Back to site

804 To Willemien van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 19 September 1889.

metadata
No. 804 (Brieven 1990 805, Complete Letters W14)
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Willemien van Gogh
Date: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 19 September 1889

Source status
Original manuscript

Location
Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, inv. no. b714 V/1962

Date
On the basis of Vincent’s remark that he has ‘just’ received a letter from Theo (ll. 124-125) – this was letter 802 of 18 September – we have dated the present letter to Thursday, 19 September 1889.

Additional
Enclosed with letter 803 to Mrs van Gogh.

Ongoing topics
Cor’s departure for South Africa (784)
Vincent has paintings intended for his mother and Willemien (803)
Vincent’s suggestion that he live with Pissarro (801)

original text
 1r:1
Ma chère soeur,
déjà plus d’une fois j’ai essayé – dans l’intervalle depuis ma dernière lettre1 – de t’écrire à toi et à la mère. Je te remercie donc de m’avoir encore ecrit une si bonne lettre.2 Que je vous donne raison à toutes les deux la mère et toi d’avoir quitté Breda pour quelque temps3 après le départ de Cor.– Certes il ne faut pas que le chagrin s’amasse dans notre coeur comme l’eau d’une mare trouble.– Parfois je me sens interieurement ainsi, comme ayant l’ame bien troublée mais cela c’est une maladie et pour des personnes se portant bien et agissantes certes il faut faire comme vous avez faites.
Ainsi que je l’ecris à la mère4 je lui enverrai mettons dans à peu près un mois un tableau et il y en aura un pour toi aussi.
J’en ai peint quelques uns pour moi-même aussi dans ces dernieres semaines – je n’aime pas trop à voir dans ma chambre à coucher mes propres tableaux donc j’en ai copié un de Delacroix5 et quelques uns de Millet.6
Le Delacroix est une piéta c.à.d. un Christ mort avec la Mater dolorosa. A l’entrée d’une grotte git incliné, les mains en avant sur le côté gauche, le cadavre épuisé et la femme se tient derrière. C’est une soirée après l’orages et cette figure desolée vêtue de bleu se détache – ses vêtements flottants agités par le vent – contre un ciel où flottent des nuages violets bordés d’or. Elle aussi par un grand geste désesperé etend les bras vides en avant et on voit ses mains, des bonnes mains solides d’ouvrière. Avec ses vetements flottants cette figure est presqu’aussi large d’envergure que haute. Et le visage du mort étant dans l’ombre, la tete pâle de la femme se detache en clair contre un nuage – opposition qui fait que ces deux têtes paraitraient une fleur sombre avec une fleur pâle, arrangées exprès pour se faire valoir. Je ne savais pas ce qu’était devenu ce tableau mais précisément pendant que j’étais en train d’y travailler je tombe sur un article de Pierre Loti, l’auteur de mon frère Yves et des Pêcheurs d’Islande et de Mme Chrysanthème.7
Un article de lui sur Carmen Sylva.8
 1v:2
Si j’ai bonne mémoire tu as lu ses poesies. C’est une reine – est elle reine de la Hongrie ou d’un autre pays (je l’ignore) et Loti en decrivant son boudoir, ou plutot son atelier où elle écrit et où elle fait de la peinture, en parle qu’il y a vu cette toile de Delacroix en question, ce qui le frappa beaucoup.9
Il parle de Carmen Sylva en faisant sentir qu’elle est personellement encore plus intéressante que ses paroles quoi qu’elle dise des chôses comme ceci: Une femme sans enfant c’est une cloche sans battant – le son de l’airain serait peut être bien beau – mais – ...10
Cependant cela fait du bien de songer qu’une telle toile soit dans de telle mains et cela console un peu les peintres de pouvoir s’imaginer que reellement il y a des ames qui sentent les tableaux.
Mais il y en a relativement peu.–
