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,

3 weeks after supposedly sawing off his own ear, Vincent van Gogh wrote this letter…

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh
Arles, 17 January 1889

My dear Theo,

Thanks for your kind letter and also for the 50-franc note it contained. Even though you yourself might be able to answer all the questions at the moment, I do not feel capable of it. I want very much, after consideration, to find some solution, but I must read your letter again, etc.

But, before discussing what I might spend or not spend during a complete year, it might help us to go into the expenses of the current month alone.

It has been altogether lamentable in every way, and I should certainly count myself lucky, if at last you would give some serious attention to the way things are now and have been for a long time.

But what is to be done? It is unfortunately complicated by lots of things, my pictures are valueless, they cost me, it is true, an extraordinary amount, even in blood and brains at times perhaps. I won’t harp on it, and what am I to say to you about it?

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the present month and not talk of anything but money.

On December 23 I still had in hand one louis and 3 sous. The same day I received from you the 100-franc note.

These are the expenses:

Given to Roulin to pay the charwoman for the month of December 20 frs.

The same for the first fortnight in January 10 frs.

Paid to the hospital 21 frs.

Paid to the attendants who dressed the wound 10 frs.

On my return paid for a table, a gas heater, etc, which had been lent me and which I had taken on account 20 frs.

Paid for having all the bedding washed, the bloodstained linen, etc. 12.50 frs.

Various purchases like a dozen brushes, a hat, etc., etc., say 10 frs.

So on the day or the day after I came out of the hospital, we have already arrived at a forced expenditure on my part of 103.50 francs, to which must be added that on that first day I had a joyous dinner with Roulin at the restaurant, quite cheerful and with no dread of renewed suffering.

In short, the result of all this was that by the 8th I was broke. But a day or two later I borrowed 5 francs. That barely takes us to the 10th. I hoped for a letter from you about the 10th, but, this letter did not arrive till today, January 17th, the time between has been a most rigorous fast, the more painful because I cannot recover under such conditions.

I have nevertheless started work again, and I already have three studies in the studio, besides the portrait of Dr. Rey, which I gave him as a keepsake. So there is no worse harm done this time than a little more suffering and its attendant wretchedness. And I keep on hoping. But I feel weak and rather uneasy and frightened. That will pass, I hope, as I get back my strength.

Rey told me that being very impressionable was enough to account for the attack that I had, and that I was really only anaemic, but that I really must feed myself up. But I took the liberty of saying to M. Rey that if the first thing for me was to get back my strength, and if by pure chance or misunderstanding it had just happened that I had had to keep a strict fast for a week – whether he had seen many madman in similar circumstances fairly quiet and able to work; if not, would he then be good enough to remember occasionally that for the moment I am not yet mad.

Now considering that all the house was upset by this occurrence, and all the linen and my clothes soiled, is there anything improper or extravagant or exorbitant in these payments? If I paid what was owing to people almost as poor as myself as soon as I got back, did I do wrong, or could I have been more economical? Now today on the seventeenth I at last received 50 francs. Out of that I am paying first the five francs borrowed from the patron at the café and the ten meals taken on credit during the course of last week, which makes 7.50 francs.

I also have to pay for the linen brought back from the hospital and then for this last week, and for shoe repairs and a pair of trousers, certainly altogether something like 5 frs.

Wood and coal owing for December and to be bought again, not less than 4 frs.

Charwoman, 2nd fortnight in January 10 frs.


26.50 frs.

Net amount left me tomorrow morning after settling this bill 23.50 frs.

It is now the seventeenth, there are still thirteen days to go.

Ask yourself how much I can spend in a day? I have to add that you sent 30 francs to Roulin, out of which he paid the 21.50 rent for December.

There, my dear boy, are the accounts for this present month. It is not over.

Now we come to the expenses caused you by Gauguin’s telegram, which I have already expressly reproached him for sending.

Are the expenses thus mistakenly incurred less than 200 francs? Does Gauguin himself claim that it was a brilliant step to take? Look here, I won’t say more about the absurdity of this measure, suppose that I was as wild as anything, then why wasn’t our illustrious partner more collected?

But I shan’t press that point.

