To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, Tuesday, 30 December 1884.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for what you sent. I appreciate your doing it, because what really matters is to do a lot of work in the winter months, when models are easier to get.
In 3 days or so you’ll receive 12 little pen drawings after studies of heads. After all, I feel most at home when I work on a figure. And it also seems to me that there’s more character in, say, those heads I made back in The Hague and some other figures than in the other things I did. And it might perhaps be wise for me to concentrate even more exclusively on the figure.
Only, the figure always stands somewhere, and one sometimes can’t help putting in the surroundings, their being indispensable.
Ma wanted to write something here, so I’ll keep it brief, because I’m sending you those pen drawings in the next few days anyway.
I don’t know in advance what I’ll do with these heads, but I want to derive the subject from the characters themselves. I do know why I’m making them, though, and to what end in general.
I’m curious to see that painting you got, sooner or later. I don’t exactly understand the legend itself — what it’s getting at. Why I don’t is because you say: the figure is Dantean — yet — it’s the symbol of an evil spirit that lures people into the abyss. Surely the two can hardly go together, since the sober, austere figure of Dante, entirely filled with indignation and protest at what he had seen happen — in protest at the atrocious medieval abuses and prejudices — is certainly one of the most upright, most honest, most noble that are conceivable.
In short — people said of Dante, ‘there is the one who went into hell and who returned’ — something very different to go in oneself and come out again than to lure others in satanically.
Consequently — one can’t have a Dantean figure play a satanic role without a huge misconception of character.
And the silhouette of a Mephistopheles is mightily different from Dante’s.
In his own time, people wrote of Giotto, ‘first he put “goodness” into the expression of human heads’. Giotto painted Dante, and with much emotion as you know, for you’re familiar with the old portrait.
From which I draw the conclusion that Dante’s expression, however sad and melancholy, is essentially an expression of something infinitely good and tender.
I therefore can’t imagine Satan or Mephistopheles as Dantean at all.
So all the more reason why I’m curious to see what it looks like in the painting.
Best wishes for the New Year.