To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 10 September 1889.
My dear Theo,
I think your letter is really good, what you say about Rousseau and artists like Bodmer, that they are men in any case, and of such a kind that one would wish the world populated with people like that – yes indeed, that’s what I myself feel too.
And that J.H. Weissenbruch knows and does the muddy towpaths, the stunted willows, the foreshortenings and the learned and strange perspectives of the canals ‘as Daumier does his lawyers’, I think that’s perfect. Tersteeg did well to buy some of his work from him, the fact that people like that don’t sell, according to me that’s because there are too many sellers who try to sell other things, with which they deceive the public and mislead them.
Do you know that today, still, when I read by chance the story of some energetic industrialist or above all a publisher, that the same feelings of indignation then come to me again, the same feelings of anger from the old days when I was with G.&Cie.
Life goes on like that, time doesn’t come back, but I’m working furiously, because of the very fact that I know that the opportunities to work don’t come back.
Above all, in my case, where a more violent crisis may destroy my ability to paint forever. In the crises I feel cowardly in the face of anguish and suffering – more cowardly than is justified, and it’s perhaps this very moral cowardice which, while before I had no desire whatsoever to get better, now makes me eat enough for two, work hard, take care of myself in my relations with the other patients for fear of relapsing – anyway I’m trying to get better now like someone who, having wanted to commit suicide, finding the water too cold, tries to catch hold of the bank again.
My dear brother, you know that I came to the south and threw myself into work for a thousand reasons.
To want to see another light, to believe that looking at nature under a brighter sky can give us a more accurate idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wanting, finally, to see this stronger sun, because one feels that without knowing it one couldn’t understand the paintings of Delacroix from the point of view of execution, technique, and because one feels that the colours of the prism are veiled in mist in the north.
All of this remains somewhat true. Then when one also adds to it an inclination of the heart towards this south that Daudet did in Tartarin, and the fact that here and there I’ve also found friends and things that I love here.
Will you then understand that while finding my illness horrible I feel that all the same I’ve