Cornelia (Kee) Adriana Vos-Stricker (March 21, 1846 – 1918) was Vincent van Gogh’s cousin, the daughter of Van Gogh’s mother’s older sister and Johannes Stricker, an aunt and uncle who had shown kindness to the struggling artist. While Van Gogh was living with his family in Etten, Netherlands, he fell in love with Kee who had recently become widowed and was raising her 8 year old son on her own. Kee, however, did not return his feelings though Van Gogh was quite persistent even following her response of “never, no, never” to his marriage proposal.
In a letter to Theo on November 3, 1881, Van Gogh said,
“There is something on my mind that I want to tell you about. You may perhaps know something of it already and it will not be news to you. I wanted to let you know that I fell so much in love with Kee Vos this summer that I can find no other words for it than, “It is just as if Kee Vos were the closest person to me and I the closest person to Kee Vos,” and – those words I spoke to her. But when I told her this, she replied that her past and her future remained as one to her so that she could never return my feelings.
Then I was in a tremendous dilemma about what to do. Should I resign myself to that “never, no, never,” or consider the matter not yet settled and done with, keep in good heart and not give up?
I chose the latter. And to this day I do not regret this approach, although I am still up against that `never, no, never’.”
Van Gogh made his affections clear to his parents as well as hers and they did not respond as he would have hoped. Instead both sides of the family grew upset with the love-struck artist. Van Gogh continued his letter to Theo,
“One of the reasons why I have not written to you about all this before is that my position was so uncertain and unsettled that I was unable to explain it to you. Now, however, we have reached the point where I have spoken about it, not only to her but to Father and Mother, to Uncle and Aunt Stricker and to our Uncle and Aunt at Prinsenhage.”
“Similarly, I didn’t take it amiss when Uncle Stricker said that there was the danger that I ‘might be severing friendly relationships and old ties’. Whereupon I said that in my view the real issue, far from severing old ties, was to see if the old ones could not be renewed where they were in need of repair.”
Van Gogh did not give up easily. He continues,
“I told you that the position has now become more clear cut. 1st. – Kee says never, no, never and then – I have the feeling that I’m going to have an immense amount of difficulty with the older people, who consider the matter settled and done with now and will try to force me to drop it.
For the time being, however, I think they’ll go about it very gently…”
“But now you will realize that I hope to leave no stone unturned that might bring me closer to her, and that is my intention:
To go on loving her
Until in the end she loves me too.”
At the end of November Van Gogh sent his uncle a registered letter which he hoped would not be ignored and in which, he “tried to draw his attention to some points which I fear he overlooked or which he would take no notice of. It is a very “undiplomatic” letter, very bold, but I am sure it will at least make an impression on him. But perhaps at first it will cause him to use a certain expletive which he certainly would not use in a sermon.”
He followed this letter with a visit to his uncle in Amsterdam. In a letter to Theo, December 1-3, 1881, Van Gogh said,
“Meanwhile” I have been to Amsterdam. Uncle Stricker was rather angry, though he gave vent to it in more polite words than “God damn you.” But nevertheless I am not sorry I paid that visit. What must be done now? For you know that I came back no less in love than I went, but not because she had encouraged me; on the contrary, she made me for a moment – or rather, for twenty-four hours – profoundly miserable, but when I thought it over I seemed to see some light after all. When I thought it over, I say, and somewhat more seriously than romanticism or sentimentality would allow. But it looks less and less like gathering strawberries in spring; well, the strawberries will no doubt come in due time.”
On May 14, 1882, Van Gogh wrote to Theo and offered a short reminder of what had happened during the course of his affection for Kee. He said,
“To express my feelings for Kee, I said resolutely, “She, and no other.” And her “no, never never” was not strong enough to make me give her up. I still had hope, and my love remained, notwithstanding this refusal, which I thought was like a piece of ice that would melt. But I could find no rest. The strain became unbearable because she was always silent and I never received a word in answer.
Then I went to Amsterdam. There they told me, “When you are in the house, Kee leaves it. She answers, `Certainly not him,’ to your `she, and no other’; your persistence is disgusting.”
I put my hand in the flame of the lamp and said, “Let me see her for as long as I can keep my hand in the flame” – no wonder that later H. G. T. may have looked at my hand.
But they blew out the lamp, I believe, and said, “You shall not see her.””
“Well, it was too much for me, especially when they spoke of my wanting to coerce her, and I felt that the crushing things they said to me were unanswerable, and that my “she, and no other” had been killed.
Then, not at once, but very soon, I felt that love die within me; a void, an infinite void came in its stead. You know I believe in God, I did not doubt the power of love, but then I felt something like, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me,” and everything became a blank. I thought, Have I been deceiving myself?…”O God, there is no God!”
That cold terrible reception in Amsterdam was too much for me, my eyes were opened at last.”
The love affair with Kee, and the repeated rejection from her, triggered Van Gogh’s first bout of mental illness. However, by January of 1882, Van Gogh had a new woman in his sights, Sein.