[Reprinted from the column "Among People" (Onder de mensen) by M. J. Brusse in the Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant, a well-known Rotterdam newspaper, of May 26 and June 2, 1914.]
Among a group of art lovers not long ago the conversation turned to Vincent van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, which his sister-in-law, Mrs. J. van Gogh-Bonger, was busily and painstakingly arranging and annotating for publication in three heavy volumes. Dr. Jan Veth 1 told us about it. A long time ago, he said, he had been allowed to read them in manuscript. He was very impressed by the noble sentiment expressed in them and by their occasional utter simplicity. Those of his English period had struck him as especially powerful.
For a while the conversation continued spontaneously about the artist and the art dealer, the close friendship between the two brothers, which, particularly on Theo's part was not less than heroic in its self-sacrifice.
Johan de Meester 2 knew instances of this, observed during his own years in Paris. He also showed us the precious collection of Vincent's letters to their mutual friend, the young painter Van Rappard, most of them illustrated with pen drawings
And in the course of this interesting discussion, in which among others the director of the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam, Mr. Schmidt Degener 3, as well as that excellent young art critic Dirk Coster, took part, Jan Veth observed with a smile: "I never spoke to Vincent van Gogh--however, as a boy in Dordrecht, I often used to see him when he sold those coloured halfpenny prints to the schoolchildren at Blussé and Van Braam's bookshop.
"In case you should think it worth your while to investigate this Dordrecht episode," Dr. Veth suggested, "just make a note of the name of Mr. Braat. His father was the owner of the bookshop where Van Gogh worked. It is certain that the son, Mr. D. Braat, witnessed Vincent's behavior there. And he still has an interest in the firm of Blussé and Van Braam."
That same night I wrote to the address given me, requesting, if possible, some particulars about Vincent van Gogh as a . . . bookseller's clerk.
Mr. Braat very kindly replied:
"On the strength of a letter from my brother Frans, who in those days was an employee of the firm of Boussod Valadon & Co., where he often came into contact with Mr. Theo van Gogh (Vincent's brother), my father decided to give Vincent a job in the shop operated by the firm of Blussé & Van Braam.
In those days it never occurred to anybody that Vincent van Gogh possessed so much talent; as for myself, he always made a queer impression on me."
A few days later I stood before thc still imposing bookshop on the ground floor of the big old-fashioned house on Voor Street where Vincent van Gogh once wrote delivery notes, standing at his small desk. But I was urged to go upstairs to the enormous living room which resembled a hall, taking up the full width of this patrician house; in their sedate stateliness thc appointments were probably much the same as in the days when Vincent knew it.
And my host, with his beautifully trimmed white beard, sitting at his old-fashioned writing desk, was already telling me some of his brother Frans's stories; he had often met Theo van Gogh in Paris, and had written to Father Braat about Vincent "…For if you ask me, I am under the impression that the family did not really know what to do with the boy in those days. First he had been employed at Goupil's in The Hague, in which his uncle Vincent was a partner; then he was sent to England and Paris by them, and after he returned to Holland, his parents were extremely worried about him. In point of fact, there was no vacancy in my father's shop. The staff was quite sufficient… But you know how it is--my father did not like to turn down Frans's request, and so he came here; he had a little desk downstairs where he stood working
But when all this happened, Mr. Braat could no more remember than Dr. Veth.
However, perhaps there was somebody who knew; Mr. Rijken, now a retired corn chandler, with whom Vincent boarded in those days in Tolbrugstraatje [Tollbridge Alley] over the way. "We might call on him after a while."
Mr. Braat knew that Van Gogh had come as an apprentice and Theo had been very grateful to Mr. Braat's father for this. In theory Vincent had the show goods, and now and then the delivery goods, under his care… but when ever anyone looked at what he was doing, it was found that instead of working, he was translating the Bible into French, German and English, in four columns, with the Dutch text in addition.
He was puttering at this mostly. At other times when you happened to look, you caught him making little sketches, such silly pen-and-ink drawings, a little tree with a lot of branches and side branches and twigs--nobody ever saw anything else in it. (Although it turned out that afterward, when this work had come so much into vogue, Mr. Braat had taken a good look through Vincent's little desk from top to bottom! ... But not the slightest vestige of his handiwork was to be found, neither outside nor in.)
"No, as for business..." My aged host laughed with a scarcely concealed twinkling of mockery in his eyes. "For he had taken it into his foolish head to study theology and become a clergyman. At the time the Reverend Mr. Keller van Hoorn was at his peak in Dordrecht, and Van Gogh went to ask his advice. But the clergyman thought the preliminary study too hard for him. Not that he lacked the energy--but it was a fact that he had never been to a grammar school. The Reverend Mr. Van Hoorn wanted to show him the way to become a missionary, but Vincent did not care for this idea at all; he much preferred to study.
