Laeken,1 Nov. 1878

My dear Theo,
On the evening of the day we spent together,2 which for me passed as if in a twinkling, I want to write to you after all. It was a great joy for me to see and talk to you again, and it’s fortunate that such a day that passes in a twinkling and a joy of such short duration nevertheless remains in our memory, and that the remembrance of it is of a lasting nature. After we’d taken leave of each other I walked back, not the shortest way but along Trekweg.3 There are workshops of all kinds there that look pleasant, especially lit up in the evening, which also speak in their own way to us who are, after all, labourers and workers, each in the sphere and in the work whereunto we have been called,4 if only we care to listen, for they say, work while it is day, before the night cometh, when no man can work,5 and they remind us that the Father worketh hitherto, and that we too must work.6
It was the very moment when the street-sweepers were coming home with their carts with old white horses, there was a long line of those carts standing by the so-called sludge works7 at the beginning of Trekweg. Some of those old white horses resemble a certain old aquatint that you perhaps know, an engraving with no very great artistic value but which nevertheless struck me and made an impression on me. I mean the last of the series of prints titled ‘The life of a horse’.8 That print depicts an old white horse, emaciated and spent and worn out to death by a long life of heavy labour and much and difficult work. The poor animal stands in an indescribably lonely and forsaken place, a plain with lank, withered grass and here and there a twisted tree, bent and cracked by the storm wind. On the ground lies a skull and in the distance, in the background, the bleached skeleton of a horse lying next to a hut, where the man who slaughters horses lives.
A stormy sky hangs over the whole, it’s a foul and bleak day, sombre and dark weather. It’s a sorrowful and profoundly melancholy scene that must move everyone who knows and feels that we, too, must one day go through that which we call dying, and that at the end of human life there are tears or grey hair.9 What lies beyond is a great mystery that God alone comprehends, who has however revealed this irrefutably in His word, that there is a resurrection of the dead.10
The poor horse — the old faithful servant, stands patient and submissive, but courageous nonetheless and as resolute, as it were, as the old guard who said ‘the guard dies but does not surrender’11 — waits for its final hour. I couldn’t help thinking of that print this evening when I saw those dust-cart horses. And now, as far as the drivers themselves are concerned, with their dirty, dingy clothes, they seemed to be sunk or rooted in poverty almost more deeply than that long row or rather group of poor people drawn by master Degroux in his paupers’ pew.12 Write and tell me if you know that print. I’d like to speak to the dustmen, if they would only come and sit in the paupers’ pew and consider it worthwhile to come and hear about the gospel and the lot of the poor and God, too, their Keeper and their Shade upon their right hand.13 You see, it always strikes me and it is remarkable, when we see the image of unutterable and indescribable forsakenness — of loneliness — of poverty and misery, the end of things or their extremity — the thought of God comes to mind. At least this is the case with me, and doesn’t Pa also say: There is no place I would rather speak than a cemetery, for there we are all on equal ground — there we not only stand on equal ground but there we also feel that we are standing on equal ground, and elsewhere we don’t always feel that.
I’m glad that we saw the museum14 together, especially the works by Degroux15 and Leys16 and so many other remarkable paintings, such as that landscape by Coosemans,17 among others. I’m very happy about the two prints you gave me, but you should have let me give you that small etching, The three mills.18 Now you’ve paid it all yourself, not just half of it as I had so wished — you must keep it in your scrapbook, however, because it’s remarkable, even though it isn’t very well executed. In my ignorance I’d think it attributable to Peasant Bruegel rather than to Velvet Brueghel.19 I hereby enclose that scratch, ‘The Au charbonnage café’.20 I should really rather like to start making rough sketches of some of the many things one meets along the way, but considering I wouldn’t actually do it very well and it would most likely keep me from my real work, it’s better I don’t begin. As soon as I got home I began working on a sermon on ‘the barren fig tree’, Luke XIII:6-9.  1v:2
I sincerely hope that you’ll have had good days at home, that you also will have stayed over Sunday and found things well at Princenhage.21
When you arrive home in The Hague write a quick note if you can find the time, and be sure to give my warm regards to the Rooses.