J’y ai pensé de t’envoyer à toi une esquisse de cela pour te donner une idée de ce qu’est Delacroix. Cette petite copie n’a bien entendu aucune valeur sous aucun point de vue.11 Tu pourras pourtant y voir que Delacroix ne dessine pas les traits d’une mater Dolorosa à la façon des statues romaines –
et que l’aspect blafard, le regard eperdu et vague d’une personne fatiguée d’être en angoisse et en pleurs et en veilles y est à la Germinie Lacerteux plutôt.12
Je trouve fort bien et fort heureux que tu ne sois pas absolument enthousiaste du livre magistral de de Goncourt. Tant mieux que tu préfères Tolstoi, toi qui lis surtout les livres pour y puiser des energies pour agir. Je te donne mille fois raison.
Mais moi qui lis les livres pour y chercher l’artiste qui l’a fait,13 aurais je tort de tant aimer les romanciers francais.
Je viens de terminer le portrait d’une femme d’une bonne quarantaine d’années, insignifiante. le visage fané et fatigué, marqué de la petite vérole, un teint olivâtre et hâlé, cheveux noirs.
Une robe noire fanée ornee d’un geranium rose tendre et le fond d’un ton neutre entre le rose et le vert.14
 1v:3
Parceque je peins quelquefois des chôses comme cela – aussi peu et autant dramatiques qu’un brin d’herbe poudreux au bord de la route – il est juste à ce qu’il me semble que j’aie moi une admiration sans bornes pour de Goncourt, Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, Huysmans. Mais pour toi ne te presse pas et continue hardiment les Russes. As tu déjà lu ma religion de Tolstoi15 – cela doit être très pratique et reellement utile. Va donc bien à fond là-dedans puisque tu aimes cela.
J’ai dernierement fait deux portraits de moi dont l’un est je crois assez dans le caractère16 mais en Hollande ils s’en moqueraient probablement des idees qui germent ici quant aux portraits. As tu vu chez Theo le portrait du peintre Guillaumin et le portrait de jeune femme par le même.17 Cela donne bien une idee de ce que l’on cherche. Lorsque Guillaumin exposait son portrait, public et artistes en ont beaucoup ri,18 et cependant c’est une des chôses rares qui se tiendraient à côté des vieux Hollandais Rembrandt et Hals mêmes.
Je trouve toujours les photographies affreuses moi et je n’aime pas à en avoir, surtout pas des gens que je connais et que j’aime.
Ces portraits-là d’abord sont fanés plus vite que nous mêmes tandis que durant bien des générations le portrait peint reste. Un portrait peint d’ailleurs est une chôse sentie faite avec amour ou respect de l’être représenté. Que nous reste-t-il des vieux Hollandais? les portraits.
Ainsi dans la famille de Mauve les enfants le verront encore toujours dans le portrait que Mesker a très bien fait de lui.19
Je viens au moment même de recevoir une lettre de Théo dans laquelle il me répond au sujet de ce que je lui avais dit de mon desir de retourner pour un temps dans le nord.20 Il est assez probable que cela se fera, dire au juste quand, cela dépend encore  1r:4 des occasions qu’il y aurait d’aller vivre avec un artiste ou un autre.
Mais comme nous en connaissons plusieurs et que souvent il est avantageux de vivre à deux, cela ne tardera pas.
Enfin je te dis à bientôt en te remerciant encore beaucoup de tes lettres.
Je ne sais encore quels toiles je t’enverrai à toi et à la mère, probablement un champ de blé et un verger d’oliviers avec cette copie d’après Delacroix.21
Il fait un temps splendide dehors depuis bien longtemps, pourtant, je ne sais pourquoi, je ne suis sorti de ma chambre de deux mois.22
Il me faudrait du courage et j’en manque souvent.
Et c’est aussi que depuis ma maladie le sentiment de solitude s’empare de moi dans les champs d’une façon si redoutable que j’hésite à sortir. Avec le temps cela changera cependant encore. Ce n’est que devant le chevalet en peignant que je sens un peu de vie.–
Enfin cela changera encore car ma santé va tellement bien que le physique gagnera encore la partie.
Je t’embrasse bien en pensée et à bientôt.

