Back to site

750 To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Tuesday, 19 March 1889.

metadata
No. 750 (Brieven 1990 754, Complete Letters 579)
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Arles, Tuesday, 19 March 1889

Source status
Original manuscript

Location
Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, inv. nos. b626 a-b V/1962

Date
Letter headed: ‘le 19 mars’. The subjects mentioned indicate that this must be Tuesday, 19 March 1889.

Additional
Lines 140 ff. were written on the front of the envelope in which Theo had sent his previous letter (letter 749), which bears the postmark ‘PARIS 67 PL. DES ABBESSES 5h|17 MARS 89’ (twice) and a 15-centime stamp. The address reads: ‘Monsieur Vincent van Gogh/ à l’Hopital/ d’Arles (Bouches du Rhône)’.

Ongoing topics
Theo’s engagement and marriage to Jo Bonger (728)
Theo’s new apartment (745)

original text
 1r:1
le 19 mars.

Mon cher frère,
il m’a semblé voir dans ta bonne lettre tant d’angoisse fraternelle contenue qu’il me semble de mon devoir de rompre mon silence.1 Je t’écris en pleine possession de ma présence d’esprit et non pas comme un fou mais en frère que tu connais.– Voici la vérité – : un certain nombre de gens d’ici ont adressé au maire (je crois qu’il se nomme M. Tardieu) une adresse (il y avait plus de 80 signatures) me désignant comme un homme pas digne de vivre en liberté ou quelque chose comme cela.2
Le Commissaire de police ou le commissaire central a alors donné l’ordre de m’interner de nouveau.3
Toutefois est-il que me voici de longs jours enfermé sous clefs & verrous et gardiens au cabanon sans que ma culpabilité soit prouvée ou même prouvable.
Va sans dire que dans le for intérieur de mon âme j’ai beaucoup à redire à tout cela. Va sans dire que je ne saurais me fâcher et que m’excuser me semblerait m’accuser dans un cas pareil.
Seulement pour t’avertir, pour me délivrer – d’abord je ne le demande pas, étant persuadé que toute cette accusation sera reduit à néant.–
Seulement dis-je, pour me délivrer tu le trouverais difficile. Si je ne retenais pas mon indignation je serais immédiatement jugé fou dangereux. En patientant esperons, d’ailleurs les fortes émotions ne pourraient qu’aggraver mon état.
Si d’ici un mois cependant tu n’aies pas de mes nouvelles directes alors agis mais tant que je t’écris attends.
 1v:2
C’est pourquoi je t’engage par la présente à les laisser faire sans t’en mêler.
Tiens toi pour averti que ce serait peutêtre compliquer et embrouiller la chôse.
A plus forte raison puisque tu comprendras que moi tout en étant absolument calme au moment donné, puis facilement retomber dans un état de surexitation par de nouvelles émotions morales.
Aussi tu conçois combien cela m’a été un coup de massue en pleine poitrine quand j’ai su qu’il y avait tant de gens ici qui etaient lâches assez de se mettre en nombre contre un seul et celui là malade.
Bon. voilà pour ta gouverne; en tant que quant à ce qui concerne mon état moral je suis fortement ébranlé mais je recouvre quand même un certain calme pour ne pas me fâcher. D’ailleurs l’humilité me convient après l’expérience d’attaques répetées.4
Je prends donc patience.
Le principal, je ne saurais trop te le dire, est que tu gardes ton calme aussi et que rien ne  1v:3 te dérange dans tes affaires. Après ton mariage nous pouvons nous occuper de mettre tout cela au clair et en attendant, ma foi laisse moi ici tranquillement. Je suis persuadé que M. le maire ainsi que le commissaire sont plustôt des amis et qu’ils feront tout leur possible d’arranger tout cela. Ici, sauf la liberté, sauf bien des chôses que je désirerais autrement, je ne suis pas trop mal. Je leur ai d’ailleurs dit que nous n’étions pas à même de subir des frais. Je ne peux pas demenager sans frais5 or voilà 3 mois que je ne travaille pas et remarquez que j’aurais pu travailler s’ils ne m’avaient pas exaspéré et gêné.
Comment vont la mère et la soeur. N’ayant rien d’autre pour me distraire – on me défend même de fumer – ce qui est pourtant permis aux autres malades. n’ayant rien d’autre à faire je pense à tous ceux que je connais tout le long du jour et la nuit.
Quelle misère – et tout cela pour ainsi dire pour rien.
Je ne te cache pas que j’aurais préferer crever que de causer et de subir tant d’embaras. Que veux tu, souffrir sans se plaindre est l’unique leçon qu’il s’agit d’apprendre dans cette vie.6
 1r:4
Maintenant dans tout cela si je dois reprendre ma tâche de faire de la peinture j’ai naturellement besoin de mon atelier, du mobilier, que certes nous n’avons pas de quoi renouveler en cas de perte.
Etre de nouveau reduit à vivre à l’hôtel, tu sais que mon travail le permet pas, il faut que j’aie mon pied à terre fixe. Si ces bonshommes d’ici protestent contre moi, moi je proteste contre eux et il n’ont qu’à me fournir dommages et interêts à l’amiable, enfin ils n’ont qu’à me rendre ce que je perdrais par leur faute et ignorance.
Si – mettons – je deviendrais aliené pour de bon – certes je ne dis pas que ce soit impossible, il faudrait dans tous les cas me traiter autrement, me rendre l’air, mon travail &c.
Alors – ma foi – je me résignerais. Mais nous n’en sommes même pas là et si j’eusse eu ma tranquilité, depuis longtemps je serais remis. Ils me chicanent sur ce que j’ai fumé et bu, bon.7
mais que veux tu, avec toute leur sobriété ils ne me font en somme que de nouvelles misères. Mon cher frère le mieux reste peut-être de blaguer nos petites misères et aussi un peu les grandes de la vie humaine.8 Prends en ton parti d’homme et marche bien droit à ton but. nous autres artistes dans la société actuelle ne somme que la cruche cassée. Que je voudrais pouvoir t’envoyer mes toiles mais tout est sous clefs, verrous, police et gardefous.– Ne me délivre pas, cela s’arrangera tout seul – avertis toutefois Signac qu’il ne s’en mêle pas car il mettrait la main dans un guêpier9 – sans que j’ecrive de nouveau. En pensée je te serre la main bien cordialement, dis bonjour à ta fiancee, à la mère et à la soeur.

