To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 13 October 1885.
My dear Theo,
Today I sent — carriage paid — crate V4 with the still lifes.
To my regret, the two little sketches of Amsterdam are quite badly damaged. They got wet on the journey; then the little panels warped when they dried, and dust &c. got into them. I’m sending them all the same to show you that if, in the space of an hour, I want to dash off an impression somewhere, I’m beginning to be able to do this in the same sentiment as others who — analyze — their impressions. And give themselves a reason for what they see. This is something other than feeling, that’s to say undergoing impressions — there may perhaps be a great deal between experiencing impressions and — analyzing them, that’s to say taking them apart and putting them together again. But it’s enjoyable to put something down in a rush.
What particularly struck me when I saw the old Dutch paintings again is that they were usually painted quickly. That these great masters like Hals, Rembrandt, Ruisdael — so many others — as far as possible just put it straight down — and didn’t come back to it so very much.
And — this, too, please — that if it worked, they left it alone.
Above all I admired hands by Rembrandt and Hals — hands that lived, but were not finished in the sense that people want to enforce nowadays. Particular hands in the Syndics even, in the Jewish bride, in Frans Hals.
And heads, too — eyes, nose, mouth done with the first brushstrokes, without any sort of retouching. Unger, Bracquemond etched it well — as it was done, and one can see the manner of painting in their etchings.
Theo, how necessary it is at this time to look at old Dutch paintings now and again! And at the French paintings, Corot, Millet &c. The rest, one can if necessary do without them very well — and upset some people more than they think. Paint in one go, as far as possible in one go. What a joy it is to see a Frans Hals like that — how very different it is from the paintings — there are so many of them — where everything has been carefully smoothed out in the same way.
I happened to see a Meissonier (the one at the Fodor) on the same day that I saw old Dutch masters, Brouwer, Ostade, Ter Borch in particular.8 Well then — Meissonier does it like them — a very considered, very calculated touch — but — on in one go and, if possible, right in one go.
I think it’s better to take off a part that goes wrong with a palette knife and start again from the beginning than to keep coming back to it.
Now — I saw a sketch by Rubens and a sketch by Diaz, too, as it were at the same time. They were by no means the same, but the belief that the colour expresses the form when it’s in its place and in its context — that they do have in common. At any rate Diaz is a painter to the core — and he was conscientious to the tips of his fingers.
The Diaz in the Fodor is only sketchy, but perhaps precisely because of this it was a real joy for me, who hadn’t seen one in years, to see one again, and it stood up very well, even when one had just seen the way the old masters went about it.
I must just come back to certain present-day paintings that are becoming more and more numerous. Some 10, 15 years ago people started to talk about ‘clarity of light’. It’s true that originally this was a good thing; it’s a fact that masterly things came about as a result of that system. But where it increasingly degenerates into an overproduction of paintings where all through the painting — in all 4 corners the same light, the same what I think they call day tone and local colour dominates, is this a good thing??? I think not. Is the Ruisdael in the Van der Hoop, the one with the mill, not outdoors? Is there no sky in it and vast space? And yet — the whole painting is very much darker than the fellows would do, sky and earth moreover form a single whole, belong together.
Van Goyen — that Corot among the Dutchmen — I stood for a long time in front of that masterly piece in the Dupper Collection, two oaks on a dune in the autumn, in a storm.
A sentiment indeed, let me say, like Jules Dupré or like The bush.
But there’s ordinary yellow ochre rather than — white — carried through in the painting. Now the Cuyp — the view of Dordrecht in the Van der Hoop — entirely reddish gold — there again — the ochres.
Frans Hals’s yellow — call it what you will, dull lemon or fawn yellow — what’s it done with? It seems very light in the painting — but just try holding white against it.
A great lesson that the old Dutch masters teach, it seems to me, is this: to regard drawing and colour as one — which Bracquemond says too. That now — many do not do it, they draw with everything except with sound colour. Oh Theo, it’s so awful to listen to, it’s so horribly boring when a chap like Haverman, say, talks about ‘technique’. I don’t say Rappard, because he talks like that too but, fortunately for him, paints better than he talks. I have absolutely no desire to make a lot of acquaintances among the painting gang. But again — speaking of technique — there’s a great deal sounder and more solid technique in Israëls — for instance in that very old work, the Zandvoort fisherman, with superb chiaroscuro — than the technique of those who are equally smooth and flat all over, and distinguished by their cold, tinny colour.
