Wasmes, June 1879

My dear Theo,
It’s already rather late, i.e. nearly 12 o’clock, but I still want to write a few words to you today. First of all, because it was such a long time ago that I wrote to you — but old chap, what should I write to you? — am swamped with all kinds of work here, so that the days pass by, but often one doesn’t even have time to think or do things that would otherwise appeal to one.1 But what particularly compels me to write is what I heard from home, namely that they’ve offered to send you to Paris for 6 weeks.2 If you go there, you’ll pass by the Borinage. Wouldn’t you consider spending a day here, or longer if possible? I’d so much like you to know this country, because there’s so very much that’s unique to be noticed by those who look at things closely. Wouldn’t it be remarkable for someone who had never seen a seaside village to see Scheveningen or Katwijk3 or some other village? Well then — there’s no sea here, but the character of all things is interesting and worth getting to know. So should you feel the desire and are so inclined, and can find the time and opportunity, please stop over here, but write ahead of time when you’re coming and whereabouts I can find you, at which station and on which train.
I’ll give this letter to Ma when she comes, because in all likelihood I’ll be meeting her when she returns from Paris.4 Am eagerly longing to see her.
Fortunately for Uncle, the danger seems to have been averted5 for the time being.
What affected me deeply was hearing that Frans Soek died,6 I’d like to hear some particulars in the matter from you, if you happen to know anything, poor chap, life wasn’t easy for him, but rather quite a struggle.
We had a terrible storm here a couple of days ago, around 11 o’clock in the evening. There’s a place nearby where one can see in the distance, below, a large part of the Borinage, with the chimneys, mountains of coal, small workers’ houses, small black figures moving about during the day as though in an ants’ nest, in the far distance dark fir woods with small white workers’ houses in front of them, a couple of little towers in the distance, an old mill &c. Usually a sort of fog hangs over it, or else there’s the fanciful effect of light and shade owing to the shadows of clouds that remind one of paintings by Rembrandt or Michel or Ruisdael. But on the occasion of that storm in the pitch-black night, it was a special effect caused by the flashes of lightning that made everything visible just for a moment now and then. Nearby, the large, sombre buildings of the Marcasse mine,7 standing alone and set apart on the flat field, which that night, during the violent rains, truly reminded one of the hulk of Noah’s ark, as it would have appeared in the darkness of the Flood by the light of a lightning flash.8  1v:2 Inspired by the impression made by that storm, I included a description of a shipwreck in the Bible reading this evening.
Am currently reading Uncle Tom’s cabin9 a lot — there’s still so much slavery in the world — and in that astonishingly beautiful book this extremely momentous matter is treated with such wisdom, with a love and a zeal and interest in the genuine welfare of the poor and oppressed, that one can’t help coming back to it again and again and finding more in it each time.
I know no better definition of the word Art than this, ‘Art is man added to nature’,10 nature, reality, truth, but with a meaning, with an interpretation, with a character that the artist brings out and to which he gives expression, which he sets free, which he unravels, releases, elucidates.
A painting by Mauve or Maris or Israëls speaks more and more clearly than nature itself. So it is with books as well, and in Uncle Tom’s cabin in particular, things have been put in a new light by the artist, and thus in that book, even though it’s already beginning to be an old book, i.e. one written years ago, all things are made new.11 It’s so subtly felt, it’s so well worked out, it’s so masterly. It was written with so much love, so much seriousness and so faithful to the truth and with knowledge of the subject. It’s so humble and simple but at the same time so truly sublime, so noble and so distinguished.
Recently read a book about the English coal-mining district,12 but it didn’t give very many details. Herewith a woodcut for your scrapbook.
Lately made the acquaintance of someone who supervised the workers for years. Is of humble origins but worked his way up. Now he has a chest complaint, quite serious, and can no longer stand the terribly exhausting work down in the mine. It’s very important to hear him talk about the subject. He has always remained the workmen’s friend (in contrast to many others who worked their way up, not because of true distinction but because of money, driven by motives less noble and many times more base). He has a labourer’s heart, true and honest and courageous, but is far above most of them as regards intellectual development.
