To Theo van Gogh. Cuesmes, Friday, 24 September 1880.
Your letter did me good; I thank you for writing to me like that.
Actually, the roll containing a new collection of etchings and various sheets has just arrived. First and foremost, the masterly etching, The bush, by Daubigny/Ruisdael. That’s it! I plan to do two drawings, either in sepia or something else, one of them after this etching — the other after T. Rousseau’s The oven in Les Landes. This latter sepia is already done — it’s true — but if you compare it with Daubigny’s etching, you’ll understand that it becomes weak, even though the sepia drawing considered on its own may very well have a certain tone and sentiment. I have to go back to it and work on it again.
I’m still working on Bargue’s Cours de dessin, and plan to finish it before undertaking anything else, since day by day it exercises and strengthens both my hand and my mind, and I wouldn’t be able to feel sufficiently indebted to Mr Tersteeg for having so generously lent them to me. These models are excellent. In the meantime I’m busy reading a book on anatomy and another on perspective, which Mr Tersteeg also sent me. This study is thorny, and sometimes these books are as irritating as could be, but nevertheless I believe that I’m doing the right thing by studying them.
You can see, then, that I’m working like mad, but for the moment it isn’t giving very heartening results. But I have hopes that these thorns will bear white flowers in their time, and that this apparently sterile struggle is nothing other than a labour of giving birth. First pain, then joy afterwards.
You tell me about Lessore. I believe I can recall some very elegant watercolour landscapes which could be by him, in a pale tone, with brushwork that’s apparently easy and light but at the same time accurate and refined, with an effect (let it be said with no bad intention, on the contrary, with a good one) that’s a little decorative. So I could be said to know something about his work, and you’d be telling me about somebody who isn’t altogether unfamiliar to me. I like the portrait of Victor Hugo. It’s very conscientiously done, with the clear intention of bearing witness to the truth without searching for effect. By virtue of that, though, it does have an effect.
I studied some of Hugo’s works a little this past winter. Namely Le dernier jour d’un condamné and a very beautiful book on Shakespeare. I took up the study of this writer a long time ago now. It’s as beautiful as Rembrandt. Shakespeare is to Charles Dickens or to V. Hugo what Ruisdael is to Daubigny, and Rembrandt to Millet.
What you say in your letter on the subject of Barbizon is very true and I’ll tell you one or two things that will prove to you that that’s my own way of seeing as well. I haven’t seen Barbizon, but although I haven’t seen it, last winter I saw Courrières. I made a trip on foot mainly in the Pas de Calais, not the Channel but the department. Or province. I made that trip hoping perhaps to find work there (any sort, if possible; I would have accepted anything), but actually without any real plan, I couldn’t precisely say why. But I’d said to myself, You must see Courrières. I had only 10 francs in my pocket, and having started out by taking the train I’d soon exhausted those resources, and having stayed on the road for a week, I trudged rather painfully. Nevertheless, I saw Courrières and the outside of Mr Jules Breton’s studio. The outside of this studio disappointed me a little, seeing that it’s a brand-new studio and newly built in brick, of a Methodist regularity, of an aspect as inhospitable and chilly and ascetic as C.M.’s Jovinda, which, between ourselves, I don’t much like either for this same reason. If I’d been able to see the inside I would have thought no more about the outside, I’m inclined to believe, and I’m sure of it even, but there you are, I wasn’t able to get a look at the inside. Because I didn’t dare to introduce myself, so as to go in. I looked elsewhere in Courrières for some trace of Jules Breton or of some other artist; all I found was his picture at a photographer’s shop and then, in the old church, in a dark corner, a copy of Titian’s Entombment, which in the darkness seemed to me to be very beautiful and of a masterly tone. Was it by him? I don’t know, being unable to make out any signature.
