Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh The Hague, c. 4-8 August 1883

"For no particular reason, I cannot help adding a thought that often occurs to me. Not only did I start drawing relatively late in life, but it may well be that I shall not be able to count on many more years of life either.

If I think about it dispassionately - as if making calculations for an estimate or a specification - then it is in the nature of things that I cannot possibly know anything definitely about it.
But by comparison with various people with whose lives one may be familiar, or by comparison with some with whom one is supposed to have some things in common, one can draw certain conclusions which are not completely without foundation.

So, as to the time I still have ahead of me for work, I think I may safely presume that my body will hold up for a certain number of years quand bien même [in spite of everything] - a certain number between 6 and 10, say. (I can assume this the more safely as there is for the time being no immediate quand bien même.)

This is the period on which I count firmly. For the rest, it would be speculating far too wildly for me to dare make a definite pronouncements about myself, seeing that it depends precisely on those first, say, ten years as to whether or not there will be anything after that time.
If one wears oneself out during these years then one won't live beyond 40. If one conserves enough strength to withstand the sort of shocks that tend to befall one, and manages to deal with various more or less complicated physical problems, then by the age of 40 to 50 one is back on a new, relatively normal course.

But such calculations are not relevant at present. Instead, as I started to say, one should plan for a period of between 5 and 10 years. I do not intend to spare myself, to avoid emotions or difficulties - it makes comparatively little difference to me whether I go on living for a shorter or longer time - besides I am not competent to manage my constitution the way, say, a physician is able to. And so I go on like an ignoramus, one who knows just one thing: within a few years I must have done a certain amount of work - I don't need to rush, for there is no point in that, but I must carry on working in complete calm and serenity, as regularly and with as much concentration as possible, as much to the point as possible. The world concerns me only in so far as I owe it certain debt and duty, so to speak, because I have walked this earth for 30 years, and out of gratitude would like to leave some memento in the form of drawings and paintings - not made to please this school or that, but to express a genuine human feeling. So that work is my aim - and when one concentrates on this idea, everything one does is simplified, in that it is not muddled but has a single objective. At present the work is going slowly - one reason more not to lose any time.

Guillaume Régamey was, I think, someone who left behind no particular reputation (you know there are two Régameys, F. Régamey paints Japanese people, and is his brother), but is nevertheless a personality for whom I have a great respect. He died at the age of 38, and one period of his life lasting 6 or 7 years was almost exclusively devoted to drawings with a highly distinctive style, done while he worked under some physical handicap. He is one of many - a very good one among many good ones.

I don't mention him to compare myself with him, I am not as good as he was, but to cite a specific example of self-control and willpower, sustained by one inspiring idea, which in difficult circumstances nevertheless showed him how to do good work with utter serenity.

That is how I regard myself, as having to accomplish in a few years something full of heart and love, and to do it with a will. Should I live longer, tant mieux, [so much the better] but I put that out of my mind. Something must be accomplished in those few years, this thought guides all my plans. You will understand better now why I have a yearning to press on - and at the same time some determination to use simple means. And perhaps you will also be able to understand that as far as I am concerned I do not consider my studies in isolation but always think of my work as a whole."
-Vincent Van Gogh

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