Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 10 September 1889
My dear Theo,
I think your letter is really good, what you say about Rousseau and artists like Bodmer, that they are men in any case, and of such a kind that one would wish the world populated with people like that – yes indeed, that’s what I myself feel too.
And that J.H. Weissenbruch knows and does the muddy towpaths, the stunted willows, the foreshortenings and the learned and strange perspectives of the canals ‘as Daumier does his lawyers’, I think that’s perfect. Tersteeg did well to buy some of his work from him, the fact that people like that don’t sell, according to me that’s because there are too many sellers who try to sell other things, with which they deceive the public and mislead them.
Do you know that today, still, when I read by chance the story of some energetic industrialist or above all a publisher, that the same feelings of indignation then come to me again, the same feelings of anger from the old days when I was with G.&Cie.
Life goes on like that, time doesn’t come back, but I’m working furiously, because of the very fact that I know that the opportunities to work don’t come back.
Above all, in my case, where a more violent crisis may destroy my ability to paint forever. In the crises I feel cowardly in the face of anguish and suffering – more cowardly than is justified, and it’s perhaps this very moral cowardice which, while before I had no desire whatsoever to get better, now makes me eat enough for two, work hard, take care of myself in my relations with the other patients for fear of relapsing – anyway I’m trying to get better now like someone who, having wanted to commit suicide, finding the water too cold, tries to catch hold of the bank again.
My dear brother, you know that I came to the south and threw myself into work for a thousand reasons.
To want to see another light, to believe that looking at nature under a brighter sky can give us a more accurate idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wanting, finally, to see this stronger sun, because one feels that without knowing it one couldn’t understand the paintings of Delacroix from the point of view of execution, technique, and because one feels that the colours of the prism are veiled in mist in the north.
All of this remains somewhat true. Then when one also adds to it an inclination of the heart towards this south that Daudet did in Tartarin, and the fact that here and there I’ve also found friends and things that I love here.
Will you then understand that while finding my illness horrible I feel that all the same I’ve entered into attachments that are a little too strong here – attachments which could mean that later on the desire to work here will take hold of me again – while all the same it may well be that I’ll return to the north relatively soon.
Yes, for I don’t hide from you the fact that in the same way that I’m taking my food avidly at present, I have a terrible desire that comes to me to see my friends again and to see the northern countryside again.
Work is going very well, I’m finding things that I’ve sought in vain for years, and feeling that I always think of those words of Delacroix that you know, that he found painting when he had neither breath nor teeth left. Ah well, I myself with the mental illness I have, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and I tell myself that this doesn’t prevent one from practising the role of painter as if nothing had gone wrong.
When I see that crises here tend to take an absurd religious turn, I would almost dare believe that this even necessitates a return to the north. Don’t speak too much about this to the doctor when you see him – but I don’t know if this comes from living for so many months both at the hospital in Arles and here in these old cloisters. Anyway I ought not to live in surroundings like that, the street would be better then. I am not indifferent, and in the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great deal. Thus this time during my illness a misfortune happened to me – that lithograph of Delacroix, the Pietà, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled.
I was sad about it – then in the meantime I occupied myself painting it, and you’ll see it one day, on a no. 5 or 6 canvas I’ve made a copy of it which I think has feeling – besides, having not long ago seen the Daniel and the Odalisques and the Portrait of Bruyas and the Mulatto woman at Montpellier, I’m still under the impression that it had on me. This is what edifies me, as does reading a fine book like one by Beecher Stowe or Dickens. But what disturbs me is constantly seeing those good women who believe in the Virgin of Lourdes and make up things like that, and telling oneself that one is a prisoner in an administration like that, which very willingly cultivates these unhealthy religious aberrations when it ought to be a matter of curing them. So I say, it would be even better to go, if not into penal servitude then at least into the regiment.
I reproach myself for my cowardice, I ought to have defended my studio better, even if I had to fight with those gendarmes and neighbours. Others in my position would have used a revolver, and indeed, had one killed onlookers like that as an artist one would have been acquitted. I would have done better in that case then, and now I was cowardly and drunk.
Ill too, but I wasn’t brave. Then in the face of the Suffering of these crises I feel very fearful too, and so I don’t know if my zeal is something other than what I say, it’s like the man who wants to commit suicide, and finding the water too cold he struggles to catch hold of the bank again.
But listen – to be in a lodging-house like I saw Braat back then – fortunately that time is far off, no and again no.
It would be different if père Pissarro or Vignon, for example, wanted to take me into their home. Well I’m a painter myself – that can be sorted out, and better that the money goes to feed painters than to the excellent nuns.
Yesterday I asked Mr Peyron point blank: since you’re going to Paris, what would you say if I suggested that you be good enough to take me with you? He answered in an evasive way – that it was too quick, that he must write to you beforehand.
But he’s very kind and very indulgent towards me, and whilst he isn’t the absolute master here, far from it, I owe him many freedoms.
Anyway, one must not only make paintings but one must also see people and – from time to time, by associating with others too, recover one’s temperament and furnish oneself with ideas. I leave aside the hope that it wouldn’t recur – on the contrary I must tell myself that from time to time I’ll have a crisis. But then one might for that time go into an asylum or even to the town prison, where there’s usually an isolation cell. Don’t worry yourself in any case – work is going well and look, I can’t tell you how much it gives me a warm glow sometimes to say, I’m going to do this and that again, wheatfields &c.
I’ve done the portrait of the orderly, and I have a repetition of it for you. It makes quite a curious contrast with the portrait I did of myself, in which the gaze is vague and veiled, while he has something military about him, and dark eyes that are small and lively. I made him a present of it, and I’ll also do his wife if she wants to pose. She’s a faded woman, an unfortunate, quite resigned one, and really not much, and so insignificant that I myself have a great desire to do that dusty blade of grass. I spoke with her from time to time when I was doing olive trees behind their little farmhouse, and then she told me that she didn’t think that I was ill – anyway, you would say that too at present if you saw me working, with my thoughts clear and my fingers so sure that I drew that Delacroix Pietà without taking a single measurement, though there are those four outstretched hands and arms – gestures and bodily postures that aren’t exactly easy or simple.
Please send me the canvas soon, if that’s possible, and then I think I’ll need 10 tubes of zinc white as well.
However, I know quite well that recovery comes, if one is brave, from inside, through the great resignation to suffering and death, through the abandonment of one’s own will and one’s self-love. But it’s not coming to me, I love to paint, to see people and things and everything that makes up our life – artificial – if you like. Yes, real life would be in something else, but I don’t think I belong to that category of souls who are ready to live and also at any moment ready to suffer.
What a funny thing the touch is, the brushstroke. Out of doors, exposed to the wind, the sun, people’s curiosity, one works as one can, one fills one’s canvas regardless. Yet then one catches the true and the essential – that’s the most difficult thing. But when one returns to this study again after a time, and orders one’s brushstrokes in the direction of the objects – certainly it’s more harmonious and agreeable to see, and one adds to it whatever one has of serenity and smiles.
Ah, I’ll never be able to render my impressions of certain figures I’ve seen here. Certainly the road to the south is the road where there’s something brand new, but men of the north have difficulty in getting through. And I can see myself already in advance, on the day when I have some success, longing for my solitude and distress here when I see the reaper in the field below through the iron bars of the isolation cell. Every cloud has a silver lining.
To succeed, to have lasting prosperity, one must have a temperament different from mine, I’ll never do what I could have and ought to have wanted and pursued.
But as I have dizzy spells so often, I can only live in a situation of the fourth or fifth rank. While I clearly sense the value and originality and superiority of Delacroix, of Millet, for example, then I make a point of telling myself, yes I am something, I can do something. But I must have a basis in these artists, and then produce the little I’m capable of in the same direction.
So père Pissarro has been really cruelly struck by those two misfortunes at the same time.
As soon as I read that I had this idea of asking you if there would be a way of going to stay with him.
If you pay him the same thing as here, he’ll find it worth his while, for I don’t need much – except for working.
So do it directly, and if he doesn’t want to I would willingly go to Vignon’s.
I’m a little afraid of Pont-Aven, there are so many people there. But what you say about Gauguin interests me a lot. And I still tell myself that G. and I will perhaps work together again. I myself know that G. can do things even better than what he has done, but how to reassure him! I still hope to do his portrait. Have you seen that portrait he did of me painting sunflowers? My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.
And yet to see the country one must live with the common people and in the little houses, the bars &c. And that was what I said to Boch, who complained of seeing nothing that tempted him or made an impression on him. I go walking with him for two days and I show him thirty paintings to do, as different from the north as Morocco would be. I’m curious to know what he’s doing at the moment.
And then do you know why the paintings of E. Delacroix – the religious and historical paintings, Christ’s barque– the Pietà, the Crusaders, have this allure? Because E. Delacroix, when he does a Gethsemane, went to see on the spot beforehand what an olive grove was like, and the same for the sea whipped up by a hard mistral, and because he must have said to himself, these people whom history talks to us about, doges of Venice, crusaders, apostles, holy women, were of the same type and lived in a manner analogous to those of their present-day descendants.
So I must tell you it, and you can see it in the Berceuse, however failed and weak that attempt may be. Had I had the strength to continue, I’d have done portraits of saints and of holy women from life, and who would have appeared to be from another century and they would be citizens of the present day, and yet would have had something in common with very primitive Christians.
