Vincent van Gogh - Still Life with Two Herrings, a Cloth and a Glass 1886

Still Life with Two Herrings, a Cloth and a Glass 1886
Still Life with Two Herrings, a Cloth and a Glass
Oil on canvas 32.5 x 46.0 cm. Paris: Summer, 1886
United States: Collection Scharenguival

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Monday, 11 December 1882.
My dear Theo,
I just received your registered letter and thank you most cordially for it. What I want to begin with is this. Herewith a folder from the 1883 Xmas No. of The Graphic. Do read it carefully, it’s well worth the effort. What a colossal set-up, isn’t it? What huge sales.
That said, what then?
The following, among other things. Hubert Herkomer’s words are in singular contrast to those of The Graphic’s editors.
The latter say, ‘On referring to our books we find that besides our professional artists we have no less than Two thousand seven hundred and thirty friends scattered over the world, sending us sketches or elaborate drawings.’
And in general his words are the diametrical opposite of those of the publishers in this Xmas issue — the whole producing a result in the following form.
Graphic publishers say “all right”.
H.H. says “all wrong”.
Now also see something striking on page 4 of the folder I’m sending: The G. when strong enough to walk alone, rented one house and began to print with six machines.
I have every respect for this, I feel something holy here, something noble, something sublime. I’m now looking at that group of great artists and thinking of foggy London and the scurrying about in that small set-up. Deeper in my imagination I see the draughtsmen in their various studios setting to work with the best kind of enthusiasm.
I see Millais going up to C. Dickens with the first No. of The Graphic. Dickens was then in the evening of his life, he had a paralyzed foot, walked with a kind of crutch. Millais says, while showing Him the drawing by Luke Fildes, Homeless and hungry — the poor and vagabonds outside a night refuge — Millais says to Dickens, give him your Edwin Drood to illustrate, and Dickens says, ‘Very well’.
Edwin Drood was Dickens’s last work, and Luke Fildes, having got in touch with D. through those small illustrations, comes into his room on the day of his death — sees his empty chair standing there, and so it was that one of the old Nos. of The Graphic had that striking drawing
Empty chairs — there are many, more will come, and sooner or later instead of Herkomer, Luke Fildes, Frank Holl, William Small &c. there will only be Empty chairs.
And still the publishers and dealers, not listening to a prophecy like H.H.’s, will go on assuring us in words like those in the enclosed folder that all is well and that we’re making very good progress.
How hard-hearted they are, how mistaken, though, if they think they can fool everyone into believing that material greatness is of equal weight as moral greatness, and that without the latter anything good can be done.
As with The Graphic, so with more, many more things in the sphere of art.
Moral greatness diminishes, material greatness comes in its place.
Whether the desired change will come? It seems to me that everyone must reflect on that for himself, but the old comparison speaks of a broad way ending in desolation, and of a narrow one leading to a different result. The Graphic began on the narrow way and has now moved to the broad one.
I saw the latest issue this morning. There was almost nothing good in it. I took an old, torn, dirty issue of 1873 from a pile of scrap paper at a Jewish bookseller’s this morning and am keeping almost everything in it.
But as for me — what to do?
A few years ago I went walking with Rappard outside Brussels at a spot they call the Vallée de Josaphat, an area where Roelofs lives, among others. There was a sandpit there where diggers were at work — there were women looking for dandelion leaves, a peasant was sowing — we looked at all this and at the time I was half despairing: will I ever succeed in making what I consider so beautiful? Now I’m no longer so despairing, now I can capture those peasants and women better than then, and through carrying on working patiently I can arrive at what I wanted, in a sense.
But what’s going on weighs heavily on me, and I don’t think of the magazines with pleasure and enthusiasm. The Graphic forgets to say that many in the group of artists are beginning to refuse to give their work, withdrawing more and more. Why? Because a painter works to do something good and has something honest in his heart that finds all that grandeur loathsome. What more shall I say? — repeat ‘What to do?’ once more. Carry on working, of course, but as if with a dark future.
Here in The Hague — there are clever, great men, I readily acknowledge that, but in many respects what a wretched state of affairs it is. What intriguing, quarrelling, envy. And in the personalities of the artists getting rich, who with Mesdag at their head set the tone, also unmistakable signs of material greatness replacing moral greatness.
I begin to feel in myself that if, for example, I went to England and tried right and left, I would indeed have a chance of finding a place. To achieve that was my ideal, was and is, despite everything, still what spurred me on to overcome the enormous initial difficulties. — — — But my heart becomes heavy at times when I think of what’s going on — my pleasure vanishes. I really want to do my best in my drawings, but all those editors and having to present oneself there — bah! I shudder at the thought.
You ask about my health. What I had last summer really has gone completely, but I’m a little dejected at present, which is combined with other moments, when I’m making progress with the work, when I feel very cheerful, so that I find it rather like being a soldier who doesn’t feel at home in the guardhouse and thinks to himself: why must I be here in the cooler when I would be more in my rightful place in the ranks?
I mean something is weighing on me, since I feel a power in myself which, due to the circumstances, can’t develop as it otherwise would, and the result is that I’m often wretched. A kind of internal battle over what I must do. Not so easy to resolve as may have appeared at first.
I wish I had a position through which I could make progress. Many positions that might lie within my reach would lead me to something entirely different from what I mean. They lie beyond my reach for, although I might be taken on initially, with time I wouldn’t be thought right for them. I would be dismissed and I would myself give notice, as with Goupil.
I mean, they’d want current events, the day’s news, whatever, for which someone like Adrien Marie or Godefroy Durand13 would be perfectly suitable. I begin to see ever more clearly that the illustrated magazines go along with the superficial stream, and I believe that they aren’t concerned with being as good as their duty dictates. No, filling the magazines with things that neither cost much nor take much trouble, now and again putting in something good, but produced in a cheap, mechanized way, apart from that filling their pockets with as much money as possible.
I don’t think this is a wise course of action. I believe they’ll go bankrupt as a result and be bitterly sorry at the very end, still a long way off. But this doesn’t alter the fact that things are as they are. Renewing themselves — they never give it a thought. Suppose that The Graphic, L’Illustration, Vie Moderne published an issue containing feeble, insipid things. Nonetheless, umpteen cartloads and shiploads would be sold, the managers rub their hands and say, ‘It sells just as well like this, no questions asked, they swallow it anyway’.
Yes, but if their lordships the managers could follow their publications and see how thousands eagerly pick up the magazine and then, when they put it aside, instinctively have a feeling of dissatisfaction and disappointment, maybe they’d be less keen to badger people.
This isn’t the case at all, though, and as you see from the Graphic report there’s no lack of self-confidence. In the meantime, people have wormed their way in as employees who wouldn’t have appeared in the difficult but noble time. What Zola calls the triumph of mediocrity takes place: scoundrels, nobodies, replace workers, thinkers, artists, and no one even notices.
The public — yes, on the one hand they’re dissatisfied, but material greatness also garners applause all the same. But don’t forget that this is only a straw fire, and that those who applaud generally do so only because it has become the talk of the town. On the day after the party there’ll be an emptiness and silence, and indifference after all that noise.
The Graphic will do Types of beauty (Large heads of women), says this prospectus, no doubt as a replacement for Heads of the people by Herkomer, Small and Ridley.
Very well, but some people will not admire the Types of beauty, and will think back with melancholy to the old Heads of the people (a series which has been terminated).
The Graphic say they’ll make Chromos!!! Give us back Swain’s studio.

