Vincent van Gogh - Still Life with Bloaters 1886

Still Life with Bloaters 1886
Still Life with Bloaters
Oil on canvas 45.0 x 38.0 cm. Paris: Summer, 1886
Otterlo: Kröller-Müller Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, between Monday, 4 and Saturday, 9 December 1882.
My dear Theo,
You’ve received my letter in which I wrote about how, while I was working, an idea came to me for making figures from the people for the people. How it seemed to me that it would be a good thing if several individuals joined together for this purpose, not for the bookshops but out of charity and duty. Since I wrote that to you, I’ve naturally thought not so much ‘Who will do this or that?’ as ‘What shall I do for it?’ on the grounds that I’m not responsible for the one, but I am for the latter.
But I can tell you this, just when I was drawing for this purpose the idea took shape more firmly in my mind that setting up such a thing would be useful, and that there would be absolutely no need to resort to aping other popular publications, that on the contrary, the existence of similar magazines like British Workman, for instance, is a guide as to How to do it and How not to do it. I don’t know whether you know Little Dorrit by Dickens and the character Doyce in it, the man who could be taken as typical of those who have as their principle: How to do it.
Even if you don’t know this wonderful figure of a working man from the book, you will understand the chap’s character from this one quotation. When what he wanted didn’t come about, encountering indifference and even worse, and he couldn’t carry on, he simply said: This misfortune alters nothing — the thing is just as true now (after the failure) as it was then (before the failure). And began again on the continent with what hadn’t succeeded in England, and launched it there.
What I wanted to say is this. The idea of drawing types of working man from the people for the people, and circulating them as a popular publication, seeing the whole thing as necessarily being an affair of duty and charity — that and nothing else than that — see, that idea is such that I believe one is entitled to assume, even if it isn’t successful immediately or at once: The thing is as true today as it was yesterday, and will be as true tomorrow. And that it’s thus something that one can begin and pursue with serenity, something whose good outcome one also needn’t doubt or despair of — provided one doesn’t weaken or lose heart.

I said to myself that what I should do was obvious — do my very best with the drawings. So since my letter on this subject I now have some new ones. First of all a Sower. A big old chap, a tall dark silhouette against a dark ground.
Far off a heath cottage with a mossy roof and a bit of sky with a lark. This is a sort of cockerel type: a shaven face, fairly sharp nose and chin, the eye small, mouth sunken. Long legs with boots.
Then a second sower with a light brown bombazine jacket and trousers, so this figure comes out light against the black field bounded at the end by a row of pollard willows. This is a very different type, with a fringe of beard, broad shoulders, a little stocky, a little like an ox in the sense that his whole appearance has been shaped by working on the land. If you like, more the type of an Eskimo, thick lips, broad nose.
Then a reaper with a big scythe in a pasture. The head with a brown woollen cap stands out against the light sky.
Then one of the old boys with short jackets and big, old top hats one meets sometimes in the dunes.
He’s carrying home a basket of peat.
Now in these drawings I’ve tried to express my intention even more clearly than in the old man with his head in his hands. All these chaps are doing something, and I think that in general that, above all, should be adhered to in the choice of subjects. You yourself know how fine the numerous resting figures are, which are made so very, very often. They’re done more often than working figures.
It’s always very tempting to draw a figure at rest — expressing action is very difficult, and in the eyes of many the effect is ‘more pleasing’ than anything else.
But this pleasing aspect mustn’t lose sight of truth, and the truth is that there’s more toil than rest in life. So you see that my attitude to it all is chiefly this, that for my part I’m trying to work on it. It seems to me that the drawings themselves have greater urgency than even the reproduction.
I’ll also be careful about talking about the matter, because I believe that people generally act more practically in a small group than when many are involved.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.
How I wish we were together a little more.
Do you know why I, for my part, don’t doubt that I could do it? You know from physics that an object immersed in a fluid loses as much weight as the specific gravity of the amount of fluid that the body displaces. This is why some things float, and why even those that sink are lighter under water than in the air. Something similar — a kind of fixed law of nature — seems to exist as regards working, in the sense that when one is engaged in it, one feels more capacity for work than one knew one had, or rather actually did have. You would experience that too if you set yourself to painting sometime. At first it seems something unattainable, a hopeless thing, later it becomes clear, and I believe that you would see this in my work too.
But something I’ve already written to you has been confirmed, namely that Rappard is seriously ill. I’ve again had news from his father, who doesn’t say what it is exactly. By the time he’s better I want to have as many drawings as possible finished, because I’d like R. to do the same as soon as he’s up and about. R. has what not everyone has, namely he ponders, and his feeling is something he cultivates. He can make a plan, take stock of something, keep hold of an idea.
Many others regard the pondering and the willing as unartistic, are at least not equipped for long-term labours. The matter in question now involves both skill and action and perseverance, and furthermore being calmly patient. Then Rappard has another thing that in my view means he can be of great value for something like this. He really studies the figure, not just as a note of colour in a watercolour, but more strictly as to its form and structure.
I often think I’d like to be able to spend more time on landscape proper. I often see things that I find remarkably beautiful, which moreover make me say instinctively, I’ve never seen this or that painted like that.