The emotions that that causes are too strong though, I wouldn’t survive it – but later, later, I don’t say that I won’t mount a fresh attack.
What a great man Fromentin was – for those who want to see the orient he will always remain the guide. He was first to establish relationships between Rembrandt and the south, between Potter and what he saw himself.
You’re right a thousand times over – one mustn’t think about all that – one must do – even if it’s studies of cabbages and salad to calm oneself down, and after being calmed then – what one is capable of.
When I see them again I’ll do repetitions of that study of the Tarascon diligence, the Vineyard, the Harves and above all the Red bar, that night café which is the most characteristic as regards colour. But the white figure in the middle, correct as regards colour, must be redone, better constructed. But I dare say that this is a bit of the real south, and a calculated combination of the greens with the reds. My strength has been exhausted too quickly, but I can see from afar the possibility for others to do an infinity of beautiful things. And again and again that idea remains true, that to facilitate the journey of others it would have been good to found a studio somewhere in these parts.
To make the journey from the north to Spain in one go, for example, isn’t good, one won’t see there what one ought to see – one must first and gradually accustom one’s eyes to the different light.
I myself have no great need to see works by Titian and Velázquez in museums, I’ve seen certain living types who have made me know better now what a painting of the south is than before my little journey.
My God, my God, the good people among artists who say that Delacroix is not of the true orient! Look, is the true orient then what Parisians like Gérôme do?
Because you paint a bit of sunny wall, even from life and well and true according to our northern way of seeing, does that also prove that you’ve seen the people of the orient? Now that’s what Delacroix was seeking there, which didn’t prevent him at all from painting walls in the Jewish wedding and the Odalisques.
Isn’t that true – and then Degas says that it’s too expensive to drink in the bars while doing paintings, I don’t say no, but would he then have me go into the cloisters or the churches, there I’m the one who’s afraid.
That’s why I make an effort at escape through the present letter, with many handshakes to you and Jo.
I still have to congratulate you on the occasion of Mother’s birthday, I wrote to them yesterday but the letter hasn’t gone off yet, because I wasn’t in the mood to finish it.
It’s funny that the idea had already come to me 2 or 3 times before to go to Pissarro’s, this time, after you’ve told me of his recent misfortunes, I don’t hesitate to ask it of you.
Yes we must be done here, I can no longer do both things at once, working and doing everything in my power to live with the odd patients here – it’s unsettling. I’d like to force myself to go downstairs, but in vain. And yet it’s almost 2 months since I’ve been out in the open air.
In the long run here I would lose the faculty to work, now there I begin to call a halt, and so I’ll send them packing, if you agree. And paying for it what’s more, no, then one or the other of the artists fallen in misfortune will consent to set up house with me.
Fortunately, you can write that you’re well, and Jo too, and that her sister is with you. I’d very much like to be back myself when your child arrives – not with you, certainly not, that isn’t possible, but in the area around Paris with another painter.
I could, to mention a third, go and stay with the Jouves, who have a lot of children and a whole household.
You’ll understand that I’ve tried to compare the second crisis with the first, and I say only this to you: it appears to me to be some kind of influence from outside rather than a cause that comes from within myself. I may be mistaken, but whatever the case I think you’ll consider it right that I’m a little horrified by all religious exaggeration. I can’t help thinking of good André Bonger, who himself let out loud shouts when anyone wanted to try out some unguent or other on him. Good Mr Peyron will tell you heaps of things, about probabilities and possibilities of involuntary actions. Good, but if he’s specific I’ll believe none of it. And we’ll see then what he specifies, if it’s specific. The treatment of the patients in this hospital is certainly easy to follow, even on a journey, for they do absolutely nothing about it, they leave them to vegetate in idleness and feed them with stale and slightly spoiled food. And I’ll tell you now that from the first day I refused to take this food, and until my crisis I ate nothing but bread and a little soup, which I’ll continue to do as long as I remain here. It’s true that after this crisis Mr Peyron gave me some wine and meat, which I willingly accept in these first days but wouldn’t want to make an exception to the rule for a long time, and it’s right to respect the establishment according to their ordinary regime. I must also say that Mr Peyron doesn’t give me much hope for the future, which I find justified, he makes me really feel that everything is doubtful, that nothing can be ensured in advance. But I myself am counting on it recurring, but only work preoccupies me so thoroughly that I think that with the body I have it will continue like this for a long time. The idleness in which these poor unfortunates vegetate is a plague, and there you are, it’s a general evil in the towns and country areas under this stronger sun, and having learned differently it’s a duty to resist it, certainly for me. I finish this letter by thanking you again for yours and asking you to write to me again soon, and many handshakes in thought.
Antwerp, Monday, 28 December 1885
My dear Theo,
It’s high time that I thanked you for the 50 francs you sent, which enable me to get through the month, even if starting from today it’s pretty much the same again.
But — there are a few more studies done, and I believe that as much as I paint, I also progress by as much. As soon as I received the money I got an attractive model and painted a life-size head. It’s all light except for the black hair. Even so, the head itself stands out in tone against a background in which I’ve tried to get a golden gleam of light.
Here, by the way, is the colour spectrum — a tonal flesh colour, more bronzy in the neck. Jet-black hair — black that I had to make with carmine and Prussian blue, dingy white for the jacket, light yellow, much lighter than the white, for the background.
A touch of flame red in the jet-black hair and a second flame-red bow in the dingy white. She’s a girl from a café chantant and yet the expression I was looking for is a little Ecce Homo-like. But precisely as to expression, although I add my own thoughts, I nonetheless endeavour to remain true, see what I wanted to get into it. When the model came to me, she’d evidently had a few busy nights — she said something that was entirely typical — for my part, champagne doesn’t cheer me up, it makes me very sad.
Then I knew what to do, and I tried to get something voluptuous and sad at the same time.
I’ve now started a second study of the same one, in profile.
Furthermore, I’ve done that particular portrait that I told you I was in discussions about, and a study of that head for myself.
And now I hope to paint a man’s head too, during these last days of the month. I’m in really good spirits, particularly as regards the work, and it’s useful for me to be here.
I imagine that, no matter what these girls may be, one can make one’s money out of them like this sooner than in any other way. There’s no gainsaying that they can be damned beautiful, and it’s in keeping with the spirit of the age that this is the very kind of painting that wins the day.
From the most elevated artistic viewpoint possible, there’s likewise nothing to be said against — painting people, that was the old Italian art, that was Millet and that is Breton.
The question is simply whether one takes the soul or the clothes as one’s starting-point, and whether one allows the form to serve as a clothes-horse for bows and ribbons, or whether one should regard the form as a means of expressing an impression, a sentiment, or whether one models for modelling’s sake because it’s so infinitely beautiful in itself. Only the first is transitory, and the two latter are both high art.
Something that pleased me greatly is — that the girl who posed for me wants a portrait from me for herself, preferably just like the one I did.
And that she’s promised to let me paint a study of her in a dancer’s costume in her room, as soon as she can. Which isn’t possible right now because the man at the café where she works is opposed to her posing, but since she and another girl are going to share rooms, both she and this other girl will want their portraits. And I sincerely hope that it turns out that I do get her back, because she has a remarkable head and is lively. I have to practise, though, because it certainly comes down to dexterity — they don’t have much time or patience — for that matter, the work doesn’t have to be any the worse if it’s put down virtually in one go, and one has to be able to work even when the model doesn’t sit stock still. Anyway. You see that I’m working with a will. If I sold something so that I earned a little more, I’d be able to put even more strength behind it.
As to Portier — I’m not abandoning hope yet — but poverty is snapping at my heels and at the moment the dealers are all suffering somewhat from the same ill, that of being more or less a breed withdrawn from the world. They’re all too sunk in gloom, and how can one be very inspired to go scratching around in that indifference and that apathy — particularly since this disease is contagious.
For it’s just nonsense to say that there’s nothing to be done, but one has to work all the same with aplomb and with enthusiasm, in short with a certain fire.
And as to Portier — you told me yourself that he began the first of the exhibitions of the Impressionists and was overwhelmed by Durand-Ruel. Well, one would have to infer from this that he has the initiative not just to say something but to do something. But it could be to do with his being 60— and — anyhow perhaps his case is one of the many cases when, at the time when there was a craze for paintings and trade was good, a mass of intelligent people were pushed aside in the jubilation, as if they signified nothing and could do nothing — because they couldn’t bring themselves to wholly trust the sustainability of the sudden painting craze and the huge rise in many prices. NOW — when business is slow, one sees the same dealers who, a few years ago — let’s say 10 years ago — were very enterprising — to some extent becoming a breed withdrawn from the world. And we aren’t at the end yet.
Personal initiative with little or no capital is perhaps the seed for the future. Anyway.
Yesterday I saw a large photo of a Rembrandt I didn’t know — which struck me amazingly — it was the head of a woman. The light fell on breast, neck, chin and the tip of the nose — the lower jaw. Forehead and eyes in shadow from a large hat with feathers, probably red. Probably also red or a yellow in the little décolleté jacket. Dark background. The expression a mysterious smile like that of Rembrandt himself in his own portrait where Saskia sits on his knee and he has a glass of wine in his hand.
My thoughts are full of Rembrandt and Hals at the moment, not because I see many paintings by them but because I see so many types among the people here who remind me of that age. I still often go to the dance halls to see these women’s heads and sailors’ or soldiers’ heads. One pays 20 or 30 centimes to go in and drinks a glass of beer — for there’s little drinking — and can amuse oneself exceedingly for a whole evening — at least I can — watching the folk’s high spirits. What I have to do, and the only thing that can be sure to help me progress, is work a great deal with models.
