The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (edited by Mark Roskill)

by Catherine Chiu

  • But you will ask: What is your definite aim? That aim becomes more definite, will stand out slowly and surely, just as the rough draft becomes a sketch, and the sketch becomes a picture…
  • His work, as he saw it, could constantly be bettered by dint of attentive study and practice; to engage in this task in the right spirit and faith would at the same time bring progressive deepening of his capacities for human understanding. What could be learnt on the technical side from the past masters like Rembrandt and Delacroix and from the renewal of self-discipline from work to work merged with what was offered in the theoretical writings of men like Carlyle and Tolstoy, thinkers who believed that art could once more become supremely relevant to the workings of society as a while.
  • “To sacrifice  all personal desires, to realize great things, to obtain nobleness of mind, to surpass the vulgarity in which the existence if nearly all individuals is spent.” He did not know yet which way he had to go to reach that aim.
  • My only anxiety is what can I do… could I not be of use, and good for something?
  • Bad connections often arise from a feeling of loneliness, of dissatisfaction.
  • Don’t lose heart if it is very difficult at times, everything will come out all right and nobody can in the beginning do as he wishes.
  • I am glad you have read Michelet and that you understand him so well. Such a book teaches us that there is much more in love than people generally suppose.That book has been a revelation to me as well as a Gospel at the same time, “no woman is old.” (That does not mean that there are no old women, but that a woman  is not old as long as she loves and is loved.) And then such a chapter as “The Aspirations of Autumn,” how beautiful it is.That a woman is quite a different being than a man, and a being that we do not yet know, at least only quite superficially, as you said, yes, I am sure of it. And that man and wife can be one, that is to say one whole and not two halves, yes, I believe that too.
  • Look for light and freedom and do not ponder too deeply over the evil in life.
  • But let us persevere; above all let us have patience; those who believe hasten not.
  • “I wish I were far away from everything, I am the cause of all, and bring only sorrow to everybody, I alone have brought all this misery on myself and others.” – Theo van Gogh
  • There was a man who went to church one day and asked: “Can it be that my zeal has deceived me, that I have taken the wrong road, and have not planned it well? Oh! if I might be freed from this uncertainty , and might have the firm conviction that I shall conquer and succeed in the end!” And then a voice answered him: “And if you knew that for certain, what would you do then? — act now as if you knew it for certain, and you will not be confounded.” Then the man went forth on his way, believing instead of unbelieving, and he went back to his work, no longer doubting or wavering.
  • Such is human life: to be born, to work, to love, to grow, and to disappear.
  • So instead of yielding to despair, I chose the part of active melancholy, in so far as I possessed the power of activity, in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and seeks, to that which despairs in stagnation and woe.
  • But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things. Love a friends, a wife, something, whatever you like, and you will be on the right way to knowing more about it, that is what I say to myself. But one must love with a lofty and serious intimate sympathy, with strength, with intelligence, and one must always try to know deeper, better and more. That leads to God, that leads to unwavering faith.
  • How can I then be useful, of what service can I be! There is something inside of me, what can it be?
  • “I am caged, I am caged, and you tell me I do not want anything, fools! You think I have everything I need! Oh! I beseech you, liberty, so that I can be a bird like other birds!” […] Do you know what frees one from this captivity? it is very deep serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, that is what opens the prison by supreme power, by some magic force. But without this one remains in prison. There where sympathy is renewed, life is restored. And the prison is also called prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance of one thing or another, distrust, false shame.
  • To love her so long
    That she’ll love me in the end.
  • There are three stages
    1st. Not to love and not to be loved.
    2nd. To love and not to be loved in return.
    3rd. To love and to be loved.
    Now, I tell you that the second stage is better than the first — but the third; that is the best.
  • I cannot, I may not, I will not live without love.
  • “Any woman at any age, provided she loves and is good-hearted, can give a man not the timelessness of a moment, but a moment of timelessness.”
  • The clergymen call us sinners, conceived and born in sin, bah! what dreadful nonsense that is. Is it a sin to love, to need love, not to be able to live without love? I think a life without love a sinful and an immoral condition.
  • “There is no such thing as an old woman.”
  • And though my hand may be unruly, that hand will learn to do what my head wishes.
  • Mauve takes offence at my having said, “I am an artist” — which I do not take back, because that word of course included the meaning: always seeking without absolutely finding. It is just the converse of saying, “I know it, I have found it.” As far as I know, that word means: “I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”
  • In short, I want to reach so far that people will say of my work: he feels deeply, he feels tenderly — notwithstanding my so-called roughness, perhaps even because of this.
  • It seems absurd to me that men should want to appear other than they really are.
  • This is my ambition, which is, notwithstanding everything, founded less on anger than on love, founded more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm pure harmony and music.
  • I come back dissatisfied — I put it away, and when I have rested a little, I go to look at it with a kind of fear. Then I am still dissatisfied, because I still have too clearly in my mind that splendid subject, to be satisfied with what I made of it. But after all I find in my work an echo of what struck me.
  • One is afraid of making friends, one is afraid of moving, like one of the old lepers, one would like to call from afar to the people: Don’t come too near me, for intercourse with me brings you sorrow and loss; with all that great load of care on one’s heart, one must set to work with a calm, everyday face, without moving a muscle, with the man who comes for the rent, with everybody in face. With a cool head, one must keep one hand on the rudder to continue the work, and with the other try to do no harm to others.
