Vincent van Gogh - Still Life with Three Birds Nests 1885

Still Life with Three Birds Nests 1885
Still Life with Three Birds Nests
Oil on canvas on panel 43.0 x 57.0 cm. Nuenen: October, 1885
The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Monday, 1 May 1882.
My dear Theo,
I received your letter with the enclosed 100 francs and thank you most sincerely for it. Your letter enlightened me more than all my worrying and fretting about the question of Mauve and HGT. I compliment you on it, because now I believe I understand it better. And, if I understand correctly, what I have to do is go on working calmly without dwelling on it or taking it to heart as much as I did. If I dwell on it, I have the same feeling of dizziness which, you say, someone who hasn’t studied perspective feels when he tries to follow the receding lines in nature and give an account of them. And I believe that just as the whole perspective changes with a change in eye level, which depends not on the objects but on the man viewing them (whether he stoops or stands on top of something), so too the change in Mauve and H.G.T. is in part only an outward seeming and can be explained by my own mood. I don’t see these affairs clearly, but I think I see plainly from your letter that there’s no reason for me to be overly concerned about it if only I go on working. And now enough about it, because there are other things to write.
Heyerdahl’s sympathy moved me deeply, will you give him my regards and say that I hope very much to make his acquaintance some day, and that I set great store by it.
I’ve now finished two larger drawings. First of all, Sorrow, but in a larger format, the figure alone without surroundings. But the pose has been altered somewhat, the hair doesn’t hang down the back but to the front, part of it in a plait. This brings the shoulder, the neck and back into view. And the figure has been drawn with more care.
The other one, ‘Roots’, is some tree roots in sandy ground. I’ve tried to imbue the landscape with the same sentiment as the figure.
Frantically and fervently rooting itself, as it were, in the earth, and yet being half torn up by the storm. I wanted to express something of life’s struggle, both in that white, slender female figure and in those gnarled black roots with their knots. Or rather, because I tried without any philosophizing to be true to nature, which I had before me, something of that great struggle has come into both of them almost inadvertently. At least it seemed to me that there was some sentiment in it, though I may be mistaken, anyway, you’ll have to see for yourself. If you see something in them, perhaps they’ll be suitable for your new home, and then I’ll have made them for your birthday, on which I congratulate you. But because they’re rather large (1 whole sheet of Ingres), I don’t know if I should send them straightaway. Let me know. Perhaps H.G.T. would find it impertinent or priggish if I asked him to pack them in a crate as a return shipment.
Although Roots is only a ‘pencil’ drawing, it has been brushed in and scraped off, the same as one paints.
As regards the carpenter’s pencil, my reasoning is as follows. The old masters, what would they have drawn with? Certainly not with Faber B, BB, BBB, &c. &c., but with a rough piece of graphite. The implement Michelangelo and Dürer used was perhaps very similar to a carpenter’s pencil. But I wasn’t there and don’t know. This I do know, that with a carpenter’s pencil one can achieve intensities differently than with those fine Fabers &c.
I like graphite better in its natural form than cut too fine in those expensive Fabers. And the shininess disappears by fixing it with milk. If one sits outdoors and works with Conté, one can’t really tell what one’s doing because of the bright light and notices that it’s become too black, but graphite is more grey than black, and one can always obtain a couple of extra octaves by working it over with the pen, so that the strongest intensities of graphite actually lighten up through the repoussoir of the pen.
Charcoal is best, but if one works with it too long it loses its freshness, and to keep the subtlety one has to fix those spots. For landscapes as well, I see that such draughtsmen as Ruisdael, Van Goyen and Calame, Roelofs too, among the moderns, used it to great advantage. But if someone invented a good pen to work with outdoors, with accompanying inkwell, perhaps more pen drawings would be made.
One can do wonderful things with charcoal that has been soaked in oil, I’ve seen this from Weissenbruch. The oil is then the fixative, and the black becomes warmer and deeper. But I imagine it would be better for me to do that in a year and not now, because I want the fine appearance to come from me and not from my material. When I’m a bit further along I’ll put on a nice suit now and then, meaning I’ll work with rewarding drawing materials. And provided I myself am capable of doing something, I’ll make twice as much progress, and perhaps it will prove easier than expected. But first, before any success, hand-to-hand combat with the things in nature.
Last year I wrote you a great many letters telling you what I thought about love. I’m not doing so now, because I’m busy putting those same things into practice. The person for whom I felt what I wrote to you is not on my path, is beyond my reach, despite all my longing for her. Would I have done better to go on thinking of her and to overlook what came my way? I cannot decide whether I’m acting consistently or inconsistently. Suppose I were to start today on a drawing of a digger, for example – but the man says, I have to leave and won’t or can’t pose again – I don’t have the right to blame him for leaving me there with a barely sketched drawing, the more so because I started to draw him without asking permission. Must I then give up drawing a digger? I think not, especially not if tomorrow I encounter one who says, I want to come not only today but also tomorrow and the day after, and I understand what you need, go ahead, I’m patient and have the good will to do it. To be sure, I didn’t stick exactly to my first impression, but would I have done better to reason: no, I definitely need that first digger, even if he says, I can’t and won’t? And once I’ve started on No. 2, then I may certainly not work without reference to the nature standing before me, thinking the while of No. 1. That’s how things stand. And concerning that, I add this to my previous letter. In order for me to succeed, you’ll have to help me a bit, but I believe the expense would be not more but less than what you’ve been sending me these last few months.
