My dear Theo,
On Friday I received a message from the hospital in Leiden to say that Sien could go home on Saturday. So I went there today and we came back together and she’s now here at Schenkweg — so far everything is fine, both with her and the baby. Fortunately, she has good milk, the baby is quiet.
I would have given a lot to have you see her today. Her appearance has changed enormously, I assure you, since this winter. It’s a complete transformation.
I may have had something to do with that this winter, through your help of course, but much, much more of the credit must go to the professor who treated her. But in turn the professor had less to do with the effect on her of the strong attachment between her and me. A woman changes when she loves and is loved; if there’s no one who cares for them the drive and charm goes.1 It brings out what is in her, and her development most decidedly depends on this. Nature must run its course, follow its normal way. What a woman wants is to be with one man and to stay with him for good. That’s not always possible, but if it is otherwise it goes against nature. So she now has a different look compared to last winter, her eyes are different, her gaze is now steady and calm, and there’s an expression of happiness in her, of peace and rest, which is all the more striking because of course she’s still in pain. I’ve written to you before that the shape of her head, the line of her profile, is precisely that of that figure by Landelle, the Angel of the passion.2 So that’s far from ordinary,
1v:2 it’s decidedly noble, but it isn’t always immediately apparent. But today it was precisely, precisely that. Before she left, the professor (who has taken a liking to her3 — also knows her from the past — and gave her special attention this time — and examined her completely and thoroughly at her request, prompted by what I had agreed with her before she went there) took the trouble to have a long talk with her and give her detailed information about what she must do to stay on top of things.
1° Be with one man, since her whole constitution and temperament make her suitable for domestic life and decidedly unsuited to the kind of life she was brought to by her past misery.
2 That she must be out of doors often, and do plenty of walking as soon as she’s strong enough — breathe in lots of air and freshness.
3 As to food, he told her what she must eat and what isn’t good for her.
4 She must wash often with cold water and brandy,4 and regularly take a hot bath every week.
5 She must avoid emotions that make her nervous: anxiety, tension, agitation.
6 No scrubbing floors or similar really hard work, especially not with the head lowered as when mopping a corridor, also especially no lifting of heavy objects.
Thus broadly what he’d already said before, only now he explained it to her in more detail. It’s clear to me from everything that he takes a special interest in her. Naturally, he also talked to her about me at some length; knows about my illness, and says I was quite right to go to the hospital, even told her exactly how he thinks I got it; not once but repeatedly he came back to whether she was really with me permanently – whether I wouldn’t leave her in the lurch – and when
1v:3 she continued to reassure him, even when he said that she was just fooling him, he ended by saying, well, if you’ve really got your man for good, you’ve gained a great deal. He kept hammering on the point that she must have a domestic, regular and quiet life. When she left, not only the nurse on the ward where she was but also the head nurse herself came to say goodbye. I was there, and since I had had three letters from this person telling me how things were going when Sien wasn’t allowed to write, I thanked her for that. And she stayed talking to us for quite a long time. Fortunately, it was very warm, fine weather and the journey went well. Sien’s mother and Sien’s little girl had gone to Schenkweg and were waiting for us. It really was a lovely homecoming, and Sien was in high spirits over everything, especially over the cradle, over her wicker chair, over everything. But above all she was delighted to see her little girl again, who had received a new pair of boots from me for the occasion and looked very nice.
In May there was a combination of difficulties, her confinement, my illness, and this was complicated by the question of what to do, where she was to go. In many respects, light and a resolution have come.
She’s now still in considerable pain at times, mainly as a consequence of the operation with forceps, and there are other necessary effects of her confinement. There’s the great weakness, but one can see from her appearance that she’s undergoing a renewal and a blossoming, a recovery of her body and a recovery of her soul at the same time. And here there is now an atmosphere of ‘home’, or ‘Home’a or ‘hearth and home’. I can understand that Michelet says ‘Woman is a religion’.5
She’ll probably continue to be in pain for at least 6 weeks after the birth, and mustn’t overdo things at all. I believe that you can see, for example, from the interest taken in her by the professor and the head nurse that she’s someone for whom serious people feel a sympathy, because it really is something special for them to have cosseted her so much. When I was in the maternity ward and saw various other patients, it struck me that she was a very different type of person from the others, though she’s simple enough. Only there’s more spirit and sensitivity in her; one can see that suffering and going through hard times
1r:4 have refined her.
