2. Mr van Gogh had gone to see for himself the conditions in which Vincent was now living. The Evangelization Committee had meanwhile appointed him to a post for a trial period of six months.
Mrs van Gogh wrote to Theo on 19 January 1879, telling him that Vincent had informed them of his appointment as an evangelist in the mining region. The extract issued on 22 January from the Zundert register of births, deaths and marriages was no doubt connected with this (FR b1508): ‘His work is holding Bible classes, instructing children, visiting the sick, all fortunately work after his own heart and 50 francs a month. It’s for six months at first, but it’s a beginning for which we and he are very grateful and glad. He is indeed so pleased and describes his work – extremely varied and among many people – with great satisfaction, and would like to walk with you, too, in that beautiful countryside. It’s a wonderfully heartening idea that he now has a steady position, which could lead to better things’ (FR b2456). Mr van Gogh repeated the news a day later, working out for Theo that Vincent, after paying 30 francs for board and lodging, would have 20 francs left for himself, and went on to add: ‘He also went down a mine shaft 635 metres deep’ (FR b2457, 20 January).
The venture was not entirely successful, however. Mr van Gogh, thinking he had good reason to worry, left for Mons on Wednesday, 19 February. Mrs van Gogh wrote a detailed letter to Theo on Thursday, 27 February: ‘And now I must tell you that Pa has gone to see Vincent, this week with all that bad weather, we weren’t at ease, especially because while I was away we received a very grim letter from him, which confirmed all our worries that he had no bed, no bed-clothes, no one to wash his things. But he wasn’t complaining at all, saying instead that it didn’t concern anyone and so on. We were getting a package ready for him, but we both thought it would be so much better if Pa were to take it himself. Rev. Pieterszen’s answer was so long in coming. So there was no waiting for it. On that awful Wednesday, Pa left at half past two, to be at Mons at half past eight in the evening. He left, with wishes and prayers that the faithful father wouldn’t be taken ill. I had ordered the trap to take him to the railway station, and does it surprise you we were sad following his [Vincent’s] footsteps? And just imagine, that same evening we had a letter from Vincent and one from Verhaegen, a colporteur to whom Pa also wrote in the beginning, who had received Vincent warmly his first week there, and who found him those good lodgings with Denis. Vincent said in his letter that one of these days we would probably hear an unfavourable report of him, resulting from a visit, an inspection visit, I think, made by Rev. Rochedieu of Brussels, which led to a meeting of gentlemen from the district and the church council of Wasmes at which they talked about him, and he wrote, what shall we do now, Jesus was also calm in the face of the storm and evil can turn to good, and perhaps things would have to get worse before they got better, he wrote no more than that. And Verhaegen wrote a very sweet, personable letter – saying that Vincent, despite all the advice he and many other concerned people had given him, had left Denis, where he had been so well taken care of, and was now living in that hut, and had no bed and no clean clothes. It had been decided that if he refused to listen to their advice, he would lose his post. And that’s why he wrote, hoping that fatherly advice would keep him from going astray. So you can imagine, no matter how worried I am, how grateful I am that Pa has gone there, it’s as though he was sent, may God bless. Pa’s visit will certainly be useful, I think Pa will take him back to Denis. I was so deeply grateful that Pa hadn’t read those two depressing letters before his journey. But you can understand how much we’re longing for his return, keep this to yourself, who knows how it will turn out – but it can’t go on like this anyway, even if things are now put to rights. He is too obstinate and pigheaded and doesn’t listen to advice. You don’t know, dear Theo, what sorrow it gives us, and how much we worry about so many things ... It does seem, dear child, that apart from Vincent, who is very strong, you do not come of strong stock ... Pa hoped to come home this evening, but now, since there is surely so much for Pa to discuss, I don’t expect him before tomorrow’ (FR b2463).
In the ‘3rd report of the Belgian Christian missionary church of Wasmes, 14 March’, Van Gogh appears one last time as a ‘young man’. This report was drawn up by Augustin Lefèvre: ‘The young man of whom I already spoke recently at the departmental meeting, that he was looking for a post as a gospel teacher, this young man has been placed by the Pastors of the national church to evangelize among the divided choristers, who are still split into two groups.’ (Le jeune homme dont j’ai déjà parlé dernièrement à la reunion sectionnaire, qu’il cherchait une place comme instituteur évangélique, ce jeune homme est placé par les Pasteurs de l’église nationale, pour évangéliser aux chanteurs separés, qui sont encore divisés en deux bandes.)
Van Gogh fulfilled this function between January and July 1879: ‘In 1877, a singing group was set up within the church at Grand-Wasmes. As it met in the same premises as the Sunday school, and wished to occupy them at the same time, Lefèvre advised them to look for another place in which to practise, or to change the time. That caused discontent, and two factions formed in the church, one supporting the evangelist, the other supporting the choirmaster. An inquiry was even undertaken in the name of the administrative Committee of the Belgian Christian Missionary Church, and the authorities retained Lefèvre at the head of the community. There was a split. The dissidents joined other Protestants in the church at Pâturages, and they rented a disused room there, the Salon du Bébé, and held their meetings there. From July 1877, they asked minister Péron to preach the gospel to them and during the months from January to July 1879, the synodal committee of the Belgian evangelical Protestant Church sent them Mr Vincent van Gogh’. Information from Yvon Brohez, Bureau du Synode, Eglise protestante Unie de Belgique, Brussels, 5 February 2003.
7. Van Gogh had boarded briefly with the farmer Jean Baptiste Denis, who lived at rue du Petit-Wasmes 81. Denis was married to Estere Fiévez (AEM; Wilkie 1978, pp. 56-68 and Eeckaut 1990, ‘Annexes’, p. 23).
At first Van Gogh wanted to live on his own, but his parents were against the idea and managed to dissuade him: ‘I’m afraid that he is completely wrapped up in nursing the injured and sitting up with them at night. That is very good of him, but he already has so much to think about, for which he needs a clear head. He also mentioned a plan to rent a labourer’s cottage and live there alone. We advised against it. We’re afraid that he wouldn’t keep it very tidy and that it would again lead to eccentricities. At any rate, perhaps he’ll listen to advice, but again there are worries on the horizon’ (FR b2460, Mr van Gogh to Theo, 12 February 1879). A month later Mrs van Gogh enlightened Theo: ‘You will also approve of Vincent’s letter, but he sent back the money intended for Denis, for taking care of him, so how can those people launder his clothes?’ (FR b2464, 10 March).