Coming home just now,1 the first thing I feel I have to do is to make a request of you — a request which I have no doubt is necessary simply because you’ll see from it that my intentions are the same as yours. It is: not to rush me in the various matters we were unable to deal with all at once this time. For I need some time in order to decide. As for my relative coolness towards Pa, here’s something I want to tell you, because you brought it up.
About a year ago now, Pa came to The Hague for the first time since I’d left home in search of peace, which I didn’t find there.2 Of course I was already with the woman then and said, ‘Pa, since I don’t blame anyone for finding something shocking in my behaviour, given the present conventions, I stay away of my own accord from those who I believe would be ashamed of me.
And you understand that I won’t make it difficult for you, and as long as I haven’t yet got my affairs in order and am not back on my feet, wouldn’t you think it better if I didn’t visit you?’ If to that Pa had said something like ‘No, that’s going too far’, I would have been friendlier since, but Pa’s reply was in between yes and no; it was, Oh, do what you think best.
Well, thinking thus that they were more or less ashamed of me, which tallied with what you told me,3 I wasn’t a busy correspondent and nor was Pa, and neither his letters nor mine were particularly confiding. This, between you and me, is only to explain, not to draw further conclusions. The opposite of seizing the hand and insinuating one’s way in when someone offers only a finger is to let go of the hand that isn’t offered to us fully and freely. Or voluntarily going away from where one is merely tolerated.
Whether or not I was mistaken, what do I know? There’s a bond between you and me which time can only strengthen if we press on with the work,4 and that is art, and I have hope we’ll continue to understand each other after all.
I fear I’ve said something to you about the work that I ought to have put differently, and have a vague feeling that I must have bothered you with something, because there seemed to be something the matter when you left.
I hope this will resolve itself.
As to the work, what is becoming increasingly clear to me in everything since it caught my attention is the meagreness of the execution. That would worry me if I didn’t think it a natural consequence (which I believe I’ve also seen in the early work of very many people I find sympathetic), a natural consequence of the effort one must make to overcome the very first obstacles. And, looking back on recent years, seeing them full of trouble behind me. That trouble having subsided, there will be another period of working, I hope.
This error is so pervasive and its correction so badly needed that we must see to it that we take steps to give us a period of calm. And so work at it; otherwise it will stay like that. I am as my work is, and you must take this into consideration a little. I don’t know whether or not you think it would be better to see someone like Herkomer, Green or Small, for instance, now or to wait until both the work and I myself have calmed down. I’d be in favour of the latter.5 Things inside me may clear up soon, but at the moment I’d rather not have to navigate through complicated London affairs. As regards one or two things that you said to me when you left, I hope you won’t forget that one or two things about my clothes &c. are somewhat exaggerated. If it were really so, well I’d be the first to admit my fault, but it seems to me that it’s an old piece of gossip dragged up from the past rather than based on recent observation — unless I’m out in the fields or in the studio.
You mustn’t rush me if you truly want to make this clear to me. This year I’ve been completely outside any kind of social circle, so to speak.
And in truth haven’t bothered about clothes.
If that’s all, it won’t be so difficult to change, will it?, especially now that I have the new suit from you.
But I sincerely wish that people would forgive me such failings rather than talk about them.
If I get irritated about this, it’s because I’ve already heard so much about it; dressed up one time and less so another, and it’s a story like that of the farmer, his son and the donkey, the moral of which, as you know, is that people are hard to please.6
It wasn’t so much that I got angry with you as that you astonished me, because you know how much pain I’ve already suffered over it, and that it has become a piece of gossip that won’t disappear whatever I do. Anyway. At all events I have the new suit from you and the old one, which is certainly still good, and so it’s over for the time being, isn’t it?, and let’s say no more about it.
If only I had got a bit further so that it would be easier to sell, I would definitely say, you be the man who takes care of business, I don’t want to have anything to do with selling, and live entirely outside those circles.
Unfortunately, though, I can’t yet say that now, and you aren’t to blame for that, but I ask you for patience in both our interests and for the sake of peace. I’m terribly sorry that I make life difficult for you — perhaps it will clear up by itself — but if you’re faltering, tell me plainly. In that case I would rather give up everything than make you carry a heavier burden than you can bear. Then I would certainly go to London right away to look for anything, no matter what, even carrying bales, and leave art for better times, at least having a studio and painting.
When I look back on the past, I always come up against the same fatal points that are still not entirely clear to me and that coincide with the months August 1881 to February 1882.7 That’s why I can’t help mentioning the same names all the time. Which appeared to astonish you.
