Dear brother,
I received your letter this morning; in many respects the contents didn’t surprise me.1 It does surprise me, though, that you should credit me with even the slightest grasp of affairs, since, as you know, I’m considered to be a dreamer in that respect, and I didn’t imagine that you would think any differently.
I think that the idea of changing employers is a good idea of yours. To start with, you aren’t obliged to wait for the moment when the gentlemen change their minds; secondly, if one did feel so obliged, one could wait forever, or rather, until the point when a young employee has to doubt whether, if it ever did happen, he wouldn’t be too worn out to put things to rights; so how much more is this true of the old soaks themselves. By then they’d be even less competent — and decline is decline — be the deserved ruin of a business, fatally associated with certain mistakes. I wouldn’t say this if it happens through thoughtlessness, but if it happens because of that odious, bumptious, capricious, reckless way of outliving one’s reputation and taking the position of believing that everything is a question of money and that one can and may simply do anything — it may succeed many times, but in the end they’ll get into trouble, and that general manager will be the only one who comes out of it well for the time being. Oh — it’s the same old story — but of course all those departments, both unofficial and official, all that bookkeeping, it’s all just twaddle and that’s no way to do business. Surely doing business is also an action, taking hold through personal insight and willpower.2 That doesn’t count now — its wings are clipped — and so you complain that there aren’t enough paintings. Enough. In my view the house of G&Cie is indulging in a bubble company, and he who sows the wind reaps the whirlwind.3  1v:2
I — who spent six years in it — who, although I was one of the lowliest employees, feels that something of my heart is still in it, even after more than 10 years — I find it bitterly, bitterly, bitterly sad.
It’s a subject better not discussed. I don’t know the story of the firm that well, perhaps I’ve got things wrong, but this much I do know. It was very different there in the past and, I say again, I think it’s dreadful that things are going so badly now. In my view the gentlemen should have thought better of it much earlier. They started in Uncle V’s time with a few employees, whom they treated by no means so high-handedly and like machines. There was cooperation then, people could put their hearts into it then. But then the staff increased, and at the same time there gradually came to be fewer and fewer people whose hearts really were in it and who knew about it. I myself witnessed some curious instances of this. Meanwhile, the gentlemen became ever more arrogant and, in my view, they’re now absolutely blind. And if I may now speak my mind frankly, I think that the best thing that could happen to them would be for the whole thing to come to grief. In their disillusionment, it might at least be possible to respect them as human beings again, even if they were too old to put things to rights. I note with pleasure that you keep silent about them personally; that’s the best thing, and anyway I wouldn’t have expected anything else of you. But, leaving that aside, it’s something singularly difficult for you personally. Your heart is in it, and you’re more loyal to them than any of the others; I believe that you would rather stay because the house is the house, if it was endurable, even if another position would be more advantageous. All that counts for less than nothing, at least so it seems, for even if old man Goupil,4 for instance, felt a certain attachment to you, he would most probably say nothing about it because they themselves, I think, don’t speak out, and apparently just calmly let things mount up. Well, I see from your letter that there’s much that’s intolerable in your present situation. If, say, you were to speak to old man Goupil in confidence, it might be a good thing, saying that you had kept quiet for as long as you could, but now really had to ask, could wait no longer, exactly what the gentlemen want, because you wouldn’t want to go along with things as they are now. Something like that. There’s virtually no chance of that — it’s almost out of the question — that I know — but still.  1v:3 Something to the effect that you would accept a situation, yet to be created instead of your present one, that wasn’t as attractive and less well-paid at first, is a fact which would be a good way of opening a few eyes if anything is, it seems to me. I don’t think something like this would lead to results, to improving matters, but whatever happened old man Goupil would trust you, and perhaps you could in any event continue to be of service to him.
However, I mustn’t involve myself in situations that I’m only able to size up in the most general terms, and turn to what else you say about a plan of yours.
In the circumstances — given the necessity for change — splendid — a modern business where activity can still achieve something — where people don’t run up against routine and administration that are so complicated they paralyze everything. You say there’s capital, there’s a good plant for reproduction (and that means more than capital). Now if the employers of that business are people who are serious, and if their plan is to supply good things, to seek success in honesty come what may — then, as I said, splendid. At Cottier’s, however, Wisselingh clashed too much with his employer’s character (although he never told me this, or anyone else); but I came to this conclusion myself a long time ago, and it’s consistent with what Wisselingh said, ‘I wasted my time at Cottier’s’. It was perhaps a character more inclined to grand talk than to grand deeds, so I say, those people who run that other business, are they really serious, do they really want to do it?
I think that capability follows more from those two aspects than people usually say. When it comes down to it, people have to know what they want.
Well, now I come to what you write about me. I would certainly very much like to spend some time in Paris, because I believe I would get the friction with artists that I’ll have to have at some point.
