Vincent van Gogh - The Smoker 1888

The Smoker 1888
The Smoker
Oil on canvas 62.0 x 47.0 cm. Arles: December, 1888
Merion Station : The Barnes Foundation

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 15 July 1888.
My dear Theo,
You’ll already have received my letter of this morning, in which I’d included 50-franc note for Bing, and it’s about this Bing business again that I wanted to write to you. The fact is, we don’t know enough about Japanese art.
Fortunately, we know more about the French Japanese, the Impressionists. That’s definitely the essence and the main thing.
So Japanese art, properly speaking, already with its place in collections, already impossible to find in Japan itself, is becoming of secondary interest.

But this doesn’t mean that if I had a single day in which I could see Paris again I wouldn’t call at Bing’s precisely to go and see the Hokusais and other drawings from the true period. What Bing himself, by the way, also said to me when I so much admired the run-of-the-mill Japanese prints, that later I’d see that there’s also something else. Loti’s book, Mme Chrysanthème, taught me this: the apartments are bare, without decorations or ornaments. And it was that that awakened my curiosity about the excessively synthetic drawings of another period. Which are probably to our Japanese prints what a sober Millet is to a Monticelli. You know well enough that I’m not averse to Monticellis, myself.
Nor coloured Japanese prints, either, even when people tell me ‘you should get out of that habit’. But it seems to me, at the point we’ve reached, fairly indispensable to know the sober quality that is the equivalent of the colourless Millets. That has little or nothing to do with the stock, properly speaking, which may as well stay as it is.
Because I don’t tire of those figures and landscapes. And he has so many of them!
If I wasn’t so caught up and absorbed in work, how I’d like to sell all that lot! There’s not much to be earned from it, and that’s why nobody takes it up. Nevertheless, after a few years it will all become quite rare, will be sold more dearly. It’s for that reason that we shouldn’t scorn the small advantage that we have at present, of going through thousands to make our choice.
Now, if you give a whole Sunday to this yourself, if you choose new stock for about a hundred francs, you can tell yourself beforehand that you won’t sell those, having chosen them yourself (unless you don’t like them) — you can pay for them as and when, replacing them all the time. In the end, when the whole batch has been paid for at your leisure, you still have as many more in stock. And the result is that what we like best in the lot stays with us. And it’s by doing it this way that, in what’s currently at your place, there are already many old sheets that are worth a good 1 franc each.
So I urge you, keep the advantages of the stock and don’t get rid of the fine sheets; on the contrary, we profit by adding to them.
There are already some sheets that we have that are definitely worth 5 francs. My God, I wasn’t able to do as I wished, because I was just as excited about this lot of ten thousand Japanese prints to go through as Thoré about a sale of Dutch paintings, among which there were some interesting ones.
Really, at present my work has kept me busy; I can’t do any more about it but I recommend Bing’s attic to you.
I learned there myself, and I got Anquetin and Bernard to learn with me.
Now, there’s still more to learn at Bing’s, and that’s why I urge you to keep our stock there, and access to the attics and cellars, and you see how far I am from seeing it as a speculation.
Supposing that it costs (myself, I don’t believe that we’d lose by it), it doesn’t cost an enormous amount.
What’s Reid doing??? He’ll already have been there on his own account, perhaps, as will Russell. I didn’t conceal that there were some at Bing’s, only I said they were 5 sous, which Bing himself had told me — or rather, the manager. If you keep the stock, then tell him once again that we often send people directly to him but that he must therefore keep his Japanese prints at the stated price — of 5 sous — not less. I’m telling you only this — I’ve gone through the lot four or 5 times; the sheets at our place are the result of replenishing the stock several times already.
Let’s continue in the same way. It has already been a great regret to me, who knows something about the lot, not to have paid at New Year myself, and chosen the new stock myself. Because you’re dazzled, there’s so much of it.
And in the other shops — it’s not the same thing at all, because people are afraid to go to Bing, thinking him expensive. Now, what I didn’t go through was the library, where there are hundreds, thousands of bound books.
Look, you’ll do well out of paying a visit to their manager — his name continues to escape me — make my profound excuses to him, please, but tell him that I was there three times at New Year to pay up, that afterwards came my journey to the south. And that will procure you a Claude Monet and other paintings, because if you take the trouble to dig out the Japanese prints, you certainly have the right to do exchanges with them, with the painters, for paintings. But to break off our relations with Bing — oh no, never that.

Japanese art is something like the primitives, like the Greeks, like our old Dutchmen, Rembrandt, Potter, Hals, Vermeer, Ostade, Ruisdael. It doesn’t end.
If, though, I saw Bing’s manager, I’d say to him that when you put yourself out to find collectors for his Japanese prints — you waste your whole day there without thinking about it, and at the end of it all, whether you sell or you don’t sell, you lose money on it.
And you, if you don’t want to lose on it, I would urge you to make some exchanges with painters whom you know — as Besnard still owes you a study, to tell the truth.
Anyway, that’s perfectly natural, and the difficulty of working in Paris.
Today I sent Bernard 6 drawings after painted studies; I promised him 6 more and asked for an exchange of croquis after his painted studies.
And there you have it, General Boulanger’s gone and done it again. It seems to me that both of them were right to fight, being unable to get along. That way at least there’s no stagnation, and both of them can only gain by it. Don’t you find he speaks very badly, Boulanger? He makes no impression in words at all. I don’t think him any the less serious for that, since he’ll be in the habit of using his voice for practical purposes, to explain things to his officers or to the managers of arsenals. But he makes no impression at all in public.
All the same, it’s a funny city, Paris, where you have to live by wearing yourself out, and as long as you’re not half dead you can’t do a damned thing, and still. I’ve just read Victor Hugo’s L’année terrible. There’s hope there, but — .... that hope’s in the stars. I find that true, and well said, and beautiful; and what’s more, I readily believe it myself, too.
But let’s not forget that the earth’s a planet too, therefore a star or celestial globe. And what if all these other stars were the same!!!!!! It wouldn’t be very jolly, in fact you’d have to start all over again.
For art, now — for which you need time, it wouldn’t be bad to live more than one life. And it’s not without appeal to believe in the Greeks, the old Dutch and Japanese masters, continuing their glorious school on other globes. Anyway, that’s enough for today.
And look, there’s another Sunday got through, writing to you and writing to Bernard; however, I must say it didn’t seem long to me. Handshake.
Ever yours,

If our sisters could bring us some more wood engravings and things like Gavarni’s La masquerade humaine, 100 lithographs, the Charles Keenes, of which there were a good 200, it wouldn’t be bad. There’s also a very fine book, Anatomy for artists.