I hope you won’t feel any scruples about meeting her.
I’ve been greatly entertained by what Sien has told me of her conversations with the professor. It really was amusing, and the man seems to go about his work with a good deal of bonhomie. For example, he said: tell me, do you enjoy a glass of bitters and can you smoke cigars? Yes, she replied. I ask, he said, in order to tell you that you don’t need to give that up. On the other hand, she got a terrible dressing down about using vinegar, mustard and pepper.
On days when she feels more thirst than hunger, as often happens, she is to take a glass of bitters as a medicine to stimulate the appetite.
He has given her the list of restoratives, having consulted her as to her means. I’ll also keep to what he recommends in this respect. Meat is good for her, but once or twice a week is actually enough; it certainly isn’t required every day.
Her principal remedy, her most important restorative, was having a home; he kept coming back to that. I had been rather concerned that Sien might need things that would prove expensive, but the kind of life that he has prescribed is also the thriftiest one could imagine. So I really do believe we’ll be able to manage on 150 francs a month.
Sien was also told that for a period of 2 years she can consult the professor in Leiden free of charge if her child is ill, and also get free medicines there for him. My concern, child, is not just to get you through your confinement, said the professor, but also in a year or so I hope to see you a strong, vigorous woman. You have a whole life ahead of you if you don’t ignore what I say. In short, he talked to her and gave her information as if he were her own father, in large things and in small. And so she came home much more cheerful and clear-headed than when she left.
I am well, but I’ve noticed that I’ve become quite weak; this will pass, though. But it isn’t surprising if you reckon that for over two months I have had and still have, to some extent, for instance, poor digestion, little appetite, chronic fever, &c. Passing water was much better until a few particularly raw, wet days had a rather adverse effect on me. For several days the stream on passing water was again strong and, so to speak, entirely normal. While that hasn’t completely continued since, it’s nevertheless a sign of progress, it seems to me, and if the weather stays dry and warm like today it will progress more rapidly. I’ve been drawing again, and although it gave me a headache and soon tired me out, it will gradually improve. Especially since little by little I’ll be able to resume posing the woman and child at home. My weakness is a disappointment, but the sort of things I had always have that effect.
The two drawings I’ve done in the past few days are both watercolours.6 Because I wanted to make an experiment.
It seems to me, though, that I must still keep working mainly at pure drawing, which is the foundation of all the rest. But as you saw in the latest,7 I’m gradually beginning to use wash.
As soon as I’m fully recovered I would like to make a more serious attempt at a particular watercolour on Harding, because that paper (more than Whatman) allows you to apply a solid basis or ground in black and white before starting to wash, without it taking away the look of watercolour. But at present I can’t work for long enough at a time on a piece, which is very frustrating because I long so much to work and to go outdoors. Meanwhile I’m glad that at least I can now do a little again.
I began this letter yesterday evening and I can now tell you that we, namely the woman and the two children and I, spent the night in the big attic.