I notice that my appetite has been kept in check for rather too long and that when I received the money from you I couldn’t stomach any food — but I’ll see about remedying it. That doesn’t alter the fact that I have all my energy and clarity when I’m working. But when I’m outdoors, working in the open air is too much for me and I get too weak. Painting is something that wears one down anyway. Van de Loo told me, though, when I went to see him shortly before I came here, that I’m reasonably strong after all.
That I needn’t despair of reaching the age that’s necessary for producing a body of work. I told him that I knew several painters who, despite all their nerves etc., had reached 60, even 70, fortunately for them, and that I would like to reach that too.
Then I believe that if one seeks serenity and retains a zest for life, the frame of mind one’s in helps a lot. And in this respect I’ve gained by coming here, because I have new ideas and I have new means of expressing what I want, because better brushes will help me, and I’m really carried away by those two colours, carmine and cobalt.
Cobalt — is a divine colour, and there’s nothing so fine as that for putting space around things. Carmine is the red of wine, and it’s warm, spirited as wine.
So too is emerald green. It’s false economy to do without them, those colours.
Something regarding my constitution that has pleased me very much is that a doctor in Amsterdam, whom I also once spoke to about a few things that sometimes made me think that I wouldn’t last long and whose opinion I didn’t ask directly, but just to find out the first impression of one who didn’t know me at all — taking advantage of a minor illness that I had to turn things to my constitution in general during the course of the conversation — it pleased me very much indeed that this doctor took me for an ordinary workman, said ‘you must be an ironworker by trade’. You see precisely what I’ve been trying to change in myself — when I was younger it could be seen that I over-exerted myself intellectually, and now I look like a bargee or someone who works in the iron trade. And changing one’s constitution such that one becomes ‘as tough as nails’ is no easy matter. I must take care, though, and see that I keep what I have, and gain still more.
You really must still write and tell me whether it seems such an absurd idea to you that one might create a bit more courage if one were to plant a seed for a business.
As regards the work I’m doing now — I feel that I can do something better — I need more air and space, though. I mean I must be able to expand it a bit. Above all, above all, I still haven’t got enough models. I can produce work of a higher quality, but my expenses would be heavier. But isn’t it so — shouldn’t one search for something high — for the real, for something distinguished?
The women’s figures I see among the people here make an enormous impression on me — far more to paint them than to have them, although I’d actually really like both. I’m re-reading the book by De Goncourt again, it’s excellent. In the preface to Chérie, which you’ll read — there’s an account of everything that the De Goncourts experienced — and of how, at the end of their lives, they, yes — were pessimistic — but certainly felt sure of their ground — felt that they’d done something, that their work would last. What fellows they were! If we could get on more than now, could be more in agreement — why not then — us too?
Apropos — on account of I will, after all, have some 4 or 5 fast days of pretty well everything at the end of this year — send your letter off 1 January and no later. You might not be able to understand it, but it’s true — when I receive money, my greatest hunger, even if I’ve fasted, isn’t for food, but is even stronger for painting — and I set out hunting models right away, and I carry on until it’s gone. Meanwhile, the lifeline I cling to is my breakfast with the people where I live, and a cup of coffee and bread in the crémerie in the evening. Supplemented, when I have it, by a second cup of coffee and bread in the crémerie for my dinner, and otherwise some rye bread that I have in my case.
As long as I’m painting it’s more than enough for me, but when my models have gone, a feeling of weakness comes over me.
I really like the models here because they’re so very different from the models in the country. And above all because the character is something so very different. And the contrast gives me new ideas, particularly for the flesh tones.
And what I’ve now got in my last head is — not yet what I myself am content with but something different from the earlier heads. I believe that you sufficiently realize the importance of being true so that I can speak freely to you. For the same motives that when I paint peasant women, I want them to be peasant women — for the same reason, when they’re whores, I want a whore’s expression.
That’s precisely why I was so enormously struck by a whore’s head by Rembrandt, because he had caught that mysterious smile so infinitely well with a gravity that he alone — the magician of magicians— can achieve. Now this is something new to me, and I want to get it at any price. Manet did it and Courbet — well, confound it, I have the same ambition because, moreover, I’ve felt to the core the infinite beauty of the studies of women by the very great people in literature, Zola, Daudet, De Goncourt, Balzac.
Even Stevens doesn’t satisfy me because his women aren’t those whom I personally know anything about. And I think that he doesn’t pick the most interesting there are.
Anyway, be that as it may — I want to make progress at all costs, and — I want to be myself.
I’m feeling obstinate, too, and I’ve got over caring what people say about me or my work. It seems to be difficult to get a nude model here — at least the girl I’ve had wouldn’t do it.
Obviously that — wouldn’t — is probably relative, but at any rate it can’t be taken as a matter of course. The thing is, though, she would be splendid. From the point of view of business, I can’t say anything other than that — we’re in what people are already beginning to call ‘the end of an era’ — the women have a charm as in a time of revolution — and just as much to say, for that matter — and that one would be withdrawn from the world if one worked without them.
It’s the same everywhere, in the country and in the city — one must take women into account if one wants to keep up with the times. Adieu, best wishes for the New Year. With a handshake.
Antwerp, between Tuesday, 12 and Saturday, 16 January 1886
My dear Theo,
Last Sunday I saw the two large paintings by Rubens for the first time, and because I’d looked at the ones in the museum repeatedly and at my leisure, these — The descent from the Cross and The elevation of the Cross — were all the more interesting for it. There’s an oddity in The elevation of the Cross that struck me right away, and that is — there are no female figures in it. Unless on the side panels of the triptych. It’s no better for it in consequence. Let me tell you that I adore The descent from the Cross. Not, though, because of the depth of emotion that one would find in a Rembrandt or in a painting by Delacroix or in a drawing by Millet.
Nothing moves me less than Rubens when it comes to the expression of human sorrow. Let me start by saying, to make it clearer what I mean — that even his most beautiful heads of a weeping Magdalen or Mater Dolorosas always just remind me of the tears of a pretty tart who’s caught the clap, say, or some such petty vexation of human life — as such they’re masterly, but one needn’t look for anything more in them. Rubens excels in the painting of ordinary beautiful women. But he is not dramatic in the expression. Compare him with, say, the head by Rembrandt in the La Caze Collection — with the male figure in the Jewish bride — you’ll understand what I mean — that, for instance, his 8 or so bombastic fellows performing a feat of strength with a heavy wooden cross in The elevation of the Cross seem absurd to me as soon as I look at them from the standpoint of modern analysis of human passions and emotions. That in his expressions, particularly in the men (always excepting actual portraits) Rubens is superficial, hollow, bombastic, yes, altogether conventional and nothing, like — Giulio Romano and even worse fellows of the decadence.
But all the same, I adore it because it is precisely he, Rubens, who seeks to express a mood of gaiety, of serenity, of sorrow, and actually achieves it, through the combination of colours — even if his figures are sometimes hollow etc.
Thus in The elevation of the Cross, even — the pale spot — the body a high, light accent — is dramatic in the context of its contrast with the rest, which has been pitched so low.
The same thing, but to my mind far more beautiful, is the charm of The descent from the Cross, where the pale spot is repeated by the blonde hair, pale faces and necks of the female figures, while the sombre setting is immensely rich because of those various low masses, brought together by the tone, of red, dark green, black, grey, violet.
And Delacroix tried again to get people to believe in the symphonies of the colours. And in vain, one would say, judging by how much almost everyone understands good colour to mean the correctness of local colour, the small-minded preciseness — that neither Rembrandt, nor Millet, nor Delacroix, nor whomever you like, not even Manet or Courbet, set as their aim, any more than Rubens or Veronese did.
I’ve also seen various other Rubens paintings &c. in several churches. And it’s very interesting to study Rubens, precisely because he is, or rather seems, so supremely simple in his technique. Does it with so little, and paints — and above all draws, too — with such a swift hand and without any hesitation. But portraits and — heads or figures of women, that’s his forte. There he’s deep and intimate, too. And how fresh his paintings have remained precisely because of the simplicity of the technique.
Now what else shall I tell you? That I feel increasingly inclined, without rushing, that’s to say without rushing nervously — to do all my figure studies over again from the beginning very calmly and coolly. I’d like to get to the point in knowledge of the nude and the structure of the figure where I can work from memory. I’d like to work either with Verlat or at another studio for a while, and for the rest also paint from models for myself as much as possible. At the moment I’ve left 5 paintings — 2 portraits, 2 landscapes, 1 still life — with Verlat’s painting class at the academy. I’ve just been there again, but each time I haven’t found him there. But I’ll soon be able to let you know how that turns out. And I hope to arrange it so that I can paint from the model at the academy all day, which would make it easier for me, since the models are so awfully expensive that I can’t keep it up.
And I must find some way of getting help in that regard.
In any event, I think that I’ll stay in Antwerp itself for a while, instead of going back to the country. It would be so much better than postponing it, and there’s so much more opportunity here of finding people who might take an interest in it. I feel that I dare do something and can do something, and things have already been dragging on for far too long.
