From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA:
The arrival of spring in Arles in 1888 found Van Gogh "in a fury of work." As he wrote to his brother Theo, "the trees are in blossom and I would like to do a Provençal orchard of tremendous gaiety." Between late March and late April, the artist dedicated fourteen canvases to the subject, working in a range of sizes, formats, and styles. This composition, dominated by the angular, elongated branches of the budding trees, attests to Van Gogh’s admiration for Japanese prints. His inclusion of the scythe and rake makes this one of only two orchard paintings to hint at a human presence.
To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Friday, 22 May 1885.
My dear Theo,
Many thanks for your letter and for the 50 francs enclosed, which was very welcome to me this month in particular, what with the move. I think that I’ll save a very great deal of time in the long run by living in the studio, since I’ll be able to get started first thing in the morning, for instance, whereas the way it was at home I couldn’t do anything. I’ve been slogging away at drawings these last few days. The old tower in the fields is being demolished. There was a sale of woodwork and slates and old iron, including the cross. I’ve finished a watercolour of it in the manner of that timber sale, but better, I think. I also had a second large watercolour of the churchyard, which has so far been a failure. But still, I have a very good idea of what I want in it — and perhaps I’ll now get what I mean on the third sheet of paper. And if not, then not. I’ve just now sponged out the two failures, but I’m going to try it once more. If you want, though, you can have the one of the sale.
Then I’m working on a large study of a cottage in the evening.
And about 6 heads.
One thing and another was the reason I didn’t send you confirmation of the receipt of your letter before.
I’m working as hard as I can because I’m thinking of going to see the Antwerp exhibition sometime with that friend of mine in Eindhoven, if I can manage it. And then I’d want to take some work with me so as to do something more with it there if possible. I’m longing to hear whether Mr Portier has seen the potato eaters.
What you say about the figures is true, that as figures they aren’t like the heads are. I’ve therefore thought about starting it very differently, that is tackling it from the torsos instead of from the heads.
But then it would have become something altogether different.
As to sitting, though, don’t forget that these people certainly don’t sit on chairs like in one of Duval’s cafés, say.
The finest thing I saw was that the woman was simply kneeling — that’s in the first sketch that I sent you.
But anyway, it’s simply painted the way it’s painted, and we’ll do it again sometime — and then certainly not the same. The last few days I’ve also been busy drawing little figures. Thanks, too, for the No. of Le Temps you sent with Paul Mantz’s article about the Salon. I haven’t seen such a good article in a long time. I think it uncommonly good — the opening sentences — the painting of those Laplanders in their dark hut, who see the sun rise after the long winter night — how in art one also sits waiting for light.
Then immediately afterwards his reference to Millet, who has certainly given new light — ‘and who remains’.
Then pointing to Lhermitte as Millet’s successor — I think all of it manly language, and outstanding in accuracy and broad view. Except I think it a shame that he calls Roll ‘a beginner’ — for that’s to denigrate him, and Roll has already made so many fine things and is — matchless.
Already matchless since his Miners’ strike at least. When Paul Mantz says that Roll’s labourers don’t work very hard, and that it is ‘a dream’. Well now — it’s a nice conceit and there’s something to it. The only thing is that it’s precisely because it’s Paris, and not the down-to-earth work in the fields. After all, a workman in the city is just exactly the way Roll paints him.
Rappard has a painting in Antwerp that I think will be very fine, at least the sketch, which practically no one liked, was to my mind very good. I think he’s very clever.
Have you finished Zola’s book, Germinal, yet? I’d very much like to read it and will send it back within a fortnight or so. Is Lhermitte’s month of May in yet?
In Mantz’s article I also think what he manages to say about colour in 4 words very good and logical, when he talks about ‘the ash blues that we love’, and ‘the grass of the meadow is very green, the bull is russet brown, the young girl is pink, here is the harmony of 3 tones’, when he talks about the same question in regard to Lhermitte.
Regards, with a handshake.
I can understand that Besnard must be interesting.
I’ll add another word or two here — I cannot advise you enough to work out E. Delacroix’s different propositions about colour for yourself.
Although — out of touch — although out of the art world for a long time — turned out — because of my clogs &c. — yet I see from that article by Mantz that there are still connoisseurs and art lovers, even now, who — know something — and that is what Thoré, what Théophile Gautier knew. And that, leaving aside the self-styled more civilized world of progress for what it is, namely a deception, it continues to come down to what the reformers already announced about taste in ’48, for instance, in a manly and forceful way. Just as Israëls won’t be surpassed here in Holland but, it seems to me, will remain the master. And in Belgium, Leys and Degroux.
Don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking that I’m insisting on imitation, because I don’t mean that at all. You’ve seen much more than I have — and I wish that I’d seen what you’ve seen and are still looking at every day.
But perhaps seeing a great deal is precisely what makes it difficult to reflect. Anyway.
My assertion is just that it’s the same with you as with a mass of others, that when you’re older you have to repeat the ground rules once more and study them again. I mean that in your capacity as an art expert you have to know certain rules of colour mixing and perspective just as well as the painters themselves — in terms of theory even better than them actually — since you have to advise and speak about paintings in the making. Don’t take it amiss, for what I say is true; that this would be of more practical use to you than you might think, and would raise you above the usual standard of dealers. Which is necessary, because the usual standard is below standard. I do know a little from my own experience what the dealers know and what they don’t know.
I believe that they’re often taken in and make deals that they later regret, precisely because they know too little about how a painting is made. Anyway — I know you’re already taking pains — for example by reading good things like the one by Gigoux. Really study the subject of colour etc. for yourself. I’m trying to do it myself too, and I’d also like to read everything you find of that nature. These days I’m working on putting what Delacroix said about drawing into practice on drawing a hand and arm: don’t start from the line but from the middle. One has opportunity enough to start from ovals there. And what I’m trying to get with it is to be able to draw not a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head but the overall expression. The sniffing of the wind when a digger looks up, say, or speaking. Life, in short.