Vincent van Gogh - Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers 1888

Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers 1888
Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers
Oil on canvas 98.0 x 69.0 cm. Arles: August, 1888
Destroyed by fire in the Second World War

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Willemien van Gogh. Paris, late October 1887.
My dear little sister,
I thank you for your letter, although for my part I so detest writing these days, however there are questions in your letter that I do want to answer. I must begin by contradicting you where you say that you thought Theo looked ‘so wretched’ this summer.
For my part, I think on the contrary that Theo’s appearance has become much more distinguished in the last year.
You have to be strong to endure life in Paris the way he has for so many years.
But might it not be that Theo’s family and friends in Amsterdam and The Hague haven’t treated him and even not received him with the cordiality that he deserved from them and to which he was entitled?
I can tell you in that regard that he was perhaps a little hurt by this, but he’s otherwise not letting it bother him, and now, when times are so bad in paintings, he’s still doing business, so it could be there’s some professional jealousy on the part of his Dutch friends.
Now what shall I say about your little piece about the plants and the rain? You see for yourself in nature that many a flower is trampled, freezes or is parched, further that not every grain of wheat, once it has ripened, ends up in the earth again to germinate there and become a stalk — but far and away the most grains do not develop but go to the mill — don’t they?

Now comparing people with grains of wheat — in every person who’s healthy and natural there’s the power to germinate as in a grain of wheat. And so natural life is germinating. What the power to germinate is in wheat, so love is in us. Now we, I think, stand there pulling a long face or at a loss for words when, being thwarted in our natural development, we see that germination frustrated and ourselves placed in circumstances as hopeless as they must be for the wheat between the millstones.
If this happens to us and we’re utterly bewildered by the loss of our natural life, there are some among us who, willing to submit themselves to the course of things as they are, nonetheless don’t abandon their self-awareness and want to know how things are with them and what’s actually happening.
And searching with good intentions in the books of which it is said they are a light in the darkness, with the best will in the world we find precious little certain at all and not always satisfaction to comfort us personally. And the diseases from which we civilized people suffer the most are melancholia and pessimism.
Like me, for instance, who can count so many years in my life when I completely lost all inclination to laugh, leaving aside whether or not this was my own fault, I for one need above all just to have a good laugh. I found that in Guy de Maupassant and there are others here, Rabelais among the old writers, Henri Rochefort among today’s, where one can find that — Voltaire in Candide.
On the contrary, if one wants truth, life as it is, De Goncourt, for example, in Germinie Lacerteux, La fille Elisa, Zola in La joie de vivre and L’assommoir and so many other masterpieces paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth.
The work of the French naturalists Zola, Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, De Goncourt, Richepin, Daudet, Huysmans is magnificent and one can scarcely be said to belong to one’s time if one isn’t familiar with them. Maupassant’s masterpiece is Bel-ami; I hope to be able to get it for you.
Is the Bible enough for us? Nowadays I believe Jesus himself would again say to those who just sit melancholy, it is not here, it is risen. Why seek ye the living among the dead? If the spoken or written word is to remain the light of the world, it’s our right and our duty to acknowledge that we live in an age in which it’s written in such a way, spoken in such a way that in order to find something as great and as good and as original, and just as capable of overturning the whole old society as in the past, we can safely compare it with the old upheaval by the Christians.
For my part, I’m always glad that I’ve read the Bible better than many people nowadays, just because it gives me a certain peace that there have been such lofty ideas in the past. But precisely because I think the old is good, I find the new all the more so. All the more so because we can take action ourselves in our own age, and both the past and the future affect us only indirectly.
My own fortunes dictate above all that I’m making rapid progress in growing up into a little old man, you know, with wrinkles, with a bristly beard, with a number of false teeth &c. But what does that matter? I have a dirty and difficult occupation, painting, and if I weren’t as I am I wouldn’t paint, but being as I am I often work with pleasure, and I see the possibility glimmering through of making paintings in which there’s some youth and freshness, although my own youth is one of those things I’ve lost. If I didn’t have Theo it wouldn’t be possible for me to do justice to my work, but because I have him as a friend I believe that I’ll make more progress and that things will run their course. It’s my plan to go to the south for a while, as soon as I can, where there’s even more colour and even more sun.
But what I hope to achieve is to paint a good portrait. Anyway.
