a trace seems left of the disease which has affected him so grievously.”

< Previous       Next >

» Home Family   |   Siblings   |   Vincent   |   His 20's   |   Brussels   |   The Hague   |   Drenthe   |   Antwerp   |   St. Remy   |   Auvers sur Oise
or find: Credits & feedback