"For that matter, his father was a clergyman. 'I want to be a shepherd like my father,' he would say to me sometimes. 'But my dear boy,' I once warned him, 'don't you think it's too bad that after so many years your father has not been able to get anything better than Etten and De Leur?'
"This was the only time I ever saw Van Gogh angry: His father was absolutely in the right place; a true shepherd.
"Well, shortly afterward Vincent went to Amsterdam and was taken in by his uncle, the rear admiral, in whose house he started studying Latin and Greek in an attic. Since then I have lost sight of him I cannot say I was particularly interested. No, he was not an attractive boy, with those small, narrowed, peering eves of his and, in fact, he was always a bit unsociable.
"And then I remember well that he always preferred to wear a top hat, a bit of respectability he had brought back from England; but such a hat--you were afraid you might tear its brim off if you took hold of it. I have often puzzled over his exact age, hut I cannot find out, for instance, whether he was old enough to he called up for the militia."
But he was certainly obliging, and physically very strong, though he did not look it. During one of those frequent floods Mr. Braat had admired his physical strength and good nature. At the time he lived in Tolbrugstraatje--in a room with whitewashed walls, my informant believed, on which he had made all kinds of sketches and crude drawings. But his landlord, who did not like this at all, had repainted them later on. However this may have been--that particular night everything was flooded. Without hesitating for a moment, Van Gogh rushed out of the house and waded through the water to his employer's house in order to warn him. For Blussé and Van Braam's storehouse was next door to his boarding-house All the next morning he was lifting those heavy wet stacks of paper and carrying them upstairs. After all these years Mr. Braat still spoke with admiration of so much physical strength.
Also, Van Gogh was always as compliant as possible. For all that, he now and then could irritate the old gentleman into peevishness: "Good heavens! that boy's standing there translating the Bible again." But he could not be trusted to serve the public and such, except perhaps to sell a quire of letter paper or a halfpenny print once in a while. For he had not the slightest knowledge of the book trade, and he did not make any attempt to learn....
On the contrary, he was excessively interested in religion. "On Sunday he always went to church, preferably an orthodox one… And during the week, well, we started work here at eight o'clock in the morning; at one o'clock he went home to lunch until three; and then he came back in the evening for a few hours. For the rest, he had no intercourse with anybody; he led an absolutely solitary life. He took many walks all over the island, but always alone. In the shop he hardly spoke a word. In short, he was something of a recluse."
This was confirmed by Miss Braat, who lives with her brother over the bookshop. "I never thought there was anything particular about him. Honestly, I always thought of him as a real dullard .... And as he was always working on his Bible by night, Father used to say, 'That boy is no good to me, for he is always drowsy in the daytime....'"
"But his behavior was beyond reproach. He went straight home from here. Think of it, not once did he visit the family upstairs; he never said a single word to me, when as a young girl I used to pass through the shop. And so, when he became obsessed with the idea of being a preacher, Pa told him, 'My lad, if you believe your road in life lies that way, you should take it, by all means.'"
"Apart from this I do not believe there is anybody in Dordrecht who knew him," was Mr. Braat's opinion. "Upon my word, he was such a queer fish. Intercourse with painters, for instance? Member of Pictura? Never! In our business, too, he was really next to useless... For he had been at Goupil's, the art dealer's, for quite a while before then. My father bought his prints from them. But never think that Van Gogh left his desk when the samples arrived. No, it looked as if he were suffering from a sense of injury--there was something lonesome about him. When you saw him, you pitied him…"
A moment later Mr. Braat pointed out to me in the shop, which was arranged a bit differently at the time, the spot where Vincent had stood through the day. And across the way, in the same little square, the ancient facade of the former public weighhouse behind the elms… To one side was the delicious view of the Voorstraat Harbor, surrounded by old-fashioned houses, with their picturesque little roofs and railings and skylights, standing in the water with wet feet, as it were--the lower walls juicily moist and weather-beaten.
Vincent van Gogh could reach his home across this square in half a minute--that house in funny, narrow Tollbridge Alley. It is a little old alley in which there are some condemned houses. But the corn chandler's shop is still there, clean and neat, with trim, carefully painted flour bins and a nice little white archway leading to the back of the house. On the fanlight one may read, as of old, the words painted with graceful flourishes: "All Corn Chandler's Wares, Wheaten and Rye Flour. P. Rijken." And this although the shop has been sold and Vincent's former landlord has retired and is now living at the Boerenvismarkt (Peasant Fish Market).