Dear brother, don’t think of me as being anything other than an ordinary painter facing ordinary problems, and don’t imagine there’s anything unusual when there are hard times. I mean, don’t picture the future either black or brightly lit; you’ll do better to go on believing in grey.
Which I also try to do, and I consider it a fault if I deviate from that.
As for the woman, I don’t doubt that in any event you’ll understand that for my part I shan’t rush matters.8
And as for how I think about selling, I wanted to say this again. I believe that the best would be if we carry on working until, instead of having to praise or explain it to art lovers or say something to go with it, they feel drawn to it of their own accord. At any rate, if it’s refused or doesn’t please, one must remain dignified and calm as far as possible. I fear that my efforts when I present myself do more harm than good, and I wish I could be spared that.
It’s so painful for me to talk to most people, I’m not afraid to, but I know I make a disagreeable impression. Attempts to change that may well come up against the difficulty that the work would suffer if one lived differently. And provided one perseveres with the work, it will turn out all right later. Take Mesdag, a veritable mastodon or hippopotamus, all the same he sells his paintings. I haven’t got as far as that yet, but the person I mention also began late9 and worked his way up by an honest, manly route, whatever else he may be. It’s not in the least because of laziness that I don’t do this or that; rather it’s to be able to work more and to leave aside anything not directly part of the work.
Just to return briefly to what you said on leaving: ‘I’m beginning to think more and more like Pa’. Well, so be it, you speak the truth, and I for my part, while as I said not thinking or doing exactly the same, respect this character and know of a weak side to it perhaps, but also a good side. And when I consider that if Pa knew anything about art I would doubtless be able to talk to him more easily and agree with him more; suppose you become like Pa plus your knowledge of art — fine — I believe we’ll continue to understand each other.
I’ve had repeated disagreements with Pa, but the bond has never been completely broken.
So let’s simply allow nature to develop: you will become what you become, I too shan’t stay exactly as I am now. Let us not suspect each other of absurd things and we’ll continue to get by. And let us reflect that we’ve known each other from childhood, and that thousands of other things can bring us ever closer.
I’m a little concerned about what seems to be bothering you, and doubt whether I know exactly what the trouble is. Or rather, I believe the cause lies not so much in a particular, specific matter as in the realization that there are points on which our characters diverge, and that one of us understands one thing better and the other something else. I believe that this is desirable, if you and I try to remain in agreement.
One thing — if I become too much of a burden on you — let the friendship remain, even if you can give less help financially. I’ll complain now and again — I’m in a fix over this or that — but without any ulterior motive, and more just to say it for once than because I demand or expect from you that you can do everything, which indeed I wouldn’t do, old chap!
It grieves me that I said things that I, for my part, would like to take back entirely if need be, or wish I had left unsaid — or, supposing you conceded they had a grain of truth in them, would like to have them regarded as highly exaggerated. For be assured that the continuing main thought — compared with which all the rest becomes as little as nothing — is and will remain, whatever the future brings, a sense of gratitude towards you. Furthermore, if I’m ever less fortunate in the future, in no circumstances — I say in NO CIRCUMSTANCES — you understand — not even if you have to withdraw your help entirely — shall I regard it as your fault. Which wouldn’t need to be said, had I not said things more because of the strong effect of my nerves than because I think you should have said something more adequate at the time when I was calm. Forget about that, you’d be doing me a favour if you took that as unsaid. I think that if that turns out all right, it will turn out all right by itself through time when I’m calm, but in nervousness I blame it now on this, now on that.
It’s the same with other things, which I don’t want to drag up now, although I later remember what I say, even in nervousness, and a grain of it may be right, yet not all beginnings have a continuation, and in nervous tension they often seem more than they are.
For my part, although there seemed to be something wrong when you left, shall also not go on about it. I do indeed think about what you say, and have already written to you about clothes that I don’t refuse them and agree with you completely — but would have known even if you hadn’t said it — that attention would be paid to appearance if ever I were to go to Herkomer or someone. Also, what you said about Pa — there was now a reason for writing more to Pa than otherwise, and you will read the letter. And the same with everything else.
In short, if I pass judgement on people, circumstances, circles in which I do not move, it’s understandable that I don’t hit the mark but fantasize beyond nature and see things very fantastically, just as everything becomes strange when seen against the light. You, who are closer, don’t understand how it’s possible that they can appear a little like that when seen at a distance, in retrospect. And even if I saw everything totally wrong, anyone who thought it over would perhaps understand that, given certain events, I can hardly speak otherwise. Where things became confused was a brief period, and that brief period CANNOT but occupy a place in my thoughts constantly, and I regard it as natural that that moment must have a reaction in the future, because people, even if they deliberately avoid each other, still inevitably end up facing each other in the course of time.