t. à t.
Vincent

Je lirai cette lettre telle quelle à M. Rey qui n’est pas responsable ayant lui-même été malade – sans doute il t’ecrira lui-meme aussi. Ma maison a été fermée par la police.

J’ai vague souvenance d’une lettre chargee de ta part pour laquelle on m’a fait signer mais que je n’ai pas voulu accepter tant on faisait de l’embarras pour la signature, et de laquelle depuis je n’ai plus eu des nouvelles.

Explique à Bernard que je n’ai pas pu lui répondre, c’est tout une histoire pour écrire une lettre: il faut au moins autant de formalités qu’en prison maintenant.– Dis lui de demander conseil à Gauguin mais serre lui bien la main pour moi.

Encore une fois bien des choses à ta fiancée et à Bonger.

j’aurais preferé ne pas encore t’ecrire dans la crainte de te compromettre et te deranger dans ce qui doit aller avant tout. Cela s’arrangera, c’est trop idiot pour durer.

Lorsque tu demenageras, adresse s.v.p.

 2r:5
j’avais esperé que M. Rey serait venu me voir afin de causer encore avec lui avant d’expedier cette lettre mais quoique j’aie fait dire que je l’attendais personne n’est venu.10 Je t’engage encore une fois à être prudent. Tu sais ce que c’est que d’aller chez des autorités civiles se plaindre. Attends jusqu’à ton voyage en Hollande au moins.11
Je crains moi-même un peu que si je sors dehors en liberté je ne serais pas toujours maître de moi si j’etais provoqué ou insulté, or de cela on pourrait se faire prévaloir. Le fait est là qu’on a envoyé une adresse au maire. J’ai carrément répondu que j’était tout disposé à me ficher à l’eau par exemple si cela pouvait une fois pour toutes faire le bonheur de ces vertueux bonshommes mais que dans tous les cas si en effet je m’etais fait une blessure à moi-même je n’en avais aucunément fait à ces gens là. &c. Courage donc quoique le coeur me défaille à des moments. Ta venue – ma foi – pour le moment elle brusquerait les chôses. Je deménagerai quand j’en verrai les moyens naturellement.
 2v:6
J’espère que celle ci t’arrive en bon état. ne craignons rien, je suis assez calme maintenant. Laissez les faire. Tu feras peut-être bien d’écrire encore une fois. mais rien d’autre pour le moment. Si je prends patience cela ne saurait que me fortifier pour ne plus être tant en danger de retomber dans une crise. Naturellement moi qui reellement ai fait de mon mieux pour etre ami avec les gens et qui ne m’en doutais pas, cela m’a été un rude coup.
à bientot mon cher frère j’espère, ne t’inquiète pas. C’est une sorte de quarantaine qu’on me fait passer peut etre. Qu’en sais je.

translation
 1r:1
19 March.