But of a living artist, not a trace, there was only a café, the so-called Café des Beaux-Arts, also in inhospitable and chilly and mortifying new brick, which café was decorated with some sort of frescoes or mural paintings depicting episodes from the life of the illustrious knight, Don Quixote. These frescoes, let it be said in confidence, seemed to me then rather poor consolation and rather mediocre. I don’t know who they were by.
But at any rate I saw the Courrières countryside then, the haystacks, the brown farmland or the almost coffee-coloured marly soil, with whitish spots where the marl appears, which is something rather extraordinary for those of us who are used to blackish soil. And the French sky seemed to me far more clear and limpid than the smoky and misty Borinage sky. Furthermore, there were the farmhouses and sheds that had still preserved their mossy thatched roofs, God be praised and thanked for it; I also saw hosts of crows, famous from the paintings of Daubigny and Millet. Not to mention first of all, as one should, the typical and picturesque figures of the workmen: different diggers, woodcutters, a farm-hand driving his team, and the occasional outline of a woman in a white bonnet. Even there, at Courrières, there was a coal-mine or pit; I saw the day-shift coming up at dusk, but there were no women workers in men’s clothing, as in the Borinage, only miners looking weary and miserable, blackened by coal-dust, wearing pit-rags and one of them an old army greatcoat. Although this stage was almost unbearable to me, and I returned from it worn out, with bruised feet and in a rather melancholy state, I don’t regret it, because I saw interesting things and you learn to see with a quite different eye, there among the raw ordeals of poverty itself. I earned a few crusts of bread en route here and there in exchange for some drawings that I had in my suitcase. But when my ten francs were gone, I had to bivouac out in the open for the last 3 nights, once in an abandoned carriage, all white with frost in the morning, a rather poor shelter, once in a wood-pile and once, and it was a little better, in a haystack that had been broached, where I managed to make a slightly more comfortable nest, only a fine rain didn’t exactly add to my well-being. Well, and notwithstanding, it was in this extreme poverty that I felt my energy return and that I said to myself, in any event I’ll recover from it, I’ll pick up my pencil that I put down in my great discouragement and I’ll get back to drawing, and from then on, it seems to me, everything has changed for me, and now I’m on my way and my pencil has become somewhat obedient and seems to become more so day by day. It was poverty, too long and too severe, that had discouraged me to the point where I could no longer do anything. Another thing that I saw during that excursion was the weavers’ villages.
The miners and the weavers are something of a race apart from other workmen and tradesmen, and I have a great fellow-feeling for them and would count myself happy if I could draw them one day, so that these types, as yet unpublished or almost unpublished, could be brought to notice. The man from the bottom of the abyss, ‘de profundis’, that’s the miner; the other one, with a dreamy, almost pensive, almost a sleep-walker’s air, is the weaver. And now it’s roughly 2 years that I’ve been living with them, and to some extent I’ve learned to know their original character, mainly that of the miners at least. And more and more I find something touching and even heart-rending in these poor and obscure workers, the lowest of all, so to speak, and the most looked down upon, which one usually pictures through the effect of a perhaps vivid but very false and unjust imagination as a race of criminals and brigands. There are criminals, drunkards, brigands here as elsewhere, but that’s not at all the true type. In your letter you spoke to me vaguely about coming to Paris or the surrounding area. Sooner or later, when it would be possible and when I felt like it. Of course, it would be my great and ardent desire to come either to Paris or to Barbizon or somewhere else. But how could I do it, because I don’t earn a sou, and although I work hard it’ll take more time yet to reach the level of being able to think of such a thing as coming to Paris. Because in truth, to be able to work as one should, it would take at least about a hundred francs a month; you can live on less, but then you’re hard up, far too much so in fact. Poverty prevents good minds succeeding; that’s Palissy’s old proverb, in which there’s truth, and which is entirely true if one understands its real purpose and import.