Now to get back to your little piece, I feel uneasy about assuming for my own use or recommending to others for theirs the belief that powers above us intervene personally to help us or to comfort us. Providence is such a strange thing, and I tell you that I definitely don’t know what to make of it.
Well, in your piece there’s always a certain sentimentality and in its form, above all, it’s reminiscent of the stories about providence already referred to above, let’s say the providence in question, stories that so repeatedly failed to hold water and against which so very much could be said.
And above all I find it a very worrying matter that you believe you have to study in order to write. No, my dear little sister, learn to dance or fall in love with one or more notary’s clerks, officers, in short whoever’s within your reach; rather, much rather commit any number of follies than study in Holland, it serves absolutely no purpose other than to make someone dull, and so I won’t hear of it.
For my part, I still continually have the most impossible and highly unsuitable love affairs from which, as a rule, I emerge only with shame and disgrace.
And in this I’m absolutely right, in my own view, because I tell myself that in earlier years, when I should have been in love, I immersed myself in religious and socialist affairs and considered art more sacred, more than now. Why are religion or law or art so sacred? People who do nothing other than be in love are perhaps more serious and holier than those who sacrifice their love and their heart to an idea. Be this as it may, to write a book, to perform a deed, to make a painting with life in it, one must be a living person oneself. And so for you, unless you never want to progress, studying is very much a side issue. Enjoy yourself as much as you can and have as many distractions as you can, and be aware that what people want in art nowadays has to be very lively, with strong colour, very intense. So intensify your own health and strength and life a little, that’s the best study. It would please me if you would write and tell me how Margot Begemann is doing and how they’re doing at De Groot’s. How did that business turn out? Did Sien de Groot marry her cousin? And did her child live? What I think about my own work is that the painting of the peasants eating potatoes that I did in Nuenen is after all the best thing I did. Only since then I haven’t had the opportunity to find models, but on the contrary have had the opportunity to study the question of colour. And if I do find models for my figures again later, then I hope to show that I’m looking for something other than little green landscapes or flowers. Last year I painted almost nothing but flowers to accustom myself to a colour other than grey, that’s to say pink, soft or bright green, light blue, violet, yellow, orange, fine red. And when I painted landscape in Asnières this summer I saw more colour in it than before. I’m studying this now in portraits.
And I have to tell you that I’m painting none the worse for it, perhaps because I could tell you very many bad things about both painters and paintings if I wanted to, just as easily as I could tell you good things about them.
I don’t want to be one of the melancholics or those who become sour and bitter and morbid. To understand all is to forgive all, and I believe that if we knew everything we’d arrive at a certain serenity. Now having this serenity as much as possible, even when one knows — little — nothing — for certain, is perhaps a better remedy against all ills than what’s sold in the chemist’s. A lot comes of its own accord, one grows and develops of one’s own accord.
So don’t study and swot too much, because that makes for sterility. Enjoy yourself too much rather than too little, and don’t take art or love too seriously either — one can do little about it oneself, it’s mostly a matter of temperament. If I were living near you, I’d try to make you understand that it might be more practical for you to paint with me than to write, and that you might be more able to express your feelings that way. At any rate I can do something about painting personally, but as far as writing’s concerned I’m not in the business. Anyway, it’s not a bad idea for you to want to become an artist, because if one has fire in one, and soul, one can’t keep stifling them and — one would rather burn than suffocate. What’s inside must get out. Me, for instance, it gives me air when I make a painting, and without that I’d be unhappier than I am. Give Ma my very warmest regards.

A la recherche du bonheur affected me very greatly. Now I’ve just read Mont-Oriol by Guy de Maupassant. Art often seems to be something very lofty and, as you say, something sacred. But that’s true of love too. And the problem is simply that not everyone thinks about it like that, and those who feel something of it and allow themselves to be swept away by it suffer greatly, firstly because of being misunderstood, but as much because our inspiration is so often inadequate or the work is made impossible by circumstances. One should be able to do two or preferably several things at the same time.
And there are times when it’s by no means clear to us that art should be something sacred or good.
Anyway, think carefully about whether it isn’t better, if one has a feeling for art and wants to work in it, to say that one is doing it because one was created with that feeling and can’t do anything else and is following one’s nature, than to say one is doing it for a good cause.
Does it not say in A la recherche du bonheur that evil lies in our own natures — which we didn’t create ourselves?
What I think is so good about the moderns is that they don’t moralize like the old ones.
It seems coarse to many people, for instance, and they’re angered by it: vice and virtue are chemical products like sugar and vitriol.