My dear brother,
I seemed to see so much restrained brotherly anguish in your kind letter that it seems to me to be my duty to break my silence.1 I write to you in full possession of my presence of mind and not like a madman but as the brother you know. Here is the truth: a certain number of people from here have addressed a petition (there were more than 80 signatures on it) to the mayor (I think his name is M. Tardieu) designating me as a man not worthy of living at liberty, or something like that.2
The chief of police or the chief inspector then gave the order to have me locked up once again.3
Anyway, here I am, shut up for long days under lock and key and with warders in the isolation cell, without my culpability being proven or even provable.
It goes without saying that in my heart of hearts I have a lot to say in reply to all that. It goes without saying that I shouldn’t get angry, and that apologizing would seem to me to be accusing myself in such a case.
Only to warn you: to free me – first I don’t ask it, being sure that all of this accusation will be reduced to nothing.
Only I say to you, you would find it difficult to free me. If I didn’t restrain my indignation I would immediately be judged to be a dangerous madman. In waiting let us hope, besides, strong emotions could only aggravate my state.
If in a month’s time, though, you have no direct news of me, then act, but as long as I’m writing to you, wait.  1v:2
That’s why I now ask you to promise to let them act without getting yourself mixed up in it.
Consider yourself warned that it would perhaps complicate and confuse the matter.
All the more so since you’ll understand that while I’m absolutely calm at the given moment, I may easily fall back into a state of over-excitement through new moral emotions.
So you can imagine how much of a hammer-blow full in the chest it was when I found out that there were so many people here who were cowardly enough to band themselves together against one man, and a sick one at that.
Good. That’s for your guidance; as regards my moral state, I’m badly shaken, but all the same I’m recovering a certain calm so as not to get angry. Besides, humility suits me after the experience of repeated attacks.4
So I’m being patient.
The main thing, I couldn’t say it too often, is that you should keep your calm too, and that nothing  1v:3 should disturb you in your affairs. After your marriage we can deal with sorting all this out, and in the meantime, my word, leave me here quietly. I’m convinced that Mr Mayor, as well as the chief of police, are more like friends and that they’ll do everything they can to settle all this. Here, except for freedom, except for lots of things that I would wish otherwise, I’m not too bad. Besides, I told them that we weren’t in a position to bear expenses. I can’t move without expenses,5 now I haven’t been working for 3 months, and mind you, I would have been able to work if they hadn’t exasperated and bothered me.
How are Mother and our sister? Having nothing else to distract me – I’m even forbidden to smoke – which, however, the other patients are allowed to do. Having nothing else to do I think about all those I know all day and night long.
What misery – and all of it, so to speak, for nothing.
I won’t hide from you that I would have preferred to die than to cause and bear so much trouble. What can you say, to suffer without complaining is the only lesson that has to be learned in this life.6  1r:4
Now, in all that, if I must resume my task of painting I naturally need my studio, the furniture, which we certainly can’t afford to renew if it’s lost.
To be reduced once again to living in the hotel, you know that my work won’t allow it, I must have a fixed pied-à-terre. If these fellows here protest against me, I protest against them, and they just have to provide me with damages and interest in a friendly way, in short they just have to give me back what I would lose by their fault and ignorance.
If – let’s say – I were to become definitively insane – certainly I don’t say that it’s impossible, in any case they should treat me differently, give me back the fresh air, my work &c.
Then – my word – I would resign myself. But we aren’t even there yet, and if I’d had my tranquillity I’d have been back on my feet long ago. They scold me about what I’ve smoked and drunk, fine.7
But what can you say, with all their sobriety they’re actually only giving me new miseries. My dear brother, the best thing remains perhaps to joke about our little miseries, and also a little about the great ones of human life.8 Take it like a man and walk dead straight towards your goal. We artists in present-day society are no more than the broken pitcher. How I’d like to be able to send you my canvases, but everything is under lock and key, police and keepers of the insane. Don’t free me, it will settle itself on its own – all the same, warn Signac that he shouldn’t get involved until I write again, for he’d be putting his hand into a wasps’ nest.9 I shake your hand most cordially in thought, regards to your fiancée, to Mother and our sister.