I’d be willing and daring enough to embark on this undertaking if I could count on 150 francs a month for another year. I do hope in that case to earn something as well, but if that were to fail I’d be able to scrape by anyway, though admittedly in straitened circumstances. And then later – when that year has passed? It seems to me that there’s nothing in my work to indicate that I won’t succeed, provided I plough on and continue to make an effort. And I’m not one to work slowly or fretfully. Drawing is becoming a passion with me, and I’m becoming increasingly absorbed in it, and where there is a will is a way. Where is a will is a way,c but that has to come from both sides. For me the will must be the making of things, and for those who have or may acquire sympathy for me, the will is selling or buying those things.
The will being there, I think the way can be found. But if everyone reasoned like H.G.T. – ‘unsaleable’, ‘disagreeable’ – then I’d be confronted with a mountain of trouble. Oh well – be that as it may – I’ll put more effort into my work to defeat the disagreeable and unsaleable.
There’s been a terrible storm here for 3 nights running. In the night from Saturday to Sunday the window of my studio gave out. (The house where I live is very dilapidated.) 4 large panes broken and the window wrenched loose. You can imagine this wasn’t all. The wind came sailing over the flat pastures directly at my window. The fence below was also knocked down, the drawings ripped from the wall, the easel on the floor. I nevertheless tied the window down with my neighbour’s help, and nailed up a woollen blanket against the opening, certainly a metre in size. Didn’t sleep a wink the whole night, as you can imagine. And lots of trouble to fix it because it was Sunday. The landlord is a poor pedlar, he gave me the glass, I paid for the work. All the more reason why I’m thinking of moving next door. There’s an upstairs flat like this:
The studio is larger than mine, the light very good. There’s an attic, completely panelled over, so that one doesn’t see the roof tiles. Extremely large, where one can partition off as many rooms as one likes (and I have the planks to do it). Rent 12.50 guilders a month, a strong, well-built house, but it won’t bring in any more, because it’s ‘only in Schenkweg’ and the rich people the owner had hoped for won’t come here.
I’d like it very much, and the owner would like to have me rent it; he spoke to me about it first and then I went to see it.
And now I’ll finish by saying that I assure you I think about home a great deal, and am of the opinion that half a year from now, if the matter about which I wrote to you has been undertaken and Pa and Ma come to visit me, it would result in a change of feeling on both sides. Unfortunately, though, now is not the time, we have to get things started first. Because Pa and Ma, whom I consider to be lay people in the circumstances, will think it very nice if it’s more finished (Belgian merchants say more finessed, according to Mauve), but the rough sketch, which you’d understand if you’d been here, would make them dizzy at the very least. Adieu – I wish you the best.
Ever yours,

If you’re coming soon, I won’t send the drawings. But it’s time you started to get things from me, I’ll do my best, and if you like these two, for example, you’ll get many more and of all kinds.
If you show the ones you find suitable to the people who come to your room, perhaps that would be the beginning of selling them, and particularly when a number of them are shown together, and various ones by the same hand, they draw attention to one another, and the one complements and explains the other.
What I value most is your sympathy. If I positively win that, the selling will follow. But neither I nor you must force that sympathy.
I believe I can produce a great deal, I mean, work rapidly and not waste time. And if I’ve sent you another couple, since you sent back the old studies as I asked you to do (the Laan van Meerdervoort and Sorrow), it’s to give you a sign that I can make more of the same if you’d like. If you say they aren’t ready, I’ll go on working before sending more, because what I sent isn’t something accidental: what I can do, I can do. I must go on working for a time to make even more progress. But I want to say this: if the last batch I sent proves to have anything you could begin showing to people, I could start to send you things as soon as I have something. What you considered good would then have to be put into grey mounts, and a portfolio would gradually take shape in this way. Think about it.
I have another drawing of an old man by the fireplace, ‘the boarder’, an old woman from the Geest district, a couple of female figures which I think would go well with the others. Also small sketches.
I’m not saying this to make you hurry, but it can’t do any harm to think it over. You started helping me without knowing what would come of it, and when others wouldn’t. I do hope that one day you’ll be able to say calmly to those who think it’s foolish of you to help me that you haven’t lost anything by it. And that stimulates me all the more, and I think you should start by taking a few drawings, and every month there will be more. There are days when I make 5, but with drawings you must count on 1 in 20 succeeding. That 1 in 20 is no longer an accident, though, I can count on that. There will probably be 1 every week about which I feel ‘that will remain’. For the time being it’s better for you to keep the ones that ‘will remain’ than for me to give them to someone here for 10 guilders or so, and then only by the grace of God and as a great favour. Here everyone criticizes the technique, but I also hear the same platitudes from everyone about English drawings, for example. Weissenbruch alone said, when I told him that I see the things as pen drawings – then you must draw with the pen.
He, namely Weiss., saw the large rather than the small Sorrow, and he said things about it that pleased me. That’s why I dare to say what I say about the large one. I’ve had no ‘guidance’, no ‘instruction’ from others, but have taught myself, as it were, so it’s no wonder that on the face of it my way of doing things differs from that of others. But that’s no reason for my work to remain unsaleable. I’ll wager that the large Sorrow, the woman from the Geest district, the boarder and others too, if you will, will indeed find a buyer one day. But it could well be that I’ll work on them again later. I’ve even worked again on the Laan van Meerdervoort. I have a female figure in a black merino frock in front of me, and I’m certain that if you had it for a few days you would become reconciled to its manner and wouldn’t wish it had been done differently.
I didn’t understand English drawings either at first, as little as any other foreigner, but ‘I took the trouble to become acquainted with them’ and haven’t regretted it.
Adieu, enough for today.