Letter to Theo van Gogh, 12 November 1881 [181/157], Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
In love: Vincent van Gogh's first true love
The ‘true’ artist. Van Gogh as well, is presented as a tormented soul who, utterly alone, strikes out on his own path in the face of uncomprehending opposition, and is also unhappy in love. This intrigues readers, because it makes the artist so recognisable.1 The legends woven around Van Gogh's love life have been given growing prominence in a series of biographies in which fiction vies with fact. Particular stress is placed on Van Gogh's first, youthful love, the theory being that he was so devastated when he was turned down by the one he worshipped that it stamped an indelible mark on the rest of his life.
All the biographers base this view of events on a single story, one told by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the widow of Vincent's brother Theo. In 1914 she was responsible for the first edition of Vincent's letters to Theo, and in the opening ‘Memoir’ she gave an account of Vincent's life that has been reprinted in all subsequent editions of the correspondence. In it she said that Vincent had spent the happiest year of his life in London. He had been working at the Goupil gallery there since June, and for a year from August 1875 he lodged with Mrs Ursula Loyer, a widow aged over 50 who ran a day school for young children together with her 19-year-old daughter, Eugénie.2 Vincent fell in love with the girl, but discovered she was secretly engaged. That, according to Jo van Gogh-Bonger, was the cause of Vincent's first great sorrow. He was crushed when Eugénie refused to break off her engagement (‘he was thin, silent and dejected - a different being,’ in the words of Jo van Gogh-Bonger).
In all the early biographies that appeared after 1914, the serious as well as the romanticised, this disillusionment became the cornerstone of a new theory. The fact that Van Gogh had been rebuffed by the one he loved led him to pursue a ‘deliberately painful life.’ The effect on his character and inner life was appalling. Depression set in. Vincent agonised over everything, turned in on himself and avoided the company of others. He became a loner, a solitary and a fanatically pious zealot. His view of art also changed, became more melancholy.3 One commentator even reconstructed Van Gogh's train of thought: the girl couldn't help the fact that she was already engaged, he couldn't blame her for anything. On the contrary, he was grateful to her for coming into his life at a crucial moment. What he now had to do was change, become a better person.4
Van Gogh's state of mind was dissected even further in Irving Stone's romanticised biography of 1934. According to him, after Vincent left the Loyer household and moved to another address in London, he found it an unbearable torture to know that she was so close yet so unattainable. ‘Pain did curious things to him. It made him sensitive to the pain of others. It made him intolerant of everything that was cheap and blatantly successful in the world around him. He was no longer of any value at the gallery [Goupil's]. The only pictures in which he could find reality and emotional depth were the ones in which
Vincent's own words
Vincent does not say much on the subject in his correspondence with Theo. Only in two letters does he speak of a youthful love affair, and they are worth quoting at length. ‘I gave up a girl and she married another, and I went far away from her and kept thinking about her. Fatal,’ he wrote on 12 November 1881. ‘But precisely because love is so strong, usually in our youth (I mean at 17, 18 or 20), we are not strong enough to hold our tiller straight. The passions are the little boat's sails, you see. And someone who entirely gives way to his feelings in his 20th year catches too much wind and his boat fills with water and and - he goes under or... manages to get over it. [...] The first case, of the man whose little boat capsized in his 20th year or thereabouts and sank, did he not - or no - who recently came to the surface again - is really that of your brother Vincent, who writes to you as one “who has been down but yet came up again” [in English] (fig. 1). [...] What kind of love did I have in my 20th year? It is difficult to define, my physical passions were very weak in those days, possibly due to a couple of years of great poverty and hard work. But my intellectual passions were strong, and by that I mean that, without asking for anything in return, without wishing