Vincent van Gogh - Boulevard de Clichy 1887

Boulevard de Clichy 1887
Boulevard de Clichy
Oil on canvas 42.5 x 55.0 cm. Paris: February-March, 1887
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Friday, 22 June 1883.
My dear Theo,
It’s not yet 4 o’clock. Yesterday evening there was thunder and last night it rained. It’s dry now but everything’s dripping and the sky is grey, but broken here and there by darker or lighter masses of cloud, neutral tint or yellowish white, which shift their position. Because it’s still so early the green is greyish and toned; along the small wet road comes a farmer in an indigo smock on a brown horse that he has fetched from a field. The city in the background is a grey silhouette, but also toned, in which the wet red roofs show up clearly. It’s more like Daubigny than Corot because of the variation of colour in the ground and the green, the vividness of everything. You would certainly enjoy it just as I do if you saw it. There’s nothing more beautiful than nature early in the morning.
Your letter came yesterday and was more than welcome. Thank you for it. I was rather worried this time, I was absolutely broke. The woman had no milk left recently, and I felt weak too. Then I reached the point, in desperation, of going to Tersteeg. I thought, I have nothing to lose, perhaps it will be a way of stirring things back into life. And so I went there with the large sketch which I wrote to you about lately. It has become a row of Diggers, men and women, with a foreground of clods of earth and a view of some roofs in a village in the background. I said to Tersteeg that I understood very well that this sketch wasn’t something he could use, but that I’d come to see him partly because he’d seen nothing of my work for so long, and because for my part I wanted to give him proof that I didn’t wish for there to be continuing rancour about what had happened last year. Well, he said that he didn’t feel any rancour either, that as to the drawing he’d told me last year that I should do watercolours, and that he didn’t want to discuss it any further now because he didn’t want to end up repeating himself. I told him that I had since tried watercolour now and then and had several at the studio, but that in myself I felt greater warmth for different kinds of drawings and a growing passion for vigorously drawn figures. I also told him how it was on my mind that I still had Bargue’s drawing examples, that I would have returned them long ago if what happened last year had not been an impediment to speaking about them, but that I had come now to clear the matter up. That — since a few were damaged, although only slightly, through use, and I had also had a few other things at that time that were still outstanding — I hoped he would be willing either now or later to accept a few of my drawings to settle up for everything, and I believed that he would appreciate my coming to him to settle the matter. Well, he thought that was very good and now fortunately the Bargues are back. And I told him that I had a great deal in the studio that he hadn’t seen.

He said he was pleased that he could see from the drawing that at least I was working, and I asked him if there was any reason to doubt that I was working. Well, a telegram came for him then and I left. At any rate the matter of the Bargues is off my mind and I’ve thanked him again for lending them to me at the time, for they had come in very useful. But now I don’t really know whether he found anything good in the drawing or not. Iterson had quite a lot to say about it, and so I have hope that there may be something good in it. And as for Tersteeg himself, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he considered it sheer madness or something absurd, precisely because he said he would rather stay out of it completely. But even if he thought it absurd or mad, I still believe I shouldn’t let myself be upset by that or regard his judgement as decisive or conclusive.
I still think it possible that the time will come when Tersteeg’s opinion of me changes, also as regards my conduct now and last year. But I’ll leave that largely to time, and if he continues to find all I do wrong, well, I’ll take that very coolly and quietly go my own way as if he didn’t exist. Otherwise I’ll let things take their course until, for example, you come here again, and I don’t regret having gone there after all.
I was very pleased that you wrote that you’re in good health. Have a good time, old chap. I too am having a fairly good time, except for a lot of financial worries, a lot of worries. Otherwise, the work is going well, I’ve been working with an extraordinary amount of pleasure lately, and with a firm feeling that I’m ‘on a road’, as R. says of himself in the letter I sent you. Yes, old chap, if one perseveres and does it without being distracted by what already exists, if one honestly and freely tries to understand nature and doesn’t let go of what one has in mind, whatever people say, one feels calm and resolute and looks to the future.
Yes, one can lapse into errors, into exaggerations of this or that perhaps, but one arrives at something original.
