To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, on or about Saturday, 2 January 1886.
My dear Theo,
It’s already late, but I don’t want to put off reporting the safe receipt of your letter and 150 francs.
Before I forget — let me begin by replying to your recent question about the painting by Franck or Francken in St Andrew’s. Which I saw today. I think it a good painting — above all fine in sentiment — in sentiment it’s not very Flemish or Rubenesque. One thinks more of Murillo. The colour is warm, in a reddish spectrum as Jordaens sometimes is. The shadows in the flesh are very powerful, Rubens doesn’t have that and Jordaens often does, and in consequence there’s something mysterious in the painting that one can appreciate in that school.
I couldn’t get near enough to examine the technique from very close to, which would have been worthwhile. The head of Christ is less conventional than the Flemish painters usually conceive it. I imagine, though, that I can do it like that too, and the painting didn’t tell me anything new.
And since I’m not content with what I can do now and am trying to move forward in my work — enough — and move on to other paintings. What did strike me in that church was a sketch by Van Dyck? or Rubens? — a Descent from the Cross that was hanging high up but appeared to me to be good, a lot of sentiment in the pale body. This in passing.
There’s a stained-glass window that I find superb — very, very remarkable. A shore, a green sea with a castle on the rocks, a sparkling blue sky in the most magnificent tones of blue, greenish, whitish, deeper, higher in tone. A huge three-master, whimsical and fantastic, silhouetted against the sky, breaking everywhere, light in the dark, dark in the light. In the blue a figure of the Blessed Virgin, bright yellow, white, orange. Higher up again, the window is dark green with black, with glowing red. Anyway — do you remember it? It’s very fine and Leys would certainly have fallen in love with it, or James Tissot in his old manner, or Thijs Maris.
I saw a few paintings bought for the Musée Moderne, Verhas and Farasyn. Verhas, ladies riding on donkeys and fisher boys on the beach. Farasyn, a large thing of the old Antwerp Fish Market.
Also an Emile Wauters — Cairo or somewhere, a marketplace. The Verhas works well, is a clever painting, in any event daring, with colours in a light spectrum, several fine combinations, including a figure in orange against light blue, light green and white. I’m still working on my portraits — and at last I’ve got two that are definitely ‘like’, a profile and a 3/4 That’s not everything, that’s not even the most important thing. All the same, it’s worth my while to seek it, and perhaps it helps one learn how to draw. Besides, I’m beginning to like portraits more and more.
There you have some very famous Rubens — Virgin with the parrot, Christ on the straw &c., but for my part I walk past them to look rather at that bold portrait of a man — painted with such a tremendously firm hand — still sketchy here and there — that hangs not far from the Saskia by Rembrandt. In a Descent from the Cross by Van Dyck, the one high up, the big one — there’s also a portrait, definitely a portrait — not just of a head but, thank God, of a whole figure. Superb — in yellow and lilacish — a woman, bending forward, who is weeping. The torso, the legs beneath the clothes really intimately executed and felt. What high art it is, when art is simply true.
And an Ingres, a David, painters who really don’t always paint beautifully, how tremendously interesting even they become when, putting their pedantry aside, they forget themselves in — being true — in capturing a character — like in the two heads in the Musée Moderne. Anyway.
Oh, if only one could get the models that one wanted!!!
Now tell me — supposing first and foremost that you want to be a financier — and I have nothing against that, in fact I even highly approve of it — are you entirely happy with your own reasoning, when you say to me at the beginning of the year, to my disappointment: I have a very great deal to pay and you’ll just have to see that you manage until the end of the month?
Listen, this is what I have to say against it, and just think about whether or not I’m right, at any rate that there are grounds for my reasoning: Am I less than your creditors? Who should wait, they or I??? if one of the two has to wait, which is in the nature of human things.
