Vincent van Gogh - A Pair of Shoes 1886

A Pair of Shoes 1886
A Pair of Shoes
Oil on canvas 37.5 x 45.0 cm. Paris: second half 1886
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

« previous picture | Paris - van Gogh's paintings | next picture »

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Anthon van Rappard. The Hague, Wednesday, 1 November 1882.
My dear friend Rappard,
The article by Herkomer is extremely interesting, for which many thanks. I’ve been completely absorbed by it since its arrival, and hope that I’ll make good use of what he says.
Will his lecture be understood? — now that’s something I doubt — I fear that in general he’ll be misinterpreted, and that many will draw conclusions from his words that he didn’t intend.
I believe what he says is absolutely true, right and serious, but, I repeat, one must be to some extent familiar with the matter — more than most people are — to avoid drawing a conclusion from his lecture that would be wrong.
Many would mistakenly interpret it as meaning that Herkomer rejects and condemns the Americans and the school of Small, and in my view that isn’t the case at all. He speaks of decadence, and not without reason.
He points out that the credit for many a wood engraving goes largely to the engraver and not to the draughtsman. Thus points out the enfeebling of the draughtsmen, finds this intolerable and fatal. I consider this absolutely true. Compare, for example, that print by Ridley, The miner, which you wrote to me about finding recently, with the large Types of beauty that The Graphic later published, or take another print by Ridley, the children’s ward of a hospital, which I have, soberly and austerely engraved by Swain, and then one feels the things which I’ve heard dismissed by people who pass for first-rate connoisseurs with a ‘yes, well, that’s the old-fashioned manner’ — and that brings us to what HH means. The old manner of engraving, that solid, honest, uncontrived drawing, is by far the best.
Herkomer says: be careful, don’t let that be lost, if art lacks that then art has meningitis or spinal consumption. Yet I don’t believe that he condemns Small himself and Chas Green, for instance, or others — I know of reproductions of drawings by Herkomer, Bavarian sketches for example,6 done in the same manner. But Herkomer wouldn’t reject, for example, the distribution of turf tickets in Ireland by Caton Woodville or Xmas in olden times by Howard Pyle, even though both Caton Woodv. and H. Pyle have occasionally worked for the newer manner of illustration and gone over ‘the margin line’.
I think it a pity that C.W. did the huge military things, however clever in themselves, and I prefer his prints in the manner of the turf market. Moreover, the criticism of Harper, and the Americans, reminds me of Chas Dickens.

He spoke out against them, see Chuzzlewit &c., and later, seeing that people drew the wrong conclusions from his words, such as that nothing good could come out of America, he added a preface to the later editions of Chuzzlewit in which he described his other impressions of America and his experiences on his second journey to America. Look it up in Forster’s life of Chas D., if you have it, and you’ll see what I mean, more clearly than in my words.
So when it comes to the Americans and the contemporary wood engravers, let’s not judge too hastily, and recall the old saying ‘lest ye root up also the wheat with the tares’. To be sure, his complaint against The Graphic, against publishers in general, isn’t out of place. Pleasing, Saleable13 are horrible words to me. And I’ve never met a dealer who wasn’t steeped in that, and it’s a plague. Art has no greater enemies, although the managers of the big art firms have a reputation for performing a useful service by taking artists under their wing.
They don’t do it right; although matters are such that, with the public coming to them, not to the artists themselves, the artists are persuaded to resort to them — yet there’s not a single artist who doesn’t have a spoken or silent complaint against them in his heart. They flatter the public in its worst and most barbaric tendencies and bad taste. Enough. What concerns you and me in H.H.’s lecture is: Draw austerely, be serious, be honest.
Now listen, this last letter of yours and the impression made on both you and me by HH’s forceful words make me wish all the more that we could see rather more of each other’s work. It struck me at the last splendid Pictura exhibition that although Israëls, Mauve, Maris, Neuhuys, Weissenbruch and many others of course remain themselves, in their followers one also sees decadence and can’t detect progress if one doesn’t consider them on their own but in connection with an exhibition at that time when today’s leading lights were rising men. The rising men of today are not what the rising men of the previous generation were. More effect, less substance these days. I’ve written this to you before more than once: I also see a difference in the very personalities of the rising men of today. You know it yourself and experience it yourself: you and I are regarded by them as awkward customers and nonentities, and above all we’re thought to be heavy going and tedious in our work and in our persons.
And believe me, those who saw the leading lights of today both as people and as artists 10 years ago — when they were all much poorer — they’ve earned a huge amount in those 10 years — miss those days of 10 years ago.
I take this opportunity to repeat my congratulations to you on your refusal at Arti. If you were to be a rising star in the current state of affairs, I would have less respect and sympathy for you than I do now. It’s crystal clear to me that you and I will certainly produce much finer work than we do now, and that our present work isn’t bad. For ourselves, we must remain strict and put our shoulders to the wheel, but there’s absolutely no reason to let oneself be discouraged or upset by what’s said about our work by those who think they know a better direction than we who make or try to make what strikes us in domestic life or on the streets or in the hospital &c.
If you knew what Degroux, for example, has endured by way of criticism and malice, you would be astonished. We must have no illusions, but prepare ourselves for being misunderstood, despised and vilified, and under all that, even when it gets much worse than it is now, we’ll have to hold on to courage and fervour. I believe we’ll do well to keep our attention fixed on the work and on the men of the past, namely 20, 30 years ago, if we don’t want it to be rightly said of us later: and Rappard and Vincent, too, can be counted among the decadent fellows. This is a harsh word, I absolutely mean it, and for my part I’ll go my way quietly without taking much notice of today’s school. Adieu, with a handshake.
Ever yours,