To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Friday, 26 or Saturday, 27 January 1883.
My dear Theo.
The more I reflect upon it, the deeper the impression made on me by your last letter. In broad outline (leaving aside the difference between the two people in question), on a cold, merciless pavement a sombre, sorrowful figure of a woman appeared before you and before me, and neither you nor I passed her by, but both of us stopped and followed the promptings of our human heart. Such an encounter has something of an apparition about it, at least if one thinks back one sees a pale face, a sorrowful look like an Ecce Homo against a dark background; everything else disappears. That is the sentiment of an Ecce Homo and in reality; the same thing is in the expression, but here it’s a woman’s face.
Later — things are definitely different — but one doesn’t forget that first moment.
Below an English figure of a woman (by Paterson) is the name Dolorosa, which pretty well expresses it. I’m thinking of the two women now, and at the same time I thought of a drawing by Pinwell, The sisters, in which I find that ‘Dolorosa’.
That drawing shows two women in black in a dark room. One has just come home and is hanging her coat on the hatstand. The other briefly smells a primrose on the table while picking up a white piece of needlework.
That Pinwell is reminiscent of Feyen-Perrin — in his earlier period — his work also recalls Thijs Maris, but with a yet purer feeling. He was a poet, as strong as could be, he saw the sublime in the most ordinary, everyday things. His work is rare, I saw little by him, but that little was so beautiful that now, 10 years later, it has remained just as clear in my mind as when I first became acquainted with it.
At that time it was said of that group of draughtsmen ‘It’s too good to last’. You can see from Herkomer’s words that sadly this has proved to be right, but it isn’t dead yet, and in both literature and art it will be difficult to find a better attitude than the one from those days.
I often felt low in England for various reasons but those, the Black and White and Dickens, are things that make up for it all. I think your meeting with this woman is likely to take your thoughts back many times to the period 10 or even 20 years ago, or still further back. In short, I mean you will rediscover yourself in her, a part of your life that you had almost forgotten, namely the past, and I don’t know whether, when you’ve been with her for a year, you’ll see the present through the same eyes as, for instance, before you knew her.
I speak from my own experience, not that I reject everything to do with the present day, far from it, but still it seems to me that something from the past that was good and
should have been kept is going, in art particularly, but also in life itself.
Perhaps I’m expressing things too vaguely, but I can’t put it another way — I don’t know myself what it is exactly, but it wasn’t only the Black and White that changed direction and strayed from the healthy, noble beginnings.
Rather, in general a kind of scepticism and indifference and coldness prevails, despite all the activity.
But all this is too vague and ill-defined. I don’t think about it all that much in fact, because I’m thinking about my drawings and have no time to go into it.
Still busy with heads this week, women’s heads mainly — with bags, among other things.
Have you ever seen anything by Boyd Houghton? He is one from the beginning of The Graphic who, though little known (he’s now dead), occupies a place of his own.
I thought of him when you wrote about the Barricade by Daumier. At the time he also did the pétroleuses and barricades in Paris. But later on he went to America and I know, among other things, drawings of Shakers by him, and a Mormon church, and Indian women &c., and emigrants. In a barricade scene, for example, he can have something ghostly, or rather something mysterious like Goya. He also treated the American subjects in that way, namely Goya-like, but then sometimes all at once something runs underneath that recalls Meryon because of its extraordinary austerity.
His woodcuts could almost pass for etchings.
Too good to last, they say, but it’s precisely because of that, because it’s rare, that the good lasts. It isn’t produced every day — it will never be obtained mechanically, but what there is of it is there, and that won’t go away but remain. And even if later another kind of good comes, the first will still keep its value. So in my opinion one shouldn’t lament the fact that this or that hasn’t become general; even if it doesn’t become general, whatever there is of the good or beautiful still exists.
What’s the position these days with the etchings Cadart began years ago? Has that also proved to be Too good to last?
I know well enough that many etchings, and beautiful ones at that, are published these days too. But I mean the old series Société des Aquafortistes that included The two brothers by Feyen-Perrin and the Sheep pasture by Daubigny and the Bracquemonds and so many others — have they retained their power or have they gone weak?
Even if they are weaker, what there is — doesn’t that already have enough substance to remain for ever, thus rather disproving the words too good to last?
What the etching needle could do was shown by Daubigny, Millet, Feyen-Perrin, and many others, just as The Graphic &c. showed what the Black and White could do.
And this stands as a truth once and for all, and those who wish can always draw energy from it. The pity of it is partly that when several people care for the same cause and work on it together, unity is strength, and united they can do more than their separate energies can, each striving in a different direction.
People strengthen each other when they work together, and an entity is formed without personality having to be blotted out by the collaboration.
This is why I wish Rappard was fully recovered. We don’t actually work together, but we have similar ideas about many questions. He’s getting better and we’re again dealing in woodcuts together. Yet I always have hopes that we’ll become even better friends than up to now, and perhaps later visit the miners together or something like that. But for the time being I believe that both he and I must do our best at thorough study of the figure; the more one has mastered that the more attainable such plans become. He says he’s had a fever, nothing more, and is still weak, but he’s tight-lipped about his illness.
We’ve had snow here again that’s now melting. The thaw is very beautiful. I imagine that this spring could be unusually delightful for you. Write soon about how your patient is getting on. Well, I’ll enjoy the spring too. Today, while the snow melts, one feels the spring in the distance, so to speak.
I think that we’ll have a real day when you come, sooner or later. Perhaps you’ll agree with me that in times of worry, such as you will certainly have now because of her illness, one can best feel the poetry of things. I long for the spring so that I can get a breath of fresh air instead of working at home, which has made me a little dull.
I’m still very happy with my sou’wester. I’m curious to know whether you’ll find anything good in the heads of fishermen. The last one I did this week was of a chap with a white fringe of beard.
I know of one drawing by Boyd Houghton which he calls ‘my models’ and which shows a corridor where several invalids — one on crutches, one blind, one a street urchin &c. — come to visit a painter on Christmas Day. There’s something nice about dealing with models — one learns a lot from them — this winter I’ve had people who will always stay in my memory. I like Edouard Frère’s remark that he had hung on to his models so that ‘those who used to pose as babies now pose as mothers’. Well, adieu, Theo, write soon. Sincere best wishes. Believe me, with a handshake