t. à t.
Vincent

translation
 1r:1
My dear sister,
More than once already I’ve tried – in the interval since my last letter1 – to write to you and to Mother. So I thank you for having again written me such a kind letter.2 How right I think both of you were, Mother and you, to have left Breda for a while3 after Cor’s departure. Certainly grief mustn’t build up in our hearts like the water of a turbid pool. From time to time I feel like that inside, as if I have a very turbid soul, but that’s an illness, and for people who are well and active, certainly they must do as you have done.
As I write to Mother4 I’ll send her a painting in let’s say around a month, and there’ll be one for you too.
I’ve painted a few for myself, too, these past few weeks – I don’t much like seeing my own paintings in my bedroom, so I’ve copied one by Delacroix5 and a few by Millet.6
The Delacroix is a Pietà, i.e. a dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies bent forward on its left side at the entrance to a cave, its hands outstretched, and the woman stands behind. It’s an evening after the storm, and this desolate, blue-clad figure stands out – its flowing clothes blown about by the wind – against a sky in which violet clouds fringed with gold are floating. In a great gesture of despair she too is stretching out her empty arms, and one can see her hands, a working woman’s good, solid hands. With its flowing clothes this figure is almost as wide in extent as it’s tall. And as the dead man’s face is in shadow, the woman’s pale head stands out brightly against a cloud – an opposition which makes these two heads appear to be a dark flower with a pale flower, arranged expressly to bring them out better. I didn’t know what had become of this painting, but while I was in the very process of working on it I came across an article by Pierre Loti, the author of Mon frère Yves and Pêcheur d’Islande and Madame Chrysanthème.7
An article by him on Carmen Sylva.8  1v:2
If I remember rightly, you’ve read her poems. She’s a queen – she’s queen of Hungary or another country (I don’t know which), and in describing her boudoir, or rather her studio where she writes and where she makes paintings, Loti says that he saw this Delacroix canvas there, which struck him greatly.9
He speaks of Carmen Sylva, making one feel that she’s personally even more interesting than her words, although she says things like this: A woman without a child is a bell without a clapper – the sound of the bronze would perhaps be very beautiful – but — ...10
However, it does one good to think that a canvas like that is in such hands, and it consoles painters a little to be able to imagine that really there are souls who have a feeling for paintings.
But there are relatively few of them.
I thought of sending you yourself a sketch of it to give you an idea of what Delacroix is. This little copy of course has no value from any point of view.11 However, you’ll be able to see in it that Delacroix doesn’t draw the features of a Mater Dolorosa in the manner of Roman statues –
And that the pallid aspect, the lost, vague gaze of a person tired of being in anguish and in tears and keeping vigil is present in it rather in the manner of Germinie Lacerteux.12
I consider it very good and very fortunate that you’re not absolutely enthusiastic about De Goncourt’s masterly book. So much the better that you prefer Tolstoy, you who read books above all to derive energies from them in order to act. I think you’re right a thousand times over.
But I, who read books to seek in them the artist who made them,13 could I be wrong to like French novelists so much?
I’ve just finished the portrait of a woman of forty or more, insignificant. The face faded and tired, pockmarked, an olive-tinged, suntanned complexion, black hair.
A faded black dress adorned with a soft pink geranium, and the background in a neutral tone between pink and green.14  1v:3
Because I sometimes paint things like that – with as little and as much drama as a dusty blade of grass by the side of the road – it’s right, as it seems to me, that I should have an unbounded admiration for De Goncourt, Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, Huysmans. But as regards yourself, don’t hurry, and continue boldly with the Russians. Have you read Ma religion by Tolstoy15 yet – it must be very practical and really useful. So go right to the very depths of that, since you like it.
Lately I’ve done two portraits of myself, one of which is quite in character, I think,16 but in Holland they’d probably scoff at the ideas about portraits that are germinating here. Did you see at Theo’s the portrait of the painter Guillaumin and the portrait of a young woman by the same?17 That really gives an idea of what one is searching for. When Guillaumin exhibited his portrait, public and artists laughed at it a great deal,18 and yet it’s one of the rare things that would hold up alongside even the old Dutchmen Rembrandt and Hals.
I myself still find photographs frightful and don’t like to have any, especially not of people whom I know and love.
These portraits, first, are faded more quickly than we ourselves, while the painted portrait remains for many generations. Besides, a painted portrait is a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being represented. What remains to us of the old Dutchmen? The portraits.
Thus in Mauve’s family the children will always continue to see him in the portrait that Mesker did so very well of him.19
At this very moment I’ve just received a letter from Theo in which he answers me on the subject of what I’d said of my desire to return to the north for a while.20 It’s quite likely that this will happen, to say exactly when, that still depends  1r:4 on the opportunities there may be to go and live with some artist or another.
But as we know several of them and it’s often advantageous to live in pairs, it won’t take long.
Finally, I say ‘à bientôt’ to you, thanking you again very much for your letters.
I don’t know yet which canvases I’ll send to you and Mother, probably a wheatfield and an olive grove with that copy after Delacroix.21
The weather outside has been splendid for a very long time, but I haven’t left my room for two months, I don’t know why.22
I would need courage, and I often lack it.
And it’s also that since my illness the feeling of loneliness takes hold of me in the fields in such a fearsome way that I hesitate to go out. With time, though, that will change again. It’s only in front of the easel while painting that I feel a little of life.
Anyway, that will change again, for my health is so good that the physique will win the day again.
I kiss you affectionately in thought, and more soon.

