From Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires:
Vincent van Gogh came to paint this Moulin de la Galette (The Blute-Fin Windmill, Montmartre) in quite particular conditions that might well qualify as a transition, and the work fits within a series of views he produced of Paris. The Dutch artist arrived in France’s capital in March of 1886. There he contacted his brother Theo—without any prior notice—who had already spent seven years based in Paris, managing a small gallery on Montmartre Boulevard on behalf of Boussod et Valadon.
Van Gogh paints his Moulin while in a state of amazement, impacted by the surrounding artistic context, which was of unusual density: Moréas’ symbolist manifesto, the latest impressionist exhibition (in which Seurat presented La Grande Jatte), Rimbaud’s Illuminations and L’oeuvre (The Masterpiece) by Zola all crowded into the local cultural scene. He was also discovering the city’s charm: its arcades, animated conversations in its cafés and the works at the Louvre, a museum he would visit frequently. To top it all off, he added an academic touch in the midst of this frenzy by enrolling as a student in the very classical Cormon studio, to hone his technical skills. There he alternated with Toulouse-Lautrec and Anquetin.
It is well known that Van Gogh set out upon his career with a determination that was as humble as it was profound, and the months he spent in Paris undoubtedly awakened a powerful inner desire to create. The Butte Montmartre was part of his everyday life, given that he stayed in Theo’s house, located in that neighborhood. Although the ties between the two brothers were indeed very strong, in Fall of 1886 the promiscuity that prevailed at 54 Lepic Street—from which the panoramic view of the city was magnificent—began to weigh on him. This led Vincent to replace still lives, painted inside the apartment, with landscape. At the outset, this impulse drove him to represent the immediate surroundings, and as such, Montmartre .
To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 18 March 1883.
My dear Theo,
You’ve so often shown me a glimpse of Paris through your descriptions, this time I’m letting you have a look out of my window at the snow-covered yard.
I’m adding a glimpse of a corner of the house; they’re two impressions of the same winter’s day.
Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but getting it onto paper is something that unfortunately doesn’t go as readily as looking. I did a watercolour of the above after which this scratch is done; however, I don’t think it lively or vigorous enough.
I believe I’ve already written to you that I found a little more natural chalk here in town. I’m also working with that.
In my view this has been the most real part of this winter, those cold days we had last week. It was mightily beautiful with the snow — and curious skies. The melting of the snow today was almost more beautiful. But it was typical winter weather, if I may call it that — it was the kind of weather that brings back old memories, when the most ordinary things have a look such that one instinctively associates them with stories from the age of diligences and mail-coaches.
Here’s a scratch, for example, that I did in that kind of daydream. It shows a gentleman who has had to spend the night at a village inn due to the late arrival of a diligence or some such reason. Now he has risen early, and while he orders a glass of brandy for the cold he pays the innkeeper’s wife (a woman with a peasant’s cap). But it’s still very early in the morning, ‘the crack of dawn’, — he must catch the mail-coach — the moon is still shining and the glistening snow can be seen through the window of the taproom — and the objects cast oddly whimsical shadows.
This story is really nothing at all, and the scratch is nothing too, but from one thing and another you’ll perhaps understand what I mean, namely that of late everything had a je ne sais quoi that made one feel like scribbling it down on paper.
In short, the whole of nature is an inexpressibly beautiful Black and White exhibition when there are those snow effects. Now I’m doing scratches anyway, I’m adding a very
superficial one of a drawing in natural chalk, the girl at the cradle, done in the same way as the woman and the child you wrote about. This natural chalk really is odd stuff.
The other scratch of a skipper is after a drawing which has a lot of washes with neutral tint and sepia.
It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the little I’ve sent you recently struck you as being a rather meagre result. Indeed, I believe it could hardly be otherwise.
There’s something fated about it: that in order to see the singularity of the work in Black and White, one must always take the whole into account, and it’s impossible to do so all the time. I mean, there’s a certain difference between making 10 drawings and making 100 drawings or sketches or studies. Not, to be sure, because of the quantity — leave the quantity aside — but what I want to say is this: in Black and White there’s a certain mildness which enables one to draw one and the same figure that one finds beautiful in perhaps 10 different poses, whereas with watercolour, say, or if one painted it, one would do it in only one pose. Now assume that in this 10 there are 9 bad ones. I sincerely hope the ratio of good to bad won’t always be like this, but let’s assume for now that it is. If you yourself were to be at the studio now, I don’t think a week would pass without me presenting you with not one but a certain number of studies — and it would amaze me if you couldn’t always pick out from that certain number one or two things in which you found something attractive.
