Having received your letter and the 100 francs enclosed, I thank you most sincerely and feel the need to write to you again straightaway. Because I think it would be a good idea if I explained, honestly and to the best of my knowledge and with all the earnestness in me, some matters which it’s important you should be fully aware of and understand. So I hope that you’ll read this letter at your ease and with patience, because for me so much depends on it. Tomorrow morning I’m going back to the hospital and I’ll lay my head down there calmly1 if I know that you’ve been informed about everything as fully and clearly as the distance permits.
I would much, much rather that you’d been present, so that I could have shown you everything here this afternoon and discussed it with you. But let’s hope that will happen in August. Before going on to various other matters, I must tell you that I was very taken by one passage in your letter describing Paris by night. Because it evoked a memory of myself when I too saw ‘Paris all grey’ and was struck by that so very curious effect, with the little black figure and the distinctive white horse that brings out the delicacy of those curious greys exactly like that. That touch of dark and that tonal white2 are the key to the harmony. But in the hospital just recently, as it happens, an artist who described that Paris all grey with the hand of a master made a great impression on me. In ‘Une page d’amour’ by Emile Zola I found several townscapes painted or drawn in a masterly, masterly fashion3 — entirely in the sentiment of the simple passage in your letter. And that small book by him is why I’m very definitely going to read everything by Zola, of whom I had only known a few fragments up to now: 1 for which I attempted to make an illustration, ‘Ce que je veux’,4 and another piece
1v:2 describing an old peasant that was exactly like a drawing by Millet.5 You have something mightily artistic in you, brother — cultivate it — let it first put down roots one way or another and then flower — don’t give it to just anyone — but seriously, for yourself, think about it, and don’t consider it a misfortune if it concentrates itself through that thinking and comes to occupy quite an important place in your activity. But I may be venturing into forbidden territory, so no more about that for today. Only, again, there is ‘drawing’ in your short description — for me palpable and comprehensible, even though you haven’t yet pursued your impression to the point where it would acquire a more robust body and stand on its feet visibly or palpably for everyone. The true pain and tension of creating begins at the point where you let go of the description – but you have the intelligence of creating in damned good measure. Now you can’t go any further because you don’t yet believe in yourself in this respect, otherwise you would take the plunge, that’s to say venture further. But enough. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi in your description, a scent — a memory — of a watercolour by Bonington, for example, only it’s still faint as if in a mist. Do you know that drawing in words is also an art, and sometimes betrays a hidden force latent inside, just as the blue or grey cloud of smoke betrays the hearth?
I most certainly do appreciate what Pa and Ma did during my illness – you remember I wrote to you about it right away — as much as I value the visit by H.G.T. However, that’s not why I didn’t immediately write to Pa and Ma about Sien or anything else, and only sent a brief word to tell them of my recovery. And here’s why. Because something is left of what happened last summer and this winter that marks the line between past and present like an iron barrier.
It isn’t in the least my intention to go in the same manner as last year to Pa and Ma to ask their advice or opinion,6 because it became clear to me then that there was a sharp difference in way of thinking and attitude to life. Nonetheless, it is my ardent desire to keep the peace and to convince Pa and Ma that it wouldn’t be right if they were to turn against me, in the belief that I was someone who only dreamed and didn’t know how to act — that, I say, they are mistaken in their view that my approach to situations is so impractical as to make it necessary for them to ‘guide’ me.
You see, Theo, believe me, I don’t say this out of bitterness, contempt or disdain for Pa and Ma — or to glorify myself — but only to help you grasp one fact, namely this. Pa and Ma aren’t the sort of people to understand me — neither my faults nor my better side — they can’t put themselves in my position. Reasoning with them only leads to quarrels. What’s to be done??? Here’s my plan, which I hope you will approve. I hope to arrange things so that, next month for example, I can put aside 10 guilders, or preferably 15. Then — but not before — I want to write to Pa and Ma that I have something to say to them, that I invite Pa to repeat his journey at my expense and to stay with me for a few days.
I want to show him Sien and her baby, which he won’t be expecting, as well as the house bright and the studio with all manner of work in progress, and myself, by then fully recovered, I hope.
In my view all this will have a better and deeper and more desirable effect
1r:4 than words or writing. I’ll tell him briefly how Sien and I struggled through her anxious pregnancy last winter — how you helped and still help us loyally, even though you only heard about Sien later. That for me she is priceless, first through the love and attachment between us that circumstances have strengthened, and second because from the start she has devoted herself utterly, with great good will, intelligence and practical skill, to helping me in my work. And that she and I dearly hope that Pa will approve of my having taken her as my wife. I can’t put it any other way than ‘having taken’, because the formality of marriage is not what makes her my wife, since this is a bond that already exists — a feeling from both sides that we love, understand and help each other. As for what Pa will say about marrying itself, I believe he’ll say, ‘Marry her’.
