To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, Saturday, 28 November 1885.
My dear Theo,
Wanted to write to you with a few more impressions of Antwerp. This morning I went for a really good walk in the pouring rain, an expedition with the object of fetching my things from the customs office. The different entrepôts and hangars on the wharves are very fine.
I’ve already walked in all directions around these docks and wharves several times. It’s a strange contrast, particularly when one comes from the sand and the heath and the tranquillity of a country village and hasn’t been in anything but quiet surroundings for a long time. It’s an incomprehensible confusion.
One of De Goncourt’s sayings was ‘Japonaiserie for ever’. Well, these docks are one huge Japonaiserie, fantastic, singular, strange — at least, one can see them like that. I’d like to walk with you there to find out whether we look at things the same way.
One could do anything there, townscapes — figures of the most diverse character — the ships as the central subject with water and sky in delicate grey — but above all — Japonaiseries.
I mean, the figures there are always in motion, one sees them in the most peculiar settings, everything fantastic, and interesting contrasts keep appearing of their own accord.
A white horse in the mud, in a corner where heaps of merchandise lie covered with a tarpaulin — against the old, black, smoke-stained walls of the warehouse. Quite simple — but a Black and White effect.
Through the window of a very elegant English inn one will look out on the filthiest mud and on a ship where such delightful wares as hides and buffalo horns are being unloaded by monstrous docker types or foreign sailors; by the window, looking at this or at something else, stands a very fair, very delicate English girl. The interior with figure wholly in tone, and for light — the silvery sky above that mud and the buffalo horns, again a series of contrasts that’s quite strong. There’ll be Flemish sailors with exaggeratedly ruddy faces, with broad shoulders, powerful and robust, and Antwerp through and through, standing eating mussels and drinking beer, and making a great deal of noise and commotion about it. Contrast — there goes a tiny little figure in black, with her small hands pressed against her body, slipping soundlessly along the grey walls.
In a frame of jet-black hair, a little oval face, brown? Orange yellow? I don’t know.
She raises her eyelids momentarily and looks with a slanting glance out of a pair of jet-black eyes. It’s a Chinese girl, mysterious, quiet as a mouse, small, like a bedbug by nature. What a contrast to the group of Flemish mussel eaters.
Another contrast — people passing along a very narrow street between formidably tall houses. Warehouses and stores. But down at street level, alehouses for all nations with the corresponding male and female individuals. Shops selling food, sailors’ clothes, colourful and bustling.
This street is long, one keeps seeing authentic scenes, and once in a while there’s a commotion, louder than usual, when a quarrel breaks out. For instance, you’re walking along, looking around, and suddenly a great cheer goes up and all sorts of shouting. In broad daylight a sailor is being thrown out of a brothel by the girls and pursued by a furious fellow and a string of girls. Of whom he is apparently terrified — at any rate, I saw him scramble over a pile of sacks and disappear through a window into a warehouse. Once one’s had enough of this racket — at the end of the berths where the Harwich and Le Havre boats lie — having the city behind one — one sees — in front of one, nothing, absolutely nothing but an infinity of flat, half-flooded pasture, incredibly sad and wet, undulating dry reeds, mud — the river with a single small black boat, water in the foreground grey, sky misty and cold, grey — silent as a desert.
The overall effect of the port or of a dock — sometimes it’s more tangled and fantastic than a thorn-hedge, so tangled that one can find no rest for the eye, so that one gets dizzy, is forced by the flickering of colours and lines to look now here and now there, unable to tell one thing from another even after staring at a single spot for a long while. But if one goes to a place where one has an indistinct piece of land as a foreground — then one gets the most beautiful, quiet lines and those effects that Mols, for instance, often gets.
Now one sees a girl who is magnificently healthy and, at least seemingly, very sincere and innocently cheerful, then a countenance so slyly malicious that one is frightened by it as if by a hyena. Not forgetting the faces ravaged by the pox, the colour of boiled shrimp, with little dull grey eyes and no eyebrows, and sparse, greasy, thin hair, colour of pure pig’s bristle or slightly yellower — Swedish or Danish types. It would be good to work there — but how and where? Because one could run into trouble there exceedingly quickly. All the same, I did roam around a whole lot of streets and alleys without mishap, even sat and talked very genially with various girls, who evidently took me for a bargee. I don’t consider it impossible that I might be able to come by some good models by painting portraits.
Today I got my things and tools — which I was eagerly awaiting. And so I have my studio in order. If I could come by good models at virtually no expense I wouldn’t be afraid of anything. I don’t reckon it a bad thing, either, that I haven’t any money, as much as it would take to force things by paying.
Perhaps the idea of painting portraits and getting the sitters to pay for them by posing is a safer way. Because in the city it’s not like it is with the peasants. Anyway. One thing’s certain, Antwerp’s a very singular and beautiful place for a painter.
My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.
I’ve reconciled myself to having left — and hope not to be idle this winter.
Well, it’s a relief to me to have a little cubby-hole where I can work in bad weather.
It’s pretty obvious that I shan’t exactly be living in the lap of luxury these days. See that you send your letter off on the first, because I’ve got enough bread in until then, but after that I’d be in a real stew.
My little room isn’t bad at all, and it definitely doesn’t look dreary.
Now that I have the 3 studies I brought with me here, I’ll set about going to the picture dealers, who mostly seem to live in private houses, though, no shop windows on the street. The park is beautiful, too. I sat there drawing one morning. Well — I’ve had no setbacks so far. I’m safe and sound as far as accommodation is concerned, for by forking out a few more francs I’ve acquired a stove and a lamp. I shan’t easily get bored, I assure you. I’ve also found OCTOBER by Lhermitte, women in a potato field in the evening, magnificent. Not yet November, though. Have you kept up to date with that, by any chance? I’ve also seen that there’s a Figaro Illustré with a fine drawing by Raffaëlli.
You know my address is 194 rue des Images, so please address your letter there, and the second volume of De Goncourt10 when you’ve finished it.
It’s curious that my painted studies look darker here in the city than in the country — is this because the light isn’t as bright anywhere in the city? I don’t know — but it might differ more than one would say on the face of it. It struck me, and I could understand that things that are with you also appear darker than I thought they were in the country. Still, the ones I’ve brought with me now don’t look bad all the same — the mill — avenue of autumn trees and still life, and a few small ones.