To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 20 August 1882.
My dear Theo,
I’ve just received a good letter from home which truly gives me great pleasure, and from which it’s clear that your visit and the things you said about me and my work have left an impression that reassures them.
I believe this can only have desirable consequences, and I thank you in particular for the way in which you talked about me, though it seems to me you’ve praised me more about one thing and another than I yet deserve. At home they seem to be very pleased with their new surroundings, and are still full of your visit.
As I am myself, by the way, for various things you said to me cause me to think of you even more than I used to, certainly not with less affection. What you told me about your health, in particular, makes me think of you often.
I am well — I feel fine not avoiding anything because of it, and just carrying on. But, as you’ll understand, it isn’t entirely over. At times, mainly in the evening when I’m tired, it troubles me, but fortunately it’s no longer such that it stops me working.
This week I painted a few fairly large studies in the woods which I’ve tried to work up more highly and elaborate more than the first ones. The one I believe I’ve been most successful with is no more than a piece of ground dug over — white, black and brown sand after a downpour. So that the clods of earth catch the light here and there and are more expressive. After I’d been sitting in front of that piece of ground for a while drawing, there came a thunderstorm with torrential rain that lasted a good hour. I had become so gripped, however, that I stayed at my post and sheltered as best I could behind a thick tree. When it had finally passed and the crows took to the air again, I wasn’t sorry I had waited, because of the wonderfully deep tone the ground of the wood had taken on after the rain.
Because I had started before the storm on my knees with a low horizon, I now had to kneel down in the mud, and it’s because of similar adventures, which happen very often in different ways, that it seems sensible to me to wear ordinary working clothes that aren’t easily ruined.
The outcome this time was that I was able to take that piece of ground with me to the studio — although Mauve rightly said to me when we were discussing one of his studies that
it’s a job to draw clods of earth and to get depth into them.
The other study from the woods is of big green beech trunks on a ground with dead leaves, and the small figure of a girl in white.
The great difficulty there was to keep it clear and bring in space between the tree-trunks, which stand at different distances — and the place and relative thickness of the trunks altered by the perspective. To ensure, in short, that one can breathe and wander about in it — and smell the woods.
I particularly enjoyed doing these two. Just as much as something I saw at Scheveningen.
A large expanse in the dunes in the morning after rain — the grass is very green, relatively speaking, and the black nets are spread out on it in huge circles, creating tones on the ground of a deep, reddish black, green, grey. Sitting, standing or walking on this sombre ground like strange dark ghosts were women in white caps, and men who spread out or repaired the nets.
In nature it was as compelling, distinctive, sombre and severe as the finest one could imagine by Millet, Israëls or Degroux. Above the landscape a plain grey sky with a light band above the horizon. Despite showers of rain, I made a study of it on a sheet of oiled torchon.
A lot needs to be done before I’ll be capable of working that up highly — but it’s things like this that I find most compelling in nature.
How beautiful it is outdoors when everything is wet with rain — before — during — after the rain. I really ought not to miss a single shower. This morning I hung all the painted studies in the studio. I wish I could talk to you about them.
As I indeed expected and counted on while I was at work, I had to buy rather a lot extra, and the money is almost used up. I’ve now painted for a fortnight from early morning to late in the evening, so to speak, and if I continued like this it would work out too expensive as long as I’m not selling.
I think it possible that if you saw the work you would say that I shouldn’t paint only on occasion, when I took particular pleasure in it, but carry on with it regularly, as absolutely the main thing, even if it entailed higher costs. But although I enjoy it tremendously, and probably won’t paint as much as my ambition and pleasure demand for the time being, because of the heavy costs, I reckon I’ll lose nothing by devoting much of my time to drawing, and do that just as eagerly. I am, however, in doubt — painting has proved less difficult than I expected — perhaps the course to adopt would be to concentrate every effort on toiling with the brush above all — but I declare I don’t know.
