Vincent van Gogh - Painter on His Way to Work 1888

Painter on His Way to Work 1888
Painter on His Way to Work
Oil on canvas 48.0 x 44.0 cm. Arles: July, 1888
Destroyed by fire in the Second World War;
formerly in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Magdeburg, Germany

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, on or about Thursday, 4 February 1886.
My dear Theo,
I already wrote to you the day before yesterday that on the one hand I was far from well, but that on the other hand I nevertheless thought I could see some light.
However, I regret that I have to tell you even more categorically that I’m most definitely literally exhausted and overworked. When you think that I went to live in my own studio on 1 May — since then it’s perhaps been a matter of 6 or 7 times, so far, that I’ve had my midday meal. For good reasons, I don’t want you to tell Ma that I’m not well — because she might possibly consider that it wasn’t nice that what happened, happened, that’s to say that I didn’t stay there — precisely because of these consequences. I shan’t say anything about it; don’t you say anything either. But I lived then, and since then, here, having nothing for my food because the work cost me too much and I relied too much on the idea that I could stick it out like this.
What the doctor tells me is that I absolutely must live better, and that I have to take more care of myself with my work until I’m stronger. It’s total debilitation.
Well I’ve made it worse by smoking a lot, which I did all the more because then one isn’t troubled by one’s empty stomach.
Anyway, they say — one has to experience lean times, and I’ve had my share of them.
Because it’s not just the food, it’s also all the worry and sorrow that one has.
You know that for one reason or another the time in Nuenen was far from carefree for me. What’s more — here — I’m very pleased to have come here — but it’s been a difficult time all the same.
What we have to do and what is largely lacking — is this. Paying the models ourselves is too much; as long as one doesn’t have enough money, one must take advantage of the opportunities at the studios, like Verlat, like Cormon. And one must be in the artists’ world and work at clubs where one shares the cost of the models.
Now it’s true that I didn’t think of this before, or at least didn’t do it — but I wish now that I’d started on it a year earlier. If we could now find some way of living in the same city it would be far and away the best thing, at least for the time being.
Only, the more I think about it, the more and more I fancy that it might be better not to spend much on a studio in the first year, because I’ll mostly have to draw in that first year.

Because speaking of Cormon — I imagine he would tell me much the same as Verlat says — that I have to draw nudes or plaster casts for up to a year, precisely because I’ve always drawn from life.
This isn’t really a harsh requirement, because I tell you that there are people here who’ve been in the class for 3 years and are still not allowed to stop, who also paint. In that year I have to practise the male and the female figure, both in detail and as a whole, and — then I’ll know it by heart, as it were. Drawing in itself, technically, is easy enough for me — I’m beginning to do it the way one writes, with the same ease. But precisely at this level it becomes more interesting, as one is not satisfied with the facility that one gradually acquires but really looks for originality and breadth of conception. Drawing the masses rather than the outlines. Solid modelling. And I can assure you it’s not a bad sign if people like Verlat or Cormon, let’s say, demand that of someone. For there are enough of them that Verlat simply leaves to get on with it because — they just aren’t the fellows for the loftier figure. You talk about the clever fellows at Cormon’s studio. Precisely because I damned well want to be one of them, I’m setting myself in advance, out of my own conviction, the requirement of spending at least a year in Paris mainly drawing from the nude and plaster casts. For the rest, let’s do whatsoever our hand finds to do in the way of painting, if an effect out of doors strikes us or we happen to have a good model &c.
And don’t think that this is the long way, because it’s the short one. Someone who can draw his figures from memory is much more productive than someone who can’t. And by my taking the trouble to spend that year drawing — you’ll just see how productive we become. And don’t think either that the years I worked out of doors were wasted. For it’s the very thing that people who’ve never been anywhere else but at academies and studios lack, that view of reality in which they live, and finding subjects. Anyway.
Might it not be wise if we put off renting a studio at least for the first six months, precisely because it all comes down to the money? But otherwise I like the idea of setting up a studio a great deal, a very great deal. Even, if need be, such that one could combine with other painters to take models together. The more energy the better. And in hard times — one must especially seek a way out in friendship and collaboration.
But Theo, it’s so rotten about this indisposition — I’m dreadfully sorry — but I’m still in good spirits. It will get better. You understand that it would have got worse and worse if I’d delayed doing something about it.
What I think, though, is this — one mustn’t think that people whose constitution is damaged, wholly or half, aren’t fit for painting. It’s desirable for one to make it to 60 at least, and necessary for one to make it to 50, if one begins when one is around 30.
But one absolutely doesn’t have to be perfectly healthy; one may have all sorts of things wrong. The work doesn’t always suffer as a result — on the contrary, nervous fellows are more sensitive and more refined. But Theo, precisely because it has proved in my case that my health leaves something to be desired — I’ve decided to concentrate specifically on the loftier figure and to try to refine myself. It really struck me so unexpectedly — I did feel weak and feverish, but I still kept going. Only it began to worry me that teeth were breaking off one after another. And that I was starting to look worse and worse. Anyway, we’ll see about putting it right.
I think that getting the teeth attended to will help in itself because, as my mouth was usually painful, I just swallowed my food as quickly as possible.
And perhaps it will also help my appearance, at least a little.
As regards this month, I’ve paid 25 francs in advance for my room, 30 francs in advance for my food, and 50 francs to the dentist; also a visit to the doctor and some drawing materials — which leaves 6 francs.
Now the important issue this month is not to be ill, which isn’t easy to resolve — and which could very well happen. But we’ll see — I still think I’ve got a certain toughness in common with the peasants, who also don’t eat anything very special and still go on living and working. So don’t worry too much about it. If you could send a little bit extra, very well — but if you can’t, I’ll wait calmly to see how it goes. What I don’t like is that I’m feverish, and I reason about it thus: although I may be weakened, I’ve still taken some care not to eat any unwholesome food. Over-exertion isn’t excessive either — because, despite everything, I keep my spirits up all the time — so that it’s because I’m weak that I over-exert myself. It seems to me that it must sort itself out. You understand, though, that if it were to get worse — and took a virulent turn — one might have to contend with typhus or at least typhoid fever.
And actually the only reasons why I certainly don’t expect that are these — 1 that I’ve had a great deal of fresh air, and 2 that, as I said, even though I’ve evidently not fed myself well enough, as a precaution I’ve nonetheless made do with very simple food rather than the muck in the cheap restaurants — and 3 — that I have a degree of calm and serenity in the face of things.
So we must wait and see. Don’t you worry about it, because not even I do — I maintain that, supposing I do get a fever, I’ve lived and eaten too simply for it to become very virulent all that easily. After all, things don’t happen of their own accord, and there’s a reason for everything.
Write to me soon, though, because I really do need it.
As regards going to Nuenen too — I want to know what you’d think best.
But I’m not needed there — because someone like Rijken, the gardener, for instance, can see to what needs to be packed or sent at least as well as I can.
If there’s any point in it, though, I can be ready by March if need be.
Regards, with a handshake.
Yours truly,