Vincent van Gogh’s letter to Theo, January 1882, outlining his rows with ‘Pa’ and ‘Ma’

You mustn’t think that I’m sending the letter back to insult you, but I find this the quickest way to answer it clearly. And if you didn’t have your letter back, you wouldn’t be able to understand what my answer refers to, whereas now the numbers guide you. I have no time, I’m waiting for a model today.
Because I have only a little time, I knew no better means of answering your letter than to answer one thing and another like this, point by point.
unnamed (1)
(1) I didn’t ‘contrive’ to do it, on the contrary, when Pa was here,1 Mauve, Pa and I talked about my renting a studio in Etten – spending the winter there – coming back to The Hague in the spring. Because of the models and because I’d arranged to work there, and it was beginning to go well.
All the same, I’d have liked to prolong my stay in The Hague a bit, since I was here anyway, but nonetheless I seriously intended continuing my studies of the Brabant peasant types. And when I was crossed in realizing that plan, after M. had been consulted and I had already written to him about the studio in question (a shed which needed some repairs), I couldn’t suppress my anger.
Please remember one of my letters to you in which I wrote to you in broad terms about my plan to continue those studies.2 I mean the letter in which I asked you to say a few heartfelt words to impress upon Pa and Ma how important my work in Etten was to me &c. I remember the words I used: it really would be too bad if a whim of Pa were to make me give up work which is now progressing so well and which I’ve been working on for months. Think about it yourself – despite Mauve’s help, I’m in far more trouble here than at home, and I truly don’t know how I’ll get by.
2) That expression that I contrive to make Pa and Ma’s life miserable is actually not yours, I’ve known it for a long time as one of Pa’s Jesuitisms, and also told Pa and Ma that I considered it a Jesuitism and didn’t take the slightest notice of it.
Pa regularly comes up with some such saying if someone says something to him that he doesn’t know how to answer, and says, among other things, ‘you’ll be the death of me’, while calmly reading the newspaper and smoking his pipe. So I take such expressions at their face value.  1v:3
Or else Pa gets incredibly angry and is used to people being afraid, and it surprises Pa if people don’t give way to his anger.
Pa is very easily hurt and irritable and full of obstinacies in domestic life and is used to getting his way. And the category ‘the conventions and rules of this house’, which I’m supposed to observe, includes literally everything that comes into Pa’s head.
3) ‘Fighting with an old man isn’t difficult &c.’ Because Pais an old man I’ve spared him a hundred times, and tolerated things that are well-nigh intolerable. Well, this time it wasn’t fighting but simply saying ‘enough’, and because he wasn’t listening to reason and common sense I said it outright for once, and it’s very good indeed that Pa has finally heard one thing and another spoken plainly that others sometimes think as well.
4) That it won’t be put to rights quickly. For appearances’ sake I straightened things out by writing again to Pa to say that I’d rented a studio, that I also wished him a happy New Year, that I hoped that in that new year we should no longer fight in that way or in any other manner. I’m not doing any more about it, I don’t have to do any more about it. If this last scene were the only one of its kind, it would be different, but it was preceded by other scenes, when I’d said to Pa, in a calmer yet resolute way, many things that His Hon. systematically brushed aside one by one. So as regards those things I said in anger, I think the same things in a calmer mood, only then I refrain from saying them out of diplomacy or I say them in another way. But all diplomacy abandoned me when I got angry, and, well, now I’ve finally said it. I’m not asking for an apology, and as long as Pa and Ma take this attitude I won’t take any of it back. If, later on, they possibly become a bit more humane and sensitive and fair, then I’ll be glad to take it all back. But I doubt if that will happen.

5) That Pa and Ma can’t stand it if there’s bad blood &c. That’s true inasmuch as they create a desert around themselves and are making their old age miserable, even though it could be good and satisfying. But as to those expressions, ‘I can’t stand it’, ‘this will be the death of me’, ‘my life is a misery’, I no longer take any notice, because it’s only a mannerism. And if they don’t change, I fear, as I already said, that they’re in for many miserable and lonely days.
