To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Wednesday, 1 November 1882.
My dear Theo,
For several days I’ve been completely taken up by something that may also be of interest to you and I think it well worth writing to you about it especially. In a letter from Rappard I received an extract from a lecture by Herkomer on the subject of the wood engravings of recent times.
I can’t tell you about the whole thing in detail, you may have read the article yourself (which was in an English art magazine, perhaps the Art Journal). It was mainly about the drawings in The Graphic. Herkomer relates how he himself worked on them with great ambition and enthusiasm, and he particularly recalls the splendid prints in the first volumes. Feels that no words can express sufficiently forcefully how important he finds the work of those first artists. He reviews the progress made in process and technique, the difference between the old and the modern wood engraving, &c. &c. Then talks about the present day, and that brings him to the real subject of his lecture. He says: the wood engravers are cleverer than ever, but nonetheless I see a decadence if I think back to when The Graphic began. And — he goes on — in my view the reason lies in two things against which I protest. One has to do with the publishers, the other with the artists. Both have their faults, which will ruin things if one doesn’t combat them.
The publishers, he says, demand things done for effect: ‘correct and honest drawing is no longer wanted, complete designs are no longer in request, a “bit” just covering an awkward corner of a page, is all that is required’.
‘The managers declare that the public require the representation of a public event or so and are satisfied if it is correct and entertaining, caring nothing for the artistic qualities of the work. I do not believe what they say. The only excuse you may accept is “dearth of good draughtsmen”’.
Then he comes to the artists, and says that he regrets that these days all too often it’s the wood engraver, not the draughtsman, who makes the prints beautiful. Urges the artists not to accept this — to draw soberly and forcefully so that the engraver remains what he should be, the translator of the draughtsman’s work, and doesn’t get the upper hand. Then comes his conclusion, a forceful plea to all to continue supporting the cause warmly, and not to allow any weakening.
There’s something of a reproach in his plea, and it isn’t without some melancholy that he speaks, and as one fighting against the indifference he finds intolerable.
‘To you — the public — the art offers infinite pleasure and edification. For you it is really done. Therefore clamour loudly for good work and be sure it will be forthcoming’ — are his closing words. The whole thing is thoroughly sound, firm, honest. His manner of speaking makes the same impression on me as some letters by Millet.
It gives me encouragement, and it truly does me good to hear someone talk like that for once.
I say that it’s a terrible pity that here there’s no enthusiasm, so to speak, for the art that’s most suitable for the common people.
If the painters were to close ranks to ensure that their work (which, after all, is made for the people, in my view — at least I believe that is the highest, noblest vocation for any artist) could also come into the hands of the people and was put within everyone’s reach, that would be something that would produce the same results as were produced in the first years of The Graphic.
Neuhuys, Van der Velden and a few others made drawings this year for ‘De Zwaluw’, a magazine that appears monthly and costs 7 1/2 cents. There are some good ones, but one can see that most were done with a weak hand (not the original drawings but the way of popularizing them), and from what I hear the magazine is no more likely to keep going than its predecessors. Why doesn’t it work? — the booksellers say they earn nothing from it, and instead of circulating it they block it.
And as for the painters, I believe they haven’t yet made every effort to take the matter to heart. The definition that many a painter here in Holland gives in reply to the question ‘What is a wood engraving?’ is: ‘it’s those things lying in the Zuid-Hollandsch Koffiehuis’. So they rank them among the drinks. And the makers of them among the drunks, perhaps.
And what do the dealers say? Suppose I went to anyone here with around 100 sketches that I’ve gathered together. At best I fear I would be told ‘did you imagine those things had commercial value?’
My love and respect for the great draughtsmen of both the age of Gavarni and of the present day increases the better acquainted with their work I become, and above all as I do my best myself to make something from what one sees every day on the streets.
What I value in Herkomer, in Fildes, in Holl and the other founders of The Graphic, why I find and will continue to find them even more sympathetic than Gavarni and Daumier, is that, while the latter seem to view society more with mockery, the former, like such men as Millet, Breton, Degroux and Israëls, choose subjects which — while as true as those of Gav. or Daum. — have something noble and in which there’s a more serious sentiment. That, above all, must remain, it seems to me.
An artist need not be a minister or a collector in church, but he must have a warm heart for people, and I find it a noble thing that, for example, no winter passed without The Graphic doing something to keep alive sympathy for the poor. For instance, I have a print by Woodville showing the distribution of turf tickets in Ireland, another by Staniland entitled Help the helpers depicting various scenes in a hospital — where money was short, Christmas in the workhouse by Herkomer, Homeless and hungry by Fildes &c. I find them even more beautiful than the drawings by Bertall or somebody for the Vie Elégante or other élégances. Perhaps you’ll find this a tedious letter — but everything was once more fresh in my mind. I had gathered together and mounted my 100 or so studies and when I had finished the job a slightly melancholy sense of ‘what’s the good?’ came over me — but then Herkomer’s forceful words calling on people not to weaken and saying that it’s more necessary than ever to keep the hand to the plough did me so much good, and I thought I’d briefly tell you the substance of what he said. With a handshake in thought, believe me
I hope to hear from you in the coming days, I received a good letter from home.