To Theo van Gogh, The Hague, on or about Wednesday, 11 July 1883.
My dear Theo,
I had already been looking out for your letter, more or less, and was again glad of it. Thank you. I find what you write about the exhibition most interesting. What was that old painting by Dupré that you thought especially beautiful? You must write again to tell me. Your description of Troyon and Rousseau, for instance, is lively enough to give me some idea of which of their manners they are done in.
There were other paintings from the time of Troyon’s municipal pasture3 that had a certain mood that one would have to call dramatic, even though they aren’t figure paintings.
Israëls put it perfectly in the case of a Jules Dupré (Mesdag's large one): ‘It’s just like a figure painting’. It’s that dramatic quality that causes one to find a je ne sais quoi in it that makes one feel what you say, ‘It expresses that moment and that place in nature where one can go alone, without company.’
Ruisdael’s Bush has it strongly too.
Haven’t you ever seen old Jacques that were perhaps a little overdone, a little straining for effect — but not really — and for that reason were thought particularly beautiful, even though not everyone considered them to be among the finest Jacques?
Speaking of Rousseau, do you know Richard Wallace’s Rousseau? An edge of a wood in the autumn after rain, with a vista of meadows stretching away endlessly, marshy, with cows in them, the foreground rich in tone. To me that’s one of the finest — is very like the one with the red sun in the Luxembourg.
The dramatic effect of these paintings is something that helps us to understand ‘a corner of nature seen through a temperament’ and that helps us understand that the principle of ‘man added to nature’ is needed more than anything else in art, and one finds the same thing in Rembrandt’s portraits, for example — it’s more than nature, more like a revelation. And it seems good to me to respect that, and to keep quiet when it’s often said that it’s overdone or a manner. Oh, I must tell you that De Bock came round — very pleasant. Breitner, whom I didn’t in the least expect because he had apparently broken off contact completely some time ago, turned up yesterday. That pleased me because in the past — when I was first here — he was very pleasant to go walking with. I mean to go out together not in the country but in the city itself, to look for figures and nice scenes.
Here in The Hague there isn’t a single person I've ever done that with in the city itself; most think the city ugly and pass by all of it. And yet it’s really beautiful in the city sometimes, don’t you agree?
Yesterday, for example, I saw workmen in Noordeinde pulling down that part opposite the palace, chaps covered in white from the clouds of plaster dust with carts and horses. It was cool, windy weather, the sky grey, and there was great character in the scene. I saw Van der Velden once last year — at De Bock’s one evening when we looked at etchings. I’ve already written to you that he made a very favourable impression on me at the time, although he said little and wasn’t much company that evening. But the impression he immediately made on me was that he was a solid, genuine painter.
It’s a square, Gothic head — something bold or daring, and yet gentle in his look. Very broad build, in fact the exact opposite of Breitner and De Bock. There’s something manly
and strong in him, even if he says nothing and does nothing special. I do hope I’ll get in closer touch with him at some point, perhaps through Van der Weele.
Was at Van der Weele’s last Sunday; he was working on a painting of cows in the milking yard, for which he has several substantial studies. He’s moving to the country for some time. Of late I’ve done a few watercolours outdoors again for a change, a cornfield and a bit of a potato field. And also drawn a few small landscapes, to have something to go by for the settings of a few figure drawings that I’m looking for.
These are the designs of the figure drawings, very superficially. Above, weed burners, below, coming back from the potato field.
I’m seriously considering painting a number of figure studies, mainly with a view to raising the standard of the drawings. It’s good news for me that you’re planning to come to Holland at the beginning of August, for I’ve said often enough that I dearly long to see you.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you sometime as to how informed your woman is about art. In any event, much will have to be done and cultivated in that respect, I imagine. So much the better. In any case I hope she’ll get a sort of album, for which I hope you’ll find a few sheets among the smaller studies. Sometimes there are sheets in a sketchbook which still say something, even though they’re only scratches. I’ll gather one or two things together before you come.
Well, I’ve spoken to De Bock again and I can leave my stuff with him when I go to do studies in Scheveningen.
I also hope to go and see Blommers again soon. I talked to De Bock about his painting at the Salon, November, which I thought so beautiful, and the reproduction in the catalogue. He should still have a sketch of it, and I’d like to see it.
As for going to London sooner or later for a while, long or short, I too believe that there would be more chance of doing something with my work over there; I also think that I could learn a great deal if I could make the acquaintance of some people there. And there I wouldn’t be short of subjects to do, I assure you. There would be beautiful things to do on the wharves beside the Thames. Anyway, we must talk about various things again when you come. I hope you won’t be in too much of a hurry; we’ll have rather a lot to deal with. I’d like to be able to get some studies in Brabant again in the autumn.