6) That I’ll regret it &c. Before things got as bad as they are now, I felt a great deal of remorse and sorrow, and tormented myself because things were going so badly between Pa and Maand me. But now that it’s come to this, well, so be it, and to tell you the truth I’m no longer sorry but can’t help feeling relieved. If I realize later that I did the wrong thing, yes, then of course I’ll regret it, but I still don’t exactly see how it would have been possible to act otherwise. When someone tells me in no uncertain terms, ‘leave my house, the sooner the better, within the half-hour rather than the hour’, well, old chap, then I’m out in less than a quarter of an hour, and won’t come back again either. It really is too bad. For financial reasons, and so as not to cause you or anyone else any more trouble, I wouldn’t have left so easily of my own accord, you surely understand that, but now that they and not I said ‘go away’, well, the path I must take is clear enough.  2r:4
7) As far as Mauve is concerned – yes of course I’m very fond of M., and sympathize with him, I like his work very much – and I consider myself fortunate to learn something from him, but I can’t shut myself up in a system or school any more than Mauve himself can, and in addition to Mauve and Mauve’s work, I also like others who are very different and work very differently. And as far as me and my own work are concerned, perhaps there’s a similarity sometimes, but certainly also a distinct difference. If I love someone or something, then I mean it, and there is definitely passion and fire sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that I systematically find only some people perfect and all the others worthless – God forbid.
8) Free-thinking: actually that’s a word I loathe, though I’m sometimes forced to use it for want of something better.
9) The thing is that I’m doing my best to think things through and try to take reason and common sense into account in what I do. And it would be totally inconsistent with that if one wanted to reduce someone to nothing. So it’s entirely true that I sometimes said to Pa ‘do consider this or that fully’, or ‘this or that doesn’t hold water in my opinion’, but that isn’t trying to reduce someone to nothing. And I’m not Pa’s enemy if I tell him the truth for once, not even when I said it angrily in salty language. Only it didn’t help me at all, and Pa took it badly. Does Pa mean that I said that the morality and religious system of the clergymen and academic notions aren’t worth tuppence to me since I’ve learned many of their tricks, then I certainly won’t take it back, because I really mean it. It’s only in a calm mood that I don’t talk about it, but it’s something else if one tries, for instance, to force me to go to church or to attach value to it, then of course I say it’s absolutely out of the question.images
10) Does Pa’s life count for nothing? I already said that if I hear someone say ‘you’ll be the death of me’, and all the while that man is reading his newspaper and half a minute later starts talking about goodness knows what advertisement, then I find such an expression rather inappropriate and unnecessary and pay no attention to it. As soon as those words or suchlike are repeated to others, who then start to look upon me as something of a murderer or even a parricide, then I say, such calumnies are neither more nor less than Jesuitisms. So there you have it. Besides, now the murderer has left home and so, in a word, I take no notice of it, and I even think it ridiculous.
11) You say ‘I don’t understand you’. Well, that I certainly believe, because writing is actually an awful way to explain things to each other. And it takes a lot of time, and you and I have rather a lot to do. But we must have a bit of patience with one another until we see and speak to one another again. 2v:5
12) Write to me again. Yes of course, but first I have to agree with you on how.
Do you want me to write in a sort of business style, dry and formal and picking and choosing my words and actually saying nothing?
Or do you want me to go on writing just as I’ve been doing recently, telling you everything that pops into my head without being afraid to let fly, without mincing my words or holding back.
I prefer to do the latter, namely write or say plainly what I mean.
And now I’ll end my direct answer to your letter because I still have to speak to you about drawing &c., and I prefer to talk about that. Please bear with me if I pretend for the time being that Pa and Ma don’t exist, it would have been much better if I’d spent this winter in Etten, and it would have been much easier for me, particularly for financial reasons. If I were to think and fret about it, it would make me despondent, so that’s it, it’s over. Now I’m here and I have to manage somehow. If I were to write to Pa about it again, it would be adding fuel to the flames, and I don’t want to get so angry again, and I’m throwing myself with all my might into life and things here, what else can I do? Etten is lost and Het Heike, but I’ll try to regain something else instead.
Now I thank you very much indeed for what you sent.
