The artist's life of grinding poverty, his severe mental illness, and the derision of his contemporaries combined to form a romantic ideal of the tortured artist. Twenty-three years after Van Gogh's suicide, in the wake of his slowly growing fame, the painter's sister published this memoir. An intimate view of the artist's life, art, and philosophy, the book is illustrated with reproductions of several of Van Gogh's most characteristic works, including portraits and landscapes.
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About the Author
Elisabeth Duquesne Van Gogh (1859–1936) was the artist's younger sister. Married to a Dutch jurist, she was the mother of five children and a writer of poetry and prose.
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Personal Recollection of Vincent Van Gogh
By Elisabeth Duquesne Van Gogh, Katherine S. Dreier
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2017 Elisabeth Duquesne Van Gogh
All rights reserved.
They were real village children, playing in the farm garden. Beds of marigolds, mignonette, and brilliant red geraniums were aglow with the setting sun. Everything was in full bloom and athirst for water, this hot late August afternoon. Behind the flower-beds lay the lawn where the snow-white linen was bleached and spread to keep it fresh; next followed row upon row of berry-bushes, rich with the fragrance of the ripening fruit; and the entire garden was inclosed in a beech hedge, which separated it from the fields of rye and grain that stretched beyond as far as the eye could see. In a corner stood a stack of dried peavines with the pods still clinging to them.
Three happy children were clambering up the mound, only to slide down again in greatest glee.
Now and again they stopped a second on their high ground of vantage to survey the surrounding country. Behind them rose the old farmhouse, with its long line of windows, and dark-green shutters, against which the flowers seemed to glow with greater brilliancy. It was a house containing a history — generations had dwelt in it, all of whom had led the same free, unhampered existence; none had known great changes in the even tenor of their lives.
Back of the children stood the house, while stretching out before them as far as the eye could see, lay the fields of rye until lost in a pale gray line on the horizon. There were the meadows and the fruit farms, hardly to be discerned at this great distance, through which a small Brabant stream was gliding under a near-by gleaming white bridge. Speechless the three children — two girls and a boy, of the ages ranging from nine to thirteen — were watching to see who was approaching. Models of spotlessness they certainly were not. The cleanliness of their little frocks and hands left much to be desired. But one forgave them heartily their appearance, for on their faces was the sparkle of childhood and their eyes reminded one of the happiness of the flowers and the freshness of the running stream.
In turning, one of them saw their oldest brother approaching — a boy of seventeen, as broad as he was long, his back slightly bent, with the bad habit of letting the head hang; the red blond hair cropped close was hidden under a straw hat: a strange face, not young; the forehead already full of lines, the eyebrows on the large, noble brow drawn together in deepest thought. The eyes, small and deep-set, were now blue, now green, according to the impressions of the moment. But in spite of all awkwardness and the ugly exterior, one was conscious of a greatness, through the unmistakable sign of the deep inner life.
Brother and sisters were strangers to him as well as his own youth. Hardly matured, his genius was already being felt, though unknown to himself; as a child, who does not understand what its mother is, yet answers at her call.
Without a greeting the brother passed by, out of the garden gate, through the meadows, along the path that led to the stream. The children noted whither he was going, because of the bottle and fishnet he carried. It did not occur to any of them to call after him, "May I come too?" Yet they knew only too well how clever he was at catching the water insects; he would show his trophies to the children on his return. Such jolly little and big beasties! There were broad beetles, with their glossy backs; others with great round eyes, and crooked legs, that nervously wriggled the minute they left the water.
All the beetles, even those with the terrible long feelers, had names, — such horribly long names one could never remember, — and yet their brother knew them all. And then, after he had prepared them, he would carefully pin them in a little box, which first had been beautifully lined with snow-white paper, and neatly labeled with the names pasted above each insect — even the Latin names!
None of the children ever thought of laughing at him: no; he was treated with the deepest respect; but to ask permission to go along to the brook, where it was so deliciously cool, where one could dip one's hands into the sand without soiling one's self — that they did not dare. The most beautiful forget-me-nots grew along the stream, as well as pink water-lilies ! The little girls, who loved flowers above everything else, longed for the unattainable!
They were not permitted to leave the garden alone, and on their walks with their parents, it was always, "Children, children, don't go near the water." They felt, however, instinctively, with the delicate sensitiveness of children, that their brother preferred to be alone when home on his vacation from boarding-school. For he sought solitude, not the companionship of his family, and he knew all the places where the rarest flowers grew.
