From The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York:
While living in Paris, Vincent van Gogh made frequent excursions to the suburb of Asnières to escape the urban environment and paint in nature before his subject, a method he often advocated to other artists. On these trips he would usually stay at the family home of Bernard, a young painter he advised. In a letter to Bernard from Arles, Van Gogh reiterated his position on the importance of painting from experience rather than from the imagination: “I am getting well acquainted with nature. I exaggerate, sometimes I make changes in a motif; but for all that, I do not invent the whole picture; on the contrary, I find it all ready in nature, only it must be disentangled.”¹ On a late summer day in 1887, the artist set out to record one of the many now-extinct poternes, or underpass and tollhouse structures, that ringed Paris and regulated entry into the city. For Roadway with Underpass (Le viaduc), Van Gogh chose the vantage point of a traveler en route from Asnières, which is suggested by a dim glow at the end of the tunnel. The lone figure clad in black walking into the darkness midway in the tunnel lends a vague air of foreboding.
Van Gogh painted this scene at the beginning of his mature period when he was exploring the technical achievements of the various stylistic idioms current in Paris. The contrasting creamy ocher impasto and chalky blue shadows on the crumbling underpass and the road suggest the heightened palette and divided brushstroke of the Impressionists. Moreover the contrasting complementary colors he employs in the energetic dots and loose dashes that imply the movement of the foliage animated by the breeze on the embankment attest to his hesitant investigations of Divisionist color theory. Roadway with Underpass foreshadows two paintings with similar compositions that Van Gogh would paint in Arles in 1888: The Trinquetaille Bridge (Le pont de Trinquetaille) and The Railroad Bridge (Le pont de Languelois). Like the present painting, these two works present a view through a tunnel from the perspective of a spectator situated diagonally to the right of the bridge; however, the more complex later canvases also include a counterthrusting pathway leading to the left.
To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Wednesday, 5 September 1883.
My dear Theo,
I received your letter just now when I came home from the dunes behind Loosduinen, soaking wet because I had spent 3 hours in the rain at a spot where everything was Ruisdael, Daubigny or Jules Dupré. I came back with a study of crooked, windswept trees, and a second of a farm after the rain. Everything is already bronze, everything is what one can see in nature only at this time of year, or if one stands before one of those paintings like a Dupré, for instance, and so beautiful that one’s imagination always falls short of it.
You write about your walk to Ville-d’Avray that Sunday, at the same time on that same day I was also walking alone, and I want to tell you something about that walk, since then our thoughts probably crossed again in some degree.
I spoke to the woman as I wrote to you — we felt that staying together in the future was ruled out, indeed that we’d make each other unhappy, but we felt on both sides how strongly we were attached to each other. And then I went out of doors, a long way away, to talk to nature for a while.
Well, I came to Voorburg, and went from there to Leidschendam.
You know the landscape there, superb trees full of majesty and serenity beside green, dreadful, toy-box summer-houses, and every absurdity the lumbering imagination of Hollanders with private incomes can come up with in the way of flower-beds, arbours, verandas. Most of the houses very ugly, but some old and elegant. Well, at that moment, high above the meadows as endless as the desert, came one driven mass of cloud after the other, and the wind first struck the row of country houses with their trees on the opposite side of the waterway, where the black cinder road runs. Those trees, they were superb, there was a drama in each figure I’m tempted to say, but I mean in each tree.
Then, the whole was almost finer than those windblown trees seen on their own, because the moment was such that even those absurd summer houses took on a singular character, rain-soaked and dishevelled. In it I saw an image of how even a person of absurd forms and conventions, or another full of eccentricity and caprice, can become a dramatic figure of special character if he’s gripped by true sorrow, moved by a calamity. It made me think for a moment of society today, how as it founders it now often appears like a large, sombre silhouette viewed against the light of reform. Yes, for me the drama of a storm in nature, the drama of sorrow in life, is the best. A ‘paradou’ is beautiful, but Gethsemane is more beautiful still. Oh, there must be a little bit of air, a little bit of happiness, but chiefly to let the form be felt, to make the lines of the silhouette speak. But let the whole be sombre.
