To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Sunday, 1 October 1882.
My dear Theo,
Just a word to say that your letter arrived in good order, I thank you heartily for the contents.
These last few days I’ve done almost nothing but watercolours. A scratch of a large one is enclosed. You may remember Mooijman’s state lottery office at the beginning of Spuistraat. I passed it one rainy morning when a throng of people were standing there waiting to get lottery tickets. For the most part they were old women and the sort of people of whom it’s impossible to say what they do or how they live, but who evidently potter along and fret and get on with life. Of course, viewed superficially, a crowd of folk who evidently attach so much importance to ‘Draw today’ is something that almost makes you and me laugh, because we’re not in the least bit interested in the lottery.
But the group of people — and their waiting expression — struck me, and it took on a larger, deeper meaning for me while I was working on it than in the first moment. It becomes more meaningful, I believe, if one thinks of it as the poor and money. That, in fact, applies to nearly all figure groups: one occasionally has to think about them for a while before one understands what one is seeing. The curiosity and delusion about the lottery seem more or less childish to us, but it becomes serious when one thinks about the other side: misery and forlorn attempts by these poor souls to be saved, so they think, by buying a lottery ticket, paid for with pennies saved by going without food. Be that as it may, I’m working on a large watercolour of it.
I’m also working on one of a church pew that I saw in a small church in the Geest district where the almsmen go (they’re known here very expressively as ORPHAN men and orphan women). The way things are going, being busily drawing again, I sometimes think there’s nothing so pleasant as drawing.
This is part of the bit with pews; there are other men’s heads in the background.
Things like this are difficult, though, and won’t come off in one go. Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures. Speaking of orphan men, I was interrupted while writing this by the arrival of my model.
And I worked with him until it got dark — wearing a big old overcoat which gave him a curiously broad figure. I believe you might perhaps enjoy this collection of orphan men in their Sunday and working clothes. Then I also tackled him sitting with a pipe. He has an interesting bald head — big ears (NB. Deaf) [sketch B] and white sideboards.
I did this scratch half in the dark, but perhaps it can give you an idea of the composition. Once it has been put together, something like this can be quickly scribbled down.
Putting it together was less easy, and I don’t claim that it stands now as I wanted to have it. I would enjoy painting it with figures the length of roughly one foot, or slightly less, with the composition then a little broader.
However, I don’t know whether I’ll do it. I’d need a large canvas, and if it didn’t work there might be considerable costs involved. I also think — although I would greatly enjoy it — that I’ll come to things like that of my own accord, by continuing to do types of figures. Then later it will come naturally from the studies from the model, either in this or another form, but with the same sentiment.
I’m becoming more and more aware of how useful and very necessary it is to keep studies from the model. Though they have less value for others, the person who has made them recognizes the model in them, and things are brought vividly to mind again. When there’s an opportunity, remember to send some of the old studies back to me. I hope in time to use them to make more beautiful things. It goes without saying that there were wonderful colours in the group of figures of which I’m sending you a black scratch — blue smocks and brown jackets, white, black, yellowish worker’s trousers, faded shawls, an overcoat turned greenish, white caps and black top hats, muddy paving-stones and boots contrasting with pale faces or ones weathered by the elements. And that’s where painting or watercolouring comes in. Well, I’m toiling away at it. I count on you to write again, of course, but thank you again for sending the money in good time, which is badly needed if I’m to carry on vigorously.
Adieu, old chap, accept a hearty handshake in thought, and believe me
There’s a little more foreground in the watercolour — here the figures are too far forward and one’s eye doesn’t grasp the foreground enough.