A creditor is not a friend, that’s for sure, and, in case you don’t know it for sure, I am — at least perhaps. And do you have any notion how heavy the burdens that the work demands every day are for me, how hard to get models, how expensive the things needed for painting? Do you realize that it’s sometimes almost literally impossible for me to keep going? And that I must paint, that too much depends on pressing on with the work here with assurance immediately and without hesitation? A few weaknesses could make me fall in a way from which I wouldn’t recover for a long time. My situation is perilous on all sides and can only be won by working on determinedly. The paint bill weighs on me like lead and yet I must go forward!!!
I have to keep people waiting, too — who will nonetheless get their money — but — are waiting; I’ve condemned a few of them to that. And without mercy, unless they give me credit. And the less credit, the more they’ll be made to wait. There’s no winning nowadays except with very good work, with things that are not mediocre. That higher standard costs more in money and — in difficulty and intense effort — yet this is the way, now more than ever.
What I’m telling you is plain and simple. Do you or do you not understand that it makes perfectly good sense when I point out to you that, if I want to find work here making portraits, it’s an absolute necessity for me to have my studio full of — very good heads?
This can be achieved, it’s something that one can see an end to, even if it’s not exactly easy to get them done. Shall we now say, like the damned bores and fools: we can’t, we haven’t any money, there’s nothing to be done?
I tell you, no.
This is what we’ll say — and say together, if you please. We’ll be poor for it personally and suffer want — as long as we have to — just as one does in a besieged city that one does NOT mean to surrender, but we’ll show that we are someone.
Either one is brave — or one is cowardly. We must get to the point where we please the public — I mean, for example, the girls have to start liking their portraits. I believe that there are some who’d want them. I talked to a photographer’s assistant today about whether he couldn’t put some portraits my way. He wanted me to give him a commission for every girl he brought to me for a portrait. I let the matter lie, only in so far, though, as I didn’t promise any commission before and until I know this individual rather better. But I’ll probably see him again very soon.
And then I’ll see whether I can do anything with him directly, or whether I’ll go and talk directly to his boss about it. But sometimes the assistant’s better, you’ll understand, it all depends. Now I told him that I didn’t know him and that I’d like to see whether he could do anything, but that I’d be taking a risk because I always have to incur my expenses for a portrait. Anyway I’ll pursue this — but what’s pressing — is that I should be able to show fine heads.
I must also try to make some acquaintances among the girls, which is no easy task with a purse with little in it, I can assure you; one is by no means doing it for one’s pleasure. But it’s not the effort that I find daunting. Only, I believe that you’ve become all too, all too accustomed to thinking it perfectly all right for me always to be neglected, that you all too readily forget that for so many years I haven’t had what’s due to me.
And that the desire I have to expand my affairs is good not just for me, but for you too, because it’s only by this means that we can earn.
And now something else. Theoretically, at any rate, you say that it’s necessary to be able to appear well dressed and all the rest of it on certain occasions, when one has to visit people, etc. Well then, now is the time even according to me who is in no hurry to do it — as you know — that it’s beginning to come to this.
Are such things necessary or not???
Does anything depend on them, yes or no???
Well, given this period of having to break through, the monthly allowance isn’t enough for me to possibly make do on it. You’re thrifty yourself; you can imagine what absolute necessities are. And I ask you, can one possibly do what’s absolutely necessary with what’s left for me after deducting painting materials, models, rent? If I had friends, were a little known, yes, then, then it would be easier — but I don’t have any and I have to make myself known.
But I mustn’t forget to thank you for sending the second volume of De Goncourt. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to examine that era — from which there’s so much to be learnt for, to use the expression, our end of an era in which we are. I can’t tell you how delighted I still am that I came to Antwerp. And how much there is to observe here for me, who has been out of things for so long.
How much good it does me — much as I love the peasants and countryside — to observe a city again.
How the bringing together of extremes gives me new ideas — extremes, the countryside as a whole and the bustle here. I really needed it.