I would like Pa to have a fresh and clear impression of a new future for me, to see me here in surroundings very different from what he may imagine, for him to be completely reassured about my feelings towards him, for him to have confidence in my future and put wardship or Geel a thousand miles from his thoughts.7 You see, Theo, I know of no more direct or honest way or means than what I’ve described to restore relations soon and in a practical fashion. Write and let me know your feelings about this.
Now, furthermore, I don’t think it superfluous to tell you again, although it’s difficult to express, what I feel for Sien. I have a sense of being at home when I’m with her, a sense that she brings my ‘hearth and home’ with her, a sense that we have grown together. This is an intensely deep feeling, serious and not without the dark shadow of her and my fairly sombre pasts, a shadow I’ve written to you about before,8 as if, indeed, something sombre continues to threaten us against which our life must be a constant struggle. At the same time, though, I feel a great calm and clarity and cheerfulness at the thought of her and of the straight path lying before me.
You know that last year I wrote to you a great deal about Kee Vos — so that, it seems to me, you have a clear picture of what took place within me. Don’t think that I exaggerated my feelings to you — it was a strong, passionate love I felt for her, unlike that for Sien. When I discovered in Amsterdam that she had a sort of dislike for me, which I didn’t think was the case, to such an extent that she regarded my behaviour as coercion and wasn’t even prepared to see me, but ‘that she went out of the door of her own house as long as I was inside it’,9 then — but not before — my love for her received a mortal blow. Which I first became aware of when, recovering from my intoxication as it were, I was in The Hague this winter. At that time there was a sense of inexpressible melancholy in me which I find impossible to describe. I know that I then thought very, very often of a manly remark by père Millet: ‘It has always seemed to me that suicide is the act of a dishonest man’.10
The emptiness, the inexpressible wretchedness inside, made me think — yes, I can understand why there are people who jump into the water — it’s just that I was far from approving of what those people did, and I found solidity in the words I’ve quoted, and thought it much the better approach to get hold of oneself and seek a medicine in work. The way, as you know, I tackled it then.
It’s difficult, terribly difficult, indeed impossible, to think of something like my passion of last year as an illusion. That’s what Pa and Ma do, but I say, ‘Even if it will never be, it could have been’. It wasn’t an illusion, but the attitudes differed and the turn taken by circumstances was such that the ways diverged further and further instead of coming together.
This is how I see it — these are my clear and honest thoughts — it could have been but now it never can be. Was Kee Vos right to have a dislike for me, was I wrong to persist? I declare I do not know. And it isn’t without pain and sorrow that I think back on it and write about it. I would like so much to understand better why Kee Vos was like that then and how it was that my parents and hers were so adamantly ominous and opposed, not so much through their words — although very certainly through them too, above all indirectly in the meaning more than the form — as through their complete lack of genuine, warm, living sympathy. I can’t soften these words, but I think of it as a mood of theirs that I would rather forget. Now, in the circumstances, it’s like a large, deep wound in me that has healed but is still palpable.
At that time — in that winter — could I feel ‘love’ again straight afterwards? Certainly not. But was it wrong that the human feeling in me wasn’t extinguished or numbed, and that my sorrow indeed aroused a need for compassion with others??? I think not. So at first Sien was a fellow human being to me, as alone and unhappy as I was. Yet, not being in despair, I was in the right state of mind to be able to give her some practical support, which at the same time was a stimulus to me to carry on. But gradually, slowly, something else developed between her and me. A certain need for each other. So that she and I stayed close together, entering each other’s lives more and more, and then it was love.
Theo, I must perhaps touch on a point that may be painful for you that may make you understand what I mean. In the past you had what Pa and Ma also call an ‘illusion’ for a woman of the people,11 and the fact that nothing came of it wasn’t because you couldn’t take that path in life but because things took a different course, and you have since adapted to life in another class where you are now firmly established, so that for you it wouldn’t again be an illusion if you wanted to marry a girl from your class. In your case that wouldn’t arouse any comment, and although nothing came of that first love, something might come of a new love, and you would succeed. In my opinion, your way is definitely not to take a woman of the people: with you the so-called illusion was the woman of the people; the reality for you has now become the woman from the same kind of class as Kee Vos.
For me, though, it’s the other way round: the illusion (ALTHOUGH I DON’T BELIEVE THAT WORD OR DEFINITION WAS APPROPRIATE OR ACCURATE, EITHER IN YOUR CASE OR MINE) was Kee Vos; the reality has become the woman of the people.
There’s a difference between your case and mine in several respects. Your failure was when you were twenty, mine last year. But although both you and I may have had an illusion, failure or whatever — I really don’t know what to call it — that doesn’t rule out something more real, either for you or for me. For I’m quite sure that neither of us is cut out to be celibate.
