To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Friday, 21 July 1882.
It’s already late, but I wanted to write to you again. You aren’t here, yet I’m in need of you, and it seems to me as if we aren’t far apart sometimes.
Today I made an agreement with myself, which was to regard my illness, or rather what’s left of it, as non-existent. Enough time has been lost, the work must be carried on. So, well or not well, I’m going to draw again regularly from morning till evening. I don’t want anyone else to be able to say, ‘Oh, those are only old drawings.’
I’ve drawn a study of the cradle today with touches of colour in it.
I’m also working on a ditto like the meadows I recently sent you.
My hands have become rather whiter than I care for, but what can I do about it? I’ll also go outdoors again. It matters less to me that it may strike me down than that I’m kept longer from my work. Art is jealous; she won’t allow illness to be placed above her. So I’ll let her have her way. I hope, therefore, that you’ll soon have a few reasonable ones.
People like me aren’t really allowed to be ill. You must really understand how I regard art. One must work long and hard to arrive at the truthful. What I want and set as my goal is damned difficult, and yet I don’t believe I’m aiming too high. I want to make drawings that move some people. Sorrow is a small beginning — perhaps small landscapes like the Laan van Meerdervoort, the Rijswijk meadows and the Fish-drying barn are also small beginnings. At least they contain something straight from my own feelings.
Whether in figures or in landscapes, I would like to express not something sentimentally melancholic but deep sorrow.
In short, I want to reach the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly. Despite my so-called coarseness — you understand — perhaps precisely because of it. It seems pretentious to talk like this now, but that’s why I want to push on.
What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an oddity or a disagreeable person — someone who has and will have no position in society, in short a little lower than the lowest.
Very well — assuming that everything is indeed like that, then through my work I’d like to show what there is in the heart of such an oddity, such a nobody.
This is my ambition, which is based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.
Even though I’m often in a mess, inside me there’s still a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest little house, in the filthiest corner, I see paintings or drawings. And my mind turns in that direction as if with an irresistible urge. As time passes, other things are increasingly excluded, and the more they are the faster my eyes see the picturesque. Art demands persistent work, work in spite of everything, and unceasing observation.
By persistent I mean in the first place continued labour, but also not abandoning your approach because of what someone else says. I have hopes, brother, that in a few years, and even now already, you’ll gradually see things by me that will give you some recompense for your sacrifices.
I’ve had very little conversation with painters lately. I felt none the worse for that. It isn’t the language of painters one ought to listen to but the language of nature. I can now understand, better than six months ago or more, why Mauve said: don’t talk to me about Dupré, talk to me instead about the side of that ditch, or something like that. It sounds crude and yet it’s perfectly correct. Feeling things themselves, reality, is more important than feeling paintings, at least more productive and life-giving.
Because I now have such a broad, such a large sense of art and of life itself, of which art is the essence, it sounds to me so shrill and false when there are people like Tersteeg who are always on the hunt. For my part I find a peculiar charm in many modern paintings that the old ones don’t have. For me one of the highest and noblest expressions of art is always that of the English, for instance Millais and Herkomer and Frank Holl. What I mean to say as regards the difference between old and contemporary art is: perhaps the new artists are deeper thinkers.
There’s another great difference: in sentiment, between Chill October by Millais and the Overveen bleaching grounds by Ruisdael, for example. And equally between the Irish emigrants by Holl and the women reading the Bible by Rembrandt.
Rembrandt and Ruisdael are sublime, for us as much as for their contemporaries, but there’s something in the moderns that strikes us as more personally intimate.
That’s how it is with the woodcuts by Swain, and those by the old German masters too.
So it was a mistake a few years ago when there was a vogue among the moderns for imitating the old masters.
This is why I think what père Millet says is so right: I think it absurd that people want to appear to be something other than they are. That seems to be an unremarkable observation and yet it’s as unfathomably deep as the ocean, and I for one think it advisable to take it to heart in all things.
I just wanted to tell you that regular work will and must be resumed, come what may — and I want to add that I’m longing so much for a letter from you, and also to wish you good-night.
Adieu, with a handshake.
Please remember the thick Ingres if you can, a sample is enclosed. I still have enough of the thin. I can wash in watercolour on the thick Ingres; on the sans fin, for example, it always gets muddy without it being entirely my fault.
I’ll draw the cradle, I hope, a hundred times apart from the one today. With persistence.