To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, Monday, 4 and Tuesday, 5 May 1885.
My dear Theo,
I’m dropping you a quick line before I send off the little crate. I’m sending it carriage paid (Antwerp) (or right through if possible) to your address, rue de Laval.
If extra carriage has to be paid, it’s because they perhaps don’t do carriage paid all the way. But I didn’t want you to incur any expenses for it, since it might perhaps disappoint you.
Should this be the case, then just look at it for a while.
Naturally I don’t know what Portier will say.
I could say things against it myself by way of criticism that would probably escape most critics. But the reason why I’m sending it with a certain confidence is that, in contrast to a great many other paintings, it has rusticity and a certain life in it. And then, although it’s done differently, in a different century from the old Dutchmen, Ostade, for instance, it’s nevertheless out of the heart of peasant life and — original.
When I see in the Salon issue, for instance, so many paintings which are impeccably drawn and painted in terms of technique, if one will, many of them bore me stiff all the same, because they don’t make me feel or think anything, because they’ve evidently been made without a certain passionateness. And there’s something passionate in what I’m sending you — I’ve had a great desire to make it, and it’s with a certain fervour that I worked on it. I wasn’t bored — so perhaps it won’t bore others. I’m sending it because I believe that. How fine, though, I think Jules Breton’s The song of the lark in the Salon issue — the painting by Roll, also the Fantin-Latour5— also The Cornish coast, Vernier, and several others too — rest assured — I think they’re magnificent, although I can safely say that I find other apparently huge canvases dreadfully boring.
The woman with the spade by Lhermitte, how it lives and how real it is: as if done by a peasant who can paint, it’s masterly. If I were you, I would buy copies of the Lhermittes in order to keep them for 10 years.
For they are masterpieces that one gets for 50 centimes this way.
How on earth is it that the illustrated magazines aren’t better!
I heard Lançon is dead. I’ve followed his work for years and nothing of his has ever bored me.
Life in every little scratch.
When someone like that dies — of the same breed as the Régameys and Renouard — then it’s a loss and leaves an empty place.
But Lançon’s drawings were admirable, so manly and so broad.
I hear Tissot has an exhibition — have you seen it?
It all comes down to the degree of life and passion that an artist manages to put into his figure. So long as they really live, a figure of a lady by Alfred Stevens, say, or some Tissots are also really magnificent. And the peasants by Lhermitte, Millet, are so fine precisely because of the life.
Whichever school one may work in — be it Israëls, Herkomer, so many different views — if it’s felt and lives, then it’s good. There must be many fine paintings, among the very ones that were not reproduced.
But when I think about a Salon of 70 or 74, to give an example — it seems to me that the standard was higher, and since then people have — declined.
When one just looks through the Boetzel Albums, for instance. And the greatest powers aren’t even in it, Millet isn’t, for example.
It’s absolutely not my intention to raise the question as if I myself knew it all.
On the contrary — you see so many Daubignys, Corots, Millets, Dupré, Israëls, Herkomer, Breton &c.
And I none. But every day, at present, I think about it, that the spectrum of all those painters is lower than it seems, and that when one looks at them closely and compares, even those paintings than seem light are much lower than even Mauve’s greys.
With the exception, specifically, of the very finest Mauves — to mention a couple, the old one of Post’s with that caravan of old nags.
And his painting at the Salon 2 years ago, dragging that pink into the sea.
I hear and see so little, or nothing, so I’m not in a position to test this against the paintings themselves and see what they reveal about this question.
But working and seeking myself, and thinking about it in front of nature, as I’ve written to you before, this question won’t leave me in peace.
And nothing says more clearly what I mean, nowhere do I find so many grounds for my supposition, as that phrase which so accurately makes one feel Millet’s colour and technique. His peasant seems to have been painted with the very soil he sows. Mauve — when he paints light — and the other light Dutchmen — of good quality — use a colour mix no different from the present French or the old Dutch school — that is, a dead simple palette, but here in Holland people use more white than Millet or Dupré or Daubigny or Corot. You’d be doing me a favour if you were to write sometimes about paintings you might see.
I just read a review in The Graphic of an exhibition of 25 drawings by Fred Walker. Walker’s been dead for about 10 years, you know. Pinwell too. While I’m writing about this subject I’m also thinking about their work, and how amazingly clever they were. How they were the ones who did the same in England as Maris, Israëls, Mauve accomplished in Holland, that is, restored nature over convention, feeling and impression over academic stuffiness and dullness. How they were the first tonists. But I remember peasants on the land by Pinwell — the Harbour of refuge by Walker — of which one could also say, painted with the Soil. I would have to see more paintings in order to be able to draw conclusions — and I’m just asking you, do you know anything about this? Wine, of course, contains moisture or water particles naturally — and there will always be water in it by the nature of the thing. But too much water in it — and it becomes weak. It’s by no means my assertion that one can or should paint without white or light, any more than I would ever assert that one should dry wine. I do definitely say, though, that one may well watch out a little in our so pure? and light? times that one doesn’t put too much water in the wine, too much white in the wine of colour. So that fieriness remains, and the effects don’t become too tame and weaken the whole thing.
Do you know what people could learn something from in this regard? From a painting by Leys; not from Leys’s first period, but from the second and third periods.
I remember The skaters and The walk on the ramparts from the series.
In both paintings figures in the snow, and both paintings not grey at all, as light as the present Dutchmen would paint snow. That little painting by Millet that you once mentioned to me as the archetype of an Impressionist painting — is that in the Luxembourg?
All the same, I think that many a Dutch landscape would become white and colourful compared with that tone. I’m convinced of this — that it’s largely painted in red, blue and yellow, with perhaps a little or some but probably not much white. I haven’t seen it in 10 or 12 years — yet the more I think about it, searching for certain effects in nature myself, the less I’m inclined to believe that the real French painters used as much white as people are in danger of lapsing into nowadays.
I’m well aware that something also depends on the models. When I think of the Scheveningen woman who regularly serves Artz as a model, whom I remember very well, well she’s as fair, as light as — some whores. That’s good to paint, too, yes indeed.
But peasants or fishermen in small villages and far from the city — wherever one may go, they’re different. They remind one of the earth, sometimes appear to have been modelled out of it. I remember it says in Jules Breton’s poems, and I think in the very one he dedicated to Millet (a little peasant going home through the potato fields in the evening),
The peasant TWICE BROWNED
By the twilight and suntan.
But if you thought that this means I don’t like any light paintings — I really do — I know a Bastien-Lepage — a bride who’s entirely white on white with a little brown face in the middle — magnificent — and any number of Dutch paintings with snow, mist and sky. Magnificent.
I’m just trying to say that one may do what one likes, and Jaap Maris, say, who is sometimes very light — the next day he paints a townscape at night in the most sombre spectrum. What I’m pointing out above all is that paintings like certain old Cabats, say, certain Duprés — even though they may have been painted almost solely with red, blue and yellow, without much white, nevertheless, to my mind, are not inferior to later, greyer conceptions.
That was yesterday. Your letter with the enclosure just came, for which many thanks. I find what you say about the Salon interesting. I can see from what you say about the Besnard painting that you understood what I was talking about, about broken colours, orange broken by blue and vice versa. Only, there are other, different spectrums too. But that of orange against blue is logical, as is yellow against lilac, as is red against green.
The crate for the painting is ready, so I’m sending it flat and it’s a light little crate, however it still has to dry for 1 or 2 days. I’m also sending another 10 painted studies at the same time. Please tell me something more about the UHDE painting. You know Rembrandt painted the same thing in the large painting in the National Gallery.
I’m in the middle of moving. Thanks again for what you sent, with a handshake.