To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Friday, 24 November 1882.
My dear Theo,
I received your registered letter of 20 Nov. in good order, and thank you very much for sending it. You’ll have seen how welcome it was from my letter, which must have crossed yours.
But you write that you sent the paper from Buhot at the same time as the letter — yet it wasn’t with it, and up to today, Friday, I don’t have it. Has the post made a mistake again, or do you perhaps still have it? I’ve waited until today to reply to your letter to see whether the post here had forgotten to deliver it, or something like that.
You also received the small roll with the Digger in it, I hope.
Today and yesterday I drew two figures of an old man with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. I did it of Schuitemaker once and always kept the drawing, because I wanted to do it better another time. Perhaps I’ll also do a lithograph of it. What a fine sight an old working man makes, in his patched bombazine suit with his bald head.
I’ve finished the book by Zola, Pot-bouille. I thought the most powerful passage was the kitchen maid Adele (scruffy Breton) giving birth in the dark attic room. Josserand is also portrayed with devilish skill and with sentiment. The rest of the characters too, but these two sombre ones, Josserand writing his addresses at night, and that tiny maid’s room, made the most impression on me. How well constructed the book is — and the words with which it ends are bitter: these days all houses are much of a muchness, it’s all the same, Swinery & Co. everywhere. Octave Mouret — actually the main character — couldn’t he be regarded as typical of the kind of people you wrote about recently, if you remember? He’s far better than most people, in many respects, but you won’t find him satisfactory any more than I do, and I sense an emptiness in him. Could he have done differently? Perhaps he couldn’t, but you and I can and must in my view. After all, we have our roots in a family life of a different kind from Mouret’s, and moreover there will always be something of the Brabant fields and heath in us I hope, which is all the less erasable by years of city life because art renews and adds to it. He — O. Mouret — is happy as long as he can sell his bales of novelties quickly (display his bales of goods on the pavements of Paris); he appears to have no other aspirations, except for conquests of women, and yet he wasn’t really fond of them, for Zola is right I believe when he says, ‘where his contempt for the female was apparent’. Anyway, I don’t know what to think of him. He seems to me to be a product of the time, actually more passive than active — despite his activity.
But after Zola’s book I read Quatre vingt treize by V. Hugo at long last. That’s entirely different territory. It’s painted, I mean written, like Decamps or Jules Dupré, with expressions as in old Ary Scheffers, such as The man in tears and The cutter of the tablecloth — or the figures in the background of Christus Consolator. I strongly recommend that you read it sometime if you haven’t read it, for the sentiment in which this book is written is becoming ever more uncommon, and amid the new I see nothing more noble. Truly.
It’s easier to say, as Mesdag did of a certain painting by Heyerdahl done in the sentiment of Murillo or Rembrandt that he didn’t want to buy from you, ‘Oh, that’s the old
manner, we don’t need that’, than to replace the old manner by something equivalent, let alone something better. And since many reason like Mesdag these days, without giving
it any further thought, it can do no harm if others do reflect on whether we are in the world to pull down rather than to build up. The phrase ‘not needed any more’ — how
eagerly people use it and what a stupid and ugly phrase it is. I believe that in a certain fairy tale Andersen puts it in the mouth not of a person but of an old pig.
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This week it pleased me very much indeed to see (in the window at G&C) a painting by De Bock that seemed to me far,
far better than the one he was working on in the spring.
This was a hut in the dunes with an avenue of trees in front of it. The background sombre and rich in tone, with a beautiful light sky behind. There was something very grand and lively about it.
I just said, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. I fear, Theo, that it will come about that many who have sacrificed the old for the sake of the new will deeply regret it. Especially in the realm of art.
There was a body of painters, writers, artists in short, who were united despite their divisions, and formed one force. They did not walk in darkness but had this light, that they clearly knew what they wanted and did not doubt. I’m speaking of the time when Corot, Millet, Daubigny, Jacque, Breton, were young, in Holland Israëls, Mauve, Maris, &c. One thing reinforced the other, it was powerful and noble. The shops were smaller then, the studios perhaps had a greater abundance than now, since beautiful things soon went. Those crammed studios, those smaller shop windows, collier’s faith of the artists above all, their warmth, their fire, their enthusiasm — what sublime things they were. Neither you nor I actually witnessed it, but through our love for that time we know of it what we know of it — let us not forget it — it may be useful — particularly if people go on saying so eagerly, not needed any more.
Adieu, with a handshake.