That little drawing, ‘The Au charbonnage café’ is really nothing special, but the reason I couldn’t help making it is because one sees so many coalmen, and they really are a remarkable people. This little house is not far from Trekweg, it’s actually a simple inn right next to the big workplace where the workers come in their free time to eat their bread and drink a glass of beer.
Back during my time in England I applied for a position as an evangelist among the coal-miners, but they brushed my request aside and said I had to be at least 25 years old.22 You surely know that one of the root or fundamental truths, not only of the gospel but of the entire Bible, is ‘the light that dawns in the darkness’. From darkness to Light.23 Well then, who will most certainly need it, who will have an ear to hear it? Experience has taught us that those who work in darkness, in the heart of the earth like the mine-workers in the black coal-mines, among others, are very moved by the message of the gospel and also believe it. In the south of Belgium, in Hainaut, from around the area of Mons to the French borders24 and even extending far beyond them, there is a region called the Borinage, where there is one of those populations of labourers who work in the many coal-mines. I found this and other things about them in a geography book:25 The Borins (people who live in the Borinage, an area west of Mons) do nothing but mine coal. They’re an impressive sight, these coal-mines, opened up 300 metres underground, down which a working population worthy of our respect and sympathy descends every day. The coal-miner is a type peculiar to the Borinage; daylight hardly exists for him, and he scarcely enjoys the sun’s rays except on Sunday. He works with great difficulty by the light of a lamp whose illumination is pale and feeble, in a narrow gallery, his body bent double, and sometimes forced to crawl; his work is to pull from the earth’s entrails this mineral substance whose great usefulness we know, he thus works in the midst of a thousand constantly recurring dangers, but the Belgian foreman has a cheerful character, he’s used to this way of life, and when he goes down the pit, his hat topped with a little lamp whose job is to guide him in the darkness, he entrusts himself to his God Who sees his labours and Who protects him, his wife and his children. His clothing consists of a hat of boiled leather, a jacket and a pair of canvas trousers. So the Borinage lies to the south of Lessines,26 where one finds the stone-quarries.
I should like to go there as an evangelist. The three-month trial period set by Messrs De Jonge and the Rev. Pieterszen is nearly over.27 Paul spent three years in Arabia before he became active as a preacher and began his great missionary journeys and his actual work among the heathens.28 If I could spend three years or so in a similar region, working in peace and always learning and observing, then I wouldn’t return from there without having something to say that is indeed worth hearing;29 I say this in all humility yet with frankness. If God wills it and spares my life,30 I’d be ready by about the age of 30 and could begin, with my special training and experience, having more mastery of my affairs and more maturity for the work than I do now. I’m writing this to you again, even though we’ve already talked about it. There are already a number of small Protestant congregations in the Borinage, and certainly schools as well, may God point me to a place where I can be active as an evangelist in the way we spoke about, by preaching the gospel to the poor, thus to those who have need of it and for whom it is suited to perfection, and devoting my time during the week to teaching.  1v:3
You’ve no doubt been to Saint-Gilles.31 I once took a walk from there to the ‘old boundary mark’. Where the road to Mont Saint Jean begins there’s another hill, the Alsemberg. Here, on the right, is the cemetery of Saint-Gilles, full of cedars and ivy, from which one can look out over the city. Further on one comes to Forest. The region is very picturesque there, standing on the high slopes are old houses like the huts in the dunes that Bosboom painted.32 One sees people doing all kinds of farm work, sowing wheat, lifting potatoes, washing turnips, and everything, right down to wood-gathering, is picturesque and looks very much like Montmartre.