The Zandvoort fisherman, well, just go ahead and hang it next to an old Delacroix, The barque of Dante, and it’s the same family. I believe in that, but every day I dislike the paintings that are equally light all over more and more. It’s an unpleasant thing for me when they say that I have ‘no technique’ — it’s possible that this will blow over because I don’t make the acquaintance of any of the painters. It’s true, on the contrary, that it’s precisely in terms of technique that I find many of the people who prattle on about it the most are weak. I wrote to you about that before. But if I show any of my work in Holland, I know in advance what I have to deal with and with what sort of calibre of technicians. Meanwhile, I’d rather go very calmly to the old Dutchmen and rather to the paintings by Israëls and those who have a direct affinity with Israëls, which the newer ones do not. They are, rather, diametrically opposed to Israëls. And I think I’ve observed that Israëls himself, Maris, Mauve, Neuhuys himself, view a certain direction we’re now discussing with nothing but displeasure. A Mesdag, for instance, who was once a terrible realist, as you’ll remember — is becoming more tonal in his later paintings and drawings, and often more mysterious. Anyway.
Witkamp has a devilish lot that’s good — resembles Jules Breton or Bastien-Lepage — but — Jules Breton is warm, and he’s much too cold. And that’s not a fault that’s easy to put right — to get a thing warm, it has to be put on warm, and otherwise one won’t easily get the cold out of it.
In many cases, what they call brightness is an ugly studio tone in a cheerless city studio. It seems people don’t look at the half-light in the early morning or in the evening, it seems nothing exists other than midday from 11-3 — truly a very respectable hour! — but — often as characterless as Jan Salie.
But for all that, Theo — I’m devilish poor at present. Painting a lot is expensive — I feel really hard up, and as for the end of the month, it’s miserable. The fact that ‘money is the sinews of war’ sadly can’t be ignored in painting either. Nothing but sorrow comes out of war, though, there is only destruction, and in painting it’s sometimes — sowing — even if the painter doesn’t reap the harvest himself.
How are you and how’s business? I don’t know whether my intuition is right — but judging from the shop windows &c. &c., the Art trade in Amsterdam certainly did not appear to be flourishing — but oh so quiet and respectable. Truly, overconfidence and enthusiasm aren’t the faults(?) of the present day. I hardly spoke to anyone — but indirectly sounded things out because I’m curious as to what the results will be, what it will come to in the art trade. I don’t think you’re exactly overwhelmed with paintings, are you? In the winter I’m going to explore various things regarding manner that I noticed in the old paintings. I saw a great deal that I needed.
But this above all things — what they call — dashing off — you see that’s what the old Dutch painters did famously.
That — dashing off — with a few brushstrokes, they won’t hear of it now — but how true the results are. And how masterfully well many French painters, how an Israëls understood precisely that. At the museum — I thought a lot about Delacroix. Why? Because in front of Hals, in front of Rembrandt, in front of Ruisdael and others, I thought constantly of that saying, When Delacroix paints – it’s like the lion devouring his piece of flesh. How true that is — and oh, Theo — when I think about what I’ll call the self-styled technical gang, how deathly it is. Rest assured that if I ever have to do with those gentlemen or come across one of them, I’ll play the innocent — but — à la Vireloque — followed by a cutting remark.
I hate it when things hang fire and go wrong.
And isn’t it something fatal, that forced finishing the same everywhere (what they call finishing!), everywhere that same boring grey light instead of light and shade — local colour, colour instead of tone? Aren’t those deplorable things — and isn’t it so?
Anyway — I think these things are wrong because I think Israëls, for instance, so good, because there are so many new and old painters alike whom one can adore.
I should have realized earlier that I’m most probably boring you with this letter. But I simply didn’t think about it; for my part I can say that I wish you’d write to me about your impressions of things in the Louvre or Luxembourg or of anywhere else.
Write soon, if you will — and be aware that it’s awfully tough for me at the end of the month. All the same, I’m glad I went there, even if it’s at a moment when I can afford the expenditure less than ever. As to that — things will be very hard around New Year, say, but anyway — nothing ventured, nothing gained, and for my part I’ll always resign myself to being in difficulties if it’s for the sake of painting. Regards, hope you’ll get my consignment in good order. There’s a book by De Goncourt about Chardin, Boucher, Watteau and Fragonard — I must read it; do you or any of your acquaintances have it? I don’t suppose you do, but do you perhaps know whether or not it’s particularly important? Regards.