Ever yours,
Vincent

I’ll read this letter as it stands to Mr Rey, who isn’t responsible, having been ill himself – no doubt he’ll write to you himself too. My house has been shut up by the police.

I have a vague memory of a registered letter from you for which I was made to sign but which I didn’t want to accept because they were making such a fuss for the signature, and of which I’ve since had no more news.

Explain to Bernard that I haven’t been able to reply to him, it’s quite a performance to write a letter: at least as many formalities are necessary as in prison now. Tell him to ask Gauguin for advice, but shake his hand firmly from me.

Once again warm regards to your fiancée and to Bonger.

I would have preferred not to write to you yet for fear of compromising you and disturbing you in what must work out above all. It will settle itself, it’s too idiotic to last.

When you move house, address please.

 2r:5
I had hoped that Mr Rey would come to see me in order to talk with him before sending this letter, but although I had made it known that I was waiting for him, nobody came.10 I urge you again to be cautious. You know what it is to go to the civil authorities to complain. Wait until your journey to Holland at least.11
I myself fear a little that if I go outside at liberty I wouldn’t always be master of myself if I was provoked or insulted, and one could take advantage of that. The fact remains that a petition was sent to the mayor. I bluntly replied that I was entirely disposed to chuck myself into the water, for example, if that could make these virtuous fellows happy once and for all, but that in any case if in fact I had wounded myself I had done nothing of the sort to these people &c. So courage, then, although the guts fail me at times. Your coming here – my word – for the moment it would precipitate things. I’ll move house when I see the means naturally.  2v:6
I hope that this reaches you in good condition. Let’s not fear, I’m quite calm now. Leave them to their own devices. You will perhaps do well to write one more time, but nothing more for the moment. If I’m patient, that could only make me stronger so that I won’t be so much in danger of relapsing into a crisis. Naturally I who really have done my best to be friends with the people and didn’t suspect it, it has been a harsh blow to me.
More soon, I hope, my dear brother, don’t worry. It’s perhaps a sort of quarantine I’m being put through. What do I know?
notes
1. This letter from Theo was letter 749. In the meantime, Salles had informed Theo on 18 March that Vincent’s condition had improved (FR b1049).
2. This petition, signed by 30 residents of the neighbourhood around place Lamartine, urgently requested the mayor, Jacques Tardieu, to have Van Gogh committed, because he supposedly presented a danger to the inhabitants of Arles. See Documentation, shortly before 27 February 1889 and Ill. 2278 . Thus the number was considerably smaller than that mentioned by Van Gogh.
3. As a result of this petition, Joseph d’Ornano, chief of police of the city of Arles, drew up a report on 27 February 1889 containing the neighbours’ statements. They reproached Van Gogh for over-indulging in drink, ‘after which he is in a state of over-excitement such that he no longer knows what he is doing or what he is saying’ (se livre à des excès de boissons après lesquels il se trouve dans un état de surexcitation tel qu’il ne sait plus, ni ce qu’il fait, ni ce qu’il dit). In the report, he was accused of indecent behaviour: ‘The women, especially, no longer feel comfortable, because he is prone to interfering with them, and makes obscene remarks in their presence’ (Les femmes surtout ne sont plus rassurées car il se livre sur elles à des attouchements et tient des propos obscènes en leur présence).
Ornano’s conclusion reads as follows: ‘Mr Vincent van Gogh is truly suffering from mental disturbance; however, we have noted on several occasions that this madman has moments of lucidity. Van Gogh is not yet a threat to public safety, but there are fears that he may become so. All his neighbours are frightened, and with good cause, because a few weeks ago, the madman concerned cut off an ear in a fit of insanity, a crisis that could be repeated and be harmful to somebody in his vicinity.’ (Le Mr Vincent Van Goghe est réellement atteint d’aliénation mentale; cependant nous avons constaté à différentes reprises que cet aliéné a des moments de lucidité. Van Goghe n’est pas encore dangereux pour la sécurité publique, mais on craint qu’il ne le devienne. Tous ses voisins sont effrayés, et cela à juste titre, car il y a quelques semaines l’aliéné dont il s’agit s’est coupé une oreille dans un accès de folie; crise qui pourrait se produire à nouveau et être funeste à quelque personne de son voisinage.) See Documentation, 27 February 1889 and Ill. 2280 .
