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Vincent van Gogh As Bookseller’s Clerk in Dordrecht

by VanGoghology

 This is a reprint from the popular column “Among People” (Onder de mensen) by M. J. Brusse in the Nieuwe  Rotterdamse Courant, May 26 and June 2, 1914.

Part ONE of two pages

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 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 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 , 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 colored 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.

Windmills at Dordrecht (Weeskinderendijk) Van Gogh

Windmills at Dordrecht (Weeskinderendijk)

Windmills at Dordrecht (Weeskinderendijk)

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.

VINCENT VAN GOGH AS BOOKSELLER’S CLERK IN DORDRECHTA few days later I stood before the 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 the 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.

Pieter Rijken

Pieter Rijken – Vincents landlord in Dordrecht

However, perhaps there was somebody who knew; Mr. Rijken (pictured), 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 whenever 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.

Pieter Kornelis Braat Blussé en Van Braam

Pieter Kornelis Braat – Vincent’s boss/owner of the bookstore

“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, but I cannot find out, for instance, whether he was old enough to be 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 half-penny 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.


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