To Theo van Gogh, Antwerp, on or about Thursday, 28 January 1886.
My dear Theo,
I’ve already left it too long to confirm the safe receipt of your letter and the enclosure. As regards your letter, it’s still the same and, to my mind, when you judge me you rely too much on generalities and on prejudices that are too superficial and too wrong for me to be able to believe that you’ll always stick to them.
And for this very reason, I believe that in any event it can do no harm if we see each other again in Paris after a while.
I’ve been dreadfully busy this week because, as well as the painting class, I also go drawing in the evenings, and then after that go on and work from a model at a club from half past 9 to half past 11. For I’ve become a member of no fewer than two of these clubs. And I now know two fellows who to my mind draw well, both Dutch. This week I painted a large thing with two nude torsos — two wrestlers, a pose set by Verlat. And I really like doing that.
And the same is true of drawing from the antique — I’ve now finished two large figures. At any rate it has two things in its favour — firstly that it interests me greatly, after having drawn clothed models for years, to see the nude and the antique again and to verify things.
Further, just to be admitted anywhere in Paris one has to have been somewhere else and have lost one’s rough edges, and one always has to contend with fellows who’ve already worked at an academy for some length of time.
What Verlat tells me is very severe and so too is what Vinck, who takes the drawing class, tells me — and they strongly advise me above all to draw, if necessary do nothing else but draw from the antique and nudes for at least a year, and that this would be the shortest way, that then I’ll return very differently to my other work outdoors or my portraits. And I think it’s true — so I have to see to it that I’m somewhere where I have access to both the antique and nude models at first.
The best one in the class has done it like this too, and he says that he felt himself progressing a little with each study, and I’ve been able to see that for myself in things he did before and his recent things.
I think you’ll remember:
The Greeks don’t start from the outline, they start from the centres, from the cores.
Géricault took that from Gros, who took it from the Greeks, but Géricault himself wished to take it from the Greeks, too, and he studied them for that very thing — afterwards Delacroix did the same as Géricault.
This question — Millet draws like that too — more than anyone else — is perhaps the root of all figure painting — is extremely closely related to modelling by drawing directly with a brush — conceived totally differently from Bouguereau and others, who lack interior modelling, are flat compared with Géricault and Delacroix, and who don’t go beyond the paint. In which latter, Géricault &c., the figures have backs, even when one sees them from the front, air around the figures — beyond the paint.
It’s to search for this — which I wouldn’t want even to talk about with Verlat or with Vinck — that I’m working; there’s no risk that they could show it to me, because the fault with both of them is in the colour which, as you know, isn’t true with either of them.
It’s strange that when I compare my study with those of other people, it has almost nothing in common with them. Theirs have more or less the same colour as the flesh — and so look very accurate from close to — but if one steps back a bit, it becomes painful and flat to look at — all that pink and delicate yellow etc., etc., soft in itself, produces a hard effect.
The way I do it, from close to it’s greenish red, yellow-grey, white, black and a lot of neutral, and mostly colours one can’t put a name to. But if one steps back a little it’s indeed beyond the paint — and then there’s air around it and a restrained undulating light falls on it. At the same time, the least little lick of colour with which one might glaze it is telling.
But what’s lacking in it is — practice — I must paint 50 or so like that — I believe that I’ll have something then. I make the business of putting on the paint too difficult because I haven’t yet sufficiently got into the way of it, have to search too long, work it to death. But this is a question of keeping on painting for a while, so that the touch is effective straightaway as one gets it more fixed in one’s mind.
There are some fellows who’ve seen my drawings — after seeing my peasant figures one of them immediately started drawing the model in the life class with more vigorous modelling, putting the shadows in strongly.
He showed me the drawing and we talked about it. It was full of life and it was the finest drawing that I’ve seen by any of the fellows here. Now do you know what they think about it? The teacher, Siberdt, purposely sent for him and said that if he dared to do it again in that manner it would be considered that he was making a fool of the teacher. And I tell you, it was the only drawing that was generously done, like Tassaert or Gavarni.
So you see how it is. But it’s not bad, though, and one mustn’t get angry about it, and must keep quiet just as if one would really like to break oneself of it, that bad manner, but unfortunately keeps slipping back into it.
The figures that they draw — are virtually always top-heavy and topple forwards, headlong — there’s not one that stands on its feet.
And this standing, this really must already be there in the initial design.
Anyway — I’m still really pleased that I came here — however it goes and however it turns out — whether or not I get along with Verlat. I find the friction of ideas that I’m looking for here — I’m getting a fresh eye for my own work, can judge better where the weak points are and thus make progress in order to correct them.
What I ask you very earnestly for the sake of things working out well, is not to lose your patience, nor above all your optimism, for we’d be cutting our own throats if our courage were to fail us precisely as the moment presents itself when we could acquire a degree of influence if we show that we know what we want, and dare to do something and manage to see it through.
And as to the money — if I worked in a studio and so saved a good part of the cost of models, even then 150 francs still wouldn’t be much, because painting is very expensive — but it can be done, provided one economizes even on food &c.
If models have to come out of it, then it definitely can’t be done on 150 francs, and one wastes time &c.
So at the same time it’s cheapest to stay in a studio — because for more finished nude studies, above all, it’s not possible to pay the cost of the model oneself.
I don’t consider it impossible that in due course, especially if some of the other fellows couldn’t help starting to put in more powerful shadows, that Verlat or someone else will seek a row with me, even if I systematically avoid it. Which I’ll do systematically because it’s to my advantage to stay here for a bit.
Anyway — I’m curious as to what will happen with your apartment. As to me, though, if I come I’ll be perfectly content to take a cheap little room or a garret in a hotel somewhere in an out-of-the-way quarter (Montmartre). But that’s pretty much by the way and we’re not there yet. Let’s stay here for a while first — and then, all in good time. The winter course ends on 31 March. Regards.