Vincent van Gogh on the painter’s struggle

Sketch of a man pulling a harrow by Vincent van Gogh in a letter to Theo van Gogh (Drenthe, The Netherlands: October 28, 1883)

Sketch of a man pulling a harrow by Vincent van Gogh in a letter to Theo van Gogh (Drenthe, The Netherlands: October 28, 1883)
Image credit: van Gogh Museum: Amsterdam online database Vincent van Gogh: The Letters

I know the soul’s struggle of two people: Am I a painter or not? Of [Anthon van] Rappard and of myself – a struggle, hard sometimes, a struggle which accurately marks the difference between us and certain other people who take things less seriously; as for us, we feel wretched at times; but each bit of melancholy brings a little light, a little progress; certain other people have less trouble, work more easily perhaps, but then their personal character develops less. You, too, would have that struggle, and I tell you, don’t forget that you are in danger of being upset by people who undoubtedly have the very best intentions.

If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint, boy, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working. He who goes to friends and tells his troubles when he feels like that loses part of his manliness, part of the best that’s in him; your friends can only be those who themselves struggle against it, who raise your activity by their own example of action. One must undertake it with confidence, with a certain assurance that one is doing a reasonable thing, like the farmer drives his plough, or like our friend in the scratch below, who is harrowing, and even drags the harrow himself. If one hasn’t a horse, one is one’s own horse – many people do so here.

There is a saying of Gustave Dore‘s which I have always admired, “J’ai la patience d’un bœuf,” I find a certain goodness in it, a certain resolute honesty – in short, that saying has a deep meaning, it is the word of a real artist. When one thinks of the man from whose heart such a saying sprang, all those oft-repeated art dealer’s arguments about “natural gifts” seem to become an abominably discordant raven’s croaking. “J’ai la patience” – how quiet it sounds, how dignified; they wouldn’t even say it except for that very raven’s croaking. I am not an artist – how coarse it sounds – even to think so of oneself – oughtn’t one to have patience, oughtn’t one to learn patience from nature, learn patience from seeing the corn slowly ripen, seeing things grow – should one think oneself so absolutely dead as to imagine that one would not grow any more? Should one thwart one’s own development on purpose? I say this to explain why I think it so foolish to speak about natural gifts and no natural gifts.

But in order to grow, one must be rooted in the earth. So I tell you, take root in the soil of Drenthe – you will germinate there – don’t wither on the sidewalk. You will say there are plants that grow in the city – that may be, but you are corn, and your place is in the cornfield.
Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo van Gogh (Drenthe, The Netherlands: October 28, 1883). Translated and edited by Robert Harrison with the original translation from the Dutch by Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger. Original translation available in The Letters of Vincent van Gogh to his Brother, 1872-1886: With a memoir by his sister J. van Gogh-Bonger, Volume 2, (London: Constable & Company, Ltd., 1927), p. 332. Originally published as Vincent van Gogh: Brieven aan zijn Broeder. Uitgegeven en toegelicht door zijn schoonzuster J. van Gogh-Bonger, (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: 1914). Cited in part by Lee Graves in private email (October 2, 2007).

Vincent van Gogh Posted on behalf of on Thursday, May 13th, 2010 under Quotations.

One comment so far

  1. Amina Wolfe says:

    this certainly brings him to life. thanks. we all live on our farms and reap what we sow. break up those clods.

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