To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Friday, 1 December 1882.
My dear Theo,
In the last few days I had a letter from Rappard, with whom I’m in correspondence about the trials with lithography and who has himself done a little with it. I wrote to him in passing: I’ve run into another obstacle; a letter with money that I had largely earmarked for them has been lost. He wrote in reply, don’t let that hold you back, and count on me if you can’t carry on or need something. I didn’t tell him so that he would say something like that, but because I wanted him to make some new trials himself. But it gave me pleasure because such signs of interest are rare. I wrote back to him: for the present I’m declining the offer, but we’ll return to the subject if it really does become a question of not being able to continue at all. And I told him how much I appreciated it. See, that’s one of the cases I wrote to you about in my last letter. Of course there are costs involved in the drawing, the stone, the printing, the paper. These are relatively low. Prints like the last one I sent you, say, like a new one that I finished yesterday evening and is now ready, would I believe be suitable for a popular edition, for instance, which is so desperately, desperately needed here in Holland, more than elsewhere.
Now such an undertaking like making and printing a series of 30 with Working types, say — sower, digger, woodcutter, ploughman, washerwoman, plus on occasion a cradle or orphan man, in short, the whole vast field lies open, there’s an abundance of fine material — an enterprise like that — may one undertake it or may one not? It goes even deeper: is it a duty and just, or is it wrong? That is the question. If I were a man of means, I wouldn’t hesitate to decide, I would say, Onward, and be quick about it.
But in this case it’s different. May one, must one, can one involve others whom one needs, without whom one can’t carry it out, and drag them into an affair of which it’s doubtful whether it will be profitable? I wouldn’t spare myself. You’ve shown through your help to me that you don’t spare yourself either. Yet others think it both wrong of you and foolish that you took an interest in me, and they believe even more strongly that what I do is absurd, and many who were full of enthusiasm at first end up thinking that too, and are only briefly brave and fiery, like a straw fire.
Really very unfairly in my view, for neither you nor I are acting foolishly in this. This matter, which not long ago was no more than a few words from you, namely ‘I’ve spoken
to Buhot, who knows of a certain way of lithographing, of which more later, you ought to try something on paper that he’ll send you’, has in a short time taken on the
proportions of a more important matter for me from this initially rather insignificant start.
I see that with persistence and perseverance it could become something which I believe could be absolutely not superfluous but decidedly good and useful.
It has always been said: in Holland we can’t make magazines for the people. I’ve never been entirely able to believe this. I see now: it CAN be done. The Society for General Welfare has given thousands to Elsevier in Rotterdam to support the publishing of De Zwaluw. Now has De Zwaluw turned out to be good? NO. While there were a few fine prints in it, it was too feeble, too insubstantial, not serious, not vigorous enough. An imitation of the English, not original enough. There are two systems, How not to do it and How to do it.
How not to do it was, I fear, Elsevier’s ulterior motive, OTHERWISE HE WOULD HAVE DONE IT even if it had cost him his own money. How not to do it reasons as follows: I have so much and so much for it from the Welfare, I have so much and so much from sales — of that, I must put so and so much in my pocket first — I must do just as my colleagues do or they’ll call me an awkward customer or a man with a reputation &c. So it comes about that instead of saying what was written beneath a painting by Millais, ‘IT MIGHT BE DONE AND IF SO WE SHOULD DO IT’, Elsevier and a thousand like him say, it can’t be done, or do it too feebly and without enough energy. I don’t know the management of De Zwaluw well enough to say exactly who’s to blame, but I know their magazine well enough to dare take upon myself to say, ‘you haven’t made of it what you could have made of it, it could and should have been better’.
Now, moreover, I say all the same: be that as it may, in every age there have also been resolute, sincere, brave, honest Dutchmen; even in times when things in general were feeble and enervated and wrong, here and there one found the fire still burning in hidden corners. How much more so in those periods in which the Dutch could be counted among the first and the best.
So when it comes down to daring and self-sacrifice and venturing on something that doesn’t have to be done for gain but because it’s useful and good: one must keep one’s trust in one’s fellow man and fellow countrymen in general.
Before I go any further, though, this — I personally don’t want to have any more to do with the business of prints for the people beyond the making of them, in the event that some such venture is started. It must be a matter of charity, not of bookshops.