You get cross if I make a comment, or rather you take no notice of it, and all the rest that we know, and yet I believe that there will come a time when you yourself will have to acknowledge that you’ve been too weak in seeing to it that I get back some of my credit with people. But anyway, we’re facing the future, not the past. And again — I believe that time will bring you to the realization that, if there had been more cordiality and warmth between us, we could have set up our own business together.
Even if you’d stayed with G&C. You said to me, indeed, that you know very well that you’ll get no thanks for your pains — but are you so very sure that this isn’t a misunderstanding like the one Pa himself laboured under? At any rate I won’t put up with it, you can be sure of that. For there’s still too much to do, even nowadays.
The other day I saw an excerpt from Zola’s new book for the first time, ‘L’oeuvre’, which as you know is appearing as a serial in Gil Blas. I think that this novel will do some good if it sinks in a little in the art world. I thought the excerpt that I read was very realistic.
For my part I’ll admit that something else is needed when working absolutely from nature — facility of composition — knowledge of the figure — but after all — I don’t think I’ve been putting myself to all this trouble for years for absolutely nothing. I feel a certain power in me because, wherever I may go, I’ll always have a goal — painting people as I see and know them.
As to whether we’ve already heard the last of Impressionism — to stick to the term Impressionism — I always imagine that many newcomers may still emerge in figure painting, in particular, and I’m beginning to think it increasingly desirable in a difficult time like the present that one should seek one’s salvation precisely by going deeper into high art. For there is relatively higher and lower — people are more than the rest, and for that matter a whole lot harder to paint, too.
I’ll do my best to make acquaintances here, and I thought that if I worked for a while with Verlat, say, I’d be in a better position to know what’s going on here, and what there is to do, and how one can get into it.
So just let me scratch around, and for heaven’s sake don’t lose heart or weaken. I don’t think that you can reasonably ask me to go back to the country for the sake of perhaps 50 francs a month less, when the whole stretch of years ahead is so closely related to the associations I have to establish in town, either here in Antwerp or later in Paris.
And I wish I could make you understand how easy it is to foresee that a great deal will change in the trade. And consequently there are many new opportunities too, if one could come up with something original. But that that is therefore necessary, if one wants to do something useful. It’s no fault of mine and no crime when I tell you we must put more force into this or that, and if we don’t have it ourselves we’ll have to find friends and new contacts. I have to earn a bit more or have a few more friends — preferably both. That’s the way to get there, but it’s been too tough for me recently.
As regards this month, I really do definitely have to insist that you manage to send me at least another 50 francs.
At the moment I’m losing weight, and moreover my clothes are getting too bad &c. You know very well yourself that this won’t do. All the same, I have a degree of confidence that we can pull through.
But you said that if I became ill we’d be in even more of a state — I hope it won’t come to that, but I would like to be a little bit more comfortable, precisely so as to prevent that.
Anyway — when one thinks how many people just go on living without ever in their lives having even a notion of care — and who always just think that everything will turn out for the best. As if people didn’t starve — and no one ever perished.
I’m beginning to object more and more to your imagining yourself to be a financier and, for instance, thinking the exact opposite of me.
People aren’t all alike, and if one isn’t able to see that in calculating, above all, TIME must have passed over the calculation before one can consider for certain that one has calculated correctly; if one can’t see this, one is no calculator. And a broader view of finance is precisely what characterizes many modern financiers. That’s to say not exploiting, but allowing freedom of action. I know, Theo, how you yourself could perhaps be rather hard pressed. But you’ve never in your life had it as hard as I have for the last 10 or 12 years in a row. Can’t you understand that I’m right when I say that now, perhaps, it’s been long enough; in that time I’ve learned something I couldn’t do before, so all the opportunities have been renewed and I come up against it, against always being neglected? And if it were now to be my wish to stay here again in city life for a while, then perhaps also go to a studio in Paris, will you try to prevent it? Be fair enough to let me go on, because I tell you, I’m not looking for a row and I don’t want a row, but I won’t allow my career to be blocked. And what can I do in the country, unless I go there with money for models and paint? There’s no opportunity in the country, absolutely none, to make money from my work, and that opportunity does exist in town. So I won’t be secure until I’ve made friends in the city, and that’s the order of the day. Now for the moment it might make things a bit more difficult but it’s the way, all the same, and going back to the country now would end in stagnation.
Anyway — regards — De Goncourt’s book is good.
Nuenen, Thursday, 30 April 1885
My dear Theo,
Sincere wishes for your good health and serenity on your birthday. I would like to have sent you the painting of the potato eaters for this day, but although it’s coming along well, it’s not quite finished yet.
Although I’ll have painted the actual painting in a relatively short time, and largely from memory, it’s taken a whole winter of painting studies of heads and hands. And as for the few days in which I’ve painted it now — it’s consequently been a formidable fight, but one for which I have great enthusiasm. Although at times I feared that it wouldn’t come off. But painting is also ‘act and create’.
When the weavers weave those fabrics that I believe they call cheviots, and also the singular Scottish multicoloured tartan fabrics — then they try, as you know, to get singular broken colours and greys in the cheviots — or to get the very brightest colours in balance against one another in the multicoloured tartans so that, rather than the fabric clashing, the overall effect of the pattern is harmonious from a distance. A grey that’s woven from red, blue, yellow, off-white and black threads, a blue that — is broken by a green and an orange, red or yellow thread — are very different from plain colours — that is, they vibrate more and make whole colours look harsh, whole, and LIFELESS.
However, it’s not always exactly easy for the weaver, or rather the designer of the pattern or the colour combination, to work out his calculation of the number of threads and their direction — nor is it easy to weave brushstrokes together into a harmonious whole. If you saw the first painted studies that I made when I came here to Nuenen — and the present canvas — side by side — I think you’d see that as far as colour is concerned — things have livened up.
I think that the question of the breaking of colours in the relationships of the colours will occupy you too one day. For as an art expert and critic, one must also, it seems to me — be sure of one’s ground and have certain convictions. At least for one’s own pleasure and to be able to give reasons, and at the same time one must be able to explain it in a few words to others, who sometimes turn to someone like you for enlightenment when they want to know something more about art.
Now, though, I have something to say about Portier — of course his private opinion isn’t at all a matter of indifference to me, and I also appreciate to the utmost that he said that he took back nothing of what he’d said. Nor does it concern me that it appeared that he hadn’t hung these first studies.
But — if he also wants me to send a painting destined for him, then he can only have it on condition that he exhibits it.
As regards the potato eaters — it’s a painting that looks well in gold, I’m sure of that. Still — it would do equally well on a wall hung with a paper that had a deep tone of ripe wheat. It simply mustn’t be seen, though, without this enclosure to it.
It does not appear to advantage against a dark background, and particularly not against a dull background. And this is because it’s a glimpse into a very grey interior.
In reality, it’s also in a gilt frame as it were — since the hearth and the light from the fire on the white walls — which now lie outside the painting but in real life throw the whole thing backwards — would be closer to the viewer.
Once more, one must enclose it by placing something in a deep gold or copper colour around it.
Please bear that in mind if you want to see it as it should be seen. This association with a gold tone at the same time brings brightness to areas where you wouldn’t expect it and takes away the marbled look that it gets if one unfortunately places it against a dull or black background. The shadows are painted with blue, and the gold colour works with that.
Yesterday I took it to an acquaintance of mine in Eindhoven, who is painting. In 3 days or so, I’ll go over there and lift it with a little white of egg and finish off a few details. This man, who is himself doing his very best to learn to paint and is himself also trying to find a good colour palette, was extremely taken with it. He’d already seen the study from which I made the lithograph, and said that he hadn’t thought that I could have raised the level of both the colour and the drawing so much higher. Since he also paints from models, he also knows very well what a peasant’s head or fist entails, and as to the hands, he said that he now had a very different concept of how to do them himself.
You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of MANUAL LABOUR and — that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours — civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.
I’ve had the threads of this fabric in my hands the whole winter long, and searched for the definitive pattern — and if it’s now a fabric that has a rough and coarse look, nevertheless the threads were chosen with care and in accordance with certain rules. And it might well prove to be a REAL PEASANT PAINTING. I know that it is. But anyone who would rather see insipidly pretty peasants can go ahead. For my part, I’m convinced that in the long run it produces better results to paint them in their coarseness than to introduce conventional sweetness.
A peasant girl is more beautiful than a lady — to my mind — in her dusty and patched blue skirt and jacket, which have acquired the most delicate nuances from weather, wind and sun. But — if she puts — a lady’s costume on, then the genuineness is lost. A peasant in his suit of fustian in the fields is finer than when he goes to church on Sundays in a sort of gentleman’s coat.
And likewise, one would be wrong, to my mind, to give a peasant painting a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam — fine — that’s not unhealthy — if a stable smells of manure — very well, that’s what a stable’s for — if the field has an odour of ripe wheat or potatoes or — of guano and manure — that’s really healthy — particularly for city folk. They get something useful out of paintings like this. But a peasant painting mustn’t become perfumed. I’m curious as to whether you’ll find anything in it that you like — I hope so. I’m glad that now, just as Mr Portier has said he wants to handle my work, I for my part have something more important than the studies alone. As to Durand-Ruel — although he didn’t think the drawings worthwhile, show him this painting. He may think it ugly — very well — but let him see it anyway — so that they may see that we’re putting energy into our endeavours. However, you’ll hear — ‘WHAT A DAUB!’; be prepared for that as I’m prepared myself. But nonetheless go on giving something genuine and honest.
