To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Saturday, 1 February 1890.
My dear Theo,
Today I’ve just received your good news that you’re a father at last, that the most critical moment has passed for Jo, finally that the little one is well. It does me, too, more good and gives me more pleasure than I could express in words. Bravo – and how pleased Mother is going to be. I also received a quite long and very serene letter from her the day before yesterday. Finally what I’ve certainly hoped for so much for a long time has happened. No need to tell you that I’ve often thought of the two of you the past few days, and it touched me greatly that Jo still had the kindness to write to me the night before. How brave and calm she is in her danger, that touched me greatly. Well this contributes a great deal to making me forget these last few days when I was ill, then I no longer know where I am and my mind wanders.
I was extremely surprised by the article on my paintings that you sent me, no need to tell you that I hope to go on thinking that I don’t paint like that, but rather I do see from it how I ought to paint. For the article is quite right in the sense that it indicates the gap to be filled, and I think that basically the writer writes it rather to guide not only me but also the other Impressionists, and even rather to make the breach in the right place. So he proposes a collective self, as ideal for the others as it is to me. He tells me simply that there’s something good here and there, if you like, in my very imperfect work as well, and there’s the consolatory side which I appreciate and which I hope I’m grateful for. Only it must be understood that I don’t have a strong enough back to carry out a job like that, and by concentrating the article on me, no need to tell you how I feel mired in flattery, and in my opinion it’s as exaggerated as what a certain article by Isaäcson said on your account about you, that at present artists declined to argue, and that a serious movement was silently being created in the little shop on boulevard Montmartre. I admit that it’s difficult to say, to express oneself otherwise – just as one can’t paint as one sees – and it’s therefore not to criticize Isaäcson’s boldness or that of the other critic, but as regards us, well, we’re posing a little for the model, and my word, that’s a duty and a job like any other. So if you or I were to gain some reputation or other, it’s a matter of trying to retain a certain calm, and if possible presence of mind. Why not say, with more reason, what he says about my sunflowers about Quost’s magnificent and so-complete Hollyhocks and about his yellow irises, about Jeannin’s splendid peonies? And you, like me, foresee that being praised must have its other side, its reverse of the coin. But gladly I’m very grateful for the article, or rather ‘glad at heart’, as the revue song has it, since one can need it as one can truly need a medal. Then an article like that has its own merit as a critical work of art, as such I consider it worthy of respect, and the writer must use exalted tones, synthesize his conclusions &c.
But right from the start we must think of not putting your young family too much into the artistic environment. Old Goupil ran his household well in the Paris undergrowth, and I think that you’ll still think of him very often. Things have changed so much, for today his cold aloofness would be shocking, but his strength to weather so many storms, that though was something.
Gauguin proposed, very vaguely it’s true, founding a studio in his name, he, De Haan and I, but said that first he’s pursuing his Tonkin project vigorously, and he appears to have cooled about continuing to paint, I don’t know exactly why. And he’s the sort of man who would scarper to Tonkin, indeed, he has a certain need for expansion and finds the artist’s life – and to an extent he’s right – a mean one. With his experiences of several journeys, what can one say to him? So I hope that he’ll feel that you and I are indeed his friends without counting on us too much, which he doesn’t anyway. He writes with a lot of reserve, more serious than the other year. I’ve just written a line to Russell once again to remind him about Gauguin a little, for I know that Russell is very serious and strong as a man. And if I got back together with G., then we’d have need of Russell. Gauguin and Russell are people with a rustic background; wild no, but with a certain innate gentleness of the far-off fields, probably much more than you or I, that’s how I find them.
One must – it is true – believe in it a little from time to time in order to see it. If, for myself, I wanted to continue, let’s call it translating certain pages of Millet, then in order to prevent people, not criticizing me, I couldn’t care about that, but bothering or obstructing me under the pretext that I’m manufacturing copies – then among the artists I need people like Russell or Gauguin to carry this task to a successful conclusion, to make something serious of it. To do the things by Millet that you sent, for example, the choice of which I consider completely right – I have scruples of conscience, and I took the pile of photographs and I sent them unhesitatingly to Russell so that I shouldn’t see them again until I’d thought long and hard about it. I don’t want to do it before first having heard something of your opinion, then also that of certain others on those that you’ll soon receive. Without that I’d have scruples of conscience, a fear that it might be plagiarism. And not now, but in a few months, I’ll try to get Russell’s honest opinion about the usefulness of the thing. In any case, Russell has outbursts, he gets angry, he says something true, and that’s what I need sometimes. You know that I found the Virgin so dazzling that I didn’t dare look. Immediately I felt a – ‘not yet’. Now the illness makes me very sensitive, and for the moment I don’t feel capable of continuing these ‘translations’ when it would involve such masterpieces. I’m stopping with the sower, which is in progress and isn’t coming along as would be desirable. However, being ill, I thought a lot about continuing this work, and that when I do it I do it calmly, you’ll see it soon when I send the five or 6 finished canvases. I hope that Mr Lauzet will come, I very much want to make his acquaintance. I trust in his opinion when he says that it’s Provence, there he touches on the difficulty, and like the other fellow he points out a thing to be done rather than one done. The landscapes with the cypresses! Ah, that wouldn’t be easy. Aurier feels it too when he says that even black is a colour, and about their flame-like aspect. I’m thinking of it but I don’t dare do it either, and say like Isaäcson, who is cautious, that I don’t yet feel that we’ve reached that point. It requires a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from on high which doesn’t belong to us, to do beautiful things. When I’d done those sunflowers I was seeking the contrary and yet the equivalent, and I said, it’s the cypress. I’m stopping there – I’m a little anxious about a woman friend who is still ill, it seems, and to whom I’d like to go, she’s the one whose portrait I did in yellow and black, and she had changed so much. It’s nervous crises and the complications of a premature change of life, very difficult in short. She looked like an old grandfather last time. I had promised to come back in a fortnight and was taken ill again myself.
Anyway, for me the good news you’ve told me and that article and a heap of things mean that I’m personally feeling completely well today.
Now in thought I remain with you all as I finish my letter. May Jo long remain for us all that she is. Now as for the little one, why then don’t you call him Theo in memory of our father, that would certainly give me so much pleasure. Handshake.
I’m sorry too that Mr Salles didn’t find you. Thanks again to Wil for her kind letter, I’d have liked to reply to it today but I’ll put it back until a few days from now, tell her that Mother has written me another long letter from Amsterdam. How happy she’s going to be too.
If you see him, for the time being thank Mr Aurier very much for his article, naturally I’ll send you a line for him, and a study.