That bedroom looks a lot like a ship’s hold because it’s all panelled, and I believe that to be very healthy. The cradle has to go downstairs during the day. It all went fine, and as long as there’s no unpleasantness from outside, which I have hopes there won’t be, we’ll get along quite well inside. As for me, I don’t find the company of the woman and the children odd, but feel precisely as if I’m more in my element and as if things had been like this for much longer. I’m quite used to rolling up my sleeves to do things that the woman is too weak for, such as making the bed or a thousand other chores. I’ve faced all manner of tasks like that, either for myself or often enough for the sick &c.8 And that those things aren’t an impediment to the work of painting and drawing is amply proved by the old Dutch paintings and drawings. It can do no harm to have the studio and family blending together, especially as regards figure drawing. I remember studio interiors by Ostade, small pen drawings, probably bits of his own house, which make it clear enough that Ostade’s studio probably bore little resemblance to those studios where there are oriental arms and vases and Persian carpets &c.9
To continue on the subject of art, I sometimes feel a great desire to get back to painting. The studio is now more spacious, the light better, I have a good cupboard for keeping paint &c. without creating too much mess and dirt. Also, I’ve already straightaway started working with watercolour again. It depends on my recovery, but as soon as I no longer run the risk of collapsing and can go outdoors for long periods and sit quietly in the open, I plan to take all that up again and put all my energy into it. I believe that now that Sien and I are living together and are no longer two separate households, as it were, I’ll be able to save more for painting materials from 150 francs a month than before. Neither Sien nor I mind making do, and as long as I don’t earn more myself by selling drawings we won’t buy much more in the way of furniture or household items, for example. For she and I would both much rather wait for those sorts of things than take more money now, even if we could get it.
For her part, Sien will start posing again seriously as soon as she has recovered, and I assure you her figure is interesting enough. In fact, you can see for yourself in Sorrow, for example, and a few of the others you have, that she knows how to approach posing and is suited to it.10
I have several nude studies11 that you haven’t seen yet. I also definitely want to continue with them as soon as she’s ready, because one learns a great deal from that.
Even if I have to give up working out of doors for a considerable time if my health deteriorates (which I hope won’t happen), at any rate now I’ll have enough material indoors to occupy myself.
I’ve had a friendly letter from Pa and Ma. Just imagine, again with two money orders enclosed, even. They mustn’t do that any more, though. I know they need it themselves, and I say again that we can manage with the money from you now that things are turning out so well as regards the improvement in Sien’s condition, and mine too.
So I really would rather not have the money from Pa and Ma. As I wrote to you, as soon as I can save the money and the woman is better I even wanted to send some to Pa to pay for a journey here so that we can discuss this and that. What pleases me more than the money orders is that they’re in what seems to me the best mood in the circumstances, so that when I speak to them about Sien they won’t, I hope, immediately be against it but respond with good will.
I recently saw the exhibition of French art (on the Boschkant) from the collections of Mesdag, Post &c.12
There are many beautiful things there by Dupré, Corot, Daubigny, Diaz, Courbet, Breton, Jacque &c. I especially liked the large sketch by T. Rousseau from the Mesdag collection, a drove of cattle in the Alps.13
2r:8 And a landscape by Courbet:14 yellow hilly, sandy ground, with fresh young grass growing here and there, with black brushwood fences against which a few white birch trunks stand out, grey buildings in the distance with red and blue slate roofs. And a narrow, small, light delicate grey band of sky above. The horizon very high, however, so that the ground is the main thing, and the delicate little band of sky really serves more as contrast to bring out the rough texture of the masses of dark earth.
I think this is the most beautiful work by Courbet that I’ve seen so far.
The Duprés are superb,15 and there’s a Daubigny, big thatched roofs against the slope of a hill, that I couldn’t get enough of.16
The same goes for a small Corot, a stretch of water and the edge of a wood on a summer morning about 4 o’clock.17 A single small pink cloud indicates that the sun will come up in a while. A stillness and calm and peace that enchants one.
I’m glad to have seen all this.
Well, I’m going to close. I hope that you’ll write soon and above all that you really will come to Holland towards August. I’m writing to you ‘in between jobs’ because, as you can imagine, there’s a lot to be done now. I let Sien potter about but I always have to keep an eye on what she’s doing so that I can chance to be at hand if she needs help. For she really is very weak still (so much so that the professor, she told me, said ‘damned’ weak), and yet it’s good that in doing this and that she has a distraction. Anything that cheers her up and makes her light-hearted is medicine for her. The baby, too, is far from out of danger — you know how the child was delivered — that always has an effect on the child, and little can be said as to how it will turn out for another 6 weeks. Much depends on the milk, of course. I hope you’re not too bored reading all this, I wanted to write a brief word and it has turned into a long letter. I’m not yet running short, but if you could send something around the twentieth that would be helpful for the last days of the month.
Adieu, with a hearty handshake in thought.