To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 2 June 1885.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for sending the money for this month so promptly. I’m satisfied with what you write about the painting, the comments that they made, Portier and Serret, but that they still found good things in it. I myself have criticisms of it, and more serious ones than theirs — that about the torsos — so I don’t wish them to approve of the whole. When you speak to them, just tell them that it may very well be that I draw back from the present copper and green soap-like tones, but that this drawing back will, I hope, be twofold, namely that I hope to paint some in a lighter spectrum, more flesh and blood — but equally am searching for something that’s even more green soap and coppery. In reality, every day in the gloomy cottages I see effects against the light or in the evenings in the dusk that are so curious that so far my work still seems to me too light for the effects in question, that is, those I compare to green soap and the copper-colour of a worn 10-centime piece, for want of anything better, and paint them with those colours, for want of anything better. But I wanted to succeed on the gloomy side too. What I’ve talked about before: the peasant painted with the soil he sows.
This week I hope to send to your address a little crate marked V2, containing
1 painting, The cottage
1 watercolour ditto
1 ,, Auction because of demolition
12 painted studies
among the latter you’ll find a head that I couldn’t help painting after reading Germinal.
‘Did I tell you how she died? Who do you mean? My wife, over there in Russia. Etienne made a vague gesture, surprised at the trembling of the voice, at that need to confide, in this usually impassive youth with his stoical detachment from others and from himself. He knew only that the wife was a mistress, and that she had been hanged in Moscow. Souvarine went on: on the last day, in the square, I was there... It was raining — the bunglers were losing their nerve, put off by the torrential rain. They had taken 20 minutes to hang 4 other people. She was standing waiting. She couldn’t see me, she was looking for me in the crowd. I stood up on a stone bollard and she saw me, and we did not take our eyes off one another again.
Twice I wanted to shout out, to throw myself over people’s heads in order to reach her. But what was the point, one man less, one soldier less, and I could clearly see that she was saying “no”, with her great steady eyes, when she met mine’.
You’ll find a variation among them — profile — a background of: ‘the flat expanse of fields of beet under the starless night sky, as dark and thick as ink’. Standing out against this the head of a female coal-pit drawer — or female thrutcher with something of a cow that’s lowing. As to expression — an individual from: — The land was big with a race of men growing like crops, a black avenging army slowly germinating in the furrows — growing taller to be harvested in future centuries and whose germination would soon make the earth explode.Yet to my mind the expression of that last is better in the study that I’ve marked, and which I made before I read it, in other words without thinking about Germinal, simply a peasant woman who came back from planting potatoes, still covered in dust from the field.
I’m actually planning to repeat the painting of the cottage once more. The thing struck me greatly; those two cottages, half decayed under one and the same thatched roof, reminded me of a couple of worn-out old folk who make up just one single being and whom one sees supporting each other.
For you see, they are two dwellings and the chimney is double. One sees that here a lot, by the way.
I don’t have time, otherwise I’d like to say a very great deal about Germinal, which I think splendid.
Just one more passage: bread! bread! bread! Fools! repeated M. Hennebeau, am I happy? He was stirred to anger against these people who did not understand. He would gladly have made them a gift of his high salary, in order to have, like them, a thick skin, an easy way of mating, with no regrets. Why could he not sit them down at his table, fatten them on his pheasant while he went off to fornicate behind hedges, tumbling lasses while jeering at those who had tumbled them before him! He would have given everything, his up-bringing, his comforts, his wealth, the power of his position as manager, if one day he could have been the lowest of the wretches who obeyed his orders, free in his fleshly existence, enough of a boor to slap his wife and take his pleasure with the neighbour-women. And he also wished to be starving with hunger, to have an empty belly, a stomach knotted with cramps that made him dizzy in the head; perhaps that would have killed the interminable pain. Ah! to live like a beast, to possess nothing of one’s own, to flatten the corn with the ugliest, dirtiest female coal-pit drawer, and to be able to be happy with that. Fools, these head-in-the-air revolutionaries; they would actually increase the world’s misery — they would one day make the very dogs howl with despair, when they had brought them out of the peaceful satisfaction of their instincts, in order to raise them to the unsatiated suffering of the passions.
Now as to what you write about Portier, ‘he is perhaps more of an enthusiast than a salesman’, and that you doubt whether he can do anything with my work, it seems to me that neither you, nor I, nor he can already decide that at the moment.
But when you see him, just tell him frankly that my idea is — if, after the sympathy which he expressed concerning my work, I do my utmost to send work and thus stick to my guns — I’m certainly counting on his persevering in showing my work. Tell him that my idea is that in the long run a part of the public in Paris won’t be fooled by convention, however seductive, but on the contrary that that which still has in it the most dust from the cottages or from the field will, I don’t know how or why myself, find a few very loyal friends. That he must therefore not lose heart too soon, because you and I combined won’t take it amiss of him should it not succeed for a longer or shorter time, but that he must just go on showing. And that I’ll go on sending.
