Vincent van Gogh - Baskets of Potatoes 1885

Baskets of Potatoes 1885
Baskets of Potatoes
Oil on canvas 65.0 x 78.5 cm. Nuenen: September, 1885
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Saturday, 11 March 1882.
My dear Theo,
You will have received my letters, I’m answering yours, received this afternoon. In accordance with your request, I immediately sent Tersteeg 10 guilders, lent to me this week by His Hon. I wrote to you about C.M.’s order, this is what happened. C.M. appeared to have spoken to Tersteeg before he came to see me, at any rate began talking about things like ‘earning your bread’. My answer suddenly came to me, quickly and, I believe, correctly. Here’s what I said: earn my bread, what do you mean by that? – to earn one’s bread or to deserve one’s bread — not to deserve one’s bread, that is to say, to be unworthy of one’s bread, that’s what’s a crime, every honest man being worthy of his crust — but as for not earning it at all, while at the same time deserving it, oh, that! is a misfortune and A great misfortune. So, if you’re saying to me here and now: you’re unworthy of your bread, I understand that you’re insulting me, but if you’re making the moderately fair comment to me that I don’t always earn it because sometimes I’m short of it, so be it, but what’s the use of making that comment to me? It’s scarcely useful to me if it ends there. I recently tried, I continued, to explain this to Tersteeg, but either he’s hard of hearing in that ear or my explanation was a little confused because of the pain his words caused me.
C.M. then kept quiet about earning one’s bread.
The storm threatened again because I happened to mention the name Degroux in connection with expression. C.M. suddenly asked, But surely you know there was something untoward about Degroux’s private life?
You understand that there C.M. touched a tender spot and ventured on to thin ice. I really can’t let that be said about good père Degroux. So I replied, it has always seemed to me that when an artist shows his work to people he has the right to keep to himself the inner struggle of his own private life (which is directly and inextricably connected with the singular difficulties involved in producing a work of art) – unless he unburdens himself to a very intimate friend. It is, I say, indelicate for a critic to dig up something blameworthy from the private life of someone whose work is above criticism. Degroux is a master like Millet, like Gavarni.
C.M. had certainly not viewed Gavarni, at least, as a master.
(To anyone but C.M. I could have expressed myself more succinctly by saying: an artist’s work and his private life are like a woman in childbed and her child. You may look at her child, but you may not lift up her chemise to see if there are any bloodstains on it, that would be indelicate on the occasion of a maternity visit.) I was already beginning to fear that C.M. would hold it against me – but fortunately things took a turn for the better. As a diversion I got out my portfolio with smaller studies and sketches. At first he said nothing – until we came to a little drawing that I’d sketched once with Breitner, parading around at midnight – namely Paddemoes (that Jewish quarter near the Nieuwe Kerk), seen from Turfmarkt. I’d set to work on it again the next morning with the pen.
Jules Bakhuyzen had also looked at the thing and recognized the spot immediately.
Could you make more of those townscapes for me? said C.M. Certainly, because I amuse myself with them sometimes when I’ve worked myself to the bone with the model – here’s Vleersteeg – the Geest district – Vischmarkt. Make 12 of those for me. Certainly, I said, but that means we’re doing a bit of business, so let’s talk straightaway about the price. My price for a drawing of that size, whether with pencil or pen, I’ve fixed for myself at a rijksdaalder – does that seem unreasonable to you?
No – he simply says – if they turn out well I’ll ask for another 12 of Amsterdam, provided you let me fix the price, then you’ll earn a bit more.
Well, it seems to me that that’s not a bad way to end a visit I had rather dreaded. Because I actually made an agreement with you, Theo, simply to tell you things like this in my own way, as it flows from my pen, I’m describing these little scenes to you just as they happen. Especially because in this way, even though you’re absent, you get a glimpse of my studio anyway.
I’m longing for you to come, because then I can talk to you more seriously about things concerning home, for instance. C.M.’s order is a bright spot! I’ll try to do those drawings carefully and put some spirit into them. And in any case you’ll see them, and I believe, old chap, that there’s more of such business. Buyers for 5-franc drawings can be found. With a bit of practice, I’ll make one every day and voilà, if they sell well, a crust of bread and a guilder a day for the model. The lovely season with long days is approaching, I’ll make the ‘soup ticket’, i.e. the bread and model drawing, either in the morning or the evening, and during the day I’ll study seriously from the model. C.M. is one buyer I found myself. Who knows whether you won’t succeed in turning up a second, and perhaps Tersteeg, when he’s recovered from his reproachful fury, a third, and then things can move along.
Tomorrow morning I’ll go and look for a subject for one of those for C.M.
