To Theo van Gogh. Etten, Friday, 5 August 1881.
My dear Theo,
I found it really nice that you were here again and we could talk about things again. I still think it a pity that we can’t yet be together more. Not that I attach much value to talking in itself, but I mean that I do wish we knew each other much better and more intimately than is now the case. I thought this especially during the ride back from Roosendaal, after I had brought you to the station, also because of some things we talked about during our last moments at the station. But possibly, probably, you don’t even know what that was any more. I’m glad that your letter of today holds out hope that it won’t be so very long before you come back again.
I am, of course, completely better again, though I did stay in bed the day after you left and have spoken to Dr Van Genk, a thoroughly practical man, not because I thought this insignificant malaise to be worth the bother, but rather because in general, well or not well, I like to speak to a doctor from time to time to find out if everything is all right. If one hears wholesome and true words about health now and then, it seems to me that one gradually acquires much clearer notions about such matters, and if one knows more or less what one should take care not to do, and what one should abide by, one isn’t tossed about by the shifting winds of opinion, by all manner of nonsense that one hears so often concerning health and ill health.
I’m also busy drawing the Exercices au fusain on the Ingres paper that you brought. It costs me a great deal of effort to stick to that work. It’s much more stimulating to draw something outdoors than such a sheet from the Bargues, but still, I set myself the task of drawing them again, thus for the last time. It wouldn’t be good if, when drawing from nature, I lapsed into too much detail and overlooked the important things. And I found much too much of that in my last drawings. And that’s why I want to study Bargue’s method once more (who works with broad lines and large masses and simple, delicate contours). And if I let outdoor drawing rest for the moment, then when I come back to it in a short while I’ll have a better eye for things than I used to. I don’t know if you ever read English books. If so, then I can highly recommend Shirley by Currer Bell, the author of another book, Jane Eyre. This is as beautiful as the paintings of Millais or Boughton or Herkomer. I found it at Princenhage and read it in three days, even though it’s quite a thick book.
I’d wish that everyone had what I’m gradually beginning to acquire, the ability to read a book easily and quickly and to retain a strong impression of it. Reading books is like looking at paintings: without doubting, without hesitating, with self-assurance, one must find beautiful that which is beautiful. I’m gradually putting my books back in order. I’ve read too much not to continue systematically to try to keep abreast of modern literature, to some extent at least.
Sometimes I very much regret not knowing a great deal more about history, for example, especially modern history. Well, one won’t get any further by being sorry and having these sad thoughts; what one must try and do is simply struggle on.
It gave me a great deal of pleasure to detect some truly good philosophy occasionally in your recent conversation. Who knows what a thoughtful creature you may become with time?
If Illusions perdues by Balzac is too long for you (2 volumes), start with Le père Goriot, 1 volume only, once you’ve tasted Balzac you’ll prefer it to a great many other things. Remember Balzac’s nickname, ‘veterinary surgeon for incurable maladies’.
By the time I’ve finished the Bargues it will be autumn, that’s really a wonderful time to draw, I’d like Rappard to come here again then. I also hope to succeed in finding a good model, such as Piet Kaufmann the labourer, though I think it will be better not to have him pose here at the house, but either in the yard at his place or in the field with a spade or plough or something else. But what a business it is to get people to understand what posing is! Peasants and townsfolk desperately cling to an idea they won’t give up, namely that one shouldn’t pose other than in one’s Sunday suit with impossible folds in which neither knee nor elbow nor shoulder blades nor any other part of the body has made its characteristic dent or hump. Truly, this is one of the petty vexations in the life of a draughtsman.
Well, adieu, write if you can, and accept in thought a handshake, and believe me