Is it possible? It could be if it didn’t constrain you too much — I certainly like it. I wouldn’t mind talking to you about what you wrote, yes but where would that lead; better to lend a helping hand if the opportunity arose. No matter how.  1r:4
For I should think that I would progress in my work if, for example, I had the opportunity to see more of printing.
I already have several years of practising painting &c. behind me, so I carry on with it. But if I were to work at a printer’s or something, it would help rather than hinder me — although I would have to learn it all — but I think that I could draw reproductions myself, for instance. And I’d like to try everything of that kind, particularly if there’s bread to be earned from it there. I really do believe that I’ll get to the point where I won’t have to do anything else; however, be assured that I’d have no objections to a plan to come to Paris if you believed that it might do some good or was more appropriate for one reason or another. Well, I am not qualified to advise YOU about business; I’ve been out of it too long, and if I were to come back we should be in complete agreement about very many things. And yet I know that I’ve seen what I’ve seen and, in questions of reproduction or publishing, yes I also know what’s beautiful. If possible I want to lend a helping hand about how to do it, in any way I can.
But now, here in this magnificent heathland, I don’t have to tell you that I have absolutely no hankering for Paris, and I wouldn’t give it a thought if your letter hadn’t given cause to do so. And I simply say about this: if that’s the way it turns out, fine, to Paris; if that’s the way it turns out, fine, here in the peat fields. There will certainly be something to paint everywhere. It’s exceedingly beautiful here and, as I paint, I believe that I’m learning to paint a little better.
Well, my heart is in it, you know that.
I also believe, moreover, that if one knows a craft, after all, a craft is the most solid means of existence, so all the more reason for me to continue seeking it there.
I would go further — should we be together in Paris for one reason or another, because there was no choice or it was more convenient, then I dare say to you even now: start drawing and I’ll clarify the first principles for you.  2r:5 I know how much I still have to learn myself, but all the same I’m beginning to see light ahead of me and, one way or another, by practising on my own, by learning anything I can use from others, I’ll continue to paint with passion.
And might you reach a point where you could see light in it, well, so much the better. For you say that your heart is in the art business. That’s as may be, but I believe it’s even more in art itself.
Well, old chap, write again soon — I’ll start thinking all sorts of dreadful things if you keep quiet about it. So if there’s something the matter, write: there’s something the matter; if there’s nothing the matter, write: there’s nothing the matter, but don’t keep completely silent about it, because it’s not worth it.
Oh — I’ve had a letter from the poor woman — was glad I’d written to her,5 but is worried about the children and is going out to work as a temporary help. Has to live at her mother’s. Poor souls. We just have to have courage — even if it doesn’t come naturally.
I’m scratching a few more things from around here. I can’t describe to you how beautiful the countryside is. When I paint a bit better — then! Arrange things for me exactly as it works out best; I’d learn here and also learn there, I think.
Well, however it goes, it seems to me that you’ll be no unhappier because of it, and perhaps you’ve already put up with things for too long. Should it turn out that the gentlemen appreciated you more and gave you greater freedom to do business as you understand it, I think that would be the best thing. But I’d be surprised if matters took that turn, since even Uncle Vincent himself wasn’t treated very well when he left.6  2v:6
But that aside — it occurs to me that the whole art trade is sick — to tell you what I really think, I doubt whether the appalling prices will hold, even for masterpieces. A je ne sais quoi enveloped it and cooled the business down — and enthusiasm has crept into its shell. Does this make much difference to the artists? Not really, because the greatest among them usually profited personally from the enormous prices only in recent years, when they were already at the top, and they — Millet and others, particularly Corot — wouldn’t have painted any less, or less beautifully, if that huge boom hadn’t taken place. And whatever may happen in the art trade, for years to come anyone who can do something that’s worth looking at will always find art lovers who will make it possible for him to earn enough to live on. Well, I’d rather have 150 francs a month as a painter than 1,500 francs a month as anything else, even as an art dealer. As a painter, one feels one is a human being among other human beings, it seems to me — more so than when one is living a life that’s founded more on speculation, and where one has to be mindful of the conventions.
Although I’m curious as to how all this will turn out, it’s all the same to me, one way or the other. And as for you, I still don’t see it as a misfortune, this hasn’t been proved to me at all, on the contrary, if the outcome were to be that you became a painter in your 30th year, say, I should think it a great good fortune. Real life only begins at 30, that being the most active part. Friends and family regard one as old and I don’t know what else, but that doesn’t alter the fact that one can nonetheless feel a renewal of energy in oneself. What’s necessary then is to think things through thoroughly, and to want and be awake. But a change at around that time is actually necessary. One has to sweep all the rubbish into a heap and start again. Just like when one started out as a boy — but with more maturity. Dick or Harry, who just sits there dozing, thinks this is crazy and says he has grave misgivings about it — very well — take Dick or Harry as he is, provided he doesn’t attack you; he’s no more awake than a sleep-walker. For oneself, one must have no doubt, it’s only natural, and it’s only by not changing that one goes against nature. There’s an old saying — they have ears but they hear not, they have eyes but they see not, they have a heart but they understand not; their heart is waxed gross and they have closed their eyes and ears because they DO not WANT to hear and DO not WANT to see.7 I think that you and I are honest enough, after all, not to need to be afraid of opening our eyes and looking at things as they are and occur.  2v:7 That pithy old saying says such an enormous amount, says it all so exactly that I’m forced to think of it again and again in connection with many, many things.

