To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, on or about Thursday, 26 November 1885.
My dear Theo,
Wanted to let you know that I’m in Antwerp and have already seen various things. I’ve rented a little room, rue des Images No. 194, above a paint merchant, for 25 francs a month. So when you write, please address your letter there instead of Poste restante.
I’ll start by telling you that I’ve seen Leys’s dining room, you know The walk on the ramparts, The skaters, The reception, The table, and, on a panel between the windows, St Luke. To my surprise, the composition (at least so I imagine) was rather different — although I’ve not yet had an opportunity to compare the photos of the paintings — rather different from the definitive compositions.
Then, it’s painted as a fresco — in other words on the plaster of the walls. Now frescoes actually should and can last for centuries, but these have already faded appreciably, and the one over the fireplace in particular (part of The reception) already has some cracks, too. Baron Leys’s oh so clever son has also made an improvement to this room by having a door enlarged, so that in The skaters the legs of the fellows standing on the bridge and looking over the rail have been cut off, which creates a deplorable effect. Then the light in there is terribly bad — I imagine the room was originally painted to be used in lamplight. That’s why, because I really couldn’t see, I gave the maid a tip to light the chandelier and then I saw it better. After so much that left me rather disappointed — in the first place that the fresco colour, and, alas, bad fresco I’m afraid, isn’t what we’re accustomed to from Leys — after so much that disappointed me — superb nonetheless. The girl, the woman by the bakery, the lovers and other figures in The walk on the ramparts — the bird’s eye view of the city, the silhouette of the towers and roofs against the sky, bustle of skaters on the frozen moat — superb in manner.
Have also seen the museum of old paintings and the Musée Moderne. I agree with you that the figures in the foreground — those heads — in the Christ in Purgatory are very fine, finer than the rest, that’s to say the central figure. Those 2 blonde women’s heads, above all, are prime quality Rubens. I was particularly struck by the Frans Hals, The fisher boy. M. de Vos, portrait of guild patron. Rembrandt very fine, two small Rembrandts that are perhaps not by R. but by N. Maes?? or someone. Jordaens, As the old sing. Van Goyen. S. Ruysdael. And the Quinten Massys. The drawing of St Barbara by Van Eyck. &c.
Musée Moderne, the large Mols is Mesdag-like, probably with smears by Vollon in it (Vollon knew him well). Braekeleer, not the bad one, a Brabant inn, curiously good, fine landscapes by C. de Cock, Lamorinière, Coosemans, Asselbergs, Rosseels, Baron, Munthe, Achenbach, a fine Clays — two old Leys, one Braekeleer-like, another romantic, the latter fine. A fine portrait by Ingres, a fine portrait by David, yet more fine things, also horrible affairs like — life-sized cows by the God-fearing Verboeckhoven, etc.
But — I’ve seen extraordinarily little in the shops, virtually nothing — one little painting not even as big as a hand, as good as Raffaëlli, otherwise nothing special, and I’m afraid that the trade is categorically as quiet as the grave. Still — it’s a good old Dutch saying — don’t despair.
I like Antwerp, have explored various parts of the city, it’s authentic down by the wharves.
Well — it can’t do any harm to know Antwerp a little, though it’ll probably be the same as everything and everywhere, that’s to say disillusioning, but yet with its own subtle distinctions. And besides, it’s good to have a change sometimes.
Regards, write soon if you will.