He avoided the little village, with the straight streets and small village houses, out of whose windows the gossips would peep over their curtains with their spectacles tilted on the tips of their noses, and follow the passer-by to see whither he was going. Since the once important little village was no longer the resting-place for the post, where the change of horses was made, it lay as dead and buried. He let it be, and sought instead the woods and fields, watching and studying the life of the underbrush and the birds. The birds he knew intimately; knew where they all lived and had their being, and if he saw a pair of larks descend among the rye, he knew how to watch them closely, without even breaking one fine stalk of grain.
With a thousand voices Nature spoke to him while he listened, but his time had not yet ripened into action.
Not a pen-and-ink drawing, not a pencil sketch of this time, exists. He did not think of drawing, the future draughtsman. His mind was given to watching and thinking. When a small boy he modeled an elephant with great accuracy out of some clay which a sculptor's assistant had given him. When eight years old, he surprised his mother by presenting her with a sketch of a cat, who with wild leaps was trying to climb the apple tree in the garden. Surprising as these spontaneous expressions were, even more surprising because they occurred at such rare intervals, they were forgotten, and only remembered years later.
How strong must have been the impressions which cities like The Hague, Brussels, Paris, and London made on this sensitive personality from the country! Often, years afterwards, those dormant impressions would waken to some spontaneous form of line and color under totally different aspects, even outwardly taking other shapes. Yet one can trace them back to these first impressions. And possibly it was this long slumbering impression of Paris which years later produced "Marseille," as it stretches along with its sharp contours against the dark-blue heavens, with its thousand lights streaming out from the town and harbor, trying to conquer the brilliancy of the stars above. The conviction with which this brilliancy was accomplished may never again be attained in art.
* * *
His school-days were ended. The Director of the Academy had wished the parents success and happiness in the future of their gifted son. And following family tradition, Vincent Van Gogh was now to become a merchant.
Formerly, as now, it was considered a special favor for a young man, who wished to become an art dealer, to receive his training from Goupil, who had made the business a world-wide enterprise by establishing houses in Berlin, New York, and London, besides having connections in The Hague and Brussels. First at The Hague and then at Brussels, he received his training. Later he was to go to Paris. The duties of an apprentice were similar to those in a bookshop — to pack or unpack, to develop and have under his charge all photographs and reproductions of well-known pictures, or even to lend a hand in the boxing of paintings.
With all these tasks he was content. He had a dexterity which one would not have suspected from his rough exterior. It had been noticed already, when, as a child, he so carefully handled his collection of beetles; or in the tying and arranging of flowers; and later in his great natural gift of nursing the sick. Without a murmur he performed all these humble duties which were really beneath a man of his knowledge of art and literature, yet all the more gladly he seemed to do them, because he felt that they were aiding him in his preparation as a painter.
Art of the most varying kind came to his hand: art from all the ruling countries of the world, pictures and their reproductions by all sorts of artists. As heretofore he had been absorbed in Nature, so now he became deeply engrossed in studying how she was reproduced. Often it seemed to him that the picture did not reproduce the Nature he knew and loved so well, with the sincerity and truth due her. He also noticed that praise was not always given where, according to his knowledge, praise seemed due. It astonished, troubled, and angered him.
"Que voulez-vous? C'est la mode" was the answer given him as he hesitatingly told his opinion to a fellow-assistant. It was Fashion, then, that dictated the laws in the Realm of Beauty — Fashion, which he scorned — Fashion put her stamp of "to be or not to be" on the works of an artist and determined the fate of those who belonged to him. She it was who gathered unto herself these treasures or threw them aside with scorn, and banished the creator to a poverty which could cripple his ability forever. And he should become her slave and kneel at her feet to pay her homage, — he who had never felt any need for society, who was a stranger to her laws and her convention! He should help to throw sand into the eyes of the public, spoil good taste knowingly, and in this way help to destroy what was truly fine — that would, indeed, suit him!
As an art dealer, an educated young man could always find a secured future. But though he was modest, as most great men are, he had never taken the slightest notice of what the world calls "form." He was perfectly unconscious of having distressed his parents, in that he never joined the happy family group, never met people, but always sought solitude. The sending nome of his first earnings, after he had been advanced to Paris, proved to his family that this aloofness was only an inability to give himself, even to those he loved.
Shortly after receiving this gift from their son, his parents received word from the firm that they were very sorry to say that while he gave absolute satisfaction at first while at The Hague and in Brussels, especially on the practical side, they were compelled to inform them that his awkwardness and shyness were a detriment to him in his business which threatened to become insurmountable. Personal peculiarities of this kind were particularly disturbing to the Parisians — especially to ladies, who, being convinced of their own knowledge of art, did not care to be corrected by this "rustre Hollandais," as they termed him. Were it not for the connection which his family had with one of the heads of the firm, he would long ago have been dismissed. They were sending him to London to see whether it were not possible to meet the situation in that way, as it might be easier for him to have dealings with the English.