These were people I saw in the peat field, they were sitting down, taking their meal break behind a mound of peat, with a small fire in the foreground.8

These were peat loaders, but I’m afraid the scratches are absolutely indecipherable.9

Here are a couple of evening effects10 — I’m still working on that weed burner, whom I’ve caught better than before in a painted study as far as the tone is concerned,11 so that it conveys more of the vastness of the plain and the gathering dusk, and the small fire with the wisp of smoke is the only point of light. I kept going out to look at it in the evenings, and one muddy evening after the rain I found the little hut, which was very beautiful in its natural setting.
Again, I think that I’d be able to learn in Paris as well as here on the heath; in the city I’d have the opportunity to learn from other people and see what they were doing, and I’m by no means indifferent to that. For that matter, I think that I’d also make progress working here without seeing other painters. And for my pleasure, I would far rather stay here. However, if a change in your position were to make it desirable for me to come there, perhaps earn something in the same firm, that’s all right with me and I have no objection whatsoever.12
Don’t hesitate to write to me about all these things, which I will, of course, keep entirely and absolutely to myself. If my affairs here were to improve a little — if, for example, I could count on C.M. taking my studies — well, seeing as it’s cheaper here, the most advantageous would be if I were to stay here, and once I progressed a bit further, if you ever changed entirely and decided to become a painter, it would be excellent to learn here — excellent.
Has C.M. been yet? I repeat, keep your courage up, I’ll do the same, and if you do ever decide to become a painter, do it with inner cheerfulness and as coolly as possible. Then, taking the broad view of things, you would have to see the time between now and your 30th year as a rather wretched period of pottering around, but at the end of it you would see everything renewed, and a broad future. Remember what you told me about the Swedish painters in Paris back then — one must be daring, and all the more so because one sees how everything is uncertain and shaky. Forlorn attempts — so be it — but in an age like the one we live in they are our duty, and one must often choose between that and sitting dozing. Well, old chap, all the best, write again soon, with a handshake.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 399 | CL: 335
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nieuw-Amsterdam, on or about Monday, 22 October 1883

1. It seems that Van Gogh drew the sketches in the letter in Nieuw-Amsterdam and wrote the letter there too.
a. Read: ‘Wanneer op zeker moment’ (when at a certain point).
2. This idea, that a thought alone is not enough but has to lead to ‘action’, could be derived from Carlyle: see letter 274, n. 11.
3. Saying, derived from Hos. 8:7.
4. Adolphe Goupil, founder of Goupil & Cie.
5. Van Gogh says he has written to Sien in letter 395.
6. From 1858 onwards Uncle Vincent van Gogh was a partner (‘associé’) in Goupil & Cie. His art gallery in The Hague had been a branch of the firm since then. He had to leave the firm for health reasons in 1872, when he was 53 (from letter 615 it appears that he had lung problems). Evidently the arrangements when he left were not handled as they should have been. Nonetheless he was still a silent partner (‘commanditaire’) in Goupil from 1872 to 1878. See Etat des lieux 1994, p. 149.
8. We do not know whether this sketch, Workmen beside a mound of peat (F - / JH 416), was based on a drawing or a painting.
9. This letter sketch relates to the painting Peat barge with two figures (F 21 / JH 415 [3037]). The location may be in the Stadnitsky district, which Van Gogh could easily reach from his lodgings by walking along Schooldijk. See Dijk and Van der Sluis 2001, pp. 214-219.
10. The letter sketches Man burning weeds (F - / JH 419) and Farmhouse at night (F - / JH 419) relate to the painting Man burning weeds (F 20 / JH 417 [3038]) and the drawing Farmhouse at night (F 1097 / JH 418 [3039]).
[3038] [3039]
11. This ‘before’ could refer to the three earlier pictures of the subject that Van Gogh made in The Hague: see letter 361.
b. Means: ‘modderavond’ (muddy evening).
12. The idea that Vincent could perhaps earn something in Theo’s potential new firm may be an indication that Theo was considering switching to printing or publishing. A formulation a few letters later points in the same direction: ‘I wouldn’t have thought that if, say, you’d been able to write, I’m on to something in the sphere of printing, for instance, or — I’ve discovered some bold new artists with whom I’ll be able to do something’ (letter 407, ll. 69-72).
c. Means: ‘kalmte’ (calm).