Vincent van Gogh - Bowl with Peonies and Roses 1886

Bowl with Peonies and Roses  1886
Bowl with Peonies and Roses
Oil on canvas 59.0 x 71.0 cm. Paris: Autumn, 1886
Otterlo: Kröller-Müller Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Anthon van Rappard. The Hague, on or about Monday, 5 March 1883.
My dear friend Rappard
Thanks for your letter of 27 February, which I’m answering today. First of all your questions about lithography. You’ll have seen that it’s the same paper for ink or crayon. I get this paper from Jos. Smulders & Co., paper dealers, Spuistraat of this city; their warehouse is in Laan, and there they have a large stock of stones in various sizes. They called it ‘Korn paper’, and had ordered it for one of the ministries, where various maps were drawn on it for lithographing.
There were a few sheets over and I took all of it. He then said that he would order a few more sheets. I don’t know whether he did so, but in any case Smulders knows all about it and can order it within a few days by post. It’s rather expensive, 1.75 guilders a sheet. Lithographic crayon — as well as a type made specially for the paper, more expensive than the ordinary type and in my view greatly inferior to the sort not specially made for it — as well as autographic ink, liquid and in pieces, can also be obtained from Smulders and other places, for these ingredients can surely be found at all lithographers.
The scraper I used is this shape and I bought it at Smulders. There’s also what’s known as a point, for scratching in hairs, say, at all events for quick, delicate scratches like those made by an etching needle, only white in black.
Needless to say, you can in fact use various things as a scraper. The shape doesn’t matter much – I did it with my pocket-knife as well.
How much do I pay for my experiments?? He’s promised to quote a fixed price, together with prices for printing and stones. The prices I paid provisionally don’t count since we had come to an arrangement, because the printer himself didn’t know at that point — and there were failures &c. However, I’m to get a quotation from Smulders which will be rather interesting but which he had to take time to work out. He was to quote me prices, that is, for stones of different sizes bought 12 at a time, and for printing one series of 1 and one series of 2 dozen drawings. And the price for paper. When I last spoke to him he was terribly busy and said, remind me at the end of March, then we’ll check on everything together in the warehouse. So for the present I know next to nothing about the actual prices.
The running of the ink when printing doesn’t depend directly on the thickness of the lines, at least I’ve seen enormously thick lines transferred perfectly. As to your friend who draws with a fine pen, that’s up to him, but I think it’s absolutely wrong, because I fear that in this way he’s trying to get something out of the process that isn’t in its nature. If one wants to work with a fine point and still be forceful, I know of only one way, namely etching. If one wants to work with a pen in autographic ink, my feeling is that one should certainly not use a pen finer than an ordinary writing pen.

Very fine pens, like very elegant people, are sometimes amazingly impractical, and in my view often lack the suppleness or elasticity that most ordinary pens have to some degree.
Last year I bought at least 6 expensive, special penholders and various pens — it was all rubbish. But at first sight they looked very practical. Anyway, I don’t know either, some may be good, and a good result may come from working with autographic ink and fine pens — so be it — I’ll be pleased if it works out well, but I should think one would get more satisfaction from the fuller, bolder stroke of an ordinary quill pen, for example. Now another thing — do you know natural chalk? Last year I was given a few large pieces by my brother, this size, no less.
I worked with it but didn’t pay it much attention and forgot about it. Now lately I found a piece again and I was struck by how beautiful its colour was, its blackness.
Yesterday I did a drawing with it, women and children at a hatch at the public kitchen where soup is sold. And I must tell you that this experiment pleased me very much indeed. I scrawl some lines here at random to show you the range of black.
Don’t you think it’s beautifully warm?
I immediately wrote to my brother for more of the same. Shall I send you a piece when I get it? But if you already know of it and can get it at your place, then you send me some. For I intend to use it continually in combination with lithographic crayon.
It’s just as if there were soul and life in the stuff, and as if it understands what one intends and itself cooperates. I’d like to call it Gypsy chalk.
Because the pieces are very big, there’s no need to use a holder. It has the colour of a ploughed field on a summer evening! I’ll get half a barrel if that’s the measure it’s sold by, which I doubt, however.
