Vincent van Gogh - Outskirts of Paris 1886

Outskirts of Paris 1886
Outskirts of Paris
Oil on canvas on cardboard 45.7 x 54.6 cm. Paris: Autumn, 1886
Private collection

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Wednesday, 11 April 1883.
Dear brother,
Thank you for your letter and the 50 francs enclosed, which were very welcome as always, both the former and the latter.
I read what you write about your patient with interest. I understand that you’re in two minds over the matter of posing a certain question — which I shan’t further define here — now or later.
And the change of circumstances brought about by her recovery has a more or less critical side because, and this is what you are actually prepared for (and say so yourself), opposition may be aroused — possibly anyway — let’s hope not.
How odd that last point really is. One sees what one does as simple and natural in itself — something self-evident — one is more or less puzzled as to why others don’t find the motives in themselves that compel someone to do such a thing. And would almost draw the conclusion that some people have cauterized certain sensory nerves in themselves — in particular those collectively known as the conscience. Anyway, I pity such people: in my view they travel through life without a compass.
Love of one’s fellow man is something one would expect to be able to take for granted in everyone as the basis of just about everything. But some believe there are better foundations. I feel little curiosity about them. This old foundation that has been tested and found good for so many centuries is enough for me. Don’t you find this nicely put? — it’s from Les misérables:

If Caesar had given me
Glory and war,
And if I was forced to forgo
My mother’s love,
To great Caesar would I say,
Take back your sceptre and your chariot,
I love my mother more, hey!,
I love my mother more.

In the context in which this (a student song from the time of the revolution of ’30) occurs, love of my mother stands for love of the Republic, or rather ‘love of mankind’; in other words, quite simply, universal brotherhood. A woman, however good and noble she may be by nature, in my view stands in great and immediate danger in today’s society of sinking into the maelstrom of prostitution if she has no means and isn’t protected by her own family. What is more natural than that one should support such a person?
And if there’s no other solution when circumstances lead to it, well, then — you must put your heart and soul into it and marry her.

At least it seems to me that one must make it a principle to continue with this protection once offered until rescue is complete, and to protect with one’s own breast if necessary. Even without a particular love? Perhaps, yes — in that case it’s a marriage of convenience, so be it — but not in the sense of a marriage that one enters into for gain.
And now, your particular case differs from the more everyday — such as mine, for instance — because of the singular circumstance that the person in question has a special charm and that there is, I believe, a sympathy of feeling, so that even if the meeting had taken place under entirely different and less dramatic circumstances, you might have been in two minds over the question at issue.
In the above you have my thoughts on the question: ‘How far may one go in becoming involved with an unfortunate woman?’ Answer — ‘ad infinitum’.
While still emphasizing that staying loyal comes first and foremost in all love, I remind you of your own words that ‘marrying’ (i.e. civil marriage) ‘is such an odd thing’. These words of yours express exactly how it is, and on that point I declare I don’t know which is better or worse, to meddle or not. It’s what they call ‘puzzling’.
It puzzles me too — and I for my part wish so much that one had nothing to do with that. I believe it’s well said that ‘when one marries, one marries not only the woman herself but the family too’, which is sometimes more or less fatal and wretched if they’re nasty people.
But now about the drawings — I’ve done some more with printer’s ink, and this week I was investigating how to mix the printer’s ink with white, and found that it can be mixed in at least two ways — namely with the white from the tubes of oil paint — and probably even better with the ordinary zinc white in powder form that one can even get at any chemist — in that case diluting it with turpentine, which doesn’t soak through on this paper or leave marks on the reverse like oil — because it dries so quickly and disappears.
Printer’s ink has much livelier effects than indian ink.
How beautiful Jules Dupré’s work is. In the window at G&C. I saw a small seascape which you no doubt know, and which I’ve been going to have a look at almost every evening — but as regards Dupré and similar art — of which one sees so much more in Paris than here — you may be rather spoiled — and not know what an almightily beautiful impression it makes here, where one sees so precious little of it.
Have got round to reading the last part of Les misérables — the figure of Fantine — a prostitute — made a deep impression on me — oh, I know as well as anyone that in reality one won’t find an exact Fantine — but all the same this character by Hugo — like all his characters for that matter — is true, being the essence of what one sees in reality. It is the type — of which one encounters only individuals.
Should you happen to run into an engraver one of these days, like Girardet or Eichens, for example, who make aquatints, you’d be doing me a great favour if you could ask in passing: what is normally used for the drawings intended to serve as a guide for the engraving? Perhaps they’ll say: printer’s ink. If that’s what they use, what do they dilute that printer’s ink with? How do they use it?
It seems to me that if you raised this with some engraver or other in passing and told me what he said, I would probably find something in what he said that would throw light on some questions, even if it wasn’t a direct answer to what printer’s ink is mixed with to make it possible to work with it on paper in various ways. No doubt there are other kinds of printer’s ink apart from the one I have at the moment, and the question may resolve itself in due course.
Effects like those in aquatint engravings are produced in the drawings when one works with printer’s ink and turpentine, as I tried now.
I’ve seen drawings in the past by Mottram, say, the English engraver who engraved the Boughtons, and I wish I knew what he worked with, for example.
It goes without saying that I’m not in a rush to have this information, but if you happen to hear something about different methods of drawing, do let me know.
I too know Soek’s wife and her mother (if she still lives with her) — went there in the past — they’re still very clear in my memory — and find them two sympathetic people — who remind me of the members of my own household — so much so indeed that instinctively I often think of them as members of the same family. They’re just like characters from Souvestre, say, or E. Frère. One sees more people like that in Paris — everywhere for that matter. Such people always remind me of the female figures in the gospel, perhaps because sometimes in their expressions there’s something of, for instance, the figures in Delaroche, Good Friday, or in Landelle, Blessed are they that mourn. I know, this view isn’t complete, there are other aspects — still better than Delaroche — and deeper than he — such as those of Lhermitte and Herkomer. Well, I find that in them too, but I can still understand that this movement became popular in the days of Souvestre, Delaroche, Frère, Landelle &c., even though compared with Millet and others it isn’t entirely correct and true.
Is ANKER still alive? I think of his work often, I find it so sound and so delicately felt. He’s one of the genuine old sort, like Brion. Old chap, how I sometimes long for you to be in the studio again. I sincerely hope you’ll get the money back from H. In my case a lot had to be spent right away this time, and I have precious little left. Anyway, write as soon as you can when it’s getting towards the 20th. Adieu, with a handshake.
Ever yours,