I cannot commend you enough for paying Gauguin in such a way that he can only congratulate himself on any dealings he has had with us. Unfortunately there again is another expenditure perhaps greater than it should have been, yet I catch a glimpse of hope in it. Must he not, or at least should he not, begin to see that we were not exploiting him, but on the contrary were anxious to secure him a living, the possibility of work and…and…of decency?

If that does not obtain the heights of the grandiose prospectuses for the association of artists which he proposed, and you know how he clings to it, if it does not attain the heights of his other castles in the air – then why not consider him as not responsible for the trouble and waste which his blindness may have caused both you and me?

If at present this theory seems too bold to you, I do not insist on it, but we shall see.

He has had experience in what he calls “banking in Paris” and thinks himself clever at it. Perhaps you and I are not curious at all in this respect.

In any case this is not altogether in contradiction with some passages in our previous correspondence.

If Gauguin stayed in Paris for a while to examine himself thoroughly, or have himself examined by a specialist, I don’t honestly know what the result might be.

On various occasions I have seen him do things which you and I would not let ourselves do, because we have consciences that feel differently about things. I have heard one or two things said of him, but having seen him at very, very close quarters, I think that he is carried away by his imagination, perhaps by pride, but…practically irresponsible.

This conclusion does not imply that I advise you to pay very much attention to what he says on any occasion. But I see that you have acted with higher ideals in the matter of settling his bill, and so I think that we need not fear that he will involve us in the errors of the “Bank of Paris.”

But as for him…Lord, let him do anything he wants, let him have his independence?? (whatever he means by that) and his opinions, and let him go his own way as soon as he thinks he knows it better than we do.

I think it is rather strange that he claims a picture of sunflowers from me, offering me in exchange, I suppose, or as a gift, some studies he left here. I will send him back his studies which will probably be useful to him, which they certainly won’t be to me.

But for the moment I am keeping my canvases here and I am definitely keeping my sunflowers in question.

He has two of them already, let that hold him.

And if he is not satisfied with the exchange he has made with me, he can take back his little Martinique canvas, and his self-portrait sent me from Brittany, at the same time giving me back both my portrait and the two sunflower canvases which he has taken to Paris. So if he ever broaches this subject again, I’ve told you just how matters stand.

How can Gauguin pretend that he was afraid of upsetting me by his presence, when he can hardly deny that he knew I kept asking for him continually, and that he was told over and over again that I insisted on seeing him at once.

Just to tell him that we should keep it between him and me, without upsetting you. He would not listen.

It worries me to go over all this and recapitulate such things over and over again.

In this letter I have tried to show you the difference between my net expenses, directly my own, and those for which I am less responsible.

I have been miserable because just at this moment you have had this expense, which did no one any good.

Whatever happens, I shall see my strength come back little by little if I can stick it out here. I do so dread a change or move just because of the fresh expense. I have been unable to get a breathing spell for a long time now. I am not giving up work, because there are moments when it is really getting on, and I believe that with patience the goal will at last be reached, that the pictures will pay back the money invested in making them.

Roulin is about to leave, as early as the 21st. He is to be employed in Marseilles. The increase in pay is microscopic, and he will be obliged to leave his wife and children for a time; they will not be able to follow him till much later, because the expenses of a whole family will be heavier in Marseilles.

It is a promotion for him, but it is a poor consolation that the Government gives such an employee after so many years work.

And in point of fact, I believe that both he and his wife are heart broken. Roulin has often kept me company during the last week. I quite agree with you that we mustn’t meddle with medical questions, which do not at all concern us. Just because you wrote a line to M. Rey saying that you would give him introductions in Paris, I understood you to mean Rivet. I did not think I was doing anything to compromise you by telling M. Rey that if he went to Paris, I’d be pleased if he took a picture to M. Rivet as a keepsake from me.

Of course I did not mention anything else, but what I did say was that I myself should always regret not being a doctor, and that those who think painting is beautiful would do well to see nothing in it but a study of nature.

It will always be a pity, in spite of everything, that Gauguin and I were perhaps too quick to give up the question of Rembrandt and light which we had broached. Are De Haan and Isaäcson still there? Don’t let them get discouraged. After my illness my eyes have naturally been very sensitive. I have been looking at that “Croque-mort” [undertaker] of De Haans, which he was good enough to send me the photograph of. Well, it seems to me that there is a real touch of Rembrandt in that figure, which seems to be lit up by the reflection of a light coming from the open tomb in front of which the croque-mort is standing like a sleepwalker.