Painting peasant life is a serious thing, and I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make paintings such that they give people who think seriously about art and about life serious things to think about. Millet, Degroux, so many others, have set examples of character, of taking no notice of the reproaches of — nasty, crude, muddy, stinking &c. &c., that it would be a disgrace if one were even to have misgivings.
No — one must paint the peasants as if one were one of them, as feeling, thinking as they do themselves.
As not being able to be other than one is.
I so often think that the peasants are a world in themselves, so much better in many respects than the civilized world.
Not in all respects, because what do they know of art and many other things?
I do still have a few smaller studies — you can imagine, though, that I’ve been kept so busy with the larger one that I’ve been able to do little else besides that.
As soon as the whole thing is finished and dry, I’ll just send the canvas to you in a small crate, and then put a few smaller ones in with it. I think it’s best not to delay sending it for too long, which is why I’ll send it. Then the second lithograph of it will probably have to be abandoned. But still — I understand that Mr Portier, for instance, must be confirmed in what he said, so that we can count on him as a friend for ever. I sincerely hope this will succeed.
I’ve been so absorbed in the painting that I’ve literally almost forgotten my move, which nonetheless also has to be done. It won’t reduce my concerns, but the lives of all painters in that genre are so full of them that I wouldn’t want to have things any easier than they had them. And since, despite everything, they still got their paintings done, the material difficulties will also hinder but not destroy or weaken me. Anyway.
I believe that the potato eaters will come off — the last days are always hazardous for a painting, as you know, because one can’t touch it with a large brush when it isn’t completely dry without a great risk of spoiling it. And the changes have to be made very coolly and calmly with a small brush. This is why I simply took it away and said to my friend that he just had to make sure that I didn’t spoil it in that way, and that I’d come do those small things at his place. You’ll see that it has originality. Regards — I’m sorry it wasn’t ready for today — again wishing you health and serenity, believe me, with a handshake
Today I’ll work on a few smaller studies, which will then go at the same time. Did you ever send that Salon issue?
Arles, Friday 4 May 1888
My dear Theo,
I’m writing you another line to tell you that on reflection I think the best thing will be quite simply to take a mat and a mattress and make a bed in the studio on the floor. Because for the whole summer it’s going to be so hot it’ll be more than enough like that. Then in the winter we could see if we’ll need to take a bed, yes or no.
About the bed you have at home, I think the arrangement of having a painter living with you is good for the painter and for you too, from the point of view of conversation and company. So even if Koning were to leave, there would perhaps be someone else who could replace him. So why don’t you keep the bed at home in any case?
It’s quite possible that as far as houses go I’ll find an even better one, either at Martigues, beside the sea, or in some other place. But the delightful thing about this studio is the gardens opposite. But there you are, as for doing repairs or furnishing it reasonably well, let’s wait — that will be wiser — all the more so since if we had to have cholera here in the summer, it could be that I’d up sticks and go to the country. It’s dirty, this town, with its old streets!
As for the Arlésiennes they talk about so much, don’t they, do you know what I think of them, in short? Certainly, they’re truly charming, but it’s not what it must have been once. And there you are, it’s often more Mignard than Mantegna, since they’re in decline, but be that as it may, it’s beautiful, really beautiful, and here I’m only talking about the Roman type — a bit boring and ordinary. But what exceptions! There are women like Fragonard and like Renoir. And something you can’t fit into what’s already been done in painting! The best thing one could do, from all points of view, would be to paint portraits of women and children. But it seems to me that it won’t be I who does that, I don’t feel I’m enough of a Mr Bel ami. for that.
But I’d be mightily pleased if that Bel amiof the south — which Monticelli – wasn’t — but was preparing the ground — which I can feel in the air while at the same time feeling that it isn’t me — I’d be, I tell you — mightily pleased if in painting a man like Guy de Maupassant came along and cheerfully painted the beautiful people and things in these parts.
As for me, I’ll work, and here and there some of my work will last — but what Claude Monet is in landscape, the same thing in figure painting — who’s going to do that? Yet like me you must feel it’s in the air. Rodin? Rodin doesn’t do colour — it’s not him. But the painter of the future is a colourist such as there hasn’t been before. Manet prepared the ground, but you’re well aware that the Impressionists have already used stronger colour than Manet’s.
This painter of the future, I can’t imagine him living in small restaurants, working with several false teeth and going into Zouave brothels like me.
But it seems to me that I’m in the right when I feel it will come in a later generation and that in our case we have to do what our means allow us in that direction, without having doubts and without flinching.
Please let Guillaumin know that Russell wants to go and see him at home and intends to buy another painting from him. I’m writing to Russell today.
I was hearing yesterday from MacKnight and from the Dane that in Marseille there was never anything good in the dealers’ windows, and that they thought that nothing at all was being done there.
I’m very keen to see something of that for myself, but for the very reason that I don’t want to get all worked up I’ll do it when my nerves are settled.
In the letter I addressed wrongly, I was actually talking about Bonger. He probably dares say as much, since the Russians are having such success at the Theâtre Libre, &c. But that’s no reason, is it, to try to use that success to run the French down? I’ve just read Zola’s Au bonheur des dames again and I find it more and more beautiful.
Now that’s news, that Reid’s back. I told Russell that since it was I who had introduced him into his home it was partly up to me to tell him why we’d fallen out.
That Reid was ambitious, and being hard up for money like all of us, he was beside himself when it came to earning money.
That I saw all that as involuntary acts (and him not responsible, therefore, and to be forgiven for these acts) of an over-excited nervous system.
But that with Reid the vulgar dealer is stronger than the distinguished artist.
That won’t suit Reid, but is it too much to tell the truth? It’s surely no better than that now, and worse, in fact.
Russell’s friend, MacKnight, is a cold and not very nice character, too bad if I have both of them against me.
However, I’ve said nothing about MacKnight, although I imagine he has no more heart than Reid. If he found his painting style that would do him good, and it’s not impossible that it will come — he’s still young. 27, I think.
Let’s assume then, if you think it’s right, that we won’t be in a hurry yet to put the studio in order. It’s already good enough for the time being. And if I sleep there the way I’ve said above it won’t cost me anything. I save 30 francs at the hotel and pay 15 in rent, so there’s nothing but benefit in that.
Handshake to you and to Koning. I have another drawing.
I’ve seen a whole lot of crates for my consignment at the penny bazaar, I’ll go back to take measurements.
Was the De Groux you speak of the same subject as the one in the museum in Brussels, the Saying grace? True what you say about De Braekeleer. Have you heard that he was suffering from a brain disease that’s supposed to have reduced him to helplessness???
I’ve heard that, but wasn’t it temporary? You mention the name of someone else, whom I don’t know.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Thursday, 23 May 1889
My dear Theo, .
Your letter which I’ve just received gives me great pleasure. You tell me that J.H. Weissenbruch has two paintings in the exhibition — but I thought he was dead — am I mistaken? He certainly is one hell of an artist and a good man, with a big heart too.
What you say about the Berceuse gives me pleasure; it’s very true that the common people, who buy themselves chromos and listen with sentimentality to barrel organs, are vaguely in the right and perhaps more sincere than certain men-about-town who go to the Salon.
Gauguin, if he’ll accept it, you shall give him a version of the Berceuse that wasn’t mounted on a stretching frame, and to Bernard too, as a token of friendship.
But if Gauguin wants sunflowers it’s only absolutely fair that he gives you something that you like as much in exchange. Gauguin himself above all liked the sunflowers later, when he had seen them for a long time.
You must know, too, that if you put them in this order:
that is, the Berceuse in the middle and the two canvases of the sunflowers to the right and the left, this forms a sort of triptych. And then the yellow and orange tones of the head take on more brilliance through the proximity of the yellow shutters. And then you will understand that what I was writing to you about it, that my idea had been to make a decoration like one for the far end of a cabin on a ship, for example. Then as the size gets bigger, the summary execution gets its raison d’être. The middle frame is then the red one. And the two sunflowers that go with it are those surrounded by strips of wood.
You see that this framing of simple laths does quite well, and a frame like that costs only very little. It would be perhaps good to frame the green and red vineyards, the sower and the furrows and the interior of the bedroom with them too.
Here’s a new no. 30 canvas, commonplace again, like one of those chromos from a penny bazaar that depict eternal nests of greenery for lovers.
Thick tree-trunks covered with ivy, the ground also covered with ivy and periwinkle, a stone bench and a bush of roses, blanched in the cold shadow. In the foreground a few plants with white calyxes. It’s green, violet and pink
It’s just a question — which is unfortunately lacking in chromos from a penny bazaar and barrel organs — of putting in some style.
Since I’ve been here, the neglected garden planted with tall pines under which grows tall and badly tended grass intermingled with various weeds, has provided me with enough work, and I haven’t yet gone outside
However, the landscape of St-Rémy is very beautiful, and little by little I’m probably going to make trips into it. But staying here as I am, the doctor14 has naturally been in a better position to see what was wrong, and will, I dare hope, be more reassured that he can let me paint.
I assure you that I’m very well here, and that for the time being I see no reason at all to come and board in Paris or its surroundings. I have a little room with grey-green paper with two water-green curtains with designs of very pale roses enlivened with thin lines of blood-red. These curtains, probably the leftovers of a ruined, deceased rich man, are very pretty in design. Probably from the same source comes a very worn armchair covered with a tapestry flecked in the manner of a Diaz or a Monticelli, red-brown, pink, creamy white, black, forget-me-not blue and bottle green.
Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, a perspective in the manner of Van Goyen, above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory
With this — as there are more than 30 empty rooms — I have another room in which to work.
The food is so-so. It smells naturally a little musty, as in a cockroach-ridden restaurant in Paris or a boarding school. As these unfortunates do absolutely nothing (not a book, nothing to distract them but a game of boules and a game of draughts) they have no other daily distraction than to stuff themselves with chickpeas, haricot beans, lentils and other groceries and colonial foodstuffs by the regulated quantities and at fixed times.
As the digestion of these commodities presents certain difficulties, they thus fill their days in a manner as inoffensive as it’s cheap. But joking apart, the fear of madness passes from me considerably upon seeing from close at hand those who are affected with it, as I may very easily be in the future.
Before I had some repulsion for these beings, and it was something distressing for me to have to reflect that so many people of our profession, Troyon, Marchal, Meryon, Jundt, M. Maris, Monticelli, a host of others, had ended up like that. I wasn’t even able to picture them in the least in that state.
Well, now I think of all this without fear, i.e. I find it no more atrocious than if these people had snuffed it of something else, of consumption or syphilis, for example.
These artists, I see them take on their serene bearing again, and do you think it’s a small thing to rediscover ancient members of the profession.
Joking apart, that’s what I’m profoundly grateful for.
For although there are some who howl or usually rave, here there is much true friendship that they have for each other. They say, one must suffer others for the others to suffer us, and other very true reasonings that they thus put into practice. And between ourselves we understand each other very well, I can, for example, chat sometimes with one who doesn’t reply except in incoherent sounds, because he isn’t afraid of me
If someone has some crisis the others look after him, and intervene so that he doesn’t harm himself
The same for those who have the mania of often getting angry. Old regulars of the menagerie run up and separate the fighters, if there is a fight.
It’s true that there are some who are in a more serious condition, whether they be filthy, or dangerous. These are in another courtyard. Now I take a bath twice a week, and stay in it for 2 hours, then my stomach is infinitely better than a year ago, so I only have to continue, as far as I know. I think I’ll spend less here than elsewhere, since here I still have work on my plate, for nature is beautiful.
My hope would be that at the end of a year I’ll know better than now what I can do and what I want. Then, little by little, an idea will come to me for beginning again. Coming back to Paris or anywhere at the moment doesn’t appeal to me at all, I feel that I’m in the right place here. In my opinion, what most of those who have been here for years are suffering from is an extreme sluggishness. Now, my work will preserve me from that to a certain extent.
The room where we stay on rainy days is like a 3rd-class waiting room in some stagnant village, all the more so since there are honourable madmen who always wear a hat, spectacles and travelling clothes and carry a cane, almost like at the seaside, and who represent the passengers there
I’m obliged to ask you for some more colours, and especially some canvas. When I send you the 4 canvases of the garden I have on the go you’ll see that, considering that life happens above all in the garden, it isn’t so sad. Yesterday I drew a very large, rather rare night moth there which is called the death’s head, its coloration astonishingly distinguished: black, grey, white, shaded, and with glints of carmine or vaguely tending towards olive green; it’s very big
To paint it I would have had to kill it, and that would have been a shame since the animal was so beautiful. I’ll send you the drawing of it with a few other drawings of plants
You could take the canvases which are dry enough at Tanguy’s or at your place off the stretching frames and then put the new ones you consider worthy of it onto these stretching frames. Gauguin must be able to give you the address of a liner for the Bedroom who won’t be expensive. This I imagine must be a 5-franc restoration, if it’s more then don’t have it done, I don’t think that Gauguin paid more when he quite often had canvases of his own, Cézanne or Pissarro lined.
Speaking of my condition, I’m still so grateful for yet another thing. I observe in others that, like me, they too have heard sounds and strange voices during their crises, that things also appeared to change before their eyes. And that softens the horror that I retained at first of the crisis I had, and which when it comes to you unexpectedly, cannot but frighten you beyond measure. Once one knows that it’s part of the illness one takes it like other things. Had I not seen other mad people at close hand I wouldn’t have been able to rid myself of thinking about it all the time. For the sufferings of anguish aren’t funny when you’re caught in a crisis. Most epileptics bite their tongues and injure them. Rey told me that he had known a case where someone had injured his ear as I did, and I believe I’ve heard a doctor here who came to see me with the director say that he too had seen it before. I dare to believe that once one knows what it is, once one is aware of one’s state and of possibly being subject to crises, that then one can do something about it oneself so as not to be caught so much unawares by the anguish or the terror. Now, this has been diminishing for 5 months, I have good hope of getting over it, or at least of not having crises of such force. There’s one person here who has been shouting and always talking, like me, for a fortnight, he thinks he hears voices and words in the echo of the corridors, probably because the auditory nerve is sick and too sensitive, and with me it was both the sight and the hearing at the same time which, according to what Rey said one day, is usual at the beginning of epilepsy
Now the shock had been such that it disgusted me even to move, and nothing would have been so agreeable to me as never to wake up again. At present this horror of life is already less pronounced, and the melancholy less acute. But I still have absolutely no will, hardly any desires or none, and everything that has to do with ordinary life, the desire for example to see friends again, about whom I think however, almost nil. That’s why I’m not yet at the point where I ought to leave here soon, I would still have melancholy for everything. And it’s even only in these very last days that the repulsion for life has changed quite radically. There’s still a way to go from there to will and action.
It’s a shame that you yourself are still condemned to Paris, and that you never see the countryside other than that around Paris.
I think that it’s no more unfortunate for me to be in the company where I am than for you always the fateful things at Goupil & Cie. From that point of view we’re quite equal. For only in part can you act in accordance with your ideas. Since, however, we have once got used to these inconveniences, it becomes second nature.
I think that although the paintings cost canvas, paint &c., at the end of the month, however, it’s more advantageous to spend a little more thus, and to make them with what I’ve learned in total, than to abandon them while one would have to pay for board and lodging all the same anyway. And that’s why I’m making them. So this month I have 4 no. 30 canvases and two or three drawings.
But no matter what one does, the question of money is always there like the enemy before the troops, and one can’t deny it or forget it
I retain my duties in that respect as much as anyone. And perhaps some day I’ll be in a position to repay all that I’ve spent, because I consider that what I’ve spent is, if not taken from you at least taken from the family, so consequently I’ve produced paintings and I’ll do more. That is to act as you too act yourself. If I had private means, perhaps my mind would be freer to do art for art’s sake, now I content myself with believing that in working assiduously even so, without thinking of it one perhaps makes some progress.
Here are the colours I would need
3 emerald green
2 cobalt, large tubes
1 ultramarine, large tube
1 orange lead, large tube
6 zinc white
5 metres canvas
Thanking you for your kind letter, I shake your hand warmly, as well as your wife’s.
Arles, Sunday, 9 September 1888
My dear Theo,
I’ve just put the croquis of the new painting, the ‘Night café’, in the post — as well as another one that I did some time ago. I’ll perhaps end up making some Japanese prints.
Now yesterday I worked at furnishing the house. Just as the postman and his wife told me, the two beds, if you want something sturdy, will come to 150 francs each. I found that everything they’d told me about prices was true. As a result I had to change tack, and this is what I did: I bought one bed in walnut and another in deal, which will be mine, and which I’ll paint later.
Then I bought linen for one of the beds, and I bought two palliasses. If Gauguin or somebody else were to come, there you are, his bed will be made in a minute. From the start, I wanted to arrange the house not just for myself but in such a way as to be able to put somebody up.
Naturally, that ate up most of my money.
With what was left, I bought 12 chairs, a mirror, and some small indispensable things.Which in short means that next week I’ll be able to go and live there.
For putting somebody up, there’ll be the prettiest room upstairs, which I’ll try to make as nice as possible, like a woman’s boudoir, really artistic. Then there’ll be my own bedroom, which I’d like to be exceedingly simple, but the furniture square and broad.
The bed, the chairs, table, all in deal. Downstairs, the studio and another room, also a studio, but a kitchen at the same time.
One of these days you’ll see a painting of the little house itself, in full sunshine or else with the window lit and the starry sky.
Then you’ll be able to believe you own your country house here in Arles. Because I myself am enthusiastic about the idea of arranging it in such a way that you’ll like it, and that it’ll be a studio in a style absolutely meant to be that way.
Let’s say that in a year you come to spend a holiday here and in Marseille, it will be ready then — and the way I envisage it, the house will be just full of paintings from top to bottom.
The room where you’ll stay then, or which will be Gauguin’s if Gauguin comes, will have a decoration of large yellow sunflowers on its white walls.
Opening the window in the morning, you see the greenery in the gardens and the rising sun and the entrance of the town.
But you’ll see these big paintings of bouquets of 12, 14 sunflowers stuffed into this tiny little boudoir with a pretty bed and everything else elegant. It won’t be commonplace.
And the studio — the red floor-tiles, the white walls and ceiling, the rustic chairs, the deal table, with, I hope, decoration of portraits. That will have character à la Daumier — and it won’t, I dare predict, be commonplace.
Now I’m going to ask you to look for some Daumier lithographs for the studio, and some Japanese prints, but it’s not at all urgent, and only when you find duplicates of them.
