Vincent van Gogh - Still Life with Birds Nests 1885

Still Life with Birds Nests 1885
Still Life with Birds Nests
Oil on canvas 39.3 x 46.5 cm. Nuenen: late September-early October, 1885
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh, The Hague, on or about Thursday, 6 April 1882.
My dear Theo,
It shouldn’t surprise you that I wrote to you: become a painter.
For I myself am now in a period in which I’m deriving some benefit from my earlier worries.
Because as things are now, every week I make one thing or another that I couldn’t make before, and that’s what I spoke about, that it’s as though one were young again.
And it’s the awareness that nothing – (except sickness) can rob me of the strength that’s now beginning to develop, it’s that awareness that gives me faith in the future and enables me to bear many unpleasantnesses in the present. It’s a wonderful thing to look at something and find it beautiful, to reflect on it and hold it fast and then to say: I’m going to draw that, and then to work on it until it’s done.
Obviously that’s why I’m not yet content with my work to the extent that I think I needn’t do it any better. But the way to do it better later is to do it as well as one can today, there can’t be anything but progress tomorrow.
Naturally I don’t know what you’ll think of my drawings when you finally see them, but this much I do know, I’m greatly longing for you to come. And if I write to you, become a painter, then it really isn’t because I think that in your present position there isn’t a very great deal that’s beautiful. But I find being a painter more beautiful, and I wish you worked in your own studio instead of at a reading-desk in the office. There you have it.
I know for certain that something would awaken in you in your own studio which you don’t know of now – a huge, hidden force of working and creating.
And once it’s awake, it’s awake for good. When I hear Tersteeg talking about agreeableness and saleability I can only think: work one has slaved away at and done one’s best to imbue with character and sentiment can be neither disagreeable nor unsaleable. And perhaps it’s better that one doesn’t immediately please everyone.
What wonderful weather we’re having – there’s spring in everything. I can’t let go of the figure, for that’s No. 1 for me, but sometimes I can’t keep myself from going outdoors. But I’m busy with difficult things that I can’t let slide.
Recently I’ve been making many studies of parts of the figure: heads, neck, breast, shoulder. See the enclosed scratch. I’d very much like to make more studies of the nude. You know I’ve drawn the Exercices au fusain, several times even, but they don’t include any female figures. Of course, doing it from life is something entirely different.
A little drawing like the enclosed is simple enough in line, but it’s difficult enough to capture those simple, characteristic lines when one is sitting in front of the model. Those lines are now so simple that one can outline them with the pen, but I repeat, the problem is finding those broad outlines, so that one can say what’s essential with a couple of strokes or scratches. Choosing the lines in such a way that it’s obvious, as it were, that they must run thus, that’s something that isn’t obvious, however.
It’s true, Theo, that recently, since I’ve been in The Hague, I’ve spent more than 100 francs a month, but if I didn’t do that, I couldn’t work with a model, and would remain at the same level, making no progress. I see this in other painters: Breitner, for example. They’re afraid to take a model regularly, and they work little and slowly – if only it were good anyway, but it isn’t even that. Breitner had been taking a model again lately, though, and there was of course more spirit in his work, but then he fell ill.
The English painters, certainly the draughtsmen for The Graphic &c., have a model nearly every day. Without that it really doesn’t work, in my opinion.
If someone with many years of experience draws figures from the imagination after a great deal of study, fine, but to work systematically from the imagination seems overly rash to me. Israëls and Blommers and Neuhuys don’t do that, even though they have so much experience. If I’ve spent more than 100 francs a month here, it’s because it’s not possible to spend less. And believe me, I don’t throw it around rashly or too freely. I do wish I didn’t have to give Tersteeg the 25 guilders back yet, because I really need the money to be able to go on working energetically.
Tersteeg is none the poorer by it, and in the beginning he himself said that I needn’t worry about it. Even though every 25 guilders less means that my work suffers and that I can’t do what really needs to be done.
If I fill my portfolios with studies I’ll get my money’s worth out of them later. And I’d rather earn a bit more later than now. I’d rather see to it that I’m equal to my profession than rush to sell a drawing by the grace of God.
The enclosed drawing was scratched after a larger study which has a more sombre expression. There’s a poem by Tom Hood, I believe, in which he tells of a great lady who can’t sleep at night because during the day, when she went out to buy a frock, she saw the poor seamstresses pale, consumptive, emaciated, working in an airless room. And now she has twinges of remorse about her wealth and wakes up at night in panic. In short, it’s a slender, white female figure, restless in the dark night.
If I must, I’ll talk no more about it and give Tersteeg the 25 guilders when you send money again, but if it could be arranged, I’d prefer to wait until he takes a drawing for it later, because now I definitely need as much money as I can possibly spare for my studies. Anyway, it seems to me that Tersteeg won’t be so severe as not to understand that at the moment 25 guilders are worth more to me than they are to His Hon. Well, I wish you well, and remember, I hope you’re working in your own studio in the near future. It needn’t happen too quickly – but I believe that after a relatively short time of worry, you’d be happier once and for all. Adieu.
Ever yours,

P.S. I don’t have many studies of the nude yet, but there are some that bear a very close resemblance to the Bargues, are they therefore less original? Perhaps it’s because I learned to look at nature through the Bargues.