To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, Monday, 28 December 1885.
My dear Theo,
It’s high time that I thanked you for the 50 francs you sent, which enable me to get through the month, even if starting from today it’s pretty much the same again.
But — there are a few more studies done, and I believe that as much as I paint, I also progress by as much. As soon as I received the money I got an attractive model and painted a life-size head. It’s all light except for the black hair. Even so, the head itself stands out in tone against a background in which I’ve tried to get a golden gleam of light. Here, by the way, is the colour spectrum — a tonal flesh colour, more bronzy in the neck. Jet-black hair — black that I had to make with carmine and Prussian blue, dingy white for the jacket, light yellow, much lighter than the white, for the background.
A touch of flame red in the jet-black hair and a second flame-red bow in the dingy white. She’s a girl from a café chantant and yet the expression I was looking for is a little Ecce Homo-like. But precisely as to expression, although I add my own thoughts, I nonetheless endeavour to remain true, see what I wanted to get into it. When the model came to me, she’d evidently had a few busy nights — she said something that was entirely typical — for my part, champagne doesn’t cheer me up, it makes me very sad.
Then I knew what to do, and I tried to get something voluptuous and sad at the same time.
I’ve now started a second study of the same one, in profile.
Furthermore, I’ve done that particular portrait that I told you I was in discussions about, and a study of that head for myself. And now I hope to paint a man’s head too, during these last days of the month. I’m in really good spirits, particularly as regards the work, and it’s useful for me to be here.
I imagine that, no matter what these girls may be, one can make one’s money out of them like this sooner than in any other way. There’s no gainsaying that they can be damned beautiful, and it’s in keeping with the spirit of the age that this is the very kind of painting that wins the day.
From the most elevated artistic viewpoint possible, there’s likewise nothing to be said against — painting people, that was the old Italian art, that was Millet and that is Breton. The question is simply whether one takes the soul or the clothes as one’s starting-point, and whether one allows the form to serve as a clothes-horse for bows and ribbons, or whether one should regard the form as a means of expressing an impression, a sentiment, or whether one models for modelling’s sake because it’s so infinitely beautiful in itself. Only the first is transitory, and the two latter are both high art.
Something that pleased me greatly is — that the girl who posed for me wants a portrait from me for herself, preferably just like the one I did.
And that she’s promised to let me paint a study of her in a dancer’s costume in her room, as soon as she can. Which isn’t possible right now because the man at the café where she works is opposed to her posing, but since she and another girl are going to share rooms, both she and this other girl will want their portraits. And I sincerely hope that it turns out that I do get her back, because she has a remarkable head and is lively. I have to practise, though, because it certainly comes down to dexterity — they don’t have much time or patience — for that matter, the work doesn’t have to be any the worse if it’s put down virtually in one go, and one has to be able to work even when the model doesn’t sit stock still. Anyway. You see that I’m working with a will. If I sold something so that I earned a little more, I’d be able to put even more strength behind it.
As to Portier — I’m not abandoning hope yet — but poverty is snapping at my heels and at the moment the dealers are all suffering somewhat from the same ill, that of being more or less a breed withdrawn from the world. They’re all too sunk in gloom, and how can one be very inspired to go scratching around in that indifference and that apathy — particularly since this disease is contagious.
For it’s just nonsense to say that there’s nothing to be done, but one has to work all the same with aplomb and with enthusiasm, in short with a certain fire. And as to Portier — you told me yourself that he began the first of the exhibitions of the Impressionists and was overwhelmed by Durand-Ruel. Well, one would have to infer from this that he has the initiative not just to say something but to do something. But it could be to do with his being 60 — and — anyhow perhaps his case is one of the many cases when, at the time when there was a craze for paintings and trade was good, a mass of intelligent people were pushed aside in the jubilation, as if they signified nothing and could do nothing — because they couldn’t bring themselves to wholly trust the sustainability of the sudden painting craze and the huge rise in many prices. NOW — when business is slow, one sees the same dealers who, a few years ago — let’s say 10 years ago — were very enterprising — to some extent becoming a breed withdrawn from the world. And we aren’t at the end yet.
Personal initiative with little or no capital is perhaps the seed for the future. Anyway.
Yesterday I saw a large photo of a Rembrandt I didn’t know — which struck me amazingly — it was the head of a woman. The light fell on breast, neck, chin and the tip of the nose — the lower jaw.
Forehead and eyes in shadow from a large hat with feathers, probably red. Probably also red or a yellow in the little décolleté jacket. Dark background. The expression a mysterious smile like that of Rembrandt himself in his own portrait where Saskia sits on his knee and he has a glass of wine in his hand.
My thoughts are full of Rembrandt and Hals at the moment, not because I see many paintings by them but because I see so many types among the people here who remind me of that age. I still often go to the dance halls to see these women’s heads and sailors’ or soldiers’ heads. One pays 20 or 30 centimes to go in and drinks a glass of beer — for there’s little drinking — and can amuse oneself exceedingly for a whole evening — at least I can — watching the folk’s high spirits. What I have to do, and the only thing that can be sure to help me progress, is work a great deal with models.