At any rate, I know for sure that drawing with charcoal is something I must now study more closely than in the past — at any rate I have enough to do and can carry on; even if I restrain myself somewhat as regards painting, I can work just as hard. If I’ve now painted quite a number of studies in a short time it’s also because I keep on working on them, and literally work all day, barely taking the time even to eat or drink.
In several studies there are small figures. I’ve also worked on a larger one and already scraped everything off twice, which you might perhaps have thought rash if you had seen the effect, but it wasn’t rash — the reason is that I feel I can do even better with more effort and study, and I’m absolutely determined to achieve that better result, whether it takes more time or less, more effort or less. Landscape the way I’ve now tackled it also definitely requires figures. These are studies for backgrounds that must be very thoroughly examined, because the tone of the figure depends on it, and the effect of the whole.
One of the things I like about painting is that for the same effort as for a drawing one takes home something that conveys the impression much better and is much more pleasing to look at. And at the same time more accurate.
In a word, it’s more rewarding than drawing. But it’s absolutely essential that one draw the objects in the correct proportion and position with some certainty before one begins.
If an error is made there, it will all come to nothing. I’m looking forward to the autumn. By then I must make sure I stock up on paint and various things again. I’m particularly fond of the effects of yellow leaves against which the green beech trunks stand out so beautifully, and the figures no less.
The past few days I’ve been reading part of a rather melancholy book, ‘Brieven en dagboek’ of Gerard Bilders. He died at the age when I was more or less beginning. When I read it, I don’t regret making a late start. He was certainly unhappy and was often misunderstood, but at the same time I find a great weakness in him, something unhealthy in his character. It’s like the story of a plant that shoots up too early and can’t withstand the frost, and as a result one fine night it’s struck to the root and withers away. At first he does well — he’s a master as in the hothouse — making rapid growth there — but in Amsterdam he stands almost alone, and despite his brilliance he can’t cope there, and in the end he comes back to his father’s house, completely discouraged, dissatisfied, apathetic — and there he does some more painting and finally dies of consumption or another disease in his 28th year.
What I dislike in him is that while painting he complains about terrible boredom and idleness as things he can do nothing about, and he carries on going round in the same stifling circle made up of his friends and the entertainments and way of life he’s so heartily sick of. In short, I find him a sympathetic figure, but I would rather read the life of père Millet or T. Rousseau or Daubigny. When you read Sensier’s book about Millet you take courage from it, but Bilders’s book makes you feel wretched.
In a letter by Millet I always find a list of difficulties, but then: ‘nonetheless I’ve made this or that’, and in addition to that constantly thinking about other things that he’s determined to do and does indeed carry out. And too often with G. Bilders it’s ‘I was in a bad mood this week and made a mess of things — and went to this or that concert or play which left me feeling even worse.’
What strikes me in Millet is that simple ‘Nonetheless I must make this or that.’ Bilders is very witty and can heave grotesque sighs about manilas pointus that he fancies but cannot buy, and about tailors’ bills he sees no way of paying. He describes his anxiety about money matters so wittily that he himself and the reader can’t help laughing.
Yet however wittily these things are put, I still don’t like them, and have more respect for the private difficulties of Millet, who says ‘Nonetheless there must be soup for the children,’ and doesn’t talk about manilas pointus or entertainments.
What I want to say is this. G. Bilders was a romantic in his outlook on life, and he never got over his lost illusions. For my part I regard it as in a sense a privilege that I began when romantic illusions were a thing of the past. Now I have some way to catch up, work hard, but particularly when you have lost illusions behind you, work is something you need and one of the few pleasures left. And from this comes a great peace and calm.
I’m sorry that now it may be a year before you see what I’m painting all together — even if I send something now and again — and before we can discuss what to do and how. I believe I can assure you that my painting these things now will prove to be worthwhile. Perhaps what failed in January will now succeed.
Do not, above all, suspect me of indifference as regards earning; I fully intend to take the shortest route to that end.
Provided they are genuine and lasting earnings, of which I only see a prospect in my case if something truly good comes into my work, and not through working solely on saleability — which one pays for later — but through honest study of nature.