I was at Pulchri this evening – Tableaux vivants and a kind of farce by Tony Offermans. I skipped the farce, because I can’t stand caricatures or the fug of an assembly hall, but I wanted to see the tableaux vivants, especially because one of them was done after an etching I gave Mauve as a present, Nicolaas Maes, the stable at Bethlehem. (The other was Rembrandt, Isaac blessing Jacob, with a superb Rebecca who watches to see if her ruse will succeed.) The Nicolaas Maes was very good in chiaroscuro and even colour – but in my opinion not worth tuppence as far as expression goes. The expression was definitely wrong. I saw it once in real life, not the birth of the baby Jesus, mind you, but the birth of a calf. And I still know exactly what its expression was like. There was a girl there, at night in that stable – in the Borinage – a brown peasant face with a white night-cap among other things, she had tears in her eyes of compassion for the poor cow when the animal went into labour and was having great difficulty. It was pure, holy, wonderfully beautiful like a Correggio, like a Millet, like an Israëls. Oh Theo – why don’t you let it all go hang and become a painter? Old chap – you could do it if you wanted to. I sometimes suspect you of keeping a great landscapist hidden inside you. It seems to me you’d be extremely good at drawing birch trunks and sketching the furrows of a field or stubble field, and painting snow and sky &c. Just between you and me. I shake your hand.
Ever yours,

Here’s a list of Dutch paintings intended for the Salon.
Israëls, an old man (if he weren’t a fisherman he’d be Tom Carlyle – the author of the French Revolution and Oliver Cromwell14 – for he definitely has that distinctive head of Carlyle), an old man sits in a hut by the fireplace in which a small piece of peat barely glows in the twilight. For it’s a dark hut the old man sits in, an old hut with a small window with a little white curtain. His dog, who’s grown old with him, sits beside him – those two old creatures look at each other, they look each other in the eye, the dog and the old man. And meanwhile the man takes his tobacco box out of his trousers pocket and he fills his pipe like that in the twilight. Nothing else – the twilight, the quiet, the loneliness of those two old creatures, man and dog, the familiarity of those two, that old man thinking – what’s he thinking about? – I don’t know – I can’t say – but it must be a deep, a long thought, something, though I don’t know what, surfacing from long ago, perhaps that’s what gives that expression to his face – a melancholy, satisfied, submissive expression, something that recalls that famous verse by Longfellow that always ends, But the thoughts of youth are long long thoughts. I’d like to see that painting by Israëls as a pendant to Millet’s Death and the woodcutter. I definitely know of no other painting than this Israëls that can stand up to Millet’s Death and the woodcutter, that one can see at the same time, on the other hand I know of no other painting that could stand up to this Israëls than Millet’s Death and the woodcutter, no other painting that one can see at the same time as this Israëls. Moreover, I feel in my mind an irresistible desire to bring together that painting by Israëls and that other by Millet and make them complement each other. It seems to me that what this Israëls lacks is having Millet’s Death and the woodcutter hanging close by, one at one end and the other at the other end of a long, narrow room, with no other painting in that gallery but those two and them alone.
It’s a fabulous Israëls, I couldn’t really see anything else, it made such a deep impression on me. And yet, there was another Israëls, a small one with 5 or 6 figures, I think, a labourer’s family at table.
There’s a Mauve, the large painting of the pink being dragged onto the dunes, it’s a masterpiece.
I’ve never heard a good sermon about resignation nor been able to imagine one, except for this painting by Mauve and the work of Millet. It is indeed resignation, but the true kind, not that of the clergymen. Those nags, those poor, sorry-looking nags, black, white, brown, they stand there, patiently submissive, willing, resigned, still. They’ll soon have to drag the heavy boat the last bit of the way, the job’s almost done. They stand still for a moment, they pant, they’re covered in sweat, but they don’t murmur, they don’t protest – they don’t complain – about anything. They’re long past that, years ago already. They’re resigned to living and working a while longer, but if they have to go to the knacker’s yard tomorrow, so be it, they’re ready for it. I find such a wonderfully elevated, practical, wordless philosophy in this painting, it seems to be saying, to know how to suffer without complaining, that’s the only practical thing, that’s the great skill, the lesson to learn, the solution to life’s problem. It seems to me that this painting by Mauve would be one of those rare paintings which Millet would stand in front of for a long time, mumbling to himself, he has a good heart, that painter.
There were other paintings – I must say I scarcely looked at them, I had enough with the above-mentioned. Listen Theo, wouldn’t you like to ponder whether there’s not a great landscapist in you? We should both of us quite simply become painters, we’d be able to make a living at it. For the figure one must be more of a draught ox or work-horse, more a man of hard labour. There’s a long long thought for you – old boy.
Theo, remain something better than HGT. When I first got to know him, HGT was better than now, he’d been a bigwig only a short time and was newly married. Now he’s been caught, he’s trapped. He’ll grow more and more to have secret regrets about many, many things and will be forced to conceal them. The thing is, Theo, my brother, not to let your hands be tied by anyone, especially not with a gilt chain. I have to say that the chain tying Tersteeg is very beautiful to look at, but anyone who thinks about it doesn’t envy his position. Be that as it may, artist is healthier – pecuniary difficulties are the greatest worry, I repeat, you, and you as a landscape painter, would surmount them sooner than I, though I, too, shall pull through some day. But, if you push off immediately, you’ll overtake me, because the figure is complicated, takes longer. You’ll understand that I speak in all seriousness.