To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 7 November 1885.
My dear Theo,
I received De Goncourt’s book yesterday evening. I started reading it right away, and although I’ll obviously have to read it again quietly, I already had a general view of the whole thing by this morning — you can see I’d really been looking forward to it. I don’t think he praises Boucher too much. Even if I knew nothing of Boucher but the contrast of these three things, a rich blue (sky), a bronze (male figure) and a mother-of-pearl white (female figure), particularly with the addition of that anecdote about the Duchess of Orleans, I would admit that he is someone in the world of painters. What’s more, he doesn’t praise him too much, because he does come out and say, vulgar — in the way that one can call the paintings of Bouguereau, Perrault &c. vulgar without selling the worthy gentlemen short. Because they lack a certain poignancy and intimacy, don’t they? What’s more he doesn’t praise Boucher too much, to my mind, because I’m not concerned for one moment that De Goncourt would deny the superiority of Rubens, say — Rubens, who was still more productive even than Boucher, no less than him but even more the painter of nude women.
Which in Rubens very often does not detract from the poignancy and intimacy that I mean, particularly not in those portraits of his wives in which he is, or surpasses, himself. But Chardin.
I’ve often longed to know something about the man. (Watteau was exactly as I thought.) Third Estate. Corot-like as far as bonhomie is concerned — with more sadness and adversity in his life.
It’s a splendid book. La Tour witty and Voltaire-like.
Pastel is a process I’d really like to know. I’ll do it later, too. If one can paint a head, one must be able to learn it in a few hours.
I greatly enjoyed what he says about Chardin’s technique.
I’m more and more convinced that the true painters didn’t finish in the sense in which people all too often used finish — that’s to say clear if one stands with one’s nose pressed to it.
The best paintings — precisely the most perfect from a technical point of view — seen from close to are touches of colour next to one another, and create their effect at a certain distance. Rembrandt persisted in this despite all the trouble he had to suffer as a result (the worthy citizens thought Van der Helst much better for the reason that one can also see it close to). In that respect, Chardin is as great as Rembrandt. Israëls has something of the same, and for my part I always find Israëls admirable, specifically in his technique.
It would be too good if everyone knew this and thought about it like this, as Bonnemort would say. At the same time, to bring this off one has to be able to do a little magic, which costs one dear to learn, and Michelangelo’s gloomy, sarcastic words — my manner is destined to make great fools — is also true of those who dare take risks in regard to colour — there, too, it can’t be imitated by the cowards and the dependent.
I believe I’m making progress with the work.
Yesterday evening something happened to me that I’ll tell you as precisely as I can. You know the 3 pollard oaks at the end of the garden at home — I slogged away at them for the 4th time. I’d sat in front of them for three days with a canvas the size of that cottage, say, and the peasant cemetery you have.
The thing was the canopies of Havana-coloured leaves — how to model them and get the form, the colour, the tone. Then one evening I took it with me to that acquaintance of mine in Eindhoven, who has quite an elegant drawing room (grey wallpaper — furniture black with gold), where we hung it.
Well now, never before have I felt such a conviction that I’ll make things that work, that I’ll succeed in calculating my colours such that I have it in my power to create an effect. That was Havana, soft green and white-grey — even pure white straight from the tube. (You see that for my part, even though I talk about dark, I have no prejudice against the other extreme, the utmost extreme even.)
Although the man has money, although he really liked it — I had such a tingle of good spirits when I saw that it worked, that it created a mood as it hung there because of the soft, melancholy peace of that colour combination — that I COULD not sell.
But because it had affected him, I gave it to him, and he accepted it just as I meant it, without many words, that’s to say little other than — ‘the thing’s damned good’. I don’t yet think so myself — I must first see some more Chardin, Rembrandt, Old Dutch and French fellows and really think things over — because I want to work even more vigorously with rather less paint than I used in this thing, for instance.
