Vincent van Gogh - La Mousmé, Sitting 1888

La Mousmé, Sitting 1888
La Mousmé, Sitting
Oil on canvas 74.0 x 60.0 cm. Arles: July, 1888
Washington: National Gallery of Art

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From the National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC. :
The intention and determination that inform Van Gogh's art can be obscured by the sensational legends that have arisen about his life. The artist's correspondence, particularly from his brief mature period of 1888 to 1890, contradicts popular lore and attests to the deliberateness, sensitivity, and integrity of his work.
On July 29, 1888, Van Gogh wrote his younger brother Theo, an art dealer in a Parisian gallery, that "if you know what a 'mousmé' is (you will know when you have read Loti's Madame Chrysanthème), I have just painted one. It took me a whole week...but I had to reserve my mental energy to do the mousmé well." Van Gogh’s literary source was a popular novel from the period, whose story of a French man’s affair with a Japanese girl reflected the French fascination with Japanese culture. One of the book’s protagonists, a young, pretty Japanese girl, was called a mousmé in the author’s parlance, which Van Gogh took as his inspiration for this portrait of a young Provençale girl. The carefully modeled face and the vigorous linear patterns of bold complementary colors that describe the girl are stylistic devices that express Van Gogh's sympathetic response to his young sitter. In several descriptions of the painting Van Gogh mentioned the oleander buds in her hand. The significance of the flowers is unclear but may be related to the artist's pantheistic beliefs in natural cycles of birth and renewal.
Van Gogh wrote that La Mousmé was one of a group of portrait studies that were "the only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul, and which makes me feel the infinite more than anything else."

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, on or about Tuesday, 2 February 1886.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your letter and the enclosure. The fact that you yourself now actually propose the plan of going to Cormon is something that gives me immense pleasure.
Let me tell you how things have been going for me here. The painting course ended last week, because before the end of the course there’s a competition for people who’ve been through the course; so I’m not one of them.
So now I’m drawing during the day, too, and the teacher there — who presently makes portraits and gets well paid for them — has repeatedly asked me whether I’d never drawn plaster casts before and whether I’d taught myself to draw. And concluded — I see that you’ve done a great deal of work — and, you won’t be long in making progress, you’ll benefit greatly — it will take a year, but what does that matter?
Well, there’s someone my age sitting next to me to whom he doesn’t say that — and he’s also been painting for a long time — he’s been drawing plaster casts for 3 years.
Well as a rule they draw without a background there, and for the gentleman in question, in particular, it’s absolutely forbidden. This produces horribly dry drawings.
Then Siberdt, that’s the name of the teacher — who also takes the life class — said, as for you, you will draw as you please, since I see that you take drawing seriously; as for the others, in general I don’t allow them to make a background because then they skimp on drawing the forms, while on a white background they’re really forced to do them — so it’s a straitjacket. Then he also said that Verlat had told him that there were good things in my work, which Verlat didn’t tell me. It was just after I got your letter that Siberdt came to look over the drawings — (mine was a head of Niobe and a hand that could be by Michelangelo — I’d done the hand in a couple of hours and he particularly liked that one).
Well I told him that I was thinking of going to Cormon — then he said — you will do as you would wish but I tell you that Verlat has trained many able pupils, and we make a point of training those who will do us credit — and I urge you very strongly to stay.
Well this is almost a handsome promise that they guarantee success, so what should I do? On the other hand, I’ve also become better acquainted with the English fellows who’ve been in Paris — and heard about their experiences. One has been with Gérôme, one with Cabanel &c. They say that one is relatively freer in Paris and, for instance, that one can decide for oneself what one wants to do, more than here, but that the correction is indifferent.
Do you know what I think? This — I’d certainly work more in Paris than here — for instance a drawing in a day or every two days. And we know, or rather you know, enough good fellows who won’t refuse to look at them and will even give us tips. So in any event we’re actually on track, whether I stayed here for a while longer or came to you.
Anyway, Cormon would very probably say the same as Verlat. For precisely because I’m now in a position to talk to different people about my drawings, I see my own mistakes. That’s a great help in overcoming them.
Good spirits, in any event. But now you must write more for once, and we have to see that we manage it intelligently. I heard that Cormon gets people to work for 4 hours in the morning — then in the evening they can go and work at the Louvre or at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts or at another studio where drawing is done.
As to the portraits, there certainly won’t be much time for them if I want to keep up with everything regularly. And it’s the same here, too.
However, it’s become dreadfully apparent to me that there are other things that I absolutely definitely have to change. When I compare myself with the other fellows, there’s something much too stiff about me, as if I’d been in prison for 10 years. And that’s a matter whose cause lies in the fact that for 10 years or so I’ve had a both difficult and turbulent time, and worry and sorrow and no friends. That will change, though, as my work gets better and one can do something and knows something. Which, I say, we’re on track to establishing really solidly. Be in no doubt, though — the way to succeed is — to keep courage and patience, and to carry on working hard.
And it’s important for me to smarten up my appearance a bit.
Perhaps you’ll say that it has nothing to do with art — and — perhaps you’ll agree with me.
I’m seeing about getting my teeth put right again. I have no fewer than 10 teeth that I’ve either lost or am losing. And that’s too many and too disagreeable, and besides it makes me look as though I’m over 40, which puts me at too much of a disadvantage.
So I’ve decided to have them seen to. It’s a business that will cost me 100 francs, but it can be done now while I’m drawing more easily than at any other time — and I’ve had the bad teeth cut down, and just paid about half in advance. I was told at the same time that I ought to look after my stomach, because it’s not right. It’s certainly not got any better since I’ve been here. But it’s something if one knows where the problem lies, and a great deal can be done about it with a little energy. It’s not pleasant, but what must be must be, and one must see that one stays alive and see one saves some strength if one wants to make paintings. I thought that my teeth were bad for another reason, and I didn’t know that my stomach had deteriorated to such an extent. You may say this is stupid, but one sometimes has to choose between two evils and is stuck on one side or on the other.
It was the last month that I’ve had a lot of trouble with it — I also started to cough all the time, bring up phlegm &c., so that I became worried. But we’ll put it right. You understand that I’m no better than the next man in so far as if I let things go too much and too far, just like so many other painters (so many if one looks into it) — I would drop dead or, worse still, become mad or slow-witted.
This is simply the way it is, and the point is to steer clear of them, clear of the various rocks — and still manage to keep the ship afloat, even if one does sustain damage. I know that Delacroix said that he had discovered painting when he had neither teeth nor breath left. But I also know that he took care of himself from that moment on. And that without his mistress he would have died 10 years earlier, if not more.
So please don’t take this expenditure too much amiss of me; I’ll see that I economize, but it got too bad and I had to do something about it.
As to what you write about what’s happening at home, I’ll do whatever you think best in that regard. If need be, I can leave here whenever I like. Let’s say at the beginning of March. But — let’s consider whether or not any help they might get from me would be worth the journey there and back. Because I’m also happy to stay here without going back, and then go from here to Cormon whenever you like. The journey isn’t all that cheap when I work out that the luggage would cost me more than my own fare.
So let’s write about this again.
I’m still pleased that I came here, otherwise I’d have become stuck, and now, although I see there are still many obstacles, I’ve nonetheless got light by which to make progress. And by adding on a stay in Paris or extending it here, we’ll be on surer ground.
As to the plan that we should perhaps live together and take a relatively good studio where we could receive people if need be, keep thinking about it, and let me think about it again too.