to accept pity, I wanted only to give but not to receive. Foolish, wrong, exaggerated, haughty, rash. For in matters of love one must not only take but give as well, and by the same token not only give but also take. Whoever deviates either to the right or to the left will fall, there is no avoiding it. So I fell, and it was a wonder that I got over it.’7 There is another relevant passage in a letter that he wrote shortly before: ‘When I was younger I once half-fancied that I was in love, and with the other half I really was. The result was many years of humiliation. May all that humiliation not have been in vain.’8 These are the only clues that Van Gogh himself gives us. They refer to something that had happened when he was around 20, so their meaning must have been clear enough to Theo, but they do not provide much information for later readers. Consequently, they served to fuel wild speculation, and have always been associated with Vincent's stay in London. Jan Hulsker was the only author to have his doubts, but even he could not avoid following Jo van Gogh-Bonger, the creator of this tale of young love in London.9
The first London period
Vincent wrote affectionately of Mrs Loyer and her daughter, but described his relationship with the girl as that between a brother and sister, no more. He announced this to his sister Anna, and she in turn reported it to Theo on 6 January 1874. ‘Monday morning at breakfast I found a letter from London which contained a letter from Vincent and one from Ursula Loyer, both were very kind and amiable. She asks me to write her and Vincent wished very much we should be friends. I'll tell what he writes about her. “Ursula [sic]10 Loyer is a girl with whom I have agreed that we should consider ourselves each other's brother and sister. You should look on her as a sister too and write to her, and I think you will then soon find out what kind of a girl she is. I'll say nothing more than that I never saw or dreamed of anything like the love between her and her mother.”- Then there follows a description of Christmas and New-year and then still the following phrase. “Old girl, don't think there is more behind it than I wrote just now, but don't tell them at home: I must do that myself. But again: Love her for my sake.” I suppose there will be a love between those two, as between Agnes and David Copperfield. Although I must say, that I believe there is more than a brother's love between them; I send you here Ursula's letter so you can judge for yourself.’11
More than a month later, on 24 February 1874, Anna told Theo that she had received a letter from Vincent in which he wrote that Eugénie (now given her correct name) had a fiancé, ‘a good natured youth,’ as Vincent called him, ‘who would know to appreciate her [sic].’ ‘He [Vincent] seems to be always in good spirits.’12
That cheerfulness is also apparent in his letters to Theo. There is little evidence of a failed attempt to get Eugénie to break off her engagement and a subsequent depression in the summer of 1874, at least not in the correspondence. On the contrary, Vincent was enjoying himself and working hard. On 10 June, Theo's father wrote to him saying that Mr Goupil, Van Gogh's employer, had told him that Vincent was very ambitious in his work.13
At the end of June Van Gogh left London for a fortnight's holiday at his parent's home in Helvoirt. He and Anna returned to London on 13 July, and she, too, lodged with the Loyers. They went on many walks together, and the letters show that they were having a pleasant time. The Reverend Van Gogh told Theo on 4 August that he had received yet another letter from Vincent and Anna that morning. They greatly enjoyed each other's company, and Anna said that the Loyers were good people who did everything they could to please her and Vincent.14 In short, there were no signs that anything was amiss. And Vincent in love? There is nothing in the letters to suggest it.
Now Anna clearly relished match-making, for in the first of her letters to Theo quoted above she mentioned a second candidate upon whom Vincent's eye had supposedly fallen. ‘You must try to find out more about Annet Haanebeek for if I know more of it, I should like to write about it to Vincent himself.’ And in her next letter to Theo she said: ‘I am very curious to know more about him [Vincent] and Annet. We two are just old people who try to know all about persons who are in love. But I am very glad for Vincent that he has found such a kind family to live, you know now yourself, how agreeable it is.’
