Vincent van Gogh - Vase with Hollyhocks 1886

Vase with Hollyhocks 1886
Vase with Hollyhocks
Oil on canvas 91.0 x 50.5 cm. Paris: August-September, 1886
Zurich: Kunsthaus Zurich

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Friday, 2 March 1883.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your letter and the enclosure.
The news about your patient seems to me most favourable, congratulations, I consider that the recovery from that anaemia is undoubtedly due to there truly being hope and zest for life in the heart once more as a result of her experiencing sympathy and goodness.

The heart that is fainting
May grow full to o’erflowing
And they who behold it,
Shall wonder and know not
That God at its fountains,
Far off — has been raining.

You will now have received, at least I sent it yesterday afternoon, a very rough sketch of a watercolour. This in answer to your question about it.
Yet it wasn’t done just now. I began it a few months ago, and since then it has had a lick or two now and again. Has remained in a rough-hewn state, though. I’ve since done many studies, that is drawings, of figures and especially of heads too. Precisely with an eye to such scenes as this sketch depicts, in which the finishing consists of putting texture and character into the heads, hands and feet especially.
Why am I sending it? — because I believe that in it you can see more clearly than in a number of other sketches that I’ve done in watercolour that I see things in strong colours — fresh in a grey haze. However unfinished and deficient, here’s a part of the street of the kind I try to depict in the Geest district or the Jewish quarter. This sketch isn’t a chance thing; I can get all kinds of scenes I see up to this level with this fairly expressive colour and tone. Now if you compare this sheet with the lithographs and drawings of heads sent this winter, you’ll clearly see from those various failures what I’m aiming for. Those large studies of heads, for instance, of which I have many more with sou’westers, with shawls and white hats and top hats and caps, for example — they’re intended for compositions like the one I’m sending now. But I’ll have to get through still more failures. For I believe that with watercolour much depends on great dexterity and working quickly. One has to work in the half wet to obtain harmony, and there isn’t much time for second thoughts.
So it’s not a matter of finishing them one by one — no, one has to do those 20 or 30 heads practically at once, one after the other.
Here are a couple of nice sayings about watercolour. ‘There’s something diabolical about watercolour,’ and the other is by Whistler, who said, yes, I did that in two hours, but I worked for years to be able to do it in two hours.
So enough about this — I like watercolour enough never to abandon it completely, I mess about with it constantly.
But the basis for everything is knowledge of the figure. So that one can readily draw fellows and females and children in every possible action. I’m working mostly on that, for I don’t think one can get to what I want by another route.

And I try to raise myself to a higher standard of expertise and skill, more in general rather than worrying about finishing a particular sketch, say. When I’ve been drawing for a month I do a few watercolours, for instance, by way of throwing out the sounding lead. Then each time I see that I’ve found a thing or two but that new difficulties have arisen. I then start slogging away once more to overcome them. As to the paint, it really is finished, and what’s more, because of one or two fairly heavy expenditures, I’m starving rather than just hard up.
Spring is coming and I’d like to do some painting again. So that is in part why I’m not watercolouring at the moment. But nonetheless I’m working on it indirectly, and because of the changes to the studio, now that I’ll be able to study more chiaroscuro effects, I’ll also increasingly work with the brush in Black and White drawings too, and put in shadows and even tints in washes with a neutral tint, sepia, indian ink and Cassel earth, and heighten lights with Chinese white.
Do you remember bringing me pieces of natural chalk last summer? I tried to work with it then but couldn’t. So I was left with a few pieces that I took up again these past few days; enclosed a scratch done with it. As you see, it’s a warm, unusual black. I’d very much like you to bring some more, this summer say. It has one great advantage — the firm pieces are much easier to hold while sketching than a thin stick of conté, which has nothing to grip and breaks all the time. So it’s marvellous for sketching out of doors.
Well, old chap — hard to put everything in words, and I didn’t want to answer your question about watercolour in words alone. I shouldn’t like anyone to see just this sketch, because I myself find nothing good in it apart from the general appearance, and will go on wrestling with the figures until I get into them in watercolour what they were beginning to get in the lithograph, namely more texture and character. It’s not pleasant to do sketches like the enclosed and then be unable to finish them. I hate this so much myself that I do them very rarely, purely to see whether I’ve found this or that and how far I’ve got. But I have hope and interest again now precisely because I have a large number of studies behind me.
I think the changes to the studio will give me a push forwards, not the first day but when I’ve fiddled about with things for a few months.
Because now, using models at home, I can study some of the effects like those in the watercolour I sent deuced well.
Here are the windows with the bottom part closed off so that the light falls on the group of figures from above. I can position them like this in the studio, and then get the glancing lights, say, on the figures from above. As in the watercolour. I’ve already sought this with the orphan man, the woman and the children — I’m getting splendid things. There’s no lack of desire on my part to make them, but I’m preparing myself for new failures which I hope, however, will have something in them that gives encouragement rather than making one lose hope, even if they are failures.
A lot of what you sent was immediately gone and I wish you had some more, but decide what suits you best. I have so much work now that I can vary it as I please. I long for you to come, specifically so that I can show you the studies and talk about the work. Adieu, thanks again — with a handshake.
Ever yours,

They were very big pieces of natural chalk you brought last year — those are what I mean: precisely because they’re bigger, one needn’t use a holder.