I see drawing first and foremost that year, which I’m afraid there’s no going back on. If you find a good place and it’s not expensive then it can do no harm, but if it’s expensive it might perhaps not be the cheapest way for the first year if we were to be very hard up for money.
The year drawing is the critical point, after that we’ll be freer for many things, both for portraits and for paintings. I think we ought to put this first. For it can’t be helped — didn’t Delacroix and Corot and Millet — particularly later — all keep thinking about the classics and go on studying them? The fellows who study them to scramble through them are, of course, completely wide of the mark. The classics certainly require a great deal of serenity, require that one already knows nature, require tenderness and patience. Otherwise they’re of no use to one.
And it’s very strange indeed that Géricault and Delacroix both knew them more intimately than David, say, they — who were the most radical opponents of all academic routine. I’m not familiar with Turgenev’s books yet, but some time ago I read T.’s biography, which I found very interesting, and how he and Daudet had in common a passion for doing everything from models, summarizing 5 or 6 models in a type. I’m not familiar with Ohnet either, which ought to be interesting from what I hear.
More and more, though, I imagine that in the end art for art’s sake — working for the sake of working — energy for energy’s sake — really becomes very important to all the good fellows, for one sees in the De Goncourts — that obstinacy is necessary, for society won’t give you any thanks. But in painting one finds a degree of rest in the stories of those painters, especially those who strove for something high all the same — Israëls himself, for instance, he was still unknown and still poor to the point of eating dry bread — when he still wanted to go to Paris nonetheless, even though the circumstances were discouraging enough.
Not to give up, even if one feels one is half dying and even if one feels that in material things one can say goodbye to pleasure in life. Anyway. I wish you’d write more, now we’re discussing this change.
Setting up a studio together may perhaps be very good — but we have to be able to stick it out and — we really have to know what we’re doing and what we want, and once we set it up a degree of self-confidence is needed, left, after all, after whole series of lost illusions. And one must set up a studio like this — knowing that it’s a battle and that most people are utterly indifferent — so one has to set it up — feeling one has a degree of power, and — so as to be something in one’s time, to be active — to be able to think when one is dying, I am going where the people who dared went. Anyway, we’ll see. With a handshake.
Yours truly,

This impression of myself that I can’t help getting when I compare me with other people — that beside them I look as though I’ve spent 10 years in prison — is not exaggerated — only, to change it, and it will change, I mustn’t stray too far out of the art world again for the present, but will have to carry on for the time being by remaining at a studio or academy. And then it will disappear.