That if he would write down his comments for me, I believe they’ll be useful to me. And he mustn’t be embarrassed. I add here, too, that I can sometimes very much long to see the Louvre and the Luxembourg once again, and that sooner or later I really should study the technique and colour of Millet, Delacroix, Corot and others. There’s absolutely no immediate hurry, though, to my mind; the more I work the more benefit I’ll derive from it if it can happen sometime. It’s just that one needs both nature and paintings. It’s above all the question of the spectrum in which they’re set, and the breaking and opposing of colours, which I think about every day.
Is Lhermitte’s month of May out already? In accordance with the postscript to your letter, I called in at home again straightaway, and I’ll also keep it up regularly from time to time, although it certainly isn’t my intention to go there often. Regards, with a handshake.
I don’t know whether you noticed that there’s a tiny bit about ‘enthusiasm’ in Mantz’s articles, how there’s also something about ‘the grain of madness that is the best of art’. I know that you wrote ‘he is perhaps more of an enthusiast than a salesman, which is perhaps better’.
So that’s said mildly enough on your part. For my part, though, I think that enthusiasm is certainly not irreconcilable with being a dealer. And simply remind you of Mouret and Bourdoncle. Mantz also speaks very briefly and profoundly to the point about ‘this illness that they call good sense’.
What shall I say to you? — some day the future and experience will say — what I can’t find the right words for. I mean — that enthusiasm sometimes counts for more than even the calculating types who consider themselves ‘above it all’. And instinct — inspiration — impulse — conscience — guide more truly than many people think. And be that as it may, for my part I agree with it, better to die of passion than to die of boredom. It’s really curious that I still do not regard your current view as your final one. The document about the estate came this week. I’ve stuck to what I said straightaway at the time. Ma appeared to want it in her name, but I can’t do anything about that — I’ve stuck to what I said. I hear that a lady is coming to lodge — you’ll understand that it’s not pleasant for them if I’m there often, nor for me to go there often. Occasionally, from time to time, is sufficient. I find them at home (I know — contrary to your opinion and contrary to their own opinion) very far, very far from sincere, and since there are moreover several other things I can’t stand with good reasons, I believe, I think Pa’s death and the settlement of the estate is a point at which I can withdraw very calmly, since I foresee that the characters of the 3 sisters (all three) will get worse not better with time, and to me at least they’re utterly disagreeable as it is. You remember with how much warmth I wrote to you about Wil when Ma was ill. Well now, it’s been such a short burst — and it’s frozen again. Have you ever read ‘L’évangéliste’ by Daudet? If you have — then you’ll find better words in it than mine for what I’m saying.
I can see that you’re doing your best to reconcile us, but my dear chap, I really don’t wish her any harm, and I really don’t do them any harm. Only I don’t want to exert any influence on them, since firstly they don’t understand themselves, but secondly don’t want to understand either.
The old tower is being pulled down next week! The spire’s already off — I’m working on a painting of it. In these new drawings I’m starting the figures with the torso, and it seems to me that they’re fuller and broader as a result. If 50 aren’t enough, I’ll draw 100 of them, and if that’s still not enough, even more, until I’ve got what I want solidly, that’s to say that everything is round, and there is as it were neither beginning nor end anywhere on the form, but it constitutes a single, harmonious, living whole.
You know that this is precisely the question that was discussed in Gigoux’s book, ‘do not start from the line but from the middle’.
Mantz says: modelling is the integrity of art, and what he changes in Ingres’s words is that Ingres said, ‘drawing is the integrity of art’, and added, I would like to show the outline of a wire. Hebert had what he called ‘a horror of the line’.
And then there are also fellows who maintain that all dogmas are absurd by the very nature of the thing. Pity that this is just another dogma itself. One simply has to do it as one does it, take care to make something of it, seek to get it to live. If people hadn’t made Thijs Maris too wretched and too melancholy to work, perhaps he would have found something amazing. I think about that chap so often, Theo, for his work is truly marvellous.
It’s a pipe dream — but what a master! God! If only that chap was still as he was when he began! What a focus he would become! For the present-day Dutch school needs new people who can do something in order to come along. One shouldn’t work in the grip of fear, and many do, who are so anxious to understand their tones and colours that the fear itself makes them insipid. Well, the real fellows, Israëls or Maris or Mauve or Neuhuys, do that very differently, for they say ‘just slap it on’. Well then — because people have snuffed out enthusiasm, they’ll ‘make the dogs howl with despair’ when no one has any enthusiasm left and no one dares to be robust any more. We’re not at that point yet — I know that, but I’m just saying — let’s retain enthusiasm, for otherwise we’ll achieve that maximum of wisdom that’s called the periwig age. One only has to look at the history of the old schools of painting to see that this can happen. How serious and bitter Mantz’s article 4 — the last one — was, and just what’s needed. Look out particularly for the Lhermittes when they come out. How fine they are. I spoke to Aunt Cornelie briefly; she insisted that you would certainly be coming this summer. By then I’ll have drawn a great many figures in the way I’ve now begun. Regards.