While that wouldn’t mean that the rest had been done for nothing, since studies that fail in some respects turn out one day to have a purpose and to be of use for some new composition after all.
So for this reason I believe that when you come here again you’ll find certain things about which you can probably give me some tips. So, for example, for me, who doesn’t have even the slightest knowledge of Lhermitte’s drawings (you know I did enquire about them) and does know Cicéri’s watercolours as well as his old lithographic drawing examples, but nothing at all of his present drawings in black and white — so, as I say, it’s rather difficult for me to understand exactly what you mean when you wrote about a certain scratch: ‘Couldn’t you do something that would be somewhat on the lines of the drawings mentioned?’ I’m sure that both those artists are infinitely more advanced than I am — but still, that idea of yours might be feasible — I believe I’ll learn things myself, won’t I? And it won’t be an impossibility. And I wanted to say this to you again — in my view the position is that once I’ve managed to make something suitable for that purpose, there’s a certain mildness in Black and White that would enable someone to be highly productive in that direction once found. Not without continuous labour, of course, but I face that now anyway.
So should it be that the drawings in natural chalk I sent you aren’t what you intended, even though I had your tip in mind when I did them, don’t let that discourage you, and feel at liberty to come back to that point, the more often the better. And be assured that once I’ve grasped your intention I’ll be prepared, for example, to do as I said above — and do 10 of them to get one good one. Anyway, when you come to the studio sometime, I believe you’ll see that I have a certain level of activity, and I hope you’ll continue to see me in that way, won’t you?, and that you also understand that, although someone with a certain level of activity, even if it’s for himself — or rather without his work having an immediate destination — is nonetheless working, it would be doubly encouraging if one could find a destination. This also applies to possible work for illustrated magazines. These past few days I’ve been re-reading ‘Gedroogde kruiden’ by Fritz Reuter with enormous pleasure. It’s just like Knaus or Vautier, say. Do you know a draughtsman called Régamey? His work has great character, I have woodcuts by him, among them drawings done in prison — and Gypsies and Japanese.
When you come you must see my woodcuts again. I’ve got some new ones since last time.
It seemed to you perhaps as if the sun shone brighter and everything had acquired a new charm. At any rate, I believe this is always the effect of a serious love, and that’s a delightful thing. And I believe those who say that one doesn’t think clearly then are mistaken, for it’s then that one thinks very clearly and does more than otherwise. And love is something eternal, it changes its aspect but not its foundation. And there’s the same difference between someone who loves and the same man before as between a lamp that is lit and one that isn’t. The lamp was there and was a good lamp, but now it gives light as well and has its proper function. And one becomes calmer regarding many things, and precisely because of that one is more fit for one’s work. I can find no words for how beautiful the old courtyards are here. And although Israëls does it perfectly, so to speak, I find it strange that so relatively few pay them any attention. Here in The Hague every day, so to speak, I see a world which a great many pass by and which is very different from what most are making. And wouldn’t dare say this if I hadn’t had the experience of figure painters actually passing it by as well, and remembered walking with them and, when I was struck by this or that figure we encountered, hearing repeatedly ‘Oh, but those filthy folk’ or ‘that sort of people’ — in short, expressions one wouldn’t expect from a painter.
Yes, that sometimes made me stop and think. I remember, among others, a conversation with Henkes, who often saw and sees so well, which absolutely astonished me. It’s just as if they deliberately avoid the most serious, the most beautiful, in short, voluntarily muzzle themselves and clip their wings. And while I gradually gain more respect for some, with others I can’t help thinking that they’ll lapse into sterility if they carry on in the same way. And the old Bohème was very strong on exactly that point, that it was productive. And — and some say la Bohème is no good, but be careful, there are some who want to grab every last bit in the barrel and — and — and will get the lid on their nose. Put out the candle — so be it — but it will bring no good to snuff it out prematurely. Adieu, with a handshake.