Mr. Rijken received us kindly and hospitably. He is a well-preserved, lively man considering his years; a blithe "retired gentleman" in a small way, with side whiskers and a long Gouda clay pipe.... But we should realize that his wife often had some four or five young gentlemen as boarders; he had his business to attend to and could not take too much notice of them--though for that matter he remembered Mr. Van Gogh quite well.... He was a queer chap, and no mistake. Many a time during those days Mr. Rijken would go upstairs to his room, where he would be drawing in one of those blue smocks: "Come on, Van Gogh, you should go to bed...."
He had his moods, you see? For instance, sometimes he did not go home to dinner in the afternoon. He simply kept on walking.... Well, such things would never do for Mrs. Rijken. For she was thoroughly generous--a true mother to the boys--and when he arrived at last, she would give him a piece of her mind. But somehow it made no impression. And he called eating a luxury!
Consequently, the other young gentlemen made fun of him. But the landlord would not stand for it. As a matter of fact, he pitied Vincent a little. And the young fellow liked the Rijkens very much. Van Gogh liked talking to them about London once in a while best of all. But during dinner, for instance, he was singularly silent. If Mrs. Rijken were still alive, she might have told a lot about his peculiarities.
As for Mr. Rijken himself--when he was in business, he never used to get up to go to the cornloft later than three o'clock in the morning. And then, again and again, there was that shuffling in Van Gogh's room. The walls were full of drawings; he simply fixed them with nails ruthlessly driven into the good wall-paper....
"Wasn't his room whitewashed?" I ventured.
"Dear me, no! Whoever told you such nonsense?" he answered. "In our house everything was neat and trim upstairs, and that was why I could not stand this Van Gogh covering the walls with those drawings and driving nails into the wallpaper.... In fact, in my heart I made fun of him, too, about those drawings. For they were not a bit good, you see. The most childish stuff. Kind of small landscapes--images, if you know what I mean.
"Occasionally, well, speaking frankly, it was as if the fellow was out of his mind. And then I sometimes kicked up a row, for we really were like a father and mother to those boys… But that spooky business in the night. And he bought the candles for it himself--don't get the idea that he got so much light from me! Oil cost good money, too. Besides, I was afraid of a fire--because he was so queer. What young gentleman would ever think of sitting about in a smock? He looked like an immigrant....
"And yet those lads had a very cosy life together. At the back of the house they had a glorious view of some gardens. And especially during the second half of the month, when they hadn't a penny to bless themselves with, they would huddle together, smoking each other's tobacco, and having fun… Orelio4 later came and sang there hundreds of times....
"You see, I had killed a fat pig, and the young gentlemen had to eat of it too.... But all the things this Van Gogh drew, well, I thought them just trash.... laughable. And to tell the honest truth, I was never able to see through him. I was never able to discover what he was really after.... The only thing I know is that he avoided the other boys as much as possible; he always wanted to be alone.
"'Van Gogh, you ought to eat.' How often I used to say this to him.
"But no. 'I am not in want of any food; eating is a luxury.'
"On the other hand, the others told me that during his walks he would buy a roll, munching it in the streets. This really mortified us--as if we didn't give him enough to eat! But after all, he was a bit like the Wandering Jew. And if they are buying those drawings of his now, all I can say is, One folly buys the other....
" 'Mind my wallpaper; you ruin everything with your nails.' For he hammered away like mad. But nothing could influence him--not even the scoldings he got from my wife for staying away all through Sunday... on the other hand, he never got cross…
"It was always the same: 'I don't want food, I don't want a night's rest.' But then I had a word with your pa, Mr. Braat… for at first he said his late bouts were due to the pressure of business. Later on he told us he kept roaming about because he needed quiet... And yet I could not stand the young gentlemen teasing him. I don't know why, but I kept seeing him as a scapegoat...."
Rijken had told me that Mr. P. C. Görlitz, then a young schoolmaster, now retired History Master of the Secondary School at Nimeguen, had been a fellow hoarder of Vincent van Gogh's. I received from Nimeguen a most courteous reply to my letter on this subject, the greater part of which follows:
At the time when I was an assistant teacher boarding with Mr. Rijken and his wife together with an apprentice in the book and art shop of the firm of Blussé & Van Braam, lodgings were applied for there by Mr. Vincent van Gogh, employed by the same firm as a bookkeeper and an art salesman. The boss, as we called our landlord, asked me, "Would you object to sharing your room with Mr. Van Gogh, sir? Otherwise, I haven't enough room for him, and I should very much like to take him in."
"Oh yes, provided he is a decent fellow." So it came about that Mr. V. v. G. and I became fellow boarders and roommates.
He was a singular man with a singular appearance into the bargain. He was well made, and had reddish hair which stood up on end; his face was homely and covered with freckles, but changed and brightened wonderfully when he warmed into enthusiasm, which happened often enough. Van Gogh provoked laughter repeatedly by his attitude and behavior--for everything he did and thought and felt, and his way of living, was different from that of others of his age. At table he said lengthy prayers and ate like a penitent friar for instance, he would not take meat, gravy, etc. And then his face had always an abstracted expression--pondering, deeply serious, melancholy. But when he laughed, he did so heartily and with gusto, and his whole face brightened.
