From the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London:
This is thought to have been painted soon after Van Gogh's release from hospital in Arles in January 1889. On 7 January he wrote to his brother Theo: 'I am going to set to work again tomorrow. I shall start by doing one or two still lifes to get used to painting again'. He was probably also inspired by a woodcut by Hokusai, 'Crabs', which was reproduced in the May 1888 issue of 'Le Japon Artistique', sent to Vincent by Theo in September of that year. In a related painting in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, the crab is shown lying on its back. Here it is probably the same crab shown both on its back and upright. The artist has used varied brushstrokes to convey texture. Parallel strokes sculpt the creature's form on an exuberant sea-like surface.
To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Sunday, 12 August 1888.
My dear Theo,
I have to thank you for quite a few things, first of all your letter and the 50-franc note it contained, but then also for the consignment of colours and canvas that I’ve been to collect at the station (the geranium lake arrived too), and lastly for the Cassagne book and for La fin de Lucie Pellegrin. If Tasset divided up his packages better there’d be a difference in the cost of carriage; this time it came to 3 parcels, two of them weighing over 5 kilos. If a few tubes had been kept back, the whole thing would have cost about 5 francs. Anyway, I’m still very glad to have them.
Lucie Pellegrin is very beautiful, it’s straight from the life, and it’s still elegant, and it’s touching, because it keeps the broad human aspect. Why should it be forbidden to deal with these subjects? Unhealthy and over-excited sexual organs seek sensual pleasures, delights à la Da Vinci. Not I, on the other hand, who have hardly seen any but the sort of 2-franc women originally intended for the Zouaves. But people who have leisure for making love look for mystery of the Da Vincian sort. I understand that these loves won’t always be understood by everyone.
But from the point of view of what is permitted, books could actually be written dealing with more serious deviations of unhealthy sex than the practices of Lesbians; just as it’s also permitted to write medical documents, surgical descriptions, on those matters.
Anyway, law and justice apart, a pretty woman is a living marvel, while a painting by Da Vinci or Correggio only exists on other accounts. Why am I so little an artist that I always regret that the statue, the painting, aren’t alive? Why do I understand the musician better, why do I see more clearly the raison d’être of his abstractions? At the first opportunity I’ll send you an engraving after a drawing by Rowlandson of two women, as beautiful as Fragonard or Goya.
At the moment we have a very glorious, powerful heat here, with no wind, which suits me very well. Sunshine, a light which, for want of a better word I can only call yellow — pale sulphur yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is! And how much better shall I see the north. Ah, I’m always wishing that the day will come when you’ll see and feel the sun of the south.
As far as studies go, I have two studies of thistles on a piece of waste ground, thistles white with the fine dust from the road.
And a little study of a halting-place of fairground people, red and green caravans, and also a little study of carriages of the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranée, which last two studies have been approved as ‘in quite the modern key’ by the young follower of good old General Boulanger, the very brilliant second lieutenant of Zouaves.
This gallant soldier has given up the art of drawing, into the mysteries of which I was making efforts to initiate him, but for a plausible reason, because unexpectedly he had to take an examination, for which I fear he was anything but prepared. Supposing that the above-mentioned young Frenchman always tells the truth, he’ll have astonished the examiners with the self-confidence of his answers, a confidence that he seems to have boosted by spending the night before the examination in a brothel. As I believe François Coppée says in a sonnet, on the subject of ‘my lieutenant on his way’, we may have ‘a doubt that fills us with despair’.
For, continues Coppée.... ‘I think of our defeat’. The fact remains that I have no reason to complain of him, and if it’s true that he’ll soon be a lieutenant, we should acknowledge his good fortune. He literally resembles the good old General from the point of view of having spent a great deal of time with the good so-called ladies of the café-concert.
It’ll be enough that I’ll write to you, or he’ll send you a telegram to tell you by which train he’ll arrive on the 16 or the 17. He’ll give you the painted studies then, which will save us carriage charges. He owes me that much, anyway, for my lessons. He’ll do no more than spend one or two days in Paris on his way to the north, but on his return he’ll stay there longer.
It is indeed, after so much coldness, rather kind of our uncle to have left you a legacy, but it’s hard for me to get it into my head that he and C.M. haven’t condemned you a little to forced labour in perpetuity by refusing to provide for you by lending you the capital needed to set up on your own. That remains a serious error on their part. But I don’t labour the point. One more reason to try to do the most possible in art if we’ll always be in difficulties, relatively speaking, as far as money goes. Well, my dear brother, at that moment you were ready, for your part, to set yourself up; therefore you have every right to feel that you’ve done your duty, for your part. With their help, you had this business in the Impressionists, taken as a whole. Without their help, the business won’t be done, or will be done in a different way. You may not have earned anything, but you’ve deserved it, now if the Dutch are always mixing up these two such different questions, having only their word ‘verdienen’ in both cases, too bad for them!
I’ll write another short line to Mourier, you’ll read it. And I shake your hand firmly.