This news was like a bolt out of a clear sky, for though the parents were not blind to the peculiarities of their eldest son, they were yet so accustomed to hear him praised that it was hard to realize that he could be so careless about his future as to destroy it so ruthlessly.
Their depression was great, when, six weeks later, they received word from him that he had received his final dismissal. A quarrel had occurred between him and his London chief in which he had clearly told the latter his opinion: that bargaining was seeking to get the better of another, which was simply legitimate stealing and that he would not stand for it. Because of his honesty, he had received his dismissal. His parents need not be troubled over the matter. One month's salary had been paid in advance, besides which he had looked for a situation and had already found one; thus he wrote.
A vicar had established a boarding-school, to eke out the pittance which did not meet his daily needs for himself and his large family, and wanted the young man to teach French.
The shyness which one felt in his speech did not show itself in his home letters. He wrote often and in great detail. His style was halting and abrupt, as if a deep impression had to rest awhile within his heart before it could find expression. With the stroke of a real artist, along big human lines, he would depict exquisite landscapes, sunny corners, street scenes, etcetera, comparing them with scenes at home, thereby making them real and concrete. Sometimes with a few lines he would sketch figures to illustrate more clearly his thought. Later, when writing about paintings on which he was working, he would illustrate them with pen-and-ink drawings.
In a letter to his parents he gave a description of his present situation in the neighborhood of London. He described the vicar as a long, lean man, bent with thecare of his large family, whose needs his small earnings in no wise met, and who, so to speak, just hung in his clothes. His face was heavily lined, and the color of some wooden-looking saint in an old picture. The wife he described as a quiet, delicate little woman, with eyes as blue as the early March violets.
There were twenty boarders in the old gray vicarage which was overgrown with clematis and roses. Nevertheless, the interior furnishing resembled one of Dickens's descriptions of a school, so cleverly caricatured in the Chapman & Hall edition. The boys appeared as if they had stepped out of these illustrations, especially when, on a Sunday afternoon, in their short jackets, long trousers, and high hats, after the service, where they had sung in the choir, they played leapfrog — boys between eleven and sixteen, lean and pale, caricatures of their youth — "Mr. Creakle's young gentlemen, as they appear enjoying themselves."
Again, though hardly as a surprise, it was found that the young man had little talent for his new-chosen duty. His pupils did not torment him. His troubles were not those of Mr. Mell in "David Copperfield," a subject of torment and a person to be scorned, for he always knew how to awaken respect. Besides, over those of his pupils whose mentality was a little more developed than the rest, he knew how to cast a spell with tales of Holland, the land without hills and of many rivers, where the houses and streets were as clean and spotless as the play-toys of the giants in "Gulliver's Travels." As a teacher of languages he served little purpose. His growing genius rebelled to find itself in fetters. He suffered greatly from the narrow limits of his field of work, and the ever regular recurring duties, to which he could never quite accustom himself.
Most of the scholars belonged to the very lowest class of small London shopkeepers, sons of small butchers, if one may give them the dignified name of butchers; men who bought and sold meat that reputable firms had refused to purchase; sons of cobblers or of small shopkeepers, where notions or tobacco were sold. The children were generally sent to school because of their health, or because of the numerous ones at home, without considering whether the small income could meet this extra expense.
If the money were not forthcoming at the close of the term, steps were often taken to collect these payments first by personal calls upon the parents, before sending the pupils away or even taking sharper measures. To this undesirable task of collecting outstanding school debts, the principal now assigned his young teacher. It was in all probability the most distasteful duty, to one of his temperament, that the young man had yet been asked to perform.
However, stuffing a map of London and the needed addresses in his pocket, he set forth, with just enough money to meet his bare expenses. Knowing London thoroughly, and being used to poking around odd corners, he soon found the desired families, even those who had moved, or, worse still, had given false addresses. The debtors, being unprepared for this visit, paid, and the vicar was indeed gratified, as he had never before collected so fully all that was due him.
If it was not the very lowest section of the city the young teacher visited, they certainly were back streets and alleys to which he had to go, where the struggle for life had emaciated the bodies, bent the backs, and left relentless lines on drawn and pinched faces. Who knows but that the poverty witnessed here imprinted on the future painter's imagination the desire to picture it upon canvas, and gave to the world, years later, in his Brabant period, the "Aardappeleeters," where a workingman's family is seated around the evening meal of a dish of potatoes.
Excerpted from Personal Recollection of Vincent Van Gogh by Elisabeth Duquesne Van Gogh, Katherine S. Dreier. Copyright © 2017 Elisabeth Duquesne Van Gogh. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
I. The Preparation
II. The Beginning
III. France Once More
IV. The End