Vincent van Gogh? Joni Mitchell? Justin Lee Collins? Nellie Hermann? Apocryphal?
Question for Quote Investigator: A personal website enables an artist to achieve inexpensive worldwide distribution of a large digital portfolio. Yet, the greatest challenge for an artist today is convincing others to pay attention to their artworks.
In the late nineteenth century an artist who later became famous experienced this same problem of bleak obscurity. The artist lamented that there was a great fire in his soul, but others were unaware. No one chose to warm themselves at this fire. This notion has been attributed to the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Would you please help me to find a citation?
Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1880 Vincent van Gogh penned a letter in French to his brother Theo. The following excerpt rendered into English is from the 1978 edition of “The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1
Do our inner thoughts ever show outwardly? There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way.
Look here, now, what must be done? Must one tend that inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down near it—maybe to stay? Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later.
The mention of salt corresponds to the biblical verse Mark 9:50. In this case, it means energizing oneself and persevering.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam maintains a valuable database of letters at vangoghletters.org. The date on the pertinent letter was between June 22, 1880 and June 24, 1880. The original French text is shown below:2
Bon, que veux-tu, ce qui se passe en dedans cela paraît-il en dehors. Tel a un grand foyer dans son âme et personne n’y vient jamais se chauffer et les passants n’en aperçoivent qu’un petit peu de fumée en haut par la cheminée et puis s’en vont leur chemin.
Maintenant voilà, que faire, entretenir ce foyer en dedans, avoir du sel en soi-même,23 attendre patiemment – pourtant avec combien d’impatience, attendre l’heure dis je, où quiconque voudra viendra s’y assoir, demeurera là, qu’en sais je. Que quiconque croit en Dieu attende l’heure qui viendra tôt ou târd.
Here is another rendering into English:
Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way.
So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know? May whoever believes in God await the hour, which will come sooner or later.
In 1882 Vincent van Gogh wrote another letter to his brother Theo which employed the same metaphorical framework. Below is an excerpt from the original Dutch text followed by an English translation:3
Mij althans gaat het dikwijls zoo dat als ik meer te weten kom omtrent het leven & werken van lui als Schuler, Lancon, Renouard, zooveel anderen, ik bespeur dat wat men van hen ziet slechts het kleine rookwolkje is dat boven uit hun schoorsteen komt en binnen in hun hart en atelier een groot vuur is.
With me, at least, it’s often the case that as I learn more about the life and work of fellows like Schuler, Lançon, Renouard, and so many others, I sense that what one sees of them is only the tiny puff of smoke that comes out of their chimney, and that within their heart and studio there’s a great fire.
In 1997 Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell released the album “Turbulent Indigo” which included a song of the same name about Van Gogh. The following three lines from the lyrics reflected the quotation under examination:4
“I’m a burning hearth,” he said
“People see the smoke,
But no one comes to warm themselves
In 2011 London cab driver Mark Solomon collected insightful sayings from his passengers and published them in the book “Black Cab Wisdom: Knowledge From The Back Seat”. The following item was included:5
Some people have a hearth burning in their soul, and yet no one comes to warm themselves by it.
Justin Lee Collins, television and radio presenter
(Vincent van Gogh)
In 2015 U.S. writer Nellie Hermann published “The Season of Migration” which presented a fictionalized version of a period from Vincent van Gogh’s life. The book contained text from some of Van Gogh’s letters including the following excerpt:6
Does what goes on inside ever show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way.
In conclusion, Vincent van Gogh deserves credit for this expression which he penned in a letter to his brother in 1880. The original text was in French and different renderings into English have appeared during subsequent years.
Image Notes: Burning logs in a fireplace from Stéphane Juban at Unsplash. The image has been cropped and resized.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Jane Bella who told QI about this quotation which inspired QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Bella located the letter in the database of letters maintained by the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam.
- 1978, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Volume 1, Second Edition, Letter Number 133, Letter To: Theo van Gogh, Letter Date: July 1880, Start Page 193, Quote Page 197, New York Graphic Society, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
- Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 155, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Letter to: Theo van Gogh, Date Between June 22 and 24, 1880, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed vangoghletters.org on November 10, 2023) link ↩︎
- Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 290, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Letter to: Theo van Gogh, Date: December 3, 1882, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed vangoghletters.org on November 10, 2023) link ↩︎
- 1997, Joni Mitchell: The Complete Poems and Lyrics by Joni Mitchell, Album: Turbulent Indigo (1994), Song: Turbulent Indigo, Quote Page 308, Chatto and Windus, London. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
- 2011 Copyright, Black Cab Wisdom: Knowledge From The Back Seat, Compiled by Mark Solomon, Quote Page Unnumbered (Page 19), Summersdale Publishers, West Sussex, UK. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
- 2015, The Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann, Letter to: Theo, Start Page 213, Quote Page 216, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