Annet Haanebeek was related to the Van Goghs. Her mother was the sister of J.P. Strieker (known as Uncle Stricker), who was an uncle of the Van Goghs, having married Mrs Van Gogh's sister. The Haanebeeks lived in Lange Poten in The Hague.15
Theo regularly called on them, and passed on Vincent's respects. Annet then fell seriously ill. Theo wrote about her, not only to Anna and Vincent but to his sister Lies as well, as shown by her reply of 26 April 1875. ‘That poor Annet Haanebeek whom you wrote to me about, she is so young to have to die already.’16 On 8 May 1875 Vincent asked Theo: ‘How is the patient? I had already heard from Father that she was ill, but I did not know it was as bad as that.’ And a little further on: ‘I hope and believe that I am not what many people think I am just now. We shall see, some time must pass; they will probably say the same of you in a few years time, at least if you remain what you are: my brother in a twofold sense. Farewell, and my regards to the patient.’17 On 19 June he wrote: ‘I had hoped to see her before she died, but that was not to be. Man proposes and God disposes. In the first crate that we will send to Holland you will find a photograph of that picture by Ph. de Champaigne of which Michelet says: “It remained in my mind for 30 years, persistently coming back to me.”’ And he closed the letter with the words: ‘I am sure you will not forget her or her death, but keep it to yourself. This is one of those things which, as time goes by, makes us “sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” and that is what we must become.’18
Vincent's rather cool reaction to the news of Annet's death does not suggest that he had any special feelings for her. He did not write a letter of condolence to her father until November 1875,19 and that certainly does not hint at any romantic attachment, as Anna had once suspected. No,
the loss was Theo's. The Reverend Van Gogh realised that he was sad, and very cautiously offered him some advice in a letter of 8 July 1875. ‘My dear Theo [...] I have found that your spirits have been low lately, that you are not as cheerful as you used to be. Am I wrong? Can I do anything to make you happier? Is it also possible that your gaze is directed too much to one side? And now another question that I put to you with the idea that I am not speaking to a child but to a young man, to my son, who is our joy. You must consider, and consider deeply, without fear of being prejudiced, might it also be that the tone that prevails in the Haanebeek household as a result of the singularly sad circumstances that came to pass there, might it also be that the tone that prevails there is too gloomy, too one-sided, too closed. [...] Your mood used to be different, I am sounding you out, of course, what brought about the change? Is it not true that that is almost the only house you visit? That made me wonder, might an association with just one family, at least almost solely with one family, might that also lead one to lean too much to one side? I know very well that there is much that is excellent in those people, and I would not like to appear to be causing trouble, or gossiping, but I do think it would be desirable for you to follow up association with that family by seeking out other people.’20
So if it was Theo, and not Vincent, who entertained special feelings for Annet Haanebeek, for whom did Vincent have them? By staying closer to home and examining the letters from Van Gogh's first period in The Hague and those from Paris one discovers that something was going on before he went to London.
To whom did Vincent send such beautiful poems with his letters apart from Theo? For whom had he wanted to send Keats's tremulously erotic poem, ‘The eve of St Agnes,’ but for the fact that ‘it is a little long to copy down’? And towards whom did he adopt a completely different tone, complete with grandiloquent words written on splendid blue writing paper? (fig. 2).21 Who was preparing for her
Letter to Willem and Caroline van Stockum, October 1873 [14/11a], Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
wedding at the time when Vincent wrote to Theo: ‘Theo, I strongly advise you to smoke a pipe; it's such a good remedy if you're down in the dumps, as I have been from time to time lately.’22 And who is always addressed affectionately in the letters as ‘Old girl,’ and to whom does he expressly ask to be remembered, with no mention of her husband, who on one occasion was merely sent ‘many happy returns’ on his birthday, while she received a personal letter of congratulations on hers? To whom did Van Gogh send photographs of works of art for a ‘scrapbook’? Whom should Theo above all visit in person,23 and after whom did he assiduously enquire?24 Who received a little book,25 and to whom did he