You see, Theo, old chap, it truly grieves me, the whole thing is going wrong.
Listen, I would have counted it the greatest honour, an ideal, to have worked on what The Graphic started. What Dickens was as a writer, what the Household edition of his work was as a publication, that was what that sublime beginning of The Graphic was like.
And now, everything’s gone — again the material in place of the moral.
Do you know what I think of the folder I’m sending you? It’s just like the way of talking that, for example, Obach, the manager of G&C. in London, goes in for. And that is successful — yes, that is successful, yes, it’s listened to and it’s accepted. Do you know, old chap, what I think of this way of talking in this Graphic folder? It’s like Mesdag’s reasoning about the panorama at the time. I have respect for working, I despise neither Obach nor Mesdag, but there are things that I rate infinitely higher than that sort of energy.
I would like something more succinct, something simpler, something sounder; I would like more soul and more love and more heart.
Rest assured that I will not and cannot shout out against it, that I will not oppose it. It’s just that it makes me sad, it takes away my pleasure, it upsets me, and I no longer know what I, for my part, should or should not do.
What sometimes saddens me is this — in the past, when I began, I thought when I’ve got this or that far I’ll get a position here or there, and I’ll be on a straight path and set for life.
Now, though, something else has come up, and I fear, or rather expect, a kind of guardhouse instead of employment. I expect things like: yes, this and that in your work is all right (I doubt whether they really mean it), but you must understand that the kind of work you do is unusable; we need current events (vide The Graphic, we print on the Saturday what happened on the Thursday).
See, Theo, old chap — I can’t make any TYPES OF BEAUTY — but I will do my best for HEADS OF THE PEOPLE. See, Theo, I would like to do the same as those who began The Graphic (though I don’t consider myself their equal), that is to take a chap or woman or child from the street and do that in my studio. But no, they’d ask: ‘Can you do chromos by electric light?’
Anyway, instead of dealing with a way of thinking, a feeling, a goal like Dickens’s (The Graphic was like that originally), one is presented with a mode of seeing and thinking like Obach’s. That saddens me, and then I feel powerless.
Undertaking something oneself is possible only if one encounters interest and cooperation. This brings us to another area. Excuse me if I tell you my thoughts and continue to do so. If you don’t have time to write and don’t reply immediately, at least you’ll know when we meet again what preoccupies me, and perhaps we’ll find a passable path.
I thought this folder from The Graphic was something through which one can say more clearly what one means, and that’s why I write this for the present. With a handshake in thought.
Ever yours,