Vincent van Gogh - Portrait of Armand Roulin 1888

Portrait of Armand Roulin 1888
Portrait of Armand Roulin
Oil on canvas 65.0 x 54.0 cm. Arles: November-December, 1888
Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Friday, 15 and Saturday, 16 June 1888.
My dear Theo,
When in doubt, it’s better to abstain — that, I believe, is what I said in the letter to Gauguin, and that’s what I believe now, having read his reply. If he, for his part, returns to the proposal — he’s perfectly free to return to it — but we’d look I’m not quite sure what, if for the moment we pressed the point, to make him say yes.
You see that I’ve received your letter; I thank you very much for it and there were many things in it, I thank you very much for the 100-franc note — as for the delay with the telegram, it was dated Sunday, so it’s the postman’s fault, but it hardly mattered, since the coach for Saintes-Maries leaves every day.
But what stopped me was the need to buy canvases and pay the rent. I have already mentioned to you that I didn’t like Tasset’s canvas very much for outdoor work. In future I think we’ll take the ordinary kind. I bought 50 francs’ worth of canvas with stretching frames — also because I need stretching frames of different sizes to stretch canvases on, even though I’ll send them to you rolled up. They’re the rather large sizes, 30, 25, 20, 15, all square. It seems to me that the large sizes (after all, it’s not very large) suit me better.

But I speak about what you write in your letter. I congratulate you on having the Monet exhibition at your premises, and I much regret not seeing it. It will certainly do Tersteeg no harm to have seen this exhibition; he’ll still come round to it, but as your idea was too, very late. It’s indeed curious that he’s changed his mind on the subject of Zola. I know from experience that he couldn’t bear to hear him spoken about. What an odd character Tersteeg is; we shouldn’t give up hope with him — the splendid thing about him is that however rigid and fixed his opinions may be, once he has acknowledged that something is in fact different from what he had imagined — as with Zola — then he changes and becomes bold for the cause. Unfortunately, we don’t get to be old in modern times, and Mr Tersteeg has lived longer now than he still has to live. And where is his successor? My God, what a sad thing it is that you and he are not entirely as one in business matters these days. But what can you say — it’s what I believe they call a fatality.
You were fortunate to meet Guy de Maupassant — I’ve just read his first book, Des vers, poems dedicated to his master, Flaubert. There’s one, ‘Au bord de l’eau’, that’s already him. So you see, what Vermeer of Delft is beside Rembrandt among painters, he is among French novelists beside Zola.
In short, Tersteeg’s visit isn’t at all what I’d dared hope, and I make no secret of it to myself that I miscalculated the odds on his cooperating.
And perhaps on the business with Gauguin, too. Let’s take a look at that: I thought he was at bay and I blame myself for having money and the pal who works better than I, not — I say, he’s entitled to half if he wishes.
But — if Gauguin isn’t at bay, then I’m not in too much of a hurry.
And I categorically withdraw from it, and the only question for me remains quite simply this: If I looked for a pal to work with, would I be doing the right thing, would this be more beneficial to my brother and me, would the pal lose or would he gain by it?
So these, then, are questions that certainly preoccupy me, but which need to come face to face with reality in order to become actual facts.
I don’t wish to discuss Gauguin’s plan, having considered the situation once — last winter — you know the results. You know that I believe that an association of the Impressionists would be something along the lines of the associations of the 12 English Pre-Raphaelites, and that I believe that it could come into being. That I’m therefore inclined to believe that the artists would guarantee their livelihood amongst themselves, mutually, and independently of the dealers, each agreeing to give a substantial number of paintings to the society, and that earnings as well as losses would be shared. I don’t believe that this society would last indefinitely, but I believe that during its lifetime we would live courageously and would produce. But if tomorrow Gauguin and his banker Jews come and ask me for nothing but 10 paintings for a society of dealers and not a society of artists, well, I don’t know if I’d trust them — I who would be glad, on the other hand, to give 50 to a society of artists.
Isn’t it a bit the way it was with Reid — why say that Gabriel de la Roquette’s a scoundrel if you do the same yourself? Why say artistic Society if it’s made up of bankers? Enough, for Heaven’s sake, let our pal do as his heart tells him, but his plan is far from making me enthusiastic.
I prefer things as they are — to take them the way it is, without changing anything about them, to half-baked reforms.
The great revolution, art for the artists, my God, perhaps it’s a utopia, and too bad, then. I think life’s so short and goes by so fast. Now, being a painter you have to paint, all the same.
And you’re also well aware that because at that time — last winter with Pissarro and the others, we happened to talk about it a lot, I’m now making a big effort to add nothing more except this, that speaking for myself, before next year I want to make my contribution of 50 paintings. If I manage to do that then I’ll stick to my opinion. I’ve sent you 3 drawings by post today.
The one with the haystacks in a farmyard will seem too bizarre to you, but it was done in great haste as a project for a painting, and it’s to show you what it’s like.
Now, the harvest is a bit more serious. And that’s the subject I’ve been working on this week, on a no. 30 canvas — it’s hardly done at all — but it kills the rest of what I have, apart from a still life, worked on with patience. MacKnight and one of his friends who’s been in Africa too saw this study today and said it was the best I’d done. Like Anquetin and our friend Thomas — you’re really not sure what to think of yourself when you hear people say that, but I say to myself: the rest must look bloody awful, to be sure.
Well then — on days when I bring back a study I say to myself, if it was like this every day things could work — but on days when you come home empty-handed and you eat and spend money all the same, you don’t feel content with yourself, and you feel like a madman, a scoundrel or an old fool.
And dear old Doctor Ox, I mean our Swede, Mourier, I liked him well enough because, with his spectacles, he went naїvely and benignly about this wicked world, and because I presumed he had a heart that was purer than many a heart, and even with more of a leaning towards rectitude than many of the cleverest people have. And as I knew he hadn’t been painting for very long it made not a bit of difference to me that his work was the very height of inanity. And I saw him every day for months. All right. So what can be the reason for his losing his qualities? This is how I imagine the case to be. Bear in mind that he came to the south to get over a nervous disorder caused by a whole lot of problems he’s had, and as a result of which he changed career.
He was perfectly well here, he was very calm, &c. But the shock of Paris was too great, the change too sudden, he didn’t find the Paris of his dreams, and there he is, worried and perhaps disagreeable, and in any case doing silly things.
He’ll soon have sown his wild oats, I hope. While waiting, let him do whatever he likes without attaching any importance to it. He’s placing huge hopes in Russell (I believe), he’s looking for an adviser and a teacher — now — no need to tell you that Russell will perhaps not be everything he needs, but I believe that Russell will see that he’s someone who doesn’t know the circles of people with whom he’s dealing, and I think that Russell will take him seriously and will try to be good for him. I believe that Russell is making a name for himself among those who have an instinctive fear of Paris. It’s hard to explain what I mean by that.
Russell is such a good man — but you know, you can’t recommend that people love Paris, or force them to, any more than you can recommend a pipe or black coffee with cognac. And Russell’s rich and has lost money in Paris, so he can and does say to people: ‘see what I’ve had to deal with’. But in any event, I’ll write a word to Russell.
It seems that MacKnight wasn’t very pleased with me but that Russell indicated to him in reply that he should shut up. All this to tell you I understand very, very well — seeing he has turned out like that — that you’re not in complete agreement with the Swede, who probably, according to what you write, has had a recurrence of his nervous trouble and is irritated by Paris. If he has money to waste in taking a studio like Gérôme’s, it would be serious. As I’m slightly doubtful that he has a huge amount to waste, he’s in for a bit of a drubbing that’s not undeserved, I’d say. There’s nothing to be done if he won’t listen, but you can’t live with him. I won’t write to Gauguin direct — I’ll send you the letter — because when in doubt, it’s better to abstain. IF WE SAY NO MORE, if the reply shows we’ve said something like that but that there has to be an initiative in the matter from his side too, then we’ll see if he’s keen on it. If he isn’t keen on it, if it’s all one to him, if he has something quite different in mind, let him remain independent, and me too. Handshake to you and to Mourier.
Ever yours,