Ever yours,
Vincent
notes
1. The last letter to Willemien was letter 785 of 2 July 1889.
2. Willemien had written to Vincent between 8 and 12 September (FR b2931).
3. Willemien had been staying in Middelharnis, and Mrs van Gogh in Princenhage (FR b2902, b2931).
4. The letter to Mrs van Gogh is letter 803.
5. Van Gogh painted two versions of Pietà (after Delacroix), F 630 / JH 1775 and F 757 / JH 1776 , after the lithograph by Nanteuil-Leboeuf after Delacroix’s Pietà (for the lithograph, see letter 686, n. 3). The canvas he describes here, which he made for his bedroom, is F 630.
6. Letter 805 to Theo reveals that these paintings are copies after the series The labours of the field , consisting of ten prints on one sheet, engraved by Adrien Lavieille (see letter 156, n. 1). Here Van Gogh mentions ‘a few’ copies (in letter 805 he meanwhile has seven). Because he most likely kept to the order of the prints, the ‘few’ mentioned here were probably the first of the series (for the prints and Van Gogh’s paintings after them, see letter 805, n. 6).
7. Pierre Loti’s novel Mon frère Yves (1883) is the story of the friendship between the first-person narrator, Pierre, and his friend Yves, both sailors. Pierre is an officer and can therefore protect Yves, who has inherited his father’s tendency to drink too much. This weakness causes problems on board ship and in Yves’s young family. Pierre’s support is crucial, and eventually Yves mends his ways. Willemien probably read this book because Vincent mentioned it here; on 19 October 1889, she wrote to Jo van Gogh-Bonger that she had enjoyed it very much (FR b2404).
For Loti’s Pêcheur d’Islande, see letter 714, n. 3, and for Madame Chrysanthème, see letter 628, n. 20.
8. The article ‘Carmen Sylva’ by Pierre Loti was published in Le Figaro, Supplément Littéraire of 28 April 1888; the second part appeared on 5 May. Van Gogh took his information from the first part.
9. Loti gives a detailed description of the boudoir of the Romanian queen. Commenting on Delacroix’s painting, Loti said: ‘When she was seated at her work, I could see, from the spot she had indicated to me on the first day, and which it was my habit to resume, her face and her veil standing out in front of a large, superb canvas by Delacroix: the entombment of Christ. And always, sitting on either side of her, the young girls in oriental dress, completing this picture that I should like to have painted.’ (Lorsqu’elle était assise à travailler, de la place qu’elle m’avait indiquée le premier jour et que j’avais coutume de reprendre, je voyais son visage et son voile se détacher en avant d’une grande et superbe toile de Delacroix: la mise au tombeau du Christ. Et toujours, de chaque côté d’elle, assises, les jeunes filles au costume oriental, complétant ce tableau que j’aurais voulu peindre).
10. Loti quotes the saying that a house without a child is like a bell without a clapper. The passage comes from Carmen Sylva, Les pensées d’une reine (The thoughts of a queen): ‘A house without children is like a bell without a clapper. The dormant sound would surely be very beautiful, if there were something to awaken it!’ (Une maison sans enfants est comme une cloche sans battant. Le son qui dort serait bien beau, s’il y avait quelque chose pour le réveiller!) See Sylva 1888, p. 45 (‘L’amour’).
11. The ‘little copy’ is Pietà (after Delacroix) (F 757 / JH 1776 ); the canvas measures 42 x 34 cm. Van Gogh painted this ‘sketch’ first, as emerges from letter 801. It did eventually come into Willemien’s possession (see also n. 21 below).
12. For the novel Germinie Lacerteux by Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, see letter 574, n. 5. Germinie’s sad appearance, which Van Gogh compares with that of his model, is expressed in the following passage, among others: ‘the whiteness of her back, contrasting with the brown of her face. It was the whiteness of lethargy, the whiteness, both sickly and angelic, of flesh that is not alive.’ (la blancheur de son dos, contrastant avec le hâle de son visage. C’était une blancheur de lymphatique, la blancheur à la fois malade et angélique d’une chair qui ne vit pas.) Ed. Paris 1887, chapter 5, p. 52. Cf. letter 685, n. 10 and Sund 1992, p. 292 (n. 91).
13. This idea is based on Zola’s Mon Salon; see letter 515, n. 11.
14. Van Gogh is referring to the first version of the portrait of Jeanne Trabuc, the 55-year-old wife of the chief orderly. He made a repetition of it and let Madame Trabuc choose between them (see letter 805). Only the portrait that was sent to Theo is known: Jeanne Trabuc (F 631 / JH 1777 ). Because we do not know if Theo received the first or the second version, we cannot tell whether the portrait he had is the one referred to here.
15. For Tolstoy’s Ma religion, see letter 686, nn. 10 and 20.
16. Self-portrait (F 626 / JH 1770 ) and Self-portrait (F 627 / JH 1772 ).
17. For Guillaumin’s Self-portrait with palette and Portrait of a young woman , see letter 800, n. 21.
18. It is not known where and when Guillaumin exhibited his portrait.
19. Theo Mesker, Anton Mauve, 1871 (present whereabouts unknown). Ill. 1143 . See Engel 1967, no. B1.
20. The letter to Theo was letter 802. This remark prompted Willemien to ask Theo on 2 October 1889: ‘Is Vincent perhaps coming to Paris again, he wrote that to me’ (FR b2401).
21. The consignment of paintings intended for his mother and Willemien, which Vincent sent to Theo in December, did contain canvases of a wheatfield and an olive grove, but not the copy after Delacroix. See letter 824. F 757 did eventually come into Willemien’s possession; see Account book 2002, p. 20.
22. Van Gogh had not been out of doors since his attack on 16 or 17 July 1889 (see letter 793, n. 1).