Now as to my acquaintance and his opinion of paintings — if someone with a clear, rational mind paints still lifes and works outside day in and day out, even if it’s only for a year, then he may not be an art expert as a result, then he doesn’t yet feel himself to be painter — but — nonetheless sees more coolly than many another. And then there’s also this about him, that his character is not like just anyone’s. For instance, he was originally supposed to have become a clergyman — at a certain moment flatly refused — and — got his way in that, which by no means everyone in Brabant succeeds in doing. And has something generous and loyal about him. This is something Zola once referred to — when in a conversation between Mouret and his school friend, he makes Mouret get serious and say that it has taken him a great deal of effort to overcome that time and its influence in himself, but that he wanted to live and that he was living. Many who endeavour to change slip back, don’t get any further than a certain colourless Methodism because they don’t take any measures vigorously enough. But that’s not the case with him; he is a man in his bourgeois world.
Did you know that the De Goncourts made etchings and drawings? You mustn’t think I’m being impractical if I decidedly go on trying to encourage you either to draw or to paint. I know you won’t fail. I know if you put your mind to it, the result wouldn’t be petty. And specifically in the trade, specifically as an art expert, it would give you an ascendancy over many others. An ascendancy that one actually does need. I return for a moment to that acquaintance of mine — it’s exactly a year since I saw him for the first time, when I was making that large sketch of a water mill which you possibly know. (The colour of that one is just maturing nicely.) Now here’s a description of a study by that acquaintance of mine — some roofs, backs of houses, factory chimneys, dark against an evening sky. That evening sky blue, shading at the horizon into a glow, between clouds of a smoky colour with orange, or rather, reddish reflections. The bulk of the houses dark, but still a warm brick colour, a silhouette that has something sombre and threatening about it.
Foreground a vague bit of ground in the twilight, black sand, withered grass, a garden anyway, with a few dismal black apple trunks in it, a small canopy of yellow autumn leaves on them here and there. He made this absolutely entirely of his own accord, but isn’t it a good concept, a real impression, well felt? But one isn’t a painter in a year, nor is that necessary. Only there’s already a good thing running through it, and hope is alive instead of one feeling powerless in front of a wall.
I don’t know how things will go for me from now on. At the moment, when I read about that outstanding devil, that famous La Tour — how real it is, by Jove — and — how well (apart from his terrible avarice) that fellow tackled life and — painting. I’ve only just seen Frans Hals — well now, you know how I was full of it, wrote to you at length about it straightaway, about putting things down in one go. Well, what a similarity there is between the ideas of La Tour &c. and Frans Hals, when they express life in pastel that one could blow away. I don’t know what I’ll do or how things will go for me, but I hope I won’t forget these lessons I’ve been taking recently: in one go, quickly but with absolutely total exertion of everything one may have in the way of spirit and attention.
Nowadays — I like nothing better than working with a brush — drawing with it too — instead of making a design in charcoal. When I ask myself how the old Dutchmen set about it, I come up against the relatively few actual drawings. And how astoundingly they — draw. But — I believe that in most cases they began, they progressed, they ended — with their brush. They — didn’t fill in.
A Van Goyen — for instance — I’ve just seen the one of his in the Dupper Collection, an oak tree on a dune in a storm, and the Cuyp, view of Dordrecht. An astounding technique — but — with nothing and as if of its own accord and beyond the paint and — apparently perfectly simple. But — be it in the figure — be it in landscape — how painters have always striven to convince people that a painting is something other than nature in a mirror, something other than imitation, that’s to say re-creation.
I would like to tell you a lot more about what Chardin, in particular, makes me think about colour — and — not making things the local colour. I think it’s splendid: ‘How to surprise — how to define the substance of this toothless mouth with its infinite subtleties. It’s made with nothing more than a few streaks of yellow and a few sweeping strokes of blue!!!’ When I read this, I thought of – Vermeer of Delft. When one sees it from close to, the townscape in The Hague is incredible, and done with completely different colours from what one would suppose a few steps away.
Regards, I really wanted to tell you right away how good I think De Goncourt’s book.