Album des Vosges is already a fairly old publication, but it certainly does exist. And it’s beautiful. Your list of woodcuts has some fine things, especially the Lançons. I have Smugglers, but I lack Aid Committee, for example. But I have Soup distribution in duplicate – perhaps the same one but perhaps not, and have an inn with Rag-pickers in duplicate. So you can have them. I know sketches by Renouard of cats, pigs, rabbits but I haven’t got them. I have Speech by Gambetta and moreover Beggars on New Year’s Day too.
Have found 2 beautiful Régameys, a Foundling hospital in Japan by F. Régamey, and soldiers in white cloaks keeping black horses in check by Guillaume Régamey, after a painted sketch, very fine. Read a short biography of both brothers. Guillaume is dead, was only 38 years old. Began by exhibiting some military paintings that resembled Bellangé. Afterwards he became rather reclusive, seems to have had an illness that made life difficult for him. Yet worked throughout it all — for years — when he was dead — a host of superb studies were found — which were then exhibited — while during his lifetime almost no one knew about them. Isn’t that beautiful?
F. Régamey travels a great deal and, as you know, is very strong in the Japanese. What you say about the French woodcuts in general is what I also feel: the English have found more of the soul of woodcuts, the original character that’s as singular as the character of etchings, such as Buckman, A London dustyard, and Harbour of refuge by Walker. Still, Boetzel and Lavieille know that too, though, but Swain is the master. I think, though, that the Lançons engraved by Moller are highly original in character. There is soul in the Feyen-Perrins by Boetzel, for example, and the Millets by Lavieille. But otherwise, well, often they lapse into the industrial, the unfeeling.
You ask after De Bock. I haven’t visited him for a long time, not since before I became ill. I noticed that whenever I looked him up or saw him he said ‘Oh, I’ll come round and see you’ in such a manner that I concluded I should take it as meaning: but don’t come to see me until I’ve been to see you, which isn’t going to happen. At any rate I haven’t gone back there, precisely because I don’t want to intrude. I know that De Bock is working on a very large painting at present. This winter I saw a few smaller ones that I thought very beautiful. I didn’t meet De Bock himself at his studio but on the street, twice recently, in fur coat, kid gloves &c. In short, like someone in extremely flourishing circumstances. And I hear on all sides that he is indeed what one might call flourishing.
I often find his work very beautiful, but it doesn’t remind me all that much of Ruisdael, for example, and on reflection that may not be your lasting impression either. Actually, I’d very much like to see his studio again, just because I’d so like to be convinced that it’s as beautiful as I’d like it to be, and now I can’t help having my doubts about him all the time. Last year my impression of him was really not very favourable — he was always talking about Millet — fine, and about the greatness, broadness, of Millet — for example, out of doors too; I once spoke to him about this in the Scheveningse Bosjes. I said then – But De Bock, if Millet were here now, would he look at those clouds and that grass and those twenty-seven tree-trunks and forget only that little chap in his bombazine suit who’s sitting eating, his spade at his side?
Or would that small part of the panorama where the little man sits be the point on which he fixed his attention? I don’t think I love Millet less than you, I said. The fact that you admire Millet gives me great pleasure, but forgive me if I don’t believe that Millet looked in the way you’re forever suggesting to me. Millet is above all, and more than anyone else, the painter of mankind. To be sure he painted landscapes, and it’s no doubt true that they’re beautiful, but it’s hard for me to understand how you can really mean what you say when you see in Millet above all the kind of thing you suggest to me.
In short, Rappard, in friend De Bock I find more of Bilders, for example, than of Millet or Ruisdael. Still, I may be mistaken or see more in him later, nothing would please me more.
I certainly like Bilders too, and there isn’t a painting by De Bock that I don’t see with some pleasure. They always have something fresh and friendly about them.
But there’s a certain kind of art, perhaps less flowery, more thorny, in which I find more for my heart.
I know Ruisdael himself had his metamorphoses, and his finest works may not be the waterfalls and grand views of woods but ‘The breakwater with russet waters’ and The bush in the Louvre. The mills at Van der Hoop. The bleaching grounds at Overveen in the Mauritshuis here. And more of the more ordinary things he went in for later on, probably because of the influence of Rembrandt and Vermeer of Delft. I’d like something like that to happen to De Bock. But will that be the case? I’d pity him if he didn’t land more in the thorns than in the flowers, that’s all.