  • Blessed is he who has found his work.
  • If women do not always show in their thoughts the energy and elasticity of men, who are disposed towards reflection and analysis, we cannot blame them, at least in my opinion, because in general they have to spend so much more strength than we in suffering pain. They suffer more and are more sensitive. And though they do not always understand our thoughts, they are sometimes truly capable of understanding when one is good to them. Not always, though, but “the spirit is willing,” and there is in women sometimes a curious kind of goodness.
  • What a mystery life is, and love is a mystery within a mystery. It certainly never remains the same in a literal sense, but the changes are like the ebb and flow of the tide and leave the sea unchanged.
  • Do you know what has come into my mind, that in the first period of a painter’s life one unconsciously makes it very hard for oneself — by a feeling of not being able to master the work — by an uncertainty as to whether one will ever master it — by a great ambition to make progress, by a lack of self-confidence — one cannot banish a certain feeling of agitation, and one hurries oneself though one doesn’t like to be hurried.
  • Society is full of that: people who strive to make a show instead of leading a true existence. I repeat: those people are not bad, but they are foolish.
  • There is no anguish greater than the soul’s struggle between duty and love, both in their highest meaning.
  • How much sadness there is in life, nevertheless one must not become melancholy, and one must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work; but there are moments when one only finds rest in the conviction: “misfortune will not spare me either.”
  • “Follow that little point, that very slight possibility, there lies the road – follow it — drop all the rest. I do not mean drop all outward relations; you must keep them if you can, but stick to your conviction in saying: I will become a painter; so that what Tom, Dick and Harry say is like water on a duck’s back.”
  • It would be a thing that gave a good impression of summer. I think summer is not easy to express; generally, at least often, a summer effect is either impossible or ugly, at least I think so, but then, as opposition, there is twilight. But I mean to say that it is not easy to find a summer sun effect which is as rich and as simple, and as pleasant to look at as the characteristic effects of the other seasons.
    Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms.
    Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones.
    Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.
  • And I was sick of the boredom of civilization. It is better, one is happier if one carries it out — literally though — one feels at least that one is really alive. And it is a good thing in winter to be deep in the snow, in the autumn deep in the yellow leaves, in summer among the ripe corn, in spring amid the grass; it is a good thing to be always with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with a big sky overhead, in winter by the fireside, and to feel that it always has been and always will be so.
  • But the thing one does remains, and one does not easily repent having done a thing. The more activity the better, and I would rather have a failure than sit and do nothing.
  • A man’s head or a woman’s head, well contemplated and at leisure, is divinely beautiful, isn’t it? Well, that general harmony of tones in nature, one loses it by painfully exact imitation, one keeps it by recreating in an equivalent colour range, that may be not exactly or far from exactly like the model.
  • The question is only whether one starts from the soul or from the clothes, and whether the form serves as a clothes-peg for ribbons and bows, or if one considers the form as the means of depicting impression and sentiment, or if one models for the sake of modelling, because it is so infinitely beautiful in itself.
  • If you put yourself to it, you can paint a thing in words.
  • The women’s figures which I see here among the people give me a tremendous urge, much more to paint them than to possess the, though indeed I should like both.
  • “In life women probably present the supreme difficulty.”
  • L’amour de l’art fait perdre l’amour vrai. — The love of art means loss of real love.
  • One learns so much from the constant comparing of the masculine figure with the feminine, which are always and in everything so totally different. It may be “supremely” difficult, but what would art and what would life be without it.
  • My God! Will we ever see a generation of artists with healthy bodies! Sometimes I am perfectly furious with myself, for it isn’t good enough to be neither more nor less ill than the rest; the ideal would be constitution tough enough to live till eighty, and besides that blood in one’s veins that would be right good blood.
    It would be some comfort, however, if one could think that a generation of more fortunate artists was to come.
  • Where then are the sane people?
  • To look at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is this, that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train.
  • Whence comes it that, in the present instance of our uncle’s death, the face of the dead was calm, peaceful, and grave, while it is a fact that while living he was scarcely like that, either in youth or age. I have often observed a like effect as I looked at the dead as though to question them. And that for me is one proof, though not the most serious, of a life beyond the grave.
    And in the same way a child in the cradle, if you watch it at leisure, has the infinite in its eyes. In short, i know nothing about it, but it is just this feeling of not knowing that makes the real life we are actually living now like a one-way journey in a train. You go fast, but cannot distinguish any object very close up, and above all you do not see the engine.
  • The root of the evil lies in the constitution itself, in the fatal weakening of families from generation to generation, and besides that, in one’s unwholesome job and the dreary life of Paris. The root of the evil certainly lies there, and there’s no cure for it.
  • I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life — the power to create.
    And if, defrauded of the power to create physically, a man tries to create thoughts in place of children, he is still very much part of humanity.
  • But when that delirium of mine shakes up everything I dearly loved, I do not accept it as reality and I am not going to be a false prophet.
  • You may be old or young, but there will always be moments when you lose your head. So I do not ask you to say of me that there is nothing wrong with me, or that there never will be.
  • All the same, I know well that healing comes — if one is brave — from within, through profound resignation to suffering and death, through the surrender of your own will and of your self-love.
  • You need a certain dash of inspiration, a ray from on high, things not in ourselves, in order to do beautiful things.
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