To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 5 November 1882.
My dear Theo,
Your letter and its contents were very welcome. A point that will perhaps be raised more and more is the one you refer to. People will be forced to recognize that much of what’s new, in which people at first thought they saw progress, is indeed less sound than the old, and consequently the need will become apparent for strong men to redress the balance. Since I believe arguing about this will make no difference to the matter itself, I think it quite unnecessary to write more about it. But for my part I can hardly say that I share your idea that you express as follows: ‘in my view it’s in the nature of things that the desired change will come’. Just think of how many great men have died or... won’t be with us much longer — Millet, Brion, Troyon, Rousseau, Daubigny, Corot — and a host of others — are no more. Think further back, I say, Leys, Gavarni, Degroux (to name just a few), or still further, Ingres, Delacroix, Géricault, think how old it already is, modern art. Add to them many who are aged.
Nonetheless, there was still progress up to Millet and Jules Breton in my view, but as for surpassing these two men, don’t talk to me of that.
Their genius may be equalled in past, present or later ages, but to surpass them isn’t possible. If one reaches that high zone, one is amid an equality of geniuses, but one can’t climb higher than the top of the mountain. Israëls, for example, may equal Millet, but with genius there’s no question of surpassing or being inferior.
Now, though, the top has been reached in art. In the years to come we’ll most certainly see splendid things; something more sublime than what we’ve already seen — no. And for my part I fear that in a few years there may be a kind of panic, in this form: since Millet we have sunk very low — the word decadence, now whispered or pronounced in veiled terms (see Herkomer), will then sound like an alarm bell. Many, like I myself, now keep quiet, because they already have the reputation of being awkward customers, and talking about it doesn’t help. That — namely, talking — isn’t what one needs to do — one must work, though with sorrow in the heart. Those who later cry out the loudest about decadence will themselves belong to it the most. I repeat: by this shall ye know them, by their work, and it won’t be the most eloquent who say the truest things. See Millet himself, see Herkomer, they’re certainly not orators, and speak almost reluctantly.
Enough of this, in you I find someone who understands much about the great men, and I find it delightful to hear things about them now and then that I don’t know, like, for
example, what you write to me about Daumier. The series of portraits of politicians &c., the painting of the 3rd-class carriage, the Revolution — I don’t know any of them.
Now I haven’t seen them myself through what you say, but in my imagination Daumier’s personality has gained in importance as a result. I would rather hear talk about such
men than about the latest Salon, for example.
Now as for what you write about Vie Moderne, or rather about a type of paper that Buhot promised you. This is something that interests me very much.
Do I understand correctly that this paper is such that when one does a drawing on it (I assume in autographic ink), this drawing — without using a second draughtsman or engraver or lithographer as an intermediary — can be transferred as it is onto a stone, or that a print can be made of it, so that any number of impressions can be obtained, the latter then being facsimiles of the original drawing? If this is the case, be so good as to give me all the information you can find about how one should work on this paper, and do your best to send me some of it on which I can do some trials.
If I could do my trials before you come, then we could discuss what to do with them at that time. I think it possible that within a relatively short time there may be a demand for employees for illustration, more so than at present.
If for my part I fill my portfolios with studies from the models that I can grab or catch, I’ll get something to show so that I’ll be eligible, I hope, to be given employment. To keep on illustrating, like for example Morin, Lançon, Renouard, Jules Ferat, Worms in their day, one must have plenty of ammunition in the form of various studies in different fields.
I’m trying to gather these together, as you know, and will see in due course.
By the way, so far I have not yet received the packet of studies which you wrote that you had returned through rue Chaptal. Could they already have arrived at the Plaats? If you think they have, I’ll have them collected, because they’ll be useful to me in connection with things I’ve been doing recently.
Do you know who I drew this morning? Blok the Jewish bookseller, not David but the short one who’s on the Binnenhof. I wish I had more from that family, for they are a true type.
It’s enormously difficult to get the types one would prefer to have — in the meantime I’m content to draw what I can get, without losing sight of the others I would draw if I had the choice.
I’m very pleased with Blok. He reminds me of things from many years ago. I hope he’ll come again some other Sunday morning.
Naturally, while working one always feels and ought to feel a sort of dissatisfaction with oneself, a desire to be able to do it much better, but still it’s delightful and enjoyable to gradually assemble all kinds of figures — although the more one makes, the more one realizes one needs.
One can’t do everything at once, but it will be absolutely necessary for me to do a number of horse studies some day, not just scratches on the street but with a model for once. I know of an old white horse, a real nag if ever there was one (at the gasworks), but the man, who makes the poor animal do all manner of heavy jobs and just wants to get what he can out of it, asked a lot for it, namely three guilders to come to me for a morning, a daalder14 at the very least at his place, provided I came on Sunday.
And when you consider that for what I need, namely 30 strong studies, say, I would have to work quite a few mornings, it would cost me too much. But I’ll find a better opportunity sometime.
