To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Tuesday, 20 or Wednesday, 21 February 1883.
My dear Theo,
I wanted to write to you on Sunday but I waited because I was busy with something that hadn’t yet been decided. A week or so ago I was reading Fritz Reuter’s ‘Uit mijn gevangenistijd’, in which he describes very amusingly how Fritz R. and others serving fortress sentences made life as agreeable as possible and secured various privileges from their ‘field officer’. That book gave me the idea of tackling my landlord with a view to certain improvements that would make my work easier.
And I’ve been back and forth to Voorburg, where he lives, several times to get him to do one thing and another. There were some old wooden blinds and planks lying there that I wanted to use, but it wasn’t easy to get them. Still, I have them now. As you know, there are 3 windows in the studio. They give much too much light, even if I cover them, and I’ve long been thinking about how to remedy this.
But he didn’t want to do anything unless I paid him.
But now, as the result of tackling him again, I have 6 blinds and about 6 long planks.
Those blinds are now being sawn to make shutters that can be manoeuvred so that more or less light is shut out or let in as required, from above or below. From this scratch I think you’ll see that it works very nicely.
And the planks are for a big cupboard in the alcove, for storing drawings, prints, books, and as a hatstand for various smocks, jackets, old coats, shawls and hats, not forgetting the sou’wester, which I need for the models.
I’ve paid the landlord regularly and have now told him straight out that I wouldn’t contradict him if he thought the rent for the house was low, but I asked him to consider that for me the rent was still a heavy burden. And that I could not work readily or make progress until I had better light.
That if he couldn’t change it I, for my part, really would be forced to find another studio. That if I could afford it I would put up with paying for it, but now I wasn’t in a position to pay more than I was already. So my paying more was out of the question, and whether I stayed depended on whether or not he would have this done. If my leaving was a matter of indifference to him, we’d part as good friends and say no more. Well, then he said, no, he did want to do something, and so we finally agreed that I need only pay a few guilders’ worth of labour.
He’s been to the studio himself repeatedly and is certainly not a swindler, though he has a pretty sharp tongue (a bit like a Yankee). And it seems that the studio was better than he’d expected (he hadn’t seen it since July last year); at any rate I got it approved while in the studio, and more easily even than I expected.
If only one could always deal with people in the studio! But outside it I, for one, can’t get them to do much and can’t get on well with them. Have been working on some figures, rather large, busts or to the knees, which will be a sort of decoration for the corridor and stairs, together with a few others, though they’re really no more than ordinary studies. Anyway, you see from one thing and another that I’ve once again thrown myself headlong into it, so that I’ll get new ideas in my head through being busy.
At Voorburg, for example, when I went with him to sort out that wood, I saw beautiful scenes of labourers in a shed and the excavation of a cellar and the laying of the foundations of a house. I thought of what you once wrote to me about the labourers in Montmartre when you were there, when one of them injured himself in a stone quarry.
As you know, I already had something in front of the windows, namely canvas stretched on laths. They’re no longer needed now, but will be highly desirable as backgrounds, with darker or lighter material stretched over them, when one wants to draw heads, for example.
You see now that I’ll be able to cover over one or two windows completely and thus obtain one general light that will make the effects much stronger. Otherwise they’d be
neutralized by reflections or different lights.
The job would have been entirely out of the question if I’d had to pay for it myself, since it was expensive, and I’m very pleased with it.
I felt that better light was desirable, especially when doing drawings like those I was working on of late, such as those heads I sent you in which I used a stronger black. I hope everything will work properly but you can see for yourself from this scratch that it’s so simple that it’s bound to work, it seems to me.
Yet how miserable today’s houses often are compared with what they could be if people made an effort to furnish them pleasantly.
Compare a modern window with one from Rembrandt’s time. In those days everyone seems to have had a sort of need for a curious, dimmed light that no longer seems to exist, at least there’s a tendency to make it cold, harsh and loveless. A good start was made with workers’ dwellings, but I see no sign of advances being made since those of 20 or 30 years ago. On the contrary, the pleasing aspect is increasingly lost, and it turns into something cold and systematic and methodical that becomes ever more empty with time. If I could have, I would have had the windows altered like this:
which wouldn’t have been that much more if we hadn’t been dealing with blinds that already existed. The difference is only that there’s a frame around each square of light, and the blinds are thus slightly smaller.
But the latter is an agreeable and easily achieved, pleasing window. But one can’t have everything. And it ought really to have a broad window-sill — where one could sit — which is entirely lacking in this house. I’m longing for your letter and news of your patient. May she have remained calm and may the recovery be normal and successful. But it doesn’t always go smoothly and rapidly, and something or other almost always comes up, and at all events one must be very much on the alert. Just last week I read Notre-Dame by Hugo, which I had read before over 10 years ago. Do you know who I recognized in it, or at least was so convinced I recognized that I don’t doubt that Victor Hugo intended some such thing? I recognized Thijs Maris in Quasimodo.
Most people who read N. Dame probably have an impression of Quasimodo as a sort of clown. But you wouldn’t think Quasimodo ridiculous any more than I would, and like me you would feel that what Hugo says is true. For those who know that Quasimodo existed, now Notre-Dame is empty. For not only was he its inhabitant, but he was its soul. If one takes Notre-Dame as a symbol of the movement in art that found expression in, for instance, Leys and Degroux (sometimes) and Lagye and De Vriendt, Henri Pille, the following can be applied to Thijs Maris: now there’s an emptiness for those who know that he existed, for he was its soul, and the soul of that art, it was he. Anyway, Thijs Maris still exists but not in his full prime and vigour — not unhurt and disenchanted to the extent that there can be disenchantment with him. One of the enormities committed by the painters here is, I believe, that even now they still laugh at Thijs Maris. I think there’s something as dismal as suicide in that. Why suicide? Because Thijs Maris is such an embodiment of something high and noble that in my view a painter can’t mock that without lowering himself.
Those who don’t understand Maris, so much the worse for them, those who do understand him grieve for him, and grieve that such a person has snapped.
Noble blade, ignoble scabbard — In my soul I am fair.
This is applicable to Thijs M. and to Quasimodo.
Well — write soon if you haven’t written already, and believe me, with a handshake,