And some Delacroixs too, ordinary lithographs by modern artists.
It’s not the least little bit urgent, but I have my idea. I really want to make of it — an artists’ house but not precious, on the contrary, nothing precious, but everything from the chair to the painting having character.
So for the beds I bought local beds, two wide double beds, instead of iron beds. It gives a look of solidity, durability, calm, and if it takes a bit more bed-linen, that’s too bad, but it must have character.
Most fortunately I have a charwoman who’s very loyal; without that I wouldn’t dare begin the business of living in my own place. She’s quite old and has a mixed bunch of kids, and she keeps my tiles nice and red and clean.
I wouldn’t be able to explain to you how pleased I am to find a big, serious job this way. Because I hope it’ll be a true decoration that I’m going to undertake there.
So, as I’ve already told you, I’m going to paint my own bed, there’ll be 3 subjects. Perhaps a naked woman, I haven’t decided, perhaps a cradle with a child; I don’t know, but I’ll take my time.
I now no longer feel any hesitation about staying here, because ideas for work are coming to me in abundance. I now plan to buy some article for the house every month. And with patience, the house will be worth something for the furniture and the decorations.
I must warn you that very shortly I’ll need a big order for colours for the autumn, which I believe is going to be absolutely marvellous. And on reflection, I’ll send you the order enclosed herewith.
In my painting of the night café I’ve tried to express the idea that the café is a place where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes. Anyway, I tried with contrasts of delicate pink and blood-red and wine-red. Soft Louis XV and Veronese green contrasting with yellow greens and hard blue greens.
All of that in an ambience of a hellish furnace, in pale sulphur.
To express something of the power of the dark corners of a grog-shop.
And yet with the appearance of Japanese gaiety and Tartarin’s good nature.
But what would Mr Tersteeg say about this painting? He who, looking at a Sisley — Sisley, the most tactful and sensitive of the Impressionists — had already said: ‘I can’t stop myself thinking that the artist who painted that was a little tipsy’. Looking at my painting, then, he’d say that it’s a full-blown case of delirium tremens.
I find absolutely nothing to object to what you speak of, to exhibit sometime at the Revue Indépendante, as long as I’m not a cause of obstruction for the others who usually exhibit there.
Only we’d then have to tell them that I’d like to reserve a second exhibition for myself, after this first one of what are in fact studies.
Then next year I’d give them the decoration of the house to exhibit, when there would be an ensemble. Not that I insist, but it’s so that the studies shouldn’t be confused with compositions, and to say beforehand that the first exhibition would be one of studies.
Because there’s still hardly more than the sower and the night café that are attempts at composed paintings.
As I write, the little peasant who looks like a caricature of our father is just coming into the café.
The resemblance is amazing, all the same. The receding profile and the weariness and the ill-defined mouth, especially. It continues to seem a pity to me that I haven’t been able to do him.
I’m adding to this letter the order for colours, which isn’t exactly urgent. Only I’m so full of plans, and then the autumn promises so many superb subjects that I simply don’t know if I’m going to start 5 or 10 canvases.
It’ll be the same thing as in the spring, with the orchards in blossom, the subjects will be innumerable. If you gave père Tanguy the coarser paint, he’d probably do that well.
His other fine colours are really inferior, especially for the blues.
I hope, when preparing the next consignment, to gain a little in quality.
I’m doing comparatively less, and coming back to it longer. I’ve kept back 50 francs for the week; thus there has already been 250 for the furniture. And I’ll recoup them anyway, doing it this way. And from today you can say to yourself that you have a sort of country house, unfortunately a bit far away. But it would cease to be very, very far if we had a permanent exhibition in Marseille. We’ll see that in a year, perhaps. Handshake and
Saint-Remy, C, 2"“‘ June 1889
My dear Theo,
I must beg you again to send me as soon as possible some ordinary brushes about these sizes.
Half a dozen of each, please.
I hope that you are well and your wife too, and that you are enjoying the fine weather a little. Here at any rate we have splendid sunshine. As for me, my health is good, and as for my brain, that will be, let us hope, a matter of time and patience.
The director mentioned that he had had a letter from you and had written to you; he tells me nothing and I ask him nothing, which is the simplest.
He‘s a gouty little man — several years a widower, with very dark spectacles. As the institution is rather dead and alive, the man seems to get no great amusement out of his job, and besides he has enough to live on. A new man has arrived, who is so Worked up that he smashes everything and shouts day and night, he tears his shirts violently too, and up till now, though he is all day long in a bath, he gets hardly any quieter, he destroys his bed and everything else in his room, upsets his food, etc. It is very sad to see, but they are very patient here and will end by seeing him through. New things grow old so quickly; I think that if I came to Paris in my present state of mind, I would make no difference between a so-called dark picture and a light impressionist picture, between a varnished picture in oils and a mat picture clone with solvent.
I mean by this that by dint of reflection, I have come by slow degrees to believe more than ever in the eternal youth of the school of Delacroix, Millet, Rousseau, Dupré and Daubigny, as much as in that of the present, or even in that of the artists to come. I hardly think that impressionism will ever do more than the romantics for instance. Between that and admiring people like Leon Glaize or Perrault there is certainly a margin. This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big. Daubigny and Rousseau have depicted just that, expressing all that it has of intimacy, all that vast peace and majesty, but adding as well a feeling so individual, so heartbreaking. I have no aversion to that sort of emotion.
I am always filled with remorse, terribly so, when I think of my work as being so little in harmony with what I should have liked to do. I hope that in the long run this will make me do better things, but we have not got to that yet.
I think that you would do well to wash the canvases which are quite, quite dry with water and a little spirits of wine to take away the oil and the spirit in the impasto. The same for “The Night Cafe” and “The Green Vineyard“ and especially the landscape that was in the walnut frame. “Night” also, but that has been retouched recently and might run with the spirits of wine.
It’s almost a whole month since I came here, not once has the least desire to be elsewhere come to me, only the wish to work is getting a scrap stronger.
I do not notice in the others either any very definitive desire to be anywhere else, and this may well come from the feeling that we are too thoroughly shattered for life outside.
What I cannot quite understand is their absolute idleness. But that is the great fault of the South and its ruin. But what a lovely country, and what lovely blue and what a sun! And yet I have only seen the garden and what I can look at through my window.
Have you read the new book by Guy de Maupassant, “Strong as the Dead,” what is the subject of it? The last thing I read in that category was Zola’s “The Dream”; I thought the figure of the woman, the one who did embroidery, very, very beautiful, and the description of the embroidery all in gold, just because it is as it were a question of the colour of the different yellows, whole and broken up. But the figure of the man did not seem very lifelike and the great cathedral also gave me the blues, Only that contrast of lilac and blue-black did, if you like, make the blonde figure stand out. But after all there are things like that in Lamartine.
I hope that you will destroy a lot of the things that are too bad in the batch I have sent you, or at least only show what is most passable, As for the exhibition of the Independents, it’s all one to me, just act as if I weren’t there. So as not to be indifferent, and not to exhibit anything too mad, perhaps the “Starry Night“ and the landscape with yellow verdure, which was in the walnut frame. Since these are two with contrasting colours, it might give somebody else the idea of doing those night effects better than I have.
But you must absolutely set your mind at rest about me now. When I have received the new canvas and the paints, I am going off to see a little of the country.
Since it is just the season when there are plenty of flowers and consequently colour effects, it would perhaps be wise to send me five metres more of canvas.
For the flowers are short-lived and will be replaced by the yellow wheat fields. Those especially I hope to catch better than I did in Arles. The mistral (since there are some mountains) seems much less tiresome than in Arles, where you always got it firsthand.
When you receive the canvases that I have done in the garden, you will see that I am not too melancholy here.
Goodbye for the present, a good handshake in thought for you and Jo.
Ever yours, Vincent
Auvers-sur-Oise, Tuesday, 3 June 1890
My dear Theo,
for several days now I’d have liked to write to you with a rested mind, but have been absorbed in work. This morning your letter arrives, for which I thank you and for the 50-franc note it contained. Yes, I think that it would be good for many reasons that we were all together again here for a week of your holidays, if longer isn’t possible. I often think of you, Jo and the little one, and I see that the children here look well in the healthy fresh air. And yet it’s difficult enough to raise them, even here, all the more is it rather terrible sometimes to keep them safe and sound in Paris on a fourth floor. But anyway, one must take things as they are. Mr Gachet says that father and mother must feed themselves quite naturally, he talks of taking 2 litres of beer a day &c., in those amounts. But you’ll certainly enjoy furthering your acquaintance with him, and he’s already counting on it, speaks of it every time I see him, that you’ll all come. He certainly appears to me as ill and confused as you or I, and he’s older and a few years ago he lost his wife,1 but he’s very much a doctor, and his profession and his faith keep him going however. We’re already firm friends, and by chance he also knew Bruyas of Montpellier and has the same ideas on him as I have, that he’s someone important in the history of modern art. I’m working on his portrait the head with a white cap, very fair, very light, the hands also in light carnation, a blue frock coat and a cobalt blue background, leaning on a red table on which are a yellow book and a foxglove plant with purple flowers. It’s in the same sentiment as the portrait of myself that I took when I left for here.