You also read the remark in Rappard’s letter: ‘I used to do things now in this genre, now in that, without enough individuality. Well, these recent drawings at least have a character of their own, and I feel that I’ve found my way.’ These days I too have something like that.
Lately I read a curious comment in Taine (essay on Dickens). He says, ‘The essence of the English character is the absence of happiness’. I don’t think this view is entirely satisfactory or accurate, it doesn’t explain everything, but still it’s deuced well put and has much truth in it. A truly English remark is the one by Carlyle, ‘The result of an idea must not be a feeling but an action’. This approach to life, which forces a man to concentrate in the first place not on seeking his material happiness but on his work before all else in order to do something good, is something of which one finds many examples in England, and may perhaps be a national trait. Carlyle also says, ‘Knowest thou that Worship of sorrow — the temple thereof founded some eighteen hundred years ago now lies in ruins, yet its sacred lamp is still burning’. If I think of Degroux, say, or what you sometimes wrote to me of Daumier, say, I find in them something of worship of sorrow.
The drawing in question that I took to Tersteeg wasn’t seen at its best in his small office in my view; it needs to be seen in the company of other drawings, then it looks very different.
Well, yesterday I worked on it again for the whole day to get the figures more finished. Since I wrote to you I’ve also done 4 large studies for the potato harvest.
These days they lift the potatoes around here with a fork, with a short handle, and the worker is on his knees. I imagine something good could be done with these kneeling figures on a flat piece of land in the evening. Something that would have a certain mood of devotion. So I’ve studied it from close up and have a man who is sticking one of these forks in the ground (the first movement), another who is pulling out the potato plant (the second movement), then a female figure in the same action and a third male figure who is throwing the potatoes into the basket. I’ll start work on these today or tomorrow, but I want one of the male figures to have a bald skull. For the studies I already have I had a young farm labourer, a really typical figure with something broad and rough and unpolished about him.
As for these drawings, Theo, I don’t suppose I’ll sell them, but still I think of what Israëls said to Van der Weele about his big painting: you certainly won’t sell it but don’t be discouraged by that; you’ll make more friends through it and sell something else.
If I can manage it sometime and have a little more cash, I’ll do on canvas the kind of detailed sketch I do now on paper, and paint again. But I’ll have to have a lot of modelling for it or it certainly won’t work. Otherwise I do have a few things in mind that could be painted.
I’ve had no reply from C.M. to my letter and so I shan’t write again soon.
Well, Theo, I have precious, precious little chance of placing anything. It wasn’t a pleasant step to go to Tersteeg but I did it anyway, thinking perhaps, perhaps he’ll be prepared to forgive and forget everything completely on both sides. But he hasn’t reached that point yet, that was clear enough to me, and I believe it’s still the case that he thinks, as you described to me very correctly at the time, ‘now he’s bothered by the way I’d shake his hand’, in short, those little antipathies that make one prefer not to see someone.
I’m a little worried, last year, as you know, I sometimes had something extra from you and now since February or since March, I believe, you yourself have been hard up. I don’t know how I’ll carry on, and the expenses mount up quicker than I can keep up with, although I cut down on everything, and the woman no less.
The money from R. gave me some leeway for a moment to prepare myself for the large drawings, but the large drawings cost a lot in models.
And the stretching frames and the paper &c. each time too, and moreover I don’t do fewer small ones because of them. So the days are hard to bear and difficult to get through for the woman and for me, because of scrimping on everything.
I told Tersteeg that I very much wished to be on good terms with Mauve once more, but he didn’t give me so much as a word in reply. The overall impression I bring back from my visit to Tersteeg is that I would have thought it kinder if, given that such an awfully long time has since passed, he had suddenly referred to it lightly, but there remained an element of gloominess and of ‘Have you come to pester me again? Keep away from me.’ He didn’t say that, for he spoke in very measured terms, but in the light of what he might have donea — namely say something like, I think it’s right that we should make up and I’ll come round and have a look sometime, or something like that — in my view the above was implied to some extent. But I may have got it wrong, and I’ll let time pass again and see if it remedies itself, and shall hope for the best.