On the basis of this report, the petition and the statement made by Dr Delon on 7 February (see letter 747, n. 1), the mayor gave orders for Van Gogh to be confined in hospital. On 26 February Salles had informed Theo of Vincent’s admission to hospital; in his letter of 2 March he went into the contents of the report (FR b1047 and FR b1049).
The Arles municipal archives contains a copy of the letter in which the mayor gave orders to have Van Gogh, who ‘engages in acts unambiguously indicating mental disturbance’ (se livre à des actes non équivoque d’aliénation mentale), confined in hospital ‘to there be given the care his condition demands (pour y recevoir les soins qui réclame son état). It was also at this time that a letter was drafted in the mayor’s name, ordering Van Gogh’s transfer to the institution at Aix: ‘In view of the fact that it emerges from these various documents [the report, among others] that the mental state of the said insane person, far from improving, is deteriorating by the day, and that this unfortunate man is engaging in acts of raving madness that endanger his life and those of the people around him ... The individual Vincent van Gogh ... currently detained in the hospital at Arles, will immediately be taken to Aix to be placed in that city’s lunatic asylum, until such time as the prefect has pronounced on his indefinite admission to that establishment.’ (Considérant qu’il résulte de ces divers documents que l’état mental du dit aliéné loin de s’améliorer s’aggrave de jour en jour et que ce malheureux se livre à des actes de folies furieuses qui compromettent son existence et celle des personnes qui l’entourent ... Le nommé Vincent Van Gogh ... actuellement sequestré à l’hospice d’Arles, sera conduit immédiatement à Aix pour y être déposé dans l’asile d’aliénés de cette ville en attendant que M. le Préfet ait prononcé son admission définitive dans cet établissement.) (ACA). This decision was never taken.
4. After his first attack on 23 December 1888, during which he cut off part of his left ear (see letter 728, n. 1), Van Gogh remained in hospital until 7 January 1889. Less than a month later he suffered a renewed attack, which led to his hospitalization on 7 February (letter 747, n. 1). On the 17th or 18th he was allowed to leave the institution during the day, though he continued to eat and sleep at the hospital (see letters 757 and 748). A third attack followed on 26 February. In a later letter to Willemien, Vincent wrote that he had had four serious attacks of his illness (see letter 764).
5. In the light of the petition, the doctors and the Rev. Salles thought it better for Vincent not to return to the Yellow House, but to take up residence in another part of town. Salles informed Theo of this in his letter of 1 March 1889 (FR b1048).
6. Van Gogh said this earlier (see letter 211, n. 18), and repeats it in letter 784.
7. The petition (n. 3 above) stated that Van Gogh overindulged in drink. Salles asked himself, however, how reliable the testimony was, when he wrote to Theo on 2 March 1889: ‘They say ... he drinks heavily (the proprietor of the café, his neighbour, who had told me precisely the opposite, has confirmed that)’ (On dit ... qu’il boit beaucoup (le cafetier, son voisin, qui m’avait dit exactement le contraire, a affirmé cela)) (FR b1051).
Not only did Vincent’s neighbours have objections, but the medical staff was of the opinion that Van Gogh’s problems had to do with excessive consumption of tobacco, alcohol and coffee; see letters 752 and 760, and the statement made by Dr Delon, quoted in letter 747, n. 1.
8. For the origin of this allusion from the book Petites misères de la vie humaine by Old Nick and Grandville, see letter 178, n. 6.
9. Theo had reported in letter 749 that Signac would be coming to see Vincent. For his visit, see letter 752.
10. Lines 140 ff. were written on part of an envelope (see Additional details). Here Van Gogh reiterates what he said about Rey in ll. 35-36.
11. Theo travelled on 30 March to the Netherlands for his marriage to Jo on 18 April in Amsterdam. Immediately afterwards, they left for Brussels, where they spent their one-day honeymoon, returning on Saturday, 20 April to Paris. See Brief happiness 1999, pp. 27, 240 (n. 1) and letter 762.