And as it will be necessary to have some contact with the bookshops, if only as regards printing and so on, I mention it to you now, not to ask you, ‘do you think it will succeed?’ from the bookshop’s point of view, but just with the question How to do it? from the point of view that it would be out of love for the cause.
In my opinion the following would have to be laid down:
Given that it’s useful and needful for Dutch drawings to be made, printed and circulated, intended for workers’ dwellings, farmhouses, in a word, for every working man, several parties undertake to do their utmost, to exert their best efforts for this goal.
This association not to be dissolved before the venture is completed, and endeavouring to carry it out as practically and as well as possible.
The price of the prints is not to exceed 10 or at the most 15 cents.
Publication shall begin when a series of 30 has been made and printed, and the costs involved (for stones, printing wages, paper) have been paid. These thirty prints will appear simultaneously, although available separately, together forming a set in linen cover with a short text, not to go with the prints — which speak for themselves — but to explain pithily how and for what purpose they were made &c.
The raison d’être of the association is this. If the draughtsmen stand alone they’ll have to bear both the effort and the costs — the venture would founder before it was half way — so the burden must be shared so that each gets the part that he can bear and so that the venture can be accomplished.
The amount raised by sales will be used first to reimburse those who advanced money, second to give everyone who has supplied a drawing an amount to be determined later that is the same for each draughtsman.
When these payments have been made, what remains will be used for new publications to carry on the work.
Those who begin this venture regard it as a duty. Self-interest not being their aim, neither those who advance money nor draughtsmen nor those who participate in other ways may claim back what they have contributed in the event that the venture yields no profit, so that their contribution is lost; nor may they claim back more than they have put in should the venture be successful beyond expectation.
In the latter case the surplus will be used to carry on the work, in the former case, however, the stones remain the property of the entrepreneurs; in any event though, the first 700 impressions from each stone are intended not for the association but for the people. If the association founders, those prints will be distributed free of charge.
Immediately after the publication of the first series of 30 there must be a debate and decision on whether or not to continue, and at that point, but not before, whoever so wishes may withdraw from the association.
This is the idea that took shape in my mind — now I say to you: How to do it? Will you take part?
I haven’t spoken to others about this, the idea first having become clear to me while I was at work. But I’ve long been in touch with Rappard on the question of prints for the people, since both he and I attach importance to it, so that he himself, as I wrote to you, said to me of his own accord, I want to give you a helping hand.
Rappard doesn’t, however, view the matter in the way that I would like him to: the thing is, he doesn’t agree with me on questions of technique. As to his proposal about advancing me money, I’ve decided to agree to it.
I refuse it for myself personally, because I would only pursue it alone if the kind of association I’ve described to you couldn’t be established. At that point I would have to see what more I could do. For the present I share my thoughts about the matter with him, and ask him as I ask you, couldn’t we start something of that kind?
And for my part I would wish everyone in the association to be completely equal — with no regulations or president or this or that — just a memorandum laying down the venture which, after it had been finally drawn up and signed by the entrepreneurs, couldn’t be altered other than by a unanimous vote — also the names of those who committed themselves (but not to make them public; the matter must be an artistic, a private venture), together with what they are doing for the cause: A undertakes to make this or that, B gives this or that for it &c., nothing more.
In the meantime it’s now 1 Nov. If you haven’t yet written, do so as soon as you possibly can. I have nothing left. Adieu, believe me, with a hearty handshake,
It should be an association for doing, not for debating — for acting decisively and without losing time, seeing the whole venture as ‘for charity’, not ‘for bookshops’.
Now something else. One must be prepared for what it entails.
30 stones, printing wages, paper.
What do they cost? I don’t know exactly, but I think 300 guilders would go a long way. The drawings are the contributions by the members of the association who cannot give any money.
I’m ready to take on all of them if no one else presents himself, but I would rather that better people than I took it on.
Sending the first 30 into the world seems to be desirable in any event, and I would be glad to carry on with it even if no enthusiasts came forward to make drawings for the time being, because showing that series to artists who could do it better than I might persuade them to take part. Many only want to start when they know for sure that it’s serious, and refuse to become involved as long as the first steps haven’t been taken.