What I want to make clear is this: what there is between Sien and me is real; it’s not a dream, it is reality. I count it a great blessing that my thoughts and capacity for work have found a focus, a particular direction. While it may be that I felt more passion for Kee Vos, and that in some respects she was more charming than Sien, it is certainly not so that the love for Sien is therefore less sincere, for the circumstances are too grave, and it all comes down to taking action and being practical, and that has always been so since I first met her.
You can see what the result is... now if you come you won’t find me dejected or melancholy, but you’ll enter a setting with which I believe you’ll be satisfied, or at least like. A young studio, a still young, fully functioning household.12
Not a mystical or mysterious studio, but one that has rooted itself in real life. A studio with a cradle and a close-stool. Where there’s no stagnation and everything prompts and urges and generates activity.
Now if someone or other comes to tell me that I’m a poor financier, I’ll show him my place here. I’ve done my best, brother, to ensure that you can see (and not just you, but everyone with eyes in his head) that I strive and sometimes manage to tackle things practically. HOW TO DO IT.13
This winter we had the woman’s pregnancy and my expenses in getting settled. Now the woman has given birth, I’ve been ill for four weeks — and still not better — despite all that the place is clean and cheerful and bright and tidy, and I have a large part of my furniture, bedding and painting materials.
It has cost what it cost, to be sure I won’t underestimate it, but your money hasn’t gone down the drain. A young studio has come from it which can’t yet do without your help, but from which more and more drawings will gradually emerge and which requires only essential furniture and tools, which retain their value.
You see, old chap, if you come here now
3v:10 to a house full of life and activity, knowing that you are its founder — won’t that give you a proper sense of satisfaction, more so than if I were a celibate spending my life in bars? Would you have it otherwise??? You know that I wasn’t always happy, and sometimes truly wretched, and now through your help my youth is emerging, and my true development.
Now I just hope that you won’t lose sight of this great change, even when people think you’re mad to have helped or to help me. And that you’ll continue to see in the present drawings the seed of later ones. A little longer in the hospital and then I’ll go back to work, and the woman and child will pose.
It’s as clear as daylight to me that one must feel what one makes, that one must live in the reality of family life if one wants to portray family life intimately — a mother and child, a washerwoman, a seamstress, whatever.
3v:11 As a result of stubborn labour, the hand is gradually becoming obedient to that feeling. But if I were to snuff out this feeling, and the strength to have my own household, that would be suicide. That’s why I say — onward — despite dark shadows, cares and difficulties, also, alas, through people interfering and gossiping. Theo — make no mistake — although I, as you rightly say, stay out of it, it often pierces me to the soul. But do you know why I no longer argue with them and why I stay out of it? — because I must work and may not let myself be diverted from my path by the gossip and difficulties.
But I don’t stay out of it because I’m afraid of them or am at a loss for words. Also, I’ve often noticed that they say nothing in my presence, and even claim never to have said anything. As for you, knowing that I don’t get involved in order not to make myself nervous and because of my work, you’ll be able to understand my attitude and not think it cowardly of me, won’t you?
Don’t imagine that I think myself perfect — or that I believe it isn’t my fault that many people find me a disagreeable character. I’m often terribly and cantankerously melancholic, irritable — yearning for sympathy as if with a kind of hunger and thirst — I become indifferent, sharp, and sometimes even pour oil on the flames if I don’t get sympathy. I don’t enjoy company, and dealing with people, talking to them, is often painful and difficult for me.
3r:12 But do you know where a great deal if not all of this comes from? Simply from nervousness — I who am terribly sensitive, both physically and morally, only really acquired it in the years when I was deeply miserable. Ask a doctor and he’ll immediately understand entirely how it couldn’t be otherwise than that nights spent on the cold street or out of doors, the anxiety about coming by bread, constant tension because I didn’t really have a job, sorrow with friends and family were at least 3/4 of the cause of some of my peculiarities of temperament — and whether the fact that I sometimes have disagreeable moods or periods of depression couldn’t be attributable to this?
But neither you nor anyone else who takes the trouble to think about it will, I hope, condemn me or find me unbearable because of that. I fight against it, but that doesn’t alter my temperament. And even if I consequently have a bad side, well damn it, I have my good side as well, and can’t they take that into consideration too?
Write to me to say whether you approve of my little plan for telling Pa and Ma and establishing better relations. I don’t feel in the least like just writing about it or going to discuss it, and would probably then make my usual mistake of putting it in such a way that they take offence at some expression or other. There you are. I think when the woman is back with her child, I fully recovered and back from the hospital, the studio working, then I would like to say to Pa: come and resume your visit and stay with me for a few days to talk things over. And then send the travel expenses as a courtesy. I can’t think of a better plan. Adieu, thank you for everything, and a handshake, and believe me