Oh, if only I could make you understand how much more satisfaction you could have for yourself, how much more of a friend you would be to me — if, instead of the inflexible and cold neglect, and keeping me at a distance — think about last summer and previous summers! — you might at last come to the realization that this isn’t the way. Always to be in a state of exile, always hanging by a thread, always half measures.
But anyway — the family stranger than strangers — is one fact — Holland behind me 2. THAT COMES AS QUITE A RELIEF. You see that’s my only feeling, and yet I had been so attached that at first the estrangement drove me mad, as it were.
But I’ve seen through it all too well to hesitate. And I’ve recovered my self-confidence and serenity.
The secret of that group — Delaroche-ishness, mediocrity.
Backwards — it offends me.
As to you — you’re still hovering between the two sides, and I’ve always said that your character still has to set in a definite form — that you still face an inner struggle and perhaps a struggle for your position in society, more serious than you have ever experienced. I know this seems to you to be uncharitable to the people at home. And yet I tell you that Pa himself sometimes vaguely felt that he had chosen the wrong side. But he tried to espouse irreconcilable things at the same time and — — — wasn’t as firm of character as he appeared and as I thought he was in my young days, and even later still. Anyway.
As to the Tassaert exhibition — if ever anyone was wronged, it was he. Taking the opportunity to mention another — I don’t wait for exhibitions to form my opinion about painters — they’ll have to recognize Chaplin too.
As to Tassaert’s colour, he’s a harmonist and his work, painted in more or less one tone, is good because of the modelling, because of the fine sense of the female forms that he had, because of something impassioned in the expressions — and I think he belongs to the family of the Greuzes and Prud’hons — better, more modern, more sound in his sentiment than Greuze.
Chaplin is more of a colourist than he is.
And I do think it’s rather a pity that Tassaert, who painted so wonderfully boldly, didn’t sometimes seek for more glow and life in the colour.
But he’s certainly better than Scheffer and Delaroche and Dubufe and Gérôme, who are so little painters. What a dreadful pity it is that a fellow like Gérôme, who painted The prisoner and who painted The Russian camp and The Syrian shepherd, has so much that is cold and sterile in him. People will also recognize Isabey; Ziem too. Those two are very much painters and that, after all, is what it comes down to in painting.
They wrote to me from home at New Year and I also sent a postcard. But writing wouldn’t work, while I moreover believe that unconsciously, as a matter of course, they tell everyone everything, so — I wrote — goodbye for now — after all I’ll probably see them in the spring for some time.
I must close.
What the coloration in a painting is — it’s surely the enthusiasm in life and so — it’s no small matter to seek and preserve it.
With a view to getting models, this month I think I’ll go and see Verlat, who’s the director of the academy here — and I’ll see what the rules are and to what extent one could work from a nude model — I’ll take a portrait and some drawings with me when I go.
I have an immense desire to improve my knowledge of the nude. I’ve seen a large bronze group by Lambeaux — two figures — a man embracing a woman — superb, something like Paul Dubois, say, or anyway the first-rate fellows. It’s been purchased for the museum. I often envy sculptors. But it’s much the same everywhere; I have to earn a little more in order to be able to broaden out.
I also just want to tell you that, given my desire to study the figure — if I weren’t to manage it here — I might perhaps go further afield rather than go back to Holland before I’ve worked in a studio for a while. And that further afield — might possibly be Paris, without hesitation. You may be of the opinion that I’m an impossible character, but — that’s absolutely your business. I, for instance, don’t have to worry about it and I won’t worry about it. I know that from time to time you think better and differently, but I know that habit always makes you lapse back into that same mistake in regard to me. What I seek is so straightforward that in the end you’ll have to admit it. So let’s say in conclusion — the sooner the better.
Regards and with a handshake.
As regards the end of the month — I ask you most kindly but absolutely — let one of your creditors at least do without 50 francs (they can stand it, rest assured) but please not me, because EVEN THEN it will still be tough for me.