Above all I’d like to have studies of a Brabant plough, of a weaver and of that village cemetery at Nuenen. Again, everything costs money.
Well, regards, and thanks again for your letter and the enclosure. I wish you well. Do you think about bringing the woman to Holland, or is that not advisable as yet? I hope it happens. Adieu, old chap, with a handshake.
I’m adding a word here to tell you something more about Breitner as well — since I’ve just come back from his temporary studio here (you know that he really lives in Rotterdam these days). You know Vierge or Urrabieta, the draughtsman for L’Illustration. Well, at times B. reminds me of Vierge, but very rarely.
When he’s good it looks like something done in haste by Vierge; but when he, that is B., is too hasty or doesn’t work things through, which is usually the case, it’s difficult to say what it resembles, for it looks like nothing — except like strips of an old, faded wallpaper from I don’t know which era, but in any event a very singular one, probably from long ago. Imagine, I go to the garret that he has at Siebenhaar’s. It was furnished mainly with various matchboxes (empty), and then with a razor or something, and a cupboard with a bed in it. I see something leaning against the chimney, 3 endlessly long strips that I at first think are sun blinds. But on closer inspection they turn out to be canvases in this format.
As you see from the above illustration, painted with a not unmystical scene, probably taken from Revelation, one would imagine at first sight.
Yet I’m informed that they are artillery manoeuvres in the dunes. Off the cuff I would put it at over 4 metres long by 3/4 of a metre.
The second was a story of a man who was leaning against the wall on the extreme left of the painting, while on the far right various types of ghostly women stood gawking at him, while care had been taken to leave a substantial space between these two groups. I was then informed that what was depicted in the left-hand corner was a drunkard, and I wouldn’t venture to doubt that this may just as well have been the maker’s intention as something else. The third is almost better, and is a sketch of the market that he did last year, but since then it seems it’s meant to depict a Spanish instead of a Dutch market, in so far as one can make anything of it.
Whatever merchandise is sold at the market (wherever it’s located, I for one doubt whether it’s meant to be on this earth; it’s much more likely to strike the naive beholder as portraying a scene on one of those planets visited by Jules Verne’s miraculous travellers (by projectile)) – whatever merchandise really is being traded is impossible to make out, but it’s faintly reminiscent of a huge mass of preserves or sweets. You see, try to picture such a thing, but it couldn’t be more absurd, and heavy-handed as well, and you have the work of Friend Breitner.
From a distance they’re areas of faded colour as on bleached and rotting and mouldering wallpaper, and in that sense there are qualities in it that are absolutely unpalatable to me.
I utterly fail to understand how anyone could possibly come up with something like that. It’s the sort of thing one sees when one has a fever — or impossible and meaningless as in a dream that makes no sense at all. I take the view, quite simply, that Breitner isn’t yet cured, and actually did it while he had a fever. Which, given his illness last year, may be considered entirely possible.26 Last year when I was cured but still couldn’t sleep and was feverish, I too had moments when I wanted to force myself to work all the same and did some things, though thank God not so absurdly big, and later on I couldn’t understand why I’d done them.
This is why I think that B. will be all right in the end, but I find this absurd. In a corner lay a crumpled watercolour study of some birches in the dunes that was much better and had nothing abnormal about it. But those big things are nothing.
I saw another one at Van der Weele’s, very ugly, and a head, very good, but a portrait of Van der W. — that he’d started — again bad.
So he’s making a terrible mess on a very big scale. I like the work of Hoffmann and Edgar Poe on occasion. (Contes fantastiques, Raven &c.) But I find this unpalatable because the fantasy is heavy-handed and without meaning, and there are almost no correspondences to what exists. I find it very ugly.
But I regard it as a period of illness. Van der Weele has two rather curious drawings by him, elegantly done in watercolour, which have a certain je ne sais quoi of what the English call ‘weird’.
I learned a lesson today from that visit, namely that one can count oneself lucky if one is in relatively normal surroundings in today’s society, and doesn’t have to seek refuge in a coffee-house life which will make one begin to see things ever more cloudily and confusedly. For the latter is his situation, about that I have no doubt. Imperceptibly he has strayed terribly far from a calm, rational contemplation of things, and now he can’t put down a single calm, reasonable line or brushstroke as long as this stress continues.
I wish I could offer him some company and diversion, I wish I could often take a turn with him and perhaps make him a little calmer. You remember the painting The madness of Hugo van der Goes by Wauters? In some things B. faintly reminds me of a state of mind like Van der Goes’s. I’d not like to be the first to say this, but I believe his work has already been discussed in these terms for some considerable time.