For the moment I can’t see how the thing would be practicable, and it’s better that I stay here, working as I can and will be able to, and after all, it’s cheaper to live here. However, I’d be unable to continue much longer in the little room where I am now. It’s tiny as it is, and there are two beds, the children’s and mine. And now that I’m doing the Bargues, quite big sheets, I couldn’t tell you what a nuisance it is to me. I don’t want to bother the people in their household arrangements; and also they’ve told me that as far as the other room in the house goes, there was no way for me to have it, even if I paid more, because the wife needs it to do her washing, which in a miner’s house has to be done almost every day.
So I would like simply to take a little workman’s house; that costs 9 francs a month on average.
I couldn’t tell you how much (despite the fact that every day new difficulties present themselves and will continue to present themselves), I couldn’t tell you how happy I feel to have taken up drawing again. It had already been on my mind for a long time, but I always saw the thing as impossible and beyond my reach. But now, while feeling both my weakness and my painful dependence in respect of many things, I’ve recovered my peace of mind, and my energy is coming back day by day. Now, about coming to Paris. If we found an opportunity to get in touch with some decent, valiant artist, it would be extremely advantageous for me, but, to go there just like that, it would only be a repetition on a large scale of my trip to Courrières, where I’d hoped perhaps to meet some living being of the Artist species, but where I didn’t find one. For me it’s a matter of learning to draw well, to be master either of my pencil or my charcoal or my brush; once that’s achieved I’ll do good things almost no matter where, and the Borinage is every bit as picturesque as old Venice, as Arabia, as Brittany, Normandy, Picardy or Brie.
If I’m doing the wrong thing, the fault is mine. But one can very certainly find more easily at Barbizon than elsewhere, if one perhaps were to have this happy encounter, the opportunity to fall in with some more advanced artist who would be for me truly a Heaven-sent angel, let it be said seriously and without any exaggeration.
So if, sometime, you were to see means and opportunity, think of me; while waiting I’ll stay quietly in some little workman’s house, where I’ll work as best I can.
You also speak to me of Meryon; what you say about him is very true, I am indeed slightly acquainted with his etchings. Would you like to see something curious — put one of his so precise and so powerful scratches beside any print by Viollet-le-Duc or by anyone at all who does architecture. Then you’ll see Meryon in full light because of the other etching, which will serve, if I may be so free, as a foil or contrast. So what do you see, then? This. Meryon, even when he’s drawing bricks, granite, the iron bars or the parapet of a bridge, puts something of the human soul, shaken by I know not what heartache, into his etching. I’ve seen drawings of Gothic architecture by V. Hugo. Well, without having Meryon’s powerful and masterly execution, there was something of the same sentiment. What is this sentiment? It has some kinship with that which Albrecht Dürer expressed in his Melancholy, which in our times James Tissot and M. Maris also have (however different these two may be one from the other). Some profound critic rightly said of James Tissot ‘He’s a soul in need’. But in any event, there’s something of the human soul there; it’s for that reason that that is great, immense, infinite, and put Viollet-le-Duc beside it, it’s stone, and the other (namely Meryon), that’s Spirit. Meryon must have had such a power to love that now, like Dickens’s Sydney Carton, he loves the very stones of certain places. But it’s also found more and better, in a nobler, worthier and, if I may be allowed to say so, more Evangelical tone — the precious pearl, the human soul revealed — in Millet, in Jules Breton, in Jozef Israëls. But to return to Meryon, he has also, it seems to me, some distant kinship with Jongkind and perhaps Seymour Haden, because at certain moments these two artists were very strong. Wait, perhaps you’ll still see that I too am a worker, although I don’t know in advance what will be possible for me; nevertheless, I do hope to make some scratch yet in which there might be something human. But first I have to draw the Bargues and do other things that are rather tricky. The way is strait and the gate is strait and there are few that find it.
Thanking you for your kindness, chiefly for The bush, I shake your hand.
I’ve taken all your collection now, but you’ll have it back later, and in addition, for your collection of wood engravings, which I hope you’re continuing, I have some very good things in the 2 volumes of the Musée Universel, which I intend for you.