He was thrifty by nature, and also from necessity, for his means were limited like mine--even more so, for he was only a novice in business. Besides, he did not want to ask his parents to supplement his income (his father was a clergyman at Etten and Leur).
In the evening, when he came home, he used to find me studying--at the time I was working for my teaching certificate--and then, after an encouraging word to me, he would start working, too.
And his work was not, as one might have expected, art, but religion. Night after night Van Gogh sat reading the Bible, making extracts from it, and writing sermons; for in those days (I presume he was twenty-five then), strict piety was the core of his being. Only when we took a walk together did the superb views and distant prospects in which Dordrecht is so rich occasion him to expatiate upon what seemed beautiful to him.
His religious feelings were broad and noble, the reverse of narrow-minded; although in those days he was an orthodox Protestant, he not only went to the Dutch Reformed Church on Sunday, but also on the same day to the Jansenist, the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran churches. And when I once expressed my astonishment and lack of understanding, he answered with a good-natured smile, "Do you really think, G., that God cannot be found in the other churches?"
He lived like a kind of ascetic, and permitted him self only one luxury--a pipe. Cigars were too expensive, and, for that matter, he liked to smoke pipe tobacco and in large quantities.
Gradually he got more melancholy, and his daily work cost him more and more effort; he was not fit for his job, and his job was not fit for him. In the midst of his bookkeeping a beautiful text or a pious thought would occur to him, and he would write it down; he could not resist the impulse, ce fut plus fort que lui. And when he had to give ladies and other customers information about the prints, exhibited by Mr. Braat, he paid no attention to his employer's interests, but said explicitly and unreservedly what he thought of their artistic value. Once more: he was unfit for business. To be a minister of religion, that was his ideal, and it was an obsession with him; but he condemned, or at least did not approve of, the necessity of a knowledge of Latin and Greek for the ministry.
So religion occupied all his spare time and thoughts--not art; though what he had to say about art now and then was sound, instructive and to the point. Religion had also inspired him when he was in London acting as a curate to an old preacher, who endeavored to educate neglected boys and worse. About this he would tell quite poignant stories.
So he struggled on, deluding his parents into thinking he was contented. But when, in consequence of an application, I once stayed with his parents, I frankly told Mrs. Van Gogh what was wrong with him, and that V. was unhappy in his profession, though his employer was a kind sort of man; and that he had only one ardent desire, to become a preacher. I told him what I had done, and he said, "I regret this, but it is true." His parents then forced him to tell the truth unreservedly, and he went to Amsterdam, to his uncle Van Gogh, the rear admiral. But we who knew his sober and simple ways realized he would feel extremely lonely there. His stay did not last long, which was to be expected.
When he took leave of me, he gave me as a keepsake L'oiseau by Michelet, a book he passionately admired. At the time Spurgeon too was one of his favorite authors. Mr. Rijken and his wife were very kind to him, for they held his earnestness and gentleness in high esteem....
… However, this modest investigation into Vincent van Gogh's stay in Dordrecht left a number of questions unanswered. And the more I heard about it, the more I was captivated by the subject.
Therefore I wrote to Mrs. Van Gogh, Theo's widow, asking whether there were any letters pertaining to the Dordrecht episode which might shed more light on this period of Vincent's life. Part of Mrs. Van Gogh's reply follows:
I should take the greatest of pleasure in letting you examine the Dordrecht letters, but I have not got here ... the proofs of the first volume… But the book may be published any day now....
The letters written at that time are excellent. He tells about living with Rijken the corn chandler, and about Nico Mager, and a certain Görlitz, a teacher. I still have a letter about Theo from Mr. Braat, the father; Theo had been an intimate friend of Frans Braat's in Paris.... The letters impart so much.... I have been working on them for years. The last two years I have been doing nothing else, often working on far into the night.
Out of his 652 letters, jumbled together in utter confusion, with loose sheets, and hardly ever dated...
And how many family letters have I not hunted through in order to find a date that might clarify some point....
In a postscript Mrs. Van Gogh-Bonger adds that, when choosing Mr. Simons to undertake publication of the three volumes for her, she put the price at the lowest possible figure, in order to enable as many people to buy the book as possible....
The very day after I received this letter, the publisher was kind enough to send me the weighty first volume of The Letters of Vincent van Gogh to his Brother.
The book had arrived from the binders that very morning, and it was to be published in a few days.
Now this has happened, the preceding remarks may serve as a very, very modest amplification of the ten letters from Dordrecht in this collection of 239 letters....