To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Friday, 20 November 1885.
My dear Theo,
Many thanks for the 50-franc note and your letter. You’ll understand why I’m leaving next Tuesday when you realize firstly that I’m really longing to go — secondly that I’m in danger of becoming stuck with my work here for want of models, while working outdoors has stopped because of the cold.
As regards my certainly feeling the lack of a studio in Antwerp, yes, that’s so. But I have to choose between a studio without work here, and work without a studio there. I took the latter. And with pleasure that’s actually so great that it feels to me like a return from exile. After all, I’ve been out of the world of painting altogether for a long time. And in the meantime my powers have matured somewhat, so that I feel more independent of the usual intrigues to chuck someone out. I mean that in The Hague I was weaker than the rest with a brush, I don’t say in my drawing, and by attacking me on the painting and colour, I was more easily confounded than will prove possible now.
As for Rubens, I’m very much looking forward to him, but — don’t you often find that in terms of conception, in terms of the sentiment in his religious subjects, Rubens is theatrical, even badly theatrical? Look here — take Rembrandt — Michelangelo — take Michelangelo’s Pensieroso. Meant to be a thinker, isn’t he? But — his feet are small and swift, but — his hand has something of the lightning speed of a lion’s paw, and — that thinker is at the same time a man of action, one sees that his thinking is concentration, but — in order to leap up and to act in one way or another. Rembrandt does it differently, his Christ in the Pilgrims at Emmaus is above all a — soul in a body that is anyway not the same as a torso by Michelangelo, but yet — the gesture of persuasion, there’s something powerful in it that — well, just put a Rubens next to it, one of the many figures of meditative people — and they become folk who’ve retired into a corner for the purposes of aiding their digestion.
Thus with everything religious or philosophical he is flat and hollow, but what he can do is — women — like Boucher and better — it’s precisely there that he gives one most to think about and is deepest. What he can do — colour combinations — what he can do is — paint a queen, a statesman, well analyzed, just as they are.
But the supernatural, where magic begins, no — unless it’s putting a certain something infinite into a woman’s expression, which isn’t dramatic, though.
I found a passage about Gainsborough that has once more encouraged me to work in one go — look. It’s this brusqueness of touch that gives so much effect. The spontaneity of his impression is there in full, and communicates itself to the viewer. What’s more, Gainsborough had a perfect method of ensuring that his compositions formed a whole. He laid down his painting in one go as a rough sketch, and worked it up harmoniously from the top to the bottom, without focusing his attention on small fragments, without getting involved in the details, because he was looking for the general effect and almost always found it, thanks to this broad view of the canvas, which he looked at as one looks at nature, in a single glance.
Since I don’t know where I’ll be staying, I’d ask you to address the letter Poste restante when you write on 1 December, unless I notify you before that. Because I’ll certainly write in the next few days.
I found the enclosed sonnet by Jules Breton in a Revue.
Again, as regards my relatively sudden departure from here, if I hadn’t had any trouble with the models, I would have spent the winter here. But in practice, continuing to work with models here didn’t so much run up against opposition from the priest, which would have been neutralized by being absolutely ignored on my part right away, had that been all there was to it, but the wretched thing is that, although I have the courage to oppose him, the people hesitate and are more frightened than I’d expected. And I won’t undertake it unless I can be sure that they have the courage. If I go away for a few months now, that might help, and if it doesn’t help, then none of those I paid something for it every week last winter will earn anything from it this winter. Regards.
I’ll send you the book by Charles Blanc etc. from Antwerp as soon as I can put a few studies in with it.
Old men, when near them, week by week,
Time has ravaged fruits and flowers in turn,
Old men, like Roman cities, have in their hearts
A forum – dead, with ruined temples strewn.
A silent waste through which their souls
Parade at length their barren tedium; where box and nettle
And the solitary grass, across the ancient site
Have choked the glory of its clamorous pomp.
Where words effaced from speechless pediments
Conceal their sense beneath the rusty stain of years.
No more songs now – the birds love blossom-time.
No rainbow prisms colouring the mists,
But sober suns, immense horizons,
Lighting the beauty at the ruins’ back.