On more than one occasion during a strike, he was the only person who could exert any influence on the workers.
They would hear no one, they would listen to no one but him, and at the critical moment no one was obeyed but him alone. When I met him for the first time, I thought of the etching after Meissonier, with which you are familiar, The reader.13  1v:3
One of Denis’s boys is as good as engaged to his daughter, which is why he comes here to the house, though but seldom, and I made his acquaintance. Since then I’ve visited him a few times.14
Have you ever read Legouvé’s Les pères et les enfants,15 that’s a remarkable book, found it there in the house and read it with interest.
Received a letter a few days ago from the Rev. Jones of Isleworth in which he writes about the building of wooden churches here in the Borinage. Is it feasible? Is it desirable? He has a mind to work towards that goal, i.e. erecting the first of such buildings.
Even talks about coming over here sometime in the autumn to discuss the matter.
I truly wish that such a thing may come to pass.
Write a few words if you have time, and if you can, stop here on your way to Paris.16 In any event, let me know if possible on which train you’ll be passing through one of the railway stations in the vicinity of Wasmes, and which station, because I’ll do my best to be there.
Blessings on your work, and believe me ever

Your loving brother


Br. 1990: 151 | CL: 130
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Wasmes, on or about Thursday, 19 June 1879

1. Since January, Vincent had been working as an evangelist, giving Bible readings, teaching and visiting the sick. See letter 150, n. 2.
2. Theo had received an offer to work for Goupil in Paris for six weeks. On 28 May, Mr van Gogh had reacted with surprise to the news. A day later Theo discussed the matter with H.G. Tersteeg (FR b2480). Although his father was disappointed at the low salary, he encouraged him none the less (FR b2481 and b2482).
3. Katwijk is a fishing village to the north of Scheveningen.
a. Variant of ‘iewers’, which means ‘somewhere’. Otherwise used only in letter 149.
4. Mrs van Gogh went to Paris to visit Uncle Vincent, who was ill. She left Etten on 26 May and was back home on 2 July. She must therefore have visited Vincent in Mons at the end of June (FR b2478 and b2484). On 21 May, several days before her departure, she reported from Etten: ‘Vincent wrote that if I come he would do his best to make drawings of costumes and tools and bring them with him, he wrote. How happy I should be to see him and to have him here, just like he is, but he is lacking such a great deal, though he himself made this choice’ (FR b2476, to Theo).
5. It is possible that Van Gogh wrote ‘afgeweerd’ (warded off) instead of ‘afgewend’ (averted).
6. Frans Soek died shortly before 18 April 1879 (the Archives of the Paris Prefecture of Police has no information on foreigners residing in the city before 1900). Mrs van Gogh wrote on 18 April to Theo: ‘How heart-rending, that Soek, how young he was, how much his wife has lost, fortunately she’s a clever woman’ (FR b2467; also FR b2468-2469).
7. For the Marcasse, see letter 151, n. 2. Van Gogh had therefore walked in a north-westerly direction, towards Hornu-Petit-Wasmes.
8. An allusion to the story of Noah’s ark in the book of Genesis; cf. also Luke 17:24-27. Jean Baptiste Denis, in whose house Van Gogh lodged, recalled: ‘On a very hot day a violent storm was unleashed over our area. What did our friend do he went to stand in the middle of the fields to look at God’s great wonders and in that way coming back soaked to the skin.’ (Par un jour de fort chaleur un violan orage fut déchainer sur notre régions. Que fi notre ami il alla se placer en plain champs pour regardé les grandes merveilles du Dieu et ainsi revenant mouillé jusque os.) See Verzamelde brieven 1973, vol. 1, p. 226.
9. Uncle Tom’s cabin: or life among the lowly (1851-1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe was reprinted numerous times and became a huge success. It is the story of Uncle Tom, a black slave whose master – Mr Shelby, a Kentucky plantation owner – is forced to sell him owing to financial difficulties. The humble, devout, longsuffering Tom eventually ends up in the hands of a brutal plantation owner named Simon Legree, who treats him so badly that he dies.