The remedy would be to look at length at the potato leaves that are so deep and elegant in colour and tone at present, instead of driving himself mad looking at lengths of yellow satin and pieces of gilt leather.
Anyway, we’ll see how it goes. He’s intelligent enough, but it’s a kind of bias towards eccentricity that he persists in regardless. If he deviated from the normal for a reasonable motive, well and good, but here it’s a question of not taking any trouble with his work either. I find it truly wretched and I hope he recovers, but he has lost his way badly.
This week I’m going to start in Scheveningen. I would have liked there to be room for a little extra, then I would have bought some painting materials.
I’m going to have photographs taken of a few drawings in cabinet format or slightly larger (to see how they’d look on a small scale) by a photographer who has photographed those drawings by Ter Meulen, Du Chattel, Zilcken. He does it for 75 cents, that’s not expensive, is it? I’ll have the sower and the Peat diggers done for now, the one with many smaller figures, the other with 1 large figure. And if they work, later on when I have drawings I’ll be able to send you photos to show to Buhot, say, to see if he thinks he can place them. They could have the drawings themselves of the ones they want for reproduction or I can redraw them on their paper.
Regards again, Theo. Best wishes.
Do write again soon. I’ll have the photos taken, for we must stick to our guns with Buhot & Cie. I must try to earn a little so that I can make a start on something new and do some painting too, for I’m just in the mood for that.
Mauve not only had some unpleasantness with me but also, to give an example, had unpleasantness with Zilcken. It’s only now that I’ve seen Z.’s etchings, and just now photos of drawings by Zilcken at the photographer’s. Leaving myself out of it, I hereby declare that I don’t understand what M. has against Z. His drawings were good and not in the least bad; it’s capriciousness on Mauve’s part.
After all, I don’t think it very nice of C.M. that I haven’t received one syllable in reply to my letter, in which I took the trouble to do two croquis of the drawings in question.
Nor do I think it nice of H.G.T. that he didn’t pay a call after I’d made an attempt to break the ice. It’s rubbish to say that he’s busy, because that’s not the reason in this case, he could find the time to come once a year. I’m adding half a page to talk about Brabant. Among the figures of types from the people that I did there are several with a certain, what many would call old-fashioned, character, also in the approach. For example, a digger who’s more like those one sometimes finds in the bas-reliefs carved in wood on Gothic pews than a contemporary drawing. I very often think of the Brabant figures, which I find especially sympathetic.
Something I’d like to have terribly much, and which I feel I can do, given certain conditions of patient posing, is the figure of Pa on a path on the heath, the figure severely drawn with character and, as I say, a stretch of brown heath with a narrow, white, sandy path running across it, and a sky applied with some passion and evenly expressed.
Then, for instance, Pa and Ma arm in arm — in an autumn setting — or with a beech hedge with dry leaves.
I’d also like to have the figure of Pa when I do a country funeral, which I’m definitely planning, although it would be a great deal of trouble.
Leaving aside irrelevant differences in religious views, to me the figure of a poor village pastor is one of the most sympathetic in type and character that there is, and I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t attack it sometime.
When you come I’d truly like to consult you on what to do about travelling over there. When you see my drawings of orphan men, for instance, you’ll understand what I want and how I mean it. My aim is to do a drawing that not exactly everyone will understand, the figure expressed in its essence in simplified form, with deliberate disregard of those details that aren’t part of the true character and are merely accidental. Thus it shouldn’t, for example, be the portrait of Pa but rather the type of a poor village pastor going to visit a sick person. The same with the couple arm in arm by the beech hedge — the type of a man and woman who have grown old together and in whom love and loyalty have remained, rather than portraits of Pa and Ma, although I hope they’ll pose for it. But they must know that it’s serious, which they might not see for themselves if the likeness isn’t exact.
And should be a bit prepared, in the event that this happens, for having to pose as I say and not change anything. Well, that will be all right, and I don’t work so slowly as to make it a great effort for them. And for my part I would greatly value doing it. Simplifying the figures is something that very much preoccupies me. Anyway, you’ll see some for yourself among the figures I’ll show you. If I went to Brabant, it should certainly not be an excursion or pleasure trip, it seems to me, but a short period of very hard work at lightning speed. Speaking of expression in a figure, I’m becoming more and more persuaded that it lies not so much in the features as in the whole manner. I find few things as horrible as most academic facial expressions. I would rather look at ‘Night’ by Michelangelo, or a drunk by Daumier, or The diggers by Millet, and that large woodcut by him, The shepherdess. Or at an old horse by Mauve &c.