And although there has been an unintended coolness for some time now, nothing more serious than a few discussions about Millet and similar subjects has passed between us. And I’ve nothing against him — only so far I don’t exactly see the likes of Millet or Ruisdael in him. For the time being I find it like Bilders, not Gerard Bilders but the elder. And I certainly don’t dismiss that, and wouldn’t write so much about him if I didn’t care for him.
I’m still very happy with the changes to the studio, especially because the experiments I did with various models showed me that a great deal has been gained.
In the past a figure in the studio had no cast shadow, since the strong reflection threw light back on it. In this way all effects were neutralized. Now that drawback has been overcome.
Don’t think for a moment that I’m abandoning lithographs, but I’ve had so many expenses and have so many things I need to buy that I can’t tackle any new stones. Nothing will be lost by waiting a little.
But I’m longing to work more with natural chalk.
Do you know what I sometimes long for so much? — it’s to see your studio. And not just that, but also the area where you normally stroll and potter about in search of subjects. I’m sure there are beautiful courtyards and alleys in Utrecht too. The Hague is beautiful — and there’s enormous diversity. I hope to work hard this year. There are often financial difficulties, too, that hold me back — you will understand that — but I’ll concentrate more and more on Black and White, precisely because I want to and must work a lot.
With watercolour and painting, too, I have to keep stopping because of the costs, and with a piece of chalk or a pencil one has only the costs of the model and some paper.
I would rather spend what I have on models than on painting materials, I do assure you.
I’ve never complained about money spent on models.
Do you have the portrait of Carlyle — that beautiful one in The Graphic? At the moment I’m reading his ‘Sartor resartus’ — the philosophy of old clothes — under ‘old clothes’ he includes all manner of forms, and in the case of religion all dogmas. It’s beautiful — and honest — and humane. There’s been a lot of grumbling about this book, as with his other books. Many regard Carlyle as a monster. One nice comment on ‘the philosophy of old clothes’ is the following. Carlyle not only strips mankind naked but skins it too. Something like that. Well, that isn’t true, but it’s true that he’s honest enough not to call the shirt the skin — and far from finding a desire to belittle man in his work, I for one see that he puts man in a high position in the universe. At the same time, more than bitter criticism, I see love of mankind in him, a great deal of love. He — Carlyle — learned much from Goethe, but even more I believe from a certain man who wrote no books but whose words have survived nonetheless, although he didn’t write them down himself, i.e. Jesus. Before Carlyle he included many forms of all kinds under ‘old clothes’.
This week I bought a new 6-penny edition of Christmas carol and Haunted man by Dickens (London Chapman and Hall) with about 7 illustrations by Barnard, for example, a junk shop among others. I find all of Dickens beautiful, but those two tales — I’ve re-read them almost every year since I was a boy, and they always seem new to me. Barnard has understood Dickens well. Lately I again saw photographs after Black and White drawings by B., a series of characters from Dickens. I saw Mrs Gamp, Little Dorrit, Sikes, Sydney Carton, and several others.
They’re a few figures worked up to a very high standard, very important, treated like cartoons. In my view there’s no other writer who’s as much a painter and draughtsman as Dickens. He’s one of those whose characters are resurrections. On a children’s print I found a small woodcut by Barnard engraved by Swain. A policeman in black drags along a woman in white who struggles against him. A band of street urchins follow behind. It’s almost impossible to express so much of the true character of a poor neighbourhood with fewer means. I’ll get another copy of that print for you — it’s only a small scratch.
Unfortunately, I can’t get you the print Empty chair by Fildes, which I was promised along with some others. The man now remembers ‘clearing them up’ a few years ago.
Write again soon — may the work prosper in every respect.
Oh — I have a near complete French edition of Dickens translated under the supervision of Dickens himself.
I believe you once told me that you couldn’t enjoy all of Dickens’s English works because sometimes the English was complicated, for instance the miners’ dialect in Hard times. If ever you would like to read some of it, it’s at your disposal, and I’m willing to exchange the whole collection of Dickens in French for something else, if you like. I’m gradually coming round to the idea of taking the English Household Edition. Adieu, with a handshake.
Ever yours,

In The Graphic, 10 Feb. 1883 there’s a little figure by Frank Holl, a child in an attic room, very real. I bought the issue for it.
The illustrations by John Leech and Cruikshank have character too, but the Barnards are more worked up. Leech, though, is strong with street urchins