I must carry on working hard, precisely because I do indeed have hope that some things will remedy themselves and come right.
What I hope more than anything else is that when you come you’ll see progress and find something good in the work. You’ve sometimes written to me that you saw something in it, and I don’t believe that you are mistaken and Tersteeg is right, with his absolute indifference that’s almost hostile. Yes, that’s the foremost thing I value, that you, who have done so much, indeed everything, from the beginning onwards, should be able to maintain that there’s something good in it. If I were able to bring that about, I’d forget the cares of the whole year when you came. There’s one thing that gives me hope that there was some character in the large sketch, namely that Iterson commented that various things ‘bothered’ him and that he thought them ‘unfortunate’. You can just imagine Iterson, with a friendly-looking, wise-like face, with his head a little to one side and expressing his feeling gently and sweetly with a certain undulating weightiness. I was rather entertained by his observations. Eerelman, the painter, was also there and was more or less in agreement with Iterson, which seemed to me entirely understandable.
I think you’ll agree with me that this can perhaps be a step towards making things up again, even if Tersteeg doesn’t want to immediately. One or other must take a step towards reconciliation, but for now I’ll wait until I’ve spoken to you again. I imagine that among the many figures I have there may be some of which Tersteeg might say, if he ever saw them, I’d like to see this one or that one in this or that format in watercolour. In that case I wouldn’t refuse to try it, not for my own pleasure but in the hope of possibly selling something that way. But those aren’t the only things that I think possible. For in the future I’ll make things very different from what I’ve done up to now. I know from my own experience how one can have a dislike for someone’s work or be indifferent to it, and feel that for a long time until, one day, one suddenly sees something by him, thinks about it and remembers his earlier work and says to oneself, wait a minute, that must be good after all — and then one enjoys it, one can’t help holding on to it and is won over. I did that with the English manner particularly. I didn’t find it at all beautiful immediately and first thought, exactly like most people here, that the English were in fact completely wrong, but in my case that didn’t last, and I learned to see things from another angle.
Do you know what I sometimes long for? A trip to Brabant. I would so like to do the old churchyard at Nuenen. And the weavers. To do Brabant studies again for a month, say, and to come back with a batch of them for a large drawing of a country funeral, for example.
I end by repeating that when you write in your last letter that this is a good time for you, I can say the same. As regards the work, I have a great deal of serenity and cheerfulness and so much to do that it completely absorbs me. But as to money, things are wretched, I have more expenses than I can keep up with. Do you know what I thought of lately? That book on Gavarni that you have. From that I remembered how by his own account Gavarni’s drawings of London drunkards and beggars &c. only began to go fluently when he’d been there for quite a while, after a year I believe, and he writes in a letter that it takes time to become familiar with a setting.
Well, I’m certainly starting to feel at home here compared with the beginning, and find what I did here in the beginning very superficial. And the very hope of expressing it more and more powerfully and elaborately means that it seems to me a good time, for now I have no lack of subjects and models (in so far as I can pay them). I’m full of ideas and plans, and so the worries haven’t overwhelmed me yet.
But one still has to pay and everything costs money, and one has to deal with obstacles which are rather like wrestling through a hedge of thorns. And it truly is the case that in fact I really ought to have more models, but I can’t take more; I do my utmost and more than my utmost, so to speak, as regards expenditure on them, but the housekeeping costs money too, and in fact I don’t really have enough. What to do?
Do you still remember people from your time in The Hague to whom you think I could show something? For my part I can’t remember any except for one, and that is Lantsheer, but for him it must be very, very beautiful, and because I hope to sell something to him later I would rather not present anything now. Lantsheer is an uncle of Rappard or something like that. Rappard once wrote to me that he’d shown him a sketch by me and that L. thought it was good. If I ever have something which I think is right for him, I could get in touch with him through R. I know almost for certain that once Rappard has seen the larger drawings he’ll talk to L. about me, even without my asking him. I don’t like doing it, seeking people out. I wouldn’t mind if it was someone else’s work, but now it’s my own. Adieu, with a handshake.
Ever yours,