To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Friday, 15 June 1883.
My dear Theo,
Do you remember that not long ago I wrote to you ‘I’m sitting in front of two big blank stretching frames and don’t yet know how I’ll get anything onto them’?
Well since then, you know, the dung-heap has come on one, and in the past few days I’ve made good progress with the second. It’s to be a coal-yard on the Rijnspoor site as I see it from the window of the studio. There are heaps of coal and fellows working in them, and people come with small wheelbarrows to buy a sack of coal; trade is very busy some days, and especially in the winter, with the snow it was a charming scene.
Had been thinking about it for a long time and recently I saw it looking so beautiful one evening and did my sketch in such a way that I’ve since changed little of what I put down then as regards the broad outlines of the composition. At the place itself I had a fellow who scrambled up the heaps and stood here and there so that I could see the proportion of the figure at various places. But I’ve since done various figure studies for it, although the figures come out small.
Just while I’m doing these studies, a plan for an even larger drawing, namely of the potato-digging, begins to take root in me. And the way I have it in my mind, you might perhaps see something in it.
I would like the landscape to be a flat area and a small line of dunes. The figures just about one foot high, the composition breadthways, 1 to 2.
In a corner in the foreground kneeling figures of women gathering up the potatoes as a repoussoir.
A row of diggers, men and women, in the background.
And take the perspective of the area so that in the other corner of the drawing from where the women are gathering up, I get the spot where the wheelbarrows come.
Now, apart from the figures of the kneeling women, I could already show you the other figures in large studies.
Yes, I want to start on these drawings in the next few days, I have the sites pretty well in my head, and shall seek out a fine potato field at my convenience and do studies of it for the lines of the landscape.
The drawing ought to be complete, as a worked-up sketch at any rate, towards the autumn, when the lifting takes place, and I’d only have the tone and the finishing to do.
I saw it here last year, and the year before last at Het Heike, where it was splendid, and the year before that in the Borinage, where it was done by miners. Anyway, this is how it has ripened in my mind.
The figures ought to be such that it’s true everywhere, and more than a costume study. Well, that blank canvas preoccupies me in spite of everything else, and while making studies I’m always looking for new ones to add.
The row of diggers should be just a row of dark shapes at first sight or from a distance, but highly finished and varied in movement and type. For instance, a young, plain fellow opposite one of those really typical old Scheveningers in a white and brown patched suit with an old top hat, one of those matt black ones that they wear low in the neck. For instance, a short, stocky figure of a woman in sober black with a white cap opposite a tall grass-mower in white trousers, light blue smock and straw hat — a bald crown next to a young woman. These ideas come to me precisely by putting the studies I already have opposite each other. We’ll see. But be that as it may, I’ve bought a large stretching frame (an old painting frame) from Laarman and covered it.
And it’s becoming clearer to me day by day, but it’s devilishly difficult to find figures that look right as opposites and can still find a place in the same, very confined space. And one has to do each one perhaps 3 or more times before it works out. But I’ll make a start on it and do the same as with the dung-heap, that is, begin again later on another stretching frame if the first doesn’t come out as I want. But wanted to have it relatively finished towards the time for potato digging, even though I’ll then have to go over it again completely on another piece of paper.
It’s good that I went to Rappard that time, for it was actually there that I got the idea of starting on the larger drawings, and I’ve noticed that while one composes one feels more exactly what studies one must make. These days I’m working with a great deal of pleasure and without getting especially tired, because of the enjoyment I feel.
I had long restrained myself from composing, as you know, and in that respect a revolution has now come about in me because it was time it came, and I breathe more freely now that I’ve slightly slackened the rein I had imposed on myself. But I still believe it was a good thing that I toiled away just at studies for such a long time, for it’s the same with everything, and particularly with the figure: one must study a great deal and not imagine that one can do it. I find Mauve’s words very fine: after all his work and experience he still says ‘sometimes I still don’t know where the knobbles are on a cow’. For my part, what I often do these days is that if I’m drawing a digger who has one leg in front of the other, or his one arm in front of the other, or his head leaning forwards, I first draw in detail the leg, the arm or the neck and back of the head that’s behind the one in front and hence out of view, and only afterwards on top of that what’s in sight, to get it as accurate as possible.
I hope I’ll succeed in getting down the shadow or the ghost of the potato drawing by the time you come. I long for you. Don’t you know anything more definite about when you’ll be coming?
Well, I must get back to my coal workers. All the cash I have at the moment is a money order for 1.23 1/2 guilders which is torn in two and has already been refused once. So I don’t need to tell you that I’ll be looking forward to your letter keenly. I’ve covered the big stretching frame so that I have a distraction and can still work in the days before receipt again if perhaps I can’t get a model. But perhaps I can get one after all.
My Scheveningen cape is a splendid possession, I have three detailed studies with it, a woman with a dustbin and two with wheelbarrows. When you send again I hope to take a fisherman’s jacket with a stand-up collar and short sleeves and a woman’s hat. The women’s hats are expensive and hard to obtain, it seems. Still, I have one if need be.
There must be Scheveningen Drawings as well, and soon. This time last year I was in the hospital — I think the painted studies from last summer are poor and wrong — I thought of this because I’ve just looked up an old painted study of that coal-yard to see how they were done last year. Now I consider them too carelessly and hastily done. In short, I’ve since concentrated on figure drawing again, and I think of painting only very indirectly. Well, adieu, write as soon as you can and good luck with everything. With a handshake.