There are old houses with ivy or Virginia creeper and charming inns, among the houses I noticed was that of a mustard-maker, one Verkissen.33 His place would be perfect for a painting by Thijs Maris, for example. There are places here and there where stones are found and therefore small quarries to which sunken roads with the deep ruts of cart tracks lead, where one sees small white horses with red tassels and drivers with blue smocks, and the shepherd is not lacking, nor old women in black with white caps reminiscent of those by Degroux. There are also places here — as there are everywhere, for that matter, thank God — where one feels at home more than elsewhere, where one gets a remarkable, familiar feeling like homesickness, which has something bitterly melancholy about it but which nevertheless strengthens and awakens the spirit in us and gives us new strength and appetite for work and stimulates us, we know not how or why. That day I walked on, past Forest, and took a side road to an old church34 overgrown with ivy. I saw many lime trees, even more entwined with one another and even more Gothic, so to speak, than those we saw in the park, and at the side of the sunken road leading to the cemetery twisted bushes and the roots of trees, as gnarled as those Dürer etched in ‘Knight, Death and the Devil’.35 Have you ever seen a painting, or rather a photo of it, by Carlo Dolci, The Garden of Olives?36 There’s something Rembrandtesque about it, saw it recently. You no doubt know the large, rough etching of the same subject after Rembrandt,37 being the pendant of the other, Reading the Bible, with those two women and the cradle.38 It came to mind after you told me that you had seen the painting by père Corot of the same subject; I saw it at the exhibition of his work shortly after he died,39 and it moved me deeply.
How much there is in art that is beautiful, if only one can remember what one has seen, one is never empty or truly lonely, and never alone.
Adieu Theo, I shake your hand right heartily in thought, I wish you well, may you thrive in your work and encounter many good things on your path in life, such as stay in the memory and make us rich though we seemingly have nothing.40 If you see Borchers sometime, be so good as to tell him that I thank him very much for his letter of some time ago. If you go to Mauve’s, give him my regards, and believe me

Your loving brother

I kept this letter for a couple of days. 15 Nov. has passed, so the three months are up. Spoke with the Rev. De Jonge and with Master Bokma,41 they say there is no opportunity to be at the school under the same conditions they offer to native Flemings — I can attend the lessons, for free if necessary — but this is the only privilege — in order to stay, therefore, I would need to have more financial means at my disposal than I do now, which is none. So I’ll probably soon try the Borinage plan.42 Once out of the city I shan’t easily return to a big city. It wouldn’t be easy to live without believing in Him and without having the faith of old43 in Him, and without that one would lose heart.


Br. 1990: 147 | CL: 126
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Laken, on or about Wednesday, 13 and Friday, 15 or Saturday, 16 November 1878

1. Laken – spelled Laeken in French – is a suburb to the north of Brussels. Van Gogh boarded with the family of Pieter Jacobus Plugge who lived at 6 Chemin de Halage (Trekweg in Dutch). Plugge was a member of the church council of the church at Kathelijneplaats (place Sainte-Catherine), where the training college was then located. See Lutjeharms 1978, pp. 83, 105. Pieter Jozef Chrispeels, one of Van Gogh’s fellow students, recalled the strict regimen Vincent imposed on himself: in his lodgings at the Plugges’ he refused to use the bed, preferring to sleep on the floor, on the carpet next to his bed. See Verzamelde brieven 1973, vol. 1, pp. 180-182, and cf. Plan guide de Bruxelles & de ses faubourgs, novembre 1869 (SAB, Plan 102).
2. Probably ‘a couple of days’ before 15 November (see Date). After his work for Goupil at the World Exhibition in Paris, Theo returned to the Netherlands, stopping off to see Vincent on his way to Etten.
3. This path ran alongside the Willebroek Canal, ending in boulevard d’Anvers. Barges laden with coal moored at the Steenkoolkaai and the Koolmijnenkaai, which lay at the end of Trekweg. The gasworks beside the Willebroek Canal used coke to produce gas, and employed numerous coal-porters to carry the sacks of coal.
7. The 16-page brochure Entreprise de la ferme des boues. Cahier des charges (adopté en séance du conseil communal, le 10 novembre 1866) gives a detailed description of the sanitation services performed by this firm. The first article reports: ‘L’Entreprise de la ferme des boues’ (sludge works) has as its purpose the cleaning and spraying of the public highways, the emptying of cesspools and, in general, everything concerned with municipal sanitation’ (SAB 2903 83). It was located at the quai de la Voirie, near the Willebroek Canal (SAB 6217-6224).