If you could see from the paintings that they’d have the best chance of success, I wouldn’t, of course, refuse to paint more. But should it take a long time before it becomes saleable, I would be the first to say, in that case we must live as thriftily as possible in the meantime, and with drawing one avoids a lot of costs and very certainly makes sure and steady, if slow, progress. I see a change in these painted things, and I write to you about it because you’re better placed than I am to say how this might affect possible sales. It seems to me that at any rate the painted studies are more agreeable to look at than what I’ve drawn. For my part, I attach less importance to the more agreeable, less gaunt effect, and make the expression of more austere and manly things the aim I want to achieve, for which I must first labour hard. But if you were to say: work on those views of woods or landscapes or seascapes, then that needn’t get in the way of larger and more serious things, and I would have nothing against that.
It’s just that I would have to know that they were worth the brushes, the paint, the canvas, and that making a lot of them wasn’t a waste of money, but that the costs could be recouped. If that was or could become the case, it might be a way of enabling me to undertake more difficult things.
In that case I would even work on them with great ambition. I want to begin by letting them ripen somewhat, by working them up a bit more highly. Then in a few months, say, I’ll send you something and we can see. I believe that most painters have worked their way up to higher things in this way. I wouldn’t want to make things that were bad in principle, tending towards the untrue and the false, because nature is too dear to me. But we’re faced with this question: I must make many more studies in order to achieve something higher and better. What will work out cheapest: drawing or painting those studies? If the paintings are unsaleable, it will certainly be cheaper to draw in charcoal or something else.
The reason why I myself am delighted with painting is not the agreeable appearance, but the fact that it throws light on other questions of tone and form and material before which I used to be helpless, but now I can attack them with this means. I do now see, for example, more opportunity to have another try with charcoal and get a result.
But supposing it was possible to recover the costs of painted studies, I want to say to you that in principle I would have nothing against that, now I see that I’m making some headway and that it could perhaps be an exceptional opportunity.
My only objection in principle is to expending paint on things that can also be learnt with something else, while there’s still no question of selling. I don’t want to put either you or me to great expense for no good purpose, but I see clearly that the painted things have a more agreeable appearance. This makes me unsure as to what to do.
My money isn’t yet exhausted, but there isn’t much left. Today is the twentieth, if I’m not mistaken. This month I’ve spent less, not more, than usual on household needs. I’ve had to spend a lot all at once on painting materials, but much of that will last for some time. But everything is expensive. I hope you can send something soon. Accept a warm handshake in thought, and believe me
I sincerely hope that you won’t take this letter to mean that I already presume that something can be done with these first studies. C.M. once interpreted certain remarks by me in that way, though I had definitely not meant them like that. I used to be able to say, better than now at any rate, what something was worth and whether it was likely to sell or not. Now it’s clear to me each day that I no longer know, and what matters more to me now is to study nature rather than the prices of paintings.
But I believe I see that the painted studies have a much more agreeable look than either the black-and-white drawings or the watercolours that you saw recently. And this is why I’m in doubt as to whether it’s possible that, despite the higher costs, painting as absolutely the main pursuit might not work out cheaper. I would rather that you make this decision, because I believe you’re more competent than I am as regards judging the financial success, and I have complete confidence that your judgement will be correct.
And if I send you something sooner or later, it will be to find out whether you have any tips to give me, not to say: I reckon this or that is saleable — for I no longer feel able to say that. And I’ll also send it in any case to keep you abreast of what I’m working on.
You told me to do my best sometime to try to work up a drawing in watercolour — I believe that, precisely as a result of painting, I’ll be more capable than in the past if I go back to watercolour.
But if that doesn’t work out so well occasionally, you mustn’t lose heart, nor must I, and you mustn’t be afraid to make comments to me. I don’t systematically ignore comments made to me, but in many cases it takes longer to change something than to point out the change. I’ve just been putting things into practice that Mauve said to me in January and, for instance, painted that piece of ground as the result of a conversation about a study by him.