I must say that the woman is bearing up well. She feels sorrow and I do too, but she isn’t despondent and is making an effort.
I bought a piece of cloth recently to make some study linen for myself, and now I’ve given it to her for vests for those scrawny children. And I’m having clothes of mine altered for them so that they’ll get one or two things, and she’s busy with that.
When I say we are separating as friends, that is true — but we are definitely separated, and I’ve since been more at peace with that than I expected, because what was wrong with her was of such a nature that it would have been fatal both for me and for her if we’d been bound to each other, given that one is responsible, so to speak, for each other’s failings. But I’m still left with the worry — how will she be in a year’s time? I’ll certainly not take her into my house again, but I didn’t want to lose touch with her, because I love her and the children too much.
That is also possible, precisely because it was and still is something different from a passion.
I hope the Drenthe plan goes ahead.
You ask what I might need.
I don’t need to tell you that I intend to do a lot of work, I must do that to revitalize myself. And over there they have nothing in the way of painting equipment, so as regards taking a supply, taking things that are really useful, definitely the more the better.
Good tools are never a waste, and they pay for themselves even if they are expensive. And to get ahead one must do a great deal of painting. I hope to lose very little of the time that I’ll spend there, and to have a lot of models too, which will probably be cheap enough there. But life is cheap there, and I’ll be able to do more with the 150 francs than here. But in fact I can arrange all that as it suits me. I would think it desirable to be able to make one big purchase, because I lack many things that others have and that are actually indispensable.
My plan is to get a long way with painting in Drenthe so that I’ll be eligible for the Drawing Society when I come back. That, in turn, is linked to a second plan, to go to England.
I believe that it’s permissible to speculate provided one doesn’t do it in the air or on foundations that are all too shaky. As far as England is concerned, I certainly expect to sell something more easily there than here — that’s true — so I think of England from time to time. But I don’t know how the point that I’ve reached stands in relation to the English art lovers, and because I don’t know that I would first like to have a small, positive beginning of sales here before I think it advisable to take steps over there. If I begin to sell a few things here, then I shan’t hesitate for a moment but start sending things over there or go there. Yet as long as I sell absolutely nothing here, I would very likely be mistaken as to the timing if I didn’t have the wisdom to wait until I see just a beginning here.
I hope you find this idea reasonable, that would reassure me. For in England people are very serious once they begin; whoever finds favour in England finds loyal friends there. I need only mention E. Frère and Henriette Browne, for example, who are now just as well liked as on the first day their work was seen there. But if one wants to succeed over there, one must take a little care and be certain that one can be productive in what one sends over there.
Your letter pleased me greatly, for I see that you think that there’s something in the Drenthe plan, and that’s enough for me; later on it will become clear of itself what benefit there is to be gained. But for me it’s already linked directly to becoming a member of the Drawing Society and also to England — because I know for sure that the subjects from over there will be sympathetically received in England if I’m able to put some sentiment into them.
In short, press on with Drenthe, whether we can spend a great deal or a little for the time being. I’ll go there when I have the money to travel, even though I have few painting materials left, because the time of autumnal effects has already begun, and I hope to capture some of them. Yet I hope I’ll be able to give the woman a little more for the early days. But if I can leave I shall.
I say to you that for the time being I plan to help the woman a little, I may not and indeed cannot make it very much. I’m telling no one else but you about this. And what I say to you — that whatever happens to her I cannot and shall not have her in my house again — you can rely on that, for it’s not in her to do what she should do. I also sent a few words to Pa to say that I was separated from her, but that my letter to Pa about staying with her and getting married remained a fact all the same, and that Pa had talked around that and given no answer to the real question, a second fact. I don’t know how it will appear in years to come, or whether that wouldn’t have been better than separating; now we’re too close to everything to see things in their true context and the consequences. I hope that it will all turn out for the best, but her future and my own look sombre to me. I do believe that something will still awaken in her, but that’s precisely the point — it ought to have been awakened already, and now it will be difficult for her to follow her better thoughts when she has no one to support her in that. Now she wouldn’t listen, then she will yearn to speak to me and it won’t be possible. As long as she was with me, she had no contrasting example, and now in other surroundings she’ll remember things that she didn’t care about and paid no attention to at the time. Now, because of the contrast, she’ll think about that sometimes. For me it’s sometimes thoroughly distressing that we both feel the impossibility of struggling through the future together, and yet that we’re so attached. She has been more confiding than normal of late, and the mother had incited her to play some tricks which she didn’t want to inflict on me. Things of the kind we talked about when you were here, such as starting a row and the like.