8. This most likely refers to the last print in the series La vie d’un cheval (The life of a horse), titled Montfaucon, after Hippolyte Lecomte. It is mentioned in the Catalogue du fonds Goupil et Vibert (c. 1848), but has not been traced. Van Gogh showed an interest in this motif: he later drew Old nag (F 1032 / JH 368 [2441]) and spoke of the Flat-bottomed fishing boat on the beach by Anton Mauve and the Old white horse by Herman J. van der Weele.
[145] [2441]
9. The source of this statement has not been found.
10. Biblical; cf., for instance, Matt. 22:31.
11. It is a matter of some dispute as to who uttered these heroic words: General Pierre Jacques Etienne Cambronne or General Claude Etienne Michel. This remark – famous in France – which was made at Waterloo, is treated in detail in Pierre Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel du xixe siècle. Paris 1867, vol. 3, pp. 203-204.
12. Three versions are known of Charles Degroux’s The paupers’ pew: a painting of 1854 (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, acquired in 1930). Ill. 134 [134]. In 1869, Uncle Vincent van Gogh bought the watercolour The paupers’ pew (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts). A third version was exhibited in 1849 and 1850 (present whereabouts unknown). See exhib. cat. Ypres 1995, pp. 117-118, cat. nos. 143-145. Antoine Marie Eusèbe Voncken made a lithograph, published by B. Vanderkolck (Brussels, Prentenkabinet of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek). Ill. 1880 [1880].
[134] [1880]
14. The Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Musée des Beaux-Arts) in Brussels.
15. The works exhibited by Charles Degroux were Franciscus Junius secretly preaching the Reformation at Antwerp (1860); The drunkard [139] (c. 1853); The pilgrimage of Saint Guido at Anderlecht [140] (c. 1856-1857); Saying grace [135] (c. 1860); The conscript’s departure [138] (c. 1869-1870) and Head of an old woman (presumably lost or destroyed). See cat. Brussels 1984, pp. 255-258.
[130] [139] [140] [135] [138] [131]
[132] [134] [135]
17. As far as is known, Joseph Coosemans’s The artists’ path at Barbizon, 1878 (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts) was not purchased until 1889, so the brothers might have seen this landscape elsewhere – at Goupil’s, for example.
18. The three windmills (1772) by Balthasar Anton Duncker and Jean Philippe Le Bas after Jan Brueghel the Elder (H7) (Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet). Ill. 654 [654].
19. Pieter Bruegel the Elder was known as Peasant Bruegel, and Jan Brueghel the Elder as Velvet Brueghel. Below the print is written ‘Peint par Breugels de Velours’ (painted by the Velvet Brueghel).
20. The small drawing Café Au charbonnage (F Juv. XXXI/ JH Juv. 9).On the verso appear exercises in Greek pronouns, which Van Gogh probably did back in Amsterdam. See cat. Amsterdam 1996, pp. 66-68, cat. no. 11.
21. Uncle Vincent and Aunt Cornelie lived in Princenhage.
22. See letter 85, in which Van Gogh wrote that one had to be 24 years old to be an evangelist ‘among the workers and the poor’ in London.
a. For ‘wortelwaarheid’ (root-truth), see the word ‘wortelstelling’ (proposition) in letter 190.
24. The province of Hainaut, the capital of which is Bergen (Mons).
25. The first line of this quotation seems to have been taken from Emmanuel Soudan, Petite description géographique du globe, au point de vue belge, Ghent 1854, p. 28. Most of the fragment was copied almost literally from Adolphe Siret, Récits historiques Belges, Brussels 1855, pp. 217-218. See Bart Moens, ‘Van Gogh in Brussels: a little-known but decisive stage in his early development as an artist’, in exhib. cat. Mons 2015, p. 117, n. 11 and 12. It was also cited in A. Anthelme Fritz, Esquisse d’une nouvelle Géographie de la Belgique..., Deuxième édition, Brussels 1860, pp. 45, 49-50; and in A. Anthelme Fritz, La Belgique physique, politique, industrielle et commerciale..., Brussels 1864, pp. 45, 49-50. With thanks to Dominique Guillet.