I find this in particular rather strange in this plan of Gauguin’s: the society offers its protection in exchange for 10 paintings that the artists will have to give, if ten artists do that, the Jewish company clearly pockets 100 paintings ‘for a start’. The protection of this society that doesn’t even exist costs a lot of money.
Here’s the letter for Gauguin — I’m well aware that in his there is this passage ‘I ask (underlined) if, the capital having been raised for the most part, your brother would use his efforts to make a success of the business and to be its director’. I’m well aware that he also writes, ‘I accept your proposal in principle’. But I believe that it could lead us too far if we weren’t a little firm in showing him that our proposal was without all these afterthoughts, and that we ourselves are too hard up to be able to risk anything other than setting up house together and sharing the month’s money.

And it’s true I didn’t know he had so large a family; he’ll more likely wish to stay in the north for that reason.
The most radical thing we could do would be for me to give up the south, and if that would get him out of trouble, go and join him in Brittany myself. And the desire I have to work in the south is naturally subordinate to the interests of people like him.
All the same, we shouldn’t change lightly.
And I’m a little afraid of getting a dressing-down for having separated him from his family, or a hornet’s nest like that.
Dear God, if he has such a large family his obligations are probably not to be absent from them any more. And perhaps he’d be much happier if you simply bought a painting from him from time to time.
If now I haven’t mentioned these two passages and other passages in his letter it’s because it seems far too difficult to me to say yes to that in all honesty. However, if it was the case that his whole plan is nothing but a fata Morgana, and as such will vanish, he’ll speak of it again of his own accord.
But there’s the fare, the debt at the inn, the doctor’s bill; now he’s talking about another debt of 300 francs which he’ll settle with that painting if his collector agrees. But if he doesn’t agree? Well now, it wouldn’t be very prudent to give him hopes beyond our resources and commit ourselves to doing more than we could stick to. It’s all very well for Gauguin to say, he’s very very upset and it’s a pity, and it can’t be good for his work. No, we shouldn’t change what we’ve said and consider that the thing isn’t going ahead because of doubts and changes whose presence isn’t a good sign. The more I calm myself here and the more I regain my strength, the more I feel that work is the most secure thing. I admit that if living in Brittany is much less expensive, if necessary I must sacrifice my plan to work here, and I’ll do it willingly if it’s to his benefit. But all the more reason to work hard on the 50 paintings I wished to have before talking again about projects of the kind we discussed last winter. A letter from home arrives just now.
You know I feel so well now that it isn’t indispensable that I stay here for my health alone. We have to act so that you aren’t completely overwhelmed by expenses, that’s what’s necessary and that’s serious enough in itself.