Mr Gachet is absolutely fanatical about this portrait, and wants me to do one of him if I can, absolutely like that, which I also wish to do. He has now also come to understand the last portrait of the Arlésienne, one of which you have in pink – he comes back all the time, when he comes to see the studies, to these two portraits and he accepts them fully, but fully as they are. I hope to send you a portrait of him soon. Then I painted two studies at his house which I gave him last week. One aloes with marigolds and cypresses, then last Sunday white roses, vines and a white figure in it.
I’ll very probably also do the portrait of his daughter, who is 19, and with whom I can easily imagine Jo will quickly make friends.
So I’m looking forward to doing the portraits of all of you in the open air, yours, Jo’s and the little one’s.
I still haven’t found anything interesting in the way of a possible studio, and yet I’ll have to take a room to put in the canvases which are surplus at your apartment and which are at Tanguy’s. For they still need a great deal of retouching. But anyway, I live from day to day – the weather is so fine. And my health is good, I go to bed at 9 o’clock but I get up at 5 o’clock most of the time.
I have hopes that it won’t be disagreeable to be together again after a long absence. And I also hope that I’ll continue to feel much surer of my brush than before I went to Arles. And Mr Gachet says that he would consider it highly improbable that it should recur, and that it’s going completely well. But he, too, complains bitterly of the state of things everywhere in the villages where the least foreigner has come, that life there becomes so horribly expensive. He says that he’s astonished that the people where I am lodge and feed me for that, and that I’m still fortunate, compared to others who have come and whom he’s known. That if you come, and Jo and the little one, you can’t do better than stay at this same inn. Now nothing, absolutely nothing keeps us here but Gachet – but the latter will remain a friend, I’d assume. I feel that at his place I can do not too bad a painting every time I go there, and he’ll certainly continue to invite me to dinner each Sunday or Monday.
But up to now, however agreeable it is to do a painting there, it’s a chore for me to dine and lunch there for, the excellent man goes to the trouble of making dinners in which there are 4 or 5 courses, which is as abominable for him as it is for me, for he certainly doesn’t have a strong stomach. What has held me back a little from saying something about it is that I see that, for him, it reminds him of the days of yore when people had family dinners, which anyway we too well know.
But the modern idea of eating one, at most two courses is, however, certainly progress, and a healthy return to true antiquity.
Anyway père Gachet is a lot, yes a lot like you and I. I was pleased to read in your letter that Mr Peyron asked for news of me when he wrote to you. I’m going to write to him this very evening that things are going well, for he was very kind to me and I’ll certainly not forget him. Dumoulin, the one who has Japanese paintings at the Champ de Mars, has come back here, and I very much hope to meet him.
What did Gauguin say about the last portrait of the Arlésienne that’s done after his drawing? You’ll end up seeing, I would think, that it’s one of the least bad things I’ve done. Gachet has a Guillaumin, naked woman on a bed, which I consider very beautiful, he also has a very old Guillaumin portrait by him, very different from ours, dark but interesting.
But his house, you will see, is full, full like an antique dealer’s, of things that aren’t always interesting, it’s terrible, even. But in all of this there’s this good aspect, that there would always be what I need there for arranging flowers or still lifes. I’ve done studies for him, to show him that should he not be paid in money we’ll nevertheless still compensate him for what he does for us.
Do you know an etching by Bracquemond, the portrait of Comte, it’s a masterpiece.
I’d also need as soon as possible 12 tubes zinc white from Tasset and 2 medium tubes geranium lake.
Then as soon as you could send them I’d be absolutely set upon copying all of Bargue’s Etudes au fusain again, you know the nude figures. I can draw them quite quickly, let’s say the 60 sheets that there are in a month, so you might send a copy on loan, I’d make sure not to stain or dirty it. If I neglected to keep on studying proportions and the nude I’d find myself in a bad position later on. Don’t think this absurd or futile.
Gachet also told me that if I wanted to give him great pleasure he would like me to redo for him the copy of Delacroix’s Pietà, which he gazed at for a long time. Later he’ll probably give me a hand with the models, I feel that he’ll understand us completely, and that he’ll work with you and me without reservation, with all his intelligence, for the love of art for art’s sake. And he’ll perhaps have me do some portraits. Now to have clients for portraits one must be able to show different ones that one has done. That’s the only possibility I can see of placing something. But however, however, certain canvases will one day find collectors. Only I think that all the fuss created by the large prices paid lately for Millets &c. has further worsened the state of things as regards the chance one has of merely recouping one’s painting expenses. It’s enough to make one dizzy. So why are we thinking about it, it would stupefy us. Better still, perhaps, to seek a little friendship and live from day to day. I hope that the little one will continue to be well, and you two also until we see each other again, more soon, I shake your hand firmly.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 26 November 1889
My dear Theo,
I have to thank you very much for a consignment of colours, which was also accompanied by an excellent woollen waistcoat. How kind you are to me, and how I’d like to be able to do something good in order to prove to you that I’d like to be less ungrateful. Your colours reached me at the right moment, for what I brought back from Arles is almost exhausted. The thing is, I’ve been working this month in the olive groves, for they’d driven me mad with their Christs in the garden, in which nothing is observed. Of course there’s no question of me doing anything from the Bible – and I’ve written to Bernard, and also to Gauguin, that I believed that thinking and not dreaming was our duty, that I was therefore astonished when looking at their work by the fact that they give way to that. For Bernard has sent me photos of his canvases. The thing about them is that they’re sorts of dreams and nightmares, that there’s some erudition there – one can see that it’s someone who’s mad about the primitives – but frankly the English Pre-Raphaelites did this much better, and then Puvis and Delacroix are much healthier than those Pre-Raphaelites. So this doesn’t leave me cold, but it gives me an uncomfortable feeling of a tumble rather than progress. Well, to shake this off, I’ve been messing about in the groves morning and evening on these bright and cold days, but in very beautiful, clear sunshine, and the result is 5 no. 30 canvases which, with the 3 studies of olive trees that you have, at least constitute an attack on the problem. The olive tree is variable like our willow or pollard in the north. You know that willows are very picturesque, despite the fact that it appears monotonous, it’s the tree typical of the country. Now what the willow is in our native country, the olive tree and the cypress have exactly the same importance here. What I’ve done is a rather harsh and coarse realism beside their abstractions, but it will nevertheless impart the rustic note, and will smell of the soil. How I’d like to see the studies from nature by Gauguin and Bernard, the latter tells me of portraits which doubtless would please me more.
I hope I’ll get used to working in the cold – in the morning there are very interesting effects of white frost and fog, and I still have the great desire to do for the mountains and for the cypresses what I’ve just done for the olive trees, have a really good go at them. The thing is, the olive tree and the cypress have rarely been painted, and from the point of view of placing the paintings this ought to go to England, I know well enough what they’re looking for over there. Whatever the case, I’m almost sure that in this way I’ll do something passable from time to time. As I said to Isaäcson, it’s really more and more my opinion that by working assiduously from nature, without saying to oneself in advance, I want to do this or that, by working as if one were making shoes, without artistic preoccupations, one won’t always do well, but on the days when one thinks about it the least one finds a subject that holds its own with the work of those who came before us. One learns to know a country that’s basically quite different from what it appears at first sight. On the contrary, one will say to oneself, I want to finish my paintings better, I want to do them with care; in the face of the difficulties of the weather, of changing effects, a heap of ideas like this finds itself reduced to being impracticable, and I end up resigning myself by saying, it’s experience and each day’s little bit of work alone that in the long run matures and enables one to do things that are more complete or more right. So slow, long work is the only road, and all ambition to be set on doing well, false. For one must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with when one mounts the breach each morning. To paint, the tranquil, regulated life would therefore be absolutely necessary, and at present what can one do when one sees that Bernard, for example, is always put under pressure, pressure, pressure by his parents. He can’t do as he wants, and many others with him. One says to oneself, I shan’t paint any more, but what will one do then? Ah – a more expeditious painting process should be invented, less expensive than oil and yet durable. A painting... it will end up becoming as commonplace as a sermon, a painter like someone who’s a century behind the times. It’s a shame, though, that it should be so. Now if the painters had better understood Millet as a man – now some like Lhermitte and Roll have grasped him – things wouldn’t be so. One must work as hard and with as few pretensions as a peasant if one wants to last.
And instead of putting on grandiose exhibitions, it would have been better to address oneself to the common people, and work so that everyone may have paintings or reproductions at home, which are lessons like the work of Millet.
I’m completely at the end of my canvas, and when you can please send me 10 metres. Then I’m going to attack the cypresses and the mountains. I think that this must be the centre of the work I’ve done here and there in Provence, and then we can conclude the stay here when it’s convenient. Which isn’t urgent, for Paris only distracts, after all. I don’t know, though, not always being a pessimist – I keep telling myself that I still have it in my heart to paint a bookshop one day with the shop window yellow-pink, in the evening, and the passers-by black – it’s such an essentially modern subject. Because it also appears such a figurative source of light. I say, that would be a subject that would look good between an olive grove and a wheatfield, the sowing of books, of prints. I have that very much in my heart to do, like a light in the darkness. Yes, there’s a way of seeing Paris as beautiful. But anyway, bookshops aren’t hares, and there’s no hurry, and I have a good will to work here for another year, which will probably be wiser.
Mother must have been in Leiden for a good fortnight by now.
I’ve delayed sending you the canvases for them because I’ll include them with the canvas of the wheatfield for the Vingtistes.
Warm regards to Jo, she’s very good, continuing to be well. Thank you once again for the colours and for the woollen waistcoat, and good handshake in thought.