26. Lessines is in the Flemish Ardennes on the River Dendre, some 30 km south-west of Brussels.
27. Little is known of these three months in Brussels. On 12 September 1878, Mr van Gogh informed Theo: ‘Also a good letter from Vincent. He is working hard, attending classes at the training college from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, and sometimes until 8 o’clock at night. Last Sunday he was in Mechelen and Lier and held a Bible class there in the afternoon, and he has been invited back for two following Sundays.
He has not yet given any details about those classes. I am rather curious. He writes that he still feels like a cat in a strange warehouse. It could hardly be otherwise! May this lead to something lasting, however’
(FR b2437).
A month later Mr van Gogh was less optimistic. Vincent’s social ineptness prompted him to remark sceptically: ‘Is it any wonder that we worry? Oh, how much we worry still about Vincent! He appears not to want to shed that eccentricity, regards his clothing and appearance as well, and it will, I think, make things impossible for him. I do not hear others’ opinion of him and I can’t bring myself to ask about it again. His letters do contain interesting news, but will he reach his goal?’ (FR b2440, to Theo, 14 October 1878).
29. This analogy is also expressed in Juweeltjes uit de gedachten van C.H. Spurgeon: ‘The preaching of Paul must also be the preaching of the evangelist today’ (6th ed. Rotterdam n.d., p. 37). Görlitz, Van Gogh’s roommate in Dordrecht, said that he often saw Van Gogh reading Juweeltjes (cf. letter 104, n. 2).
31. Saint-Gilles is a district in the south-west part of Brussels, south of Bruxelles Midi (Brussels South) railway station. ‘Ancien barrière’ likely refers to the Barrière Ancien Porte de Hal. At that time there was also a ‘Barrière’ at the fork of the Chaussée de Waterloo and the Chaussée d’Alsemberg – a map of Brussels in 1870 shows various toll-gates, including one near St Antoine. The cemetery of Saint-Gilles was (and still is) located behind the Chaussée d’Alsemberg. The ‘road to Mont Saint Jean’ is the road to Waterloo.
32. Johannes Bosboom made a number of dune landscapes, mostly in watercolour. Cf. Marius and Martin 1917, pp. 146-147.
33. François Antoine Verkissen, registered as a ‘mustard merchant’, lived at Chaussée de Waterloo 117 in Saint-Gillis. (GASG).
b. ‘Gedoente’ means the house and everything around it.
34. This refers to the Chemin de Vossegat, which leads to the 12th-century ‘Kapel van Stalle’ (Notre-Dame de Bon Secours). It is now in Stallestraat, Ukkel.
35. Albrecht Dürer, Ritter, Tod und Teufel (Knight, Death and the Devil), 1513 (H74) (Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet). Ill. 1882 [1882].
36. Van Gogh probably saw a photograph or photogravure after the painting by Carlo Dolci, Christ in the Garden of Olives, c. 1643 (Genua, Palazzo Bianco, acquired in 1874). Ill. 780 [780]. A painting formerly attributed to Dolci, Christ in the Garden of Olives (Florence, Galleria Palatina), is now described as ‘Scuola fiorentina’. See Francesca Baldassari, Carlo Dolci. Torino 1995, pp. 77-78, cat. no. 42.
37. Rembrandt, Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, c. 1657 (B75) (Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet). Ill. 1883 [1883].
39. On Corot’s Christ on the Mount of Olives [1705], which Van Gogh had seen in May 1875, see letter 34, nn. 1 and 2. Corot was also called ‘le père Corot’. See Blanc 1876, p. 377.
41. The head of the training college at this time was Dirk Rochus Bokma of Friesland. In his capacity as director, he was responsible for the curriculum and the supervision of the students. Enrolled at the same time as Van Gogh were Pieter Jozef Chrispeels, Pieter Jozef Wauters, Willem vander Haeghen and Andries van Trijffel. Felix Chrispeels attended classes part-time in 1878. See Lutjeharms 1978 and Fagel, ‘Van Gogh in Brussel’, pp. 23-27.
42. Having failed to receive a study grant, Van Gogh now left to take up a six-month position as an evangelist in the Borinage, the mining district of Belgium.