‘recommend’ the writer George Eliot?26 One and the same woman: Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek, Annet's sister and (before her marriage) a collector for the State Lottery in The Hague.27 It was her, she and none other, who was the subject of the quotation at the start of this article: ‘What kind of love did I have in my 20th year [in 1873, in other words]? I gave up a girl [she was a few months older than him] and she married [on 30 April 1871] another [Willem van Stockum], and I went far away from her [to London, in June 1873] and kept thinking about her [see above]. Fatal.’28
So two brothers fell in love with two sisters: Theo with Annet Haanebeek and Vincent with Caroline. If one accepts this reading, all sorts of other details fall into place. The statement: ‘My physical passions were very weak in those days, possibly due to a couple of years of great poverty and hard work’ becomes easier to understand. Van Gogh had very little money in his first two years in The Hague, and he was not really happy, as he himself said in a letter of February 1883 in response to a letter about ‘love’: ‘I sometimes think of years ago when I came to G[oupil] & Co. in The Hague for the first time, and of the three years I spent there; the first two were rather unpleasant, but the last one was much happier.’29
It now also becomes clear why, in the period 1874-75, Vincent copied out Saint-Beuve's ‘Sonnet’ after Uhland, which is about two sisters, on p. 18 of Theo's poetry album. Ludwig Uhland was the poet who wrote ‘Der Wirthin Töchterlein’ that is mentioned in a letter cited below, and that poem is in both Theo's and Vincent's poetry albums.30
Setting a good example
In one of his first letters to Theo, Vincent recalled a walk that they had taken to the mill at Rijswijk in the summer of 1872. In August of that year, Johan Andries Stricker, the father of J.A. Stricker, celebrated his 80th birthday in Huis te Hoorn at Rijswijk, which stood beside the Rijswijk barge canal, and both brothers very probably attended the reception. In the photograph taken on the occasion (fig. 3), almost all the people present have been identified, including Vincent. Theo was staying with his brother in The Hague at the time. During that walk they must have discussed private matters. What did they speak about by that mill? Their feelings for the Haanebeek sisters, perhaps? The stroll left Vincent with ‘memories [...] which are perhaps the most beautiful I have,’ and he later returned to the subject on several occasions.31 Father Theo(dorus) and Mother Anna and Uncle Vincent and Aunt Cornelie were two Van Gogh brothers married to two Carbentus sisters. Vincent's father and uncle, whom he adored at the time, were thus ‘brothers in a twofold sense,’ as he described himself and Theo in the letter about Annet quoted earlier.
After Caroline married, Vincent's feelings towards her changed in the sense that he began adoring the state of motherhood. In 1877, Caroline fell very ill, as her sister Annet had done. On 5 August of that year Vincent wrote, tellingly, to Theo: ‘In the midst of life we are in death, that is a phrase that touches each one of us personally, it is a truth we again see confirmed in what you tell me about Caroline van Stockum, and formerly we saw it in another member of the same family. It has touched me, and with all my heart I hope she may recover. Oh, what sorrow, what sadness and suffering there is in the world, in public as well as in private life, “Seek and ye shall find” is also true of that. How much has changed in that house, compared to the way it was a few years ago. “Dasz war vor langen Jahren, wenn wir beisammen waren” [that was many years ago, when we were together].32 And that was the time of Der Wirthin Töchterlein. Longfellow says: “There
Group picture taken on the occasion of the 80th birthday of J.A. Stricker, August 1872. Theo and Vincent can be seen at the middle rear, Caroline Haanebeek and Willem van Stockum at the left. Private collection
are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,” but above all it is written: “Let him who puts his hand to the plough not look back,” and: “Be a man.” [...] If she should soon recover enough to be moved to The Hague, and if you see her then, remember me to her. If you can find words that will cheer her or give her courage, that will remind her of how much reason she has to exist and, in a manner of speaking, the right she has to live, above all for her children's sake, say them and you will be doing a good deed. With a mother, faith in God is renewed; what she feels for her children is sacred, comes from above, from God, and he says to every mother: “Raise this child for me and I shall reward thee.” Spoken in time, forceful words from the heart can cheer and comfort.’33 Above all don't look back, in other words, for that brings sorrow and a feeble heart - turn and go on.