In order to paint it — how to do it — I would have to give up other things. I would like to know whether you agree with me that in landscape there are things that have still not been done, that, for example, Emile Breton has imparted effects (himself continues to work in that direction) that are a beginning of something new which it seems to me hasn’t yet reached its full force, understood by few, practised by even fewer. Many landscape painters don’t have that intimate knowledge of nature possessed by those who have looked at the fields with feeling from childhood. Many landscape painters give something that satisfies neither you nor me, for example, as people (even if we appreciate them as artists). People call Emile Breton’s work superficial, which it isn’t, he ranks much higher in sentiment than many others, and knows much more and his work holds up.
Truly, huge voids are also beginning to come in the sphere of landscape, and I’d like to apply a remark by Herkomer: the interpreters allow their cleverness to mar the dignity of their calling. And I believe that the public will begin to say, deliver us from artistic combinations, give us back the simple field. How good it feels to see a fine Rousseau that has been laboured over in order to be faithful and honest. How good it feels to think of people like Van Goyen, Old Crome and Michel. How beautiful an Isaac Ostade or a Ruisdael is. Do I want them back, or do I want them to be imitated? No, but I do want the honesty, the naivety, the faithfulness to remain. I know old lithographs by Jules Dupré, either by himself or facsimiles of his croquis.
But what spirit and what love is in them, and yet how freely and gaily they are done.
Copying nature absolutely isn’t the ideal either, but knowing nature in such a way that what one does is fresh and true — that’s what many now lack. Do you think, for instance, that De Bock knows what you know? No, most definitely not. You will say, but everyone has surely seen landscapes and figures from childhood. Question: was everyone also thoughtful as a child? Question: did everyone who saw them — heath, grassland, fields, woods — also love them, and the snow and the rain and the storm? Not everyone has that the way you and I do; it takes a special kind of setting and circumstances to contribute to it, and a special kind of temperament and character as well to make it take root.
I remember letters from you from when you were still in Brussels with descriptions of landscapes like those in your last letters.
Do you realize that it’s so very, very necessary that honest people should remain in art? I’m not saying that there are none, but you yourself feel what I mean, and know as well as I how a host of people who paint are enormous liars. Honesty is the best policy applies here too, as does the fable of the hare and the tortoise, and the ugly duckling by Andersen. Edwin Edwards the etcher, for example — why is his work so absolutely beautiful, why did he rightly gain a position among the best in England? Because what he wanted was honesty and faithfulness. I would rather be Jules Dupré than Edwin Edwards, but, you see, one must have great respect for sincerity, and it holds up when other things turn out to be chaff.
To me the Bernier, The fields in winter in the Luxembourg is an ideal.
Then you have Lavieille, the wood engraver and painter — I saw a winter night with a Christmas sentiment by him20 that now comes to mind.
Then you have Mme Collart — for instance that painting of an apple orchard with an old white horse.
Then you have Chintreuil and Goethals. (I’ve often sought someone in order to explain to you with whom the beautiful things by Goethals could be compared — I believe Chintreuil.) But then I don’t know much of Chintreuil’s work, or of Goethals’s either, for that matter. Misconceptions as to the intentions of the great landscape painters are to a large extent the cause of the trouble. Almost no one knows that the secret of beautiful work is to a large extent good faith and sincere feeling.
Many can’t help it that they aren’t deep enough, and act in good faith, in so far as they have good faith.
Yet I believe you’ll admit (the more so since it’s a question here of something that isn’t your own sphere, although it does concern you somewhat) that it’s a fact that if many a landscape painter who is now highly rated knew half what you know of sound ideas about the outdoors, with which you’re naturally familiar, he would produce much better and sounder work. Think this over, and put this and many more things besides in the balance when, weighing yourself, you say things like, ‘I would only be something mediocre’. Unless you mean mediocre in its good, noble sense. Stalwartness, as people say here, they make great play of this word – for my part I don’t know the true meaning of it, and have heard it applied to very insignificant things – stalwartness, is that what must save art? I would be more hopeful that things were going well if there were more people like E. Frère or Emile Breton, for example, rather than stalwarts like Boldini or Fortuny coming. Frère, Breton, will be missed and mourned; Boldini, Fortuny, one may respect them in themselves, but the influence they exercised is fatal.
A chap like Gustave Brion has left something good, Degroux, for instance, too. If there were many more like them the world would be a better place; art would be a blessing. But Boldini, but Fortuny, but Regnault even, what good does it do us, what progress have we made? What you say is absolutely true, ‘Seriousness is better than raillery, however sharp and witty it is’. In other words, I would say, loving-kindness is better than mockery, that goes without saying, but many say, no, there’s good in that mocking. Well, they must reap as they sow. Adieu, old chap, I wanted to write to you about the drawings, namely that I hope this idea of prints for the people will induce me to make some progress. As I write to you, news of Rappard that there’s some change for the better, but he seems to be very ill. I know for sure that both he and his father are interested in the types from the people. I hope to go over there as soon as Rappard is back on his feet, or at least when his eyes are normal again.
Write again soon, and believe me
Ever yours,