10. This expression can be traced to a statement made by Francis Bacon in his Descriptio globi intellectualis (chapter 2): ‘Ars sive additus rebus Homo’, later also known in the version ‘Ars est homo, additus naturae’. See The works of Francis Bacon, vol. 3,2: Philosophical works. Ed. James Spedding et al. London 1887, p. 731. It is possible that Gogh knew the line – which was already well known in his day – through Charles Blanc, Grammaire des arts du dessin; it also occurs in the artists’ novel Manette Salomon (1867) by the Goncourt brothers, though it is not certain that Van Gogh had read these books by this time. See Blanc 1870, p. 18 and Goncourt 1996, chapter 154, p. 541. Van Gogh first mentions Blanc’s book in letter 454, and Manette Salomon only in letter 800.
12. It is not clear which book this refers to.
13. Various depictions of readers by Ernest Meissonier are known. Since Van Gogh speaks of an etching, it could be Le liseur (The reader) by Paul Adolphe Rajon after Meissonier, which was published by Boussod, Valadon & Cie. Ill. 1884 [1884]. Cf. Larroumet, Meissonier, p. 82 and Burty 1866, p. 86. It is also possible that the print derives from The reader in white, 1857 (Paris, Musée d’Orsay). In letter 686 he mentions the print by Jules Jacquemart, an engraving after Meissonier’s The reader, 1856 (Paris, BNF, Cabinet des Estampes). Ill. 249 [249]. Cf. also letter 686, n. 7, and Dorn 1990, p. 235 (n. 45).
[1884] [249]
14. Jean-Baptiste Denis had four sons, one of whom – Jean – married Palmyre Harmegnies on 16 July 1879. Her father, Jean-Baptiste Harmegnies, was the former mine foreman whom Van Gogh used to visit. He lived in rue du Coron in Dour (ACCD).
15. Two books by Ernest Legouvé were published under the collective title Les pères et les enfants au xixe siècle; the individual volumes were titled Enfance et adolescence (1867) and La jeunesse (1869). In both educational works (with imaginary conversations), Legouvé discusses in detail how to build up a good relationship, full of mutual understanding, between parents and children. The books were reprinted several times in the nineteenth century.
b. Meaning: ‘stap hier uit’ (stop off here), ‘Onderbreek je reis’ (interrupt your journey).
16. Although Vincent was looking forward to his brother’s visit, Theo did not go to Paris until October. On 2 July 1879, Mrs van Gogh gave Theo a frank account of her visit, told him about the last letter from Wasmes, and asked him to tell Vincent that his departure for Paris had been delayed: ‘A letter from Vincent this week, we continue to worry about him, poor chap. He felt such sorrow after our parting, as though it were for the first time but could also be the last time, he wrote shortly after my visit to him. Now there had been a meeting, however, but no one had said anything to him, though they did before, but those had been criticisms. We tell ourselves they want to wait and see, but if he doesn’t conform and adhere to the conventions, as requested, he cannot be appointed. If he would just get a grip on himself for once, how much could still be put to rights. Poor chap, what a difficult, young life with so little fulfilment and so much deprivation, what will become of him? Do write to him again, just tell him that I told you about him and his situation, his Bible-reading and the friendly reception the people gave him for his own sake, that if he yields on minor issues and forces himself to act, to live, and to learn to dress like a simple, ordinary person, he would indeed be able to earn his living being useful to others, giving us joy, visiting his family from time to time and making a good impression, letting his light shine for people, perhaps it would help. Rouse his good will and try to support him. Oh we know it all so well, and what will become of him? You must tell him you won’t be going to Paris until later’ (FR b2484). Mr van Gogh’s letter, written the same day, also speaks of Vincent’s rigidity and intransigence, which is so great that he fears ‘things will go amiss’. The letter reveals that Uncle Vincent was the one who decided when Theo would leave for Paris (FR b2485).