Just how much Vincent had suppressed his former feelings for Caroline is shown by the stunningly Freudian leap he made in his letter of 18 August 1877 from Amsterdam: ‘This morning I had a talk with Mendes [Vincent's teacher of classical languages in Amsterdam] about M. Maris, and showed him that lithograph of those three children, and also “A baptism,” (fig. 4)34 and he understood it very well. [...] Have you heard anything more about Caroline? Went to Utrecht and back on the day of Hendrik's wedding reception, and congratulated them on your behalf as well. It was a very grand affair, lots of beautiful greenery in the room, the bride looked sweet enough. Uncle Jan seemed happy.’35 In Van Gogh's free association, the image of cousin Hendrik's bride had merged with that of Caroline, the bride he had dreamed of for himself and who was now the mother of two children. Her right to exist, in Van Gogh's vision at least, now resided above all in her motherhood.
The consolation of books
In his letter about young love cited at length above, Vincent included an interesting piece of information about the remedy he had sought for his broken heart. ‘What gradually helped me recover my balance more than anything else was reading practical books on physical and moral illness. I learned how to look deeper into my own
Albert Anker, A baptism, 1864
heart and into that of others. Gradually I began to love my fellow men again, myself included, and increasingly my heart and soul revived, which for a time had been withered, blighted and stricken through all kinds of great misery. And the more I returned to reality and mingled with people, the more I felt new life reawakening within me.’
Vincent consoled himself first with the book L'amour by Jules Michelet. In the first lines starting: ‘From here I see a lady’ of the chapter ‘Les aspirations de l'automne,’ Michelet describes an older woman, simply dressed, who reminds him of a female portrait by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674) in the Louvre which, Michelet writes, ‘remained in my mind for 30 years.’ Vincent was so impressed by the idealised vision of womankind sketched in this fragment that he urged Theo to read it too, and even copied it out several times, for himself and for Theo's poetry album. He also wrote it down for Caroline Haanebeek (fig. 5), instead of the erotic poem by Keats he had originally thought to send. A reproduction of the painting accompanied him on all his travels and, as we know, he also sent one to Theo to console him after the death of Annet Haanebeek. It was not for nothing that Vincent quoted Michelet's admiring words for Philippe de Champaigne's depiction of this woman dressed in mourning several times: ‘No woman is old,’ and that he later repeated
Fragment of Jules Michelet's ‘Les aspirations de l'automne’ enclosed with letter 14/11a, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
the words: ‘It remained in my mind for 30 years, persistently coming back to me.’36
This way of absorbing books and passages from them was typical of Van Gogh.37 His reading of L'amour and, later, La femme, in which Michelet extols the glories of motherhood, led him to sublimate his love for Caroline. He created a new ideal for himself: the older woman, the mother, marked by life.38 It is no wonder that he was so happy in London. Ursula Loyer was the personification of
‘When I get the chance I will send you a French Bible and the Imitation of Christ. The latter was probably the favourite book of the lady painted by Ph. de Champaigne. In the Louvre there is the portrait of her daughter, a nun, also by Ph. de Ch., she has the Imitation on the chair beside her.’40
It is not surprising that Johanna van Gogh-Bonger said nothing about Vincent's love and its later consequences. She never saw the letters to Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek, which were first published in the 1953 edition of the correspondence.41 It is also likely that Theo was economical with information about the past, and never told his wife about his own youthful loves, or Vincent's.42 It is interesting to see that Anna had suspected that something was up but did not know precisely what, and that many years later Jo van Gogh-Bonger did know that love had been in the air around 1873 but did not know precisely who the loved one was. That was a secret known only to the ‘brothers in a twofold sense.’
The only serious biographer who had his doubts about the legend created by Jo van Gogh-Bonger was Jan Hulsker. In 1985 he wrote: ‘Vincent knew in February (not June or July as stated in the Memoir) that she [Eugénie] was engaged, but that did not stop him from being “always in good spirits.” It is possible that his love later intensified, but I have so far been unable to find a shred of evidence for this, and must conclude that the whole episode has come down to us in a highly dramatised and exaggerated form through the Memoir.’43
As a result of a close reading of Van Gogh's letters to Theo and to Caroline Haanebeek it seems that the myth about him falling in love during his first stay in London is now untenable. As baseless as the claim that his disillusionment forced him there and then to take a different view of life - and art.