I don’t need to tell you that I really have a great many worries besides. Naturally my expenses are more than in Etten and I can’t set to work with half as much energy as I should like and should be able to if I had more at my disposal.
But my studio is turning out well. I wish you could see it, I’ve hung up all my studies, and you must send back the ones you have because they might prove useful to me. They may be unsaleable, and I myself acknowledge all their faults, but they contain something of nature because they were made with a certain passion.  2v:6
And you know that I’m now struggling to make watercolours, and if I become adept at it they’ll become saleable.
But Theo, you can be certain that when I first went to Mauve with my pen drawings and M. said, you should try it with charcoal and chalk and brush and stump, it was damned difficult for me to work with that new material. I was patient and it didn’t seem to help at all, and sometimes I grew so impatient that I trampled on my charcoal and was wholly and utterly discouraged. And yet, a while later I sent you drawings made with chalk and charcoal and the brush,3 and I went back to Mauve with a whole batch of such drawings which of course he criticized, and rightly so, and you too, but all the same I had taken a step forward.
Now I’m going through a similar period of struggle and despondency, of patience and impatience, of hope and desolation. But I must plod on and anyway, after a while I’ll understand more about making watercolours.
If it were that easy, one wouldn’t take any pleasure in it. And it’s exactly the same with painting. Moreover, the weather is bad, and this winter I haven’t yet gone out for pleasure. Still, I enjoy life and, in particular, having my own studio is too wonderful for words. When will you come and have coffee or tea with me? Soon I hope. You can stay here too, if necessary, that would be nice and companionable. And I even have flowers, and a couple of boxes of bulbs. And I’ve also acquired another ornament for my studio, I got a great bargain on some splendid woodcuts from The Graphic, some of them prints not of the clichés but of the blocks themselves. Just what I’ve been wanting for years.
The drawings by Herkomer,4 Frank Holl,5Walker,6 and others. I bought them from Blok, the Jewish bookseller,7 and chose the best from an enormous pile of Graphics and London News for five guilders. Some of them are superb, including the Houseless and homeless by Fildes 2r:7 (poor people waiting outside a night shelter)8 and two large Herkomers and many small ones, and the Irish emigrants by Frank Holl9 and the ‘Old gate’ by Walker.10 And especially a girls’ school by Frank Holl11and also that large Herkomer, the invalids.12
In short, it’s exactly the stuff I need.
And I have such beautiful things with a kind of restfulness in my house because, old chap, even though I’m still a long way from making them so beautifully myself, still, I have a couple of studies of old peasants and so on hanging on the wall that prove that my enthusiasm for those draughtsmen is not mere vanity, but that I’m struggling and striving to make something myself that is realistic and yet done with sentiment. I have around 12 figures of diggers and people working in the potato field,13 and I’m wondering if I couldn’t make something of them, you also have a couple of them, including a man putting potatoes in a sack.14Anyway, I don’t know what yet, but whether it’s now or later, I must do it sometime, because I took a look at it this summer, and here in the dunes I could make a good study of the earth and the sky and then boldly put the figures in. Though I don’t value those studies so very much, and hope of course to make them very differently and better, but the Brabant types are distinctive, and who knows how they might be put to use. If there are some among them you’d like to keep, then by all means, but I’d very much like to have back those you don’t value. By studying new models I’ll automatically become alert to the mistakes in the proportion of my studies of this summer and, taking that into account, they can easily be of use to me. When your letter took so long to arrive (for because it went first to Mauve I got it even later), I had to go to Mr Tersteeg and he gave me 25 guilders to last until I received your letter. Perhaps it would be good if I, with your knowledge, or you, with my knowledge, were to settle a few things with Mr T. Because you understand, Theo, I must know as definitely as possible where I stand, and I have to work it out in advance, and know that I can or cannot do this or that. So you’ll be doing me a great favour by entering into a definite agreement, and I hope you’ll write to me about it soon.
Mauve has promised to recommend me for an associate membership of Pulchri,15 because there I’d be able to draw from a model two evenings a week and would have more contact with artists. Later on I’ll become a regular member as soon as possible. Well, old chap, thanks for what you sent – and believe me, with a handshake,


Ever yours,