I notice that my appetite has been kept in check for rather too long and that when I received the money from you I couldn’t stomach any food — but I’ll see about remedying it. That doesn’t alter the fact that I have all my energy and clarity when I’m working. But when I’m outdoors, working in the open air is too much for me and I get too weak. Painting is something that wears one down anyway. Van de Loo told me, though, when I went to see him shortly before I came here, that I’m reasonably strong after all.
That I needn’t despair of reaching the age that’s necessary for producing a body of work. I told him that I knew several painters who, despite all their nerves etc., had reached 60, even 70, fortunately for them, and that I would like to reach that too.
Then I believe that if one seeks serenity and retains a zest for life, the frame of mind one’s in helps a lot. And in this respect I’ve gained by coming here, because I have new ideas and I have new means of expressing what I want, because better brushes will help me, and I’m really carried away by those two colours, carmine and cobalt.
Cobalt — is a divine colour, and there’s nothing so fine as that for putting space around things. Carmine is the red of wine, and it’s warm, spirited as wine.
So too is emerald green. It’s false economy to do without them, those colours.
Something regarding my constitution that has pleased me very much is that a doctor in Amsterdam, whom I also once spoke to about a few things that sometimes made me think that I wouldn’t last long and whose opinion I didn’t ask directly, but just to find out the first impression of one who didn’t know me at all — taking advantage of a minor illness that I had to turn things to my constitution in general during the course of the conversation — it pleased me very much indeed that this doctor took me for an ordinary workman, said ‘you must be an ironworker by trade’. You see precisely what I’ve been trying to change in myself — when I was younger it could be seen that I over-exerted myself intellectually, and now I look like a bargee or someone who works in the iron trade. And changing one’s constitution such that one becomes ‘as tough as nails’ is no easy matter. I must take care, though, and see that I keep what I have, and gain still more.
You really must still write and tell me whether it seems such an absurd idea to you that one might create a bit more courage if one were to plant a seed for a business.
As regards the work I’m doing now — I feel that I can do something better — I need more air and space, though. I mean I must be able to expand it a bit. Above all, above all, I still haven’t got enough models. I can produce work of a higher quality, but my expenses would be heavier. But isn’t it so — shouldn’t one search for something high — for the real, for something distinguished?
The women’s figures I see among the people here make an enormous impression on me — far more to paint them than to have them, although I’d actually really like both. I’m re-reading the book by De Goncourt again, it’s excellent. In the preface to Chérie, which you’ll read — there’s an account of everything that the De Goncourts experienced — and of how, at the end of their lives, they, yes — were pessimistic — but certainly felt sure of their ground — felt that they’d done something, that their work would last. What fellows they were! If we could get on more than now, could be more in agreement — why not then — us too?
Apropos — on account of I will, after all, have some 4 or 5 fast days of pretty well everything at the end of this year — send your letter off 1 January and no later. You might not be able to understand it, but it’s true — when I receive money, my greatest hunger, even if I’ve fasted, isn’t for food, but is even stronger for painting — and I set out hunting models right away, and I carry on until it’s gone. Meanwhile, the lifeline I cling to is my breakfast with the people where I live, and a cup of coffee and bread in the crémerie in the evening. Supplemented, when I have it, by a second cup of coffee and bread in the crémerie for my dinner, and otherwise some rye bread that I have in my case.
As long as I’m painting it’s more than enough for me, but when my models have gone, a feeling of weakness comes over me.
I really like the models here because they’re so very different from the models in the country. And above all because the character is something so very different. And the contrast gives me new ideas, particularly for the flesh tones.
And what I’ve now got in my last head is — not yet what I myself am content with but something different from the earlier heads. I believe that you sufficiently realize the importance of being true so that I can speak freely to you. For the same motives that when I paint peasant women, I want them to be peasant women — for the same reason, when they’re whores, I want a whore’s expression.
That’s precisely why I was so enormously struck by a whore’s head by Rembrandt, because he had caught that mysterious smile so infinitely well with a gravity that he alone — the magician of magicians — can achieve. Now this is something new to me, and I want to get it at any price. Manet did it and Courbet — well, confound it, I have the same ambition because, moreover, I’ve felt to the core the infinite beauty of the studies of women by the very great people in literature, Zola, Daudet, De Goncourt, Balzac.
Even Stevens doesn’t satisfy me because his women aren’t those whom I personally know anything about. And I think that he doesn’t pick the most interesting there are. Anyway, be that as it may — I want to make progress at all costs, and — I want to be myself.
I’m feeling obstinate, too, and I’ve got over caring what people say about me or my work. It seems to be difficult to get a nude model here — at least the girl I’ve had wouldn’t do it.
Obviously that — wouldn’t — is probably relative, but at any rate it can’t be taken as a matter of course. The thing is, though, she would be splendid. From the point of view of business, I can’t say anything other than that — we’re in what people are already beginning to call ‘the end of an era’ — the women have a charm as in a time of revolution — and just as much to say, for that matter — and that one would be withdrawn from the world if one worked without them.
It’s the same everywhere, in the country and in the city — one must take women into account if one wants to keep up with the times. Adieu, best wishes for the New Year. With a handshake.