I can get a horse much more easily here and there for a very short time, these people are sometimes willing to do that, but in a very short time one cannot do what really needs to be done, so that’s little help. I try to work quickly, because otherwise it just doesn’t pan out, but a study that’s of some use requires at least half an hour, say, so one always comes back to actual posing. At Scheveningen, for instance, I’ve occasionally had a boy or a man stand still for a moment, as they say, on the beach. The outcome was always a great desire on my part for a longer pose, and standing still for a moment isn’t enough for me, neither for a person nor for a horse.
If I’m correctly informed, the draughtsmen for The Graphic whose turn it was always had models at their disposal in a studio at the offices. Dickens has some nice things to say about the painters of his age and their wrong way of working, namely slavishly and yet only half sticking to the model. He says: Fellows, do understand that your model isn’t your ultimate goal but a means for giving body and vigour to your ideas and inspiration. Look at the French (Ary Scheffer, for example) and see how much better than you they do it. It’s just as if the English listened to him — they continued working with models, but they learnt to see the model in a grander and bolder way, and learnt to take better advantage of it for sounder and nobler compositions than those of Dickens’s painting contemporaries.
Two things that remain eternally true and complement each other, in my view are: don’t snuff out your inspiration and power of imagination, don’t become a slave to the model; and, the other, take a model and study it, for otherwise your inspiration won’t take on material form.
When your letter came there were things I had to pay immediately. I hope it won’t inconvenience you to send again no later than 10 Nov. Understand that the question of that process Buhot spoke to you about strikes me as being pretty important. I would be very pleased if I could learn it, and would like to do my best at it. Adieu, with a handshake.
Do you know the effects one sees here early in the morning these days? It’s splendid — it’s what Brion painted in the painting in the Luxembourg, The end of the flood, namely that band of red light on the horizon with rain-clouds above. This brings me to the landscape painters. Compare those of Brion’s time with now.
Is it better now than then? I doubt it. I’ll gladly acknowledge that they’re much more productive in that field than in the past, but although I can’t help admiring what they make now, the old landscapes in a more old-fashioned manner always give me pleasure when I see them. There were a few years when I walked past a Schelfhout, for example, and thought something like: that’s not worth the effort. Yet the new, although it takes someone in, doesn’t always continue to make the same strong, moving impression over time, and a naive painting like a Schelfhout or a Ségé, a Jules Bakhuyzen, is seen again with vivid pleasure after one has long been looking at newer things.
I really didn’t deliberately set out to be somewhat disenchanted as regards progress; on the contrary, it began to develop unwittingly in my thoughts very much against my will, because as time passed I felt more and more a kind of emptiness which I can’t fill with the things being made today. While searching for an example, I think of old woodcuts by Jacque that I saw at least 10 years ago at C.M.’s. It was a series, The months. They were done in Jacque’s old manner, in the manner of those etchings that appeared in annual series, or even more old-fashioned. The local tone is less in them than in his later work, but the draughtsmanship and a certain terseness are reminiscent of Millet. You see, with the many croquis in the present magazines it seems to me that a not entirely unconventional elegance threatens to replace that typical, truly rustic quality of which the croquis by Jacque that I mean are an example.
Might not the cause of this also lie in the lives and characters of the artists? I don’t know what your experience is, but do you find many people these days prepared to go for a long walk in grey weather, for example? You would do it gladly, and enjoy it too, as I would, but for many it would be a chore. Equally, I was struck by the fact that when one talks to painters, in most cases, by far, the conversation is not interesting.
When he wants, Mauve has the power to say something in words so that one sees it, and most certainly others here have that too when they want. Yet, that curious fact that when one talks to a painter one immediately has a sense of the open air — is it your impression that that’s as strong as it used to be?
This week I read in Forster, Life of C. Dickens, all kinds of details about long walks on Hampstead Heath &c. outside London, the final goal being, for example, to have bacon and eggs at an old inn way out in the country. Those walks were very jolly and cheerful, but all the same it was usually the case that serious plans for books were made, or else the changes Dickens was to make to one character or another were discussed. The present has something hectic and harried about it for which I do not care, and it’s just as if death has touched everything. I’d like your expectation ‘that the desired change will come’ to prove true, but in my view it isn’t ‘in the nature of things’.
Be this as it may, opposing in words is a complete side issue, I believe, and what everyone who considers the matter important should do in his own circle is to try to make or help to make something.
Have been working again on women miners carrying sacks of coal in the snow — watercolour. But above all I’ve drawn 12 or so studies of figures for it, and 3 heads, and I’m not yet finished. I’ve got the effect in the watercolour, I believe, but it isn’t yet strong enough in character for my taste.
The reality is like Millet’s The gleaners — austere — so you will understand that one shouldn’t turn it into a snow effect, which would only be an impression and have no raison d’être unless the landscape is the whole point. I think that I’ll start all over again — although the studies I have for now may please you — precisely because I was more successful with them than with many others. It would be really suitable, I believe, for the Vie Moderne. If I get the paper, I already have one of the figures, for example, to do as a trial. But it must become a little troop of women, a small caravan.