You see, there’s something in her like the beginning of something more solid, and may that remain so. I wish she could marry, and when I tell you that I’ll keep an eye on her it’s because I advised her to do that. If only she can find a man who is half good, that’s enough, then the beginnings of what has come into her here will develop further, that is, a more domestic, simple disposition, and if she sticks to that I won’t have to leave her entirely to her fate in the future either, for then at least I’ll remain her friend, and sincerely so.
Write to me again soon, and regards.
I’m adding a few words here. You ask what I need. I thought about that and it’s impossible for me to say what I really regard as necessary, for that would be no small amount, so let’s see what’s within our reach and make do with that. What’s within our reach will probably remain below what’s fundamentally needed, but in life it’s already something if one can carry out one’s plans in part. And I for one say to you that I’ll make do with what you can spare.
Life is cheaper over there, and I’ll be able to make savings automatically compared to here. And when a year has passed I’ll have made substantial progress through those savings alone. I can have paint &c. sent by parcel post when I’m over there. So I’ll take a supply if I can, that goes without saying, but if I can’t I shan’t postpone the journey because of that.
I have hopes that the past year will turn out to have been solid, for I haven’t neglected my work and, on the contrary, I’ve strengthened a number of weak points. There are more that need strengthening, of course, but it’s their turn now.
As for what I wrote to you in a previous letter, that the woman had immediately broken certain promises, that was bad enough, namely an attempt to be a maid in a whorehouse, an opportunity the mother had fished out and urged on her. The woman herself immediately regretted it and has rejected it, but all the same it’s very, very weak of her, and especially to do it at that particular time, but that’s what she’s like — up to now at least — so far she hasn’t had the strength to refuse such a thing with an absolute no. Anyway, she forces me to take measures that I’ve often previously postponed and postponed.
On this occasion, though, I saw something in her as if it had been a crisis — I hope a ‘thus far and no further’. And so it is that she herself views this separation as possibly turning out for the best in the end.
And because there’s an all too fatal rapport between her and her mother, those two must go together down the wrong or the right road. And it will come down to living with the mother and going out to work together by turns, and trying to get by in an honest way. That’s their plan, and they already have some workdays, and I’ve placed advertisements, and they look every day and are beginning to enjoy it.
I’ll keep on doing that and carry on with advertisements as long as necessary, and in short all the things whereby I can be of use or assistance.
And if I can I’ll pay several weeks’ rent for them when I go, as well as a loaf a day or some such to give them yet more time to set their plan up properly and add to it. But the fact that I intend to give them that is something I haven’t yet promised them, because I don’t know myself if I’ll be able to do it. I’ll act according to circumstances.
And I firmly recommend to her a marriage of convenience with a widower or someone, to which I add that she’ll have to be better for such a person than she was for me.
And that she herself knows well enough in what ways she fell short with me, that now she must be wise and learn from that that I don’t blame her in the least, because I know that an improvement or reform doesn’t succeed all at once but has steps, so to speak, and so, provided she stays at the point where she is now and works her way up, starting from there, without allowing herself any relapse, she needn’t take her mistakes with me to heart or become despondent, just try to make amends by being better for someone else.
And she herself well understands these things for the present, and I hope to keep them alive. Becoming despondent and then letting oneself go is, however, a weakness they share, yet at the same time they’re also patient when it comes to starting afresh, the woman in particular is showing that more, and I, although her faults are many and troublesome enough, yet I know that fundamentally there’s something good that extenuates everything, and for that reason, too, I don’t despair of her future. That misericorde must lie in nature itself for such a person is something I wish I could fully believe, and I find it wicked of myself that I’m not fully persuaded of it, in so far as I’m not yet able to resign myself to everything, however, and can’t, for the time being at least, give up everything that I’ve struggled so hard to put right.
Write to me again soon, won’t you?