It is done with great subtlety. I myself do not try to get effects by means of charcoal, and De Haan has taken for his medium this very charcoal, again a colourless substance.

I should like De Haan to see a study of mine of a lighted candle and two novels (one yellow, the other pink) lying on an empty chair (really Gauguin’s chair), a size 30 canvas, in red and green. I have just been working again today on its pendant, my own empty chair, a white deal chair with a pipe and a tobacco pouch. In these two studies, as in others, I have tried for an effect of light by means of clear colour, probably De Haan would understand exactly what I was trying to get if you read to him what I have written on the subject.

Although this letter is already very long, since I have tried to analyse the month’s expenses and complained a bit of the queer phenomenon of Gauguin’s behaviour in choosing not to speak to me again and clearing out, there are still some things that I must add in praise of him.

One good quality he has is the marvellous way he can apportion [divide up and share] expenses from day to day.

While I am often absent-minded, preoccupied with aiming at the goal, he has far more money sense for each separate day than I have. But his weakness is that by a sudden freak or animal impulse he upsets everything he has arranged.

Now do you stay at your post once you have taken it, or do you desert it? I do not judge anyone in this, hoping not to be condemned myself in cases when my strength might fail me, but if Gauguin has so much real virtue, and such capacity for charity, how is he going to employ himself?

As for me, I have ceased to be able to follow his actions, and I give it up in silence, but with a questioning note all the same.

From time to time he and I have exchanged ideas about French art, and impressionism…

It seems to me impossible, or at least pretty improbable, that impressionism will organize and steady itself now.

Why shouldn’t what happened in England at the time of the Pre-Raphaelites happen here?

The union broke up.

Perhaps I take all these things too much to heart and perhaps they sadden me too much. Has Gauguin ever read Tartarin in the Alps, and does he remember Tartarin’s illustrious companion from Tarascon, who had such imagination that he imagined in a flash a complete imaginary Switzerland?

Does he remember the knot in a rope found high up in the Alps after the fall?

And you who want to know how things happened, have you read Tartarin all the way through? That will teach you to know your Gauguin pretty well.

I am really serious in urging you to look at this passage in Daudet’s book again.

At the time of your visit here, were you able to notice the study I painted of the Tarascon diligence, which as you know is mentioned in Tartarin the lion hunter?

And can you remember Bompard in Numa Roumestan and his happy imagination?

That is what it is, though in another way. Gauguin has a fine, free and absolutely complete imaginary conception of the South, and with that imagination he is going to work in the North! My word, we may see some queer results yet.

And now, dissecting the situation in all boldness, there is nothing to prevent our seeing him as the little Bonaparte tiger of impressionism as far as…I don’t quite know how to say it, his vanishing, say, from Arles would be comparable or analogous to the return from Egypt of the aforesaid Little Corporal, who also presented himself in Paris afterward and who always left the armies in the lurch.

Fortunately Gauguin and I and other painters are not yet armed with machine guns and other very destructive implements of war. I for one am quite decided to go on being armed with nothing but my brush and my pen.

But with a good deal of clatter, Gauguin has nonetheless demanded in his last letter “his masks and fencing gloves” hidden in the little closet in my little yellow house.

I shall hasten to send him his toys by parcel post. Hoping that he will never use more serious weapons.

He is physically stronger than we are, so his passions must be much stronger than ours. Then he is a father, he has a wife and children in Denmark, and at the same time he wants to go to the other end of the earth, to Martinique. It is frightful, all the welter of incompatible desires and needs which this must cause them. I took the liberty of assuring him that if he had kept quiet here with us, working here at Arles without wasting money, and earning, since you were looking after his pictures, his wife would certainly have written to him, and would have approved of his stability. There is more besides; he had been in pain and seriously ill, and the thing was to discover the disease and the remedy. Now here his pains had already ceased.

That’s enough for today. If you have the address of Laval, Gauguin’s friend, you can tell Laval that I am very much surprised that his friend Gauguin did not take a portrait of myself, which I had intended for him, away with him to be handed over. I have another new one for you too.

Thank you again for your letter, please do try to realise that it will be really impossible to live thirteen days on the 23.50 francs which I shall have left; if you could send 20 francs next week, I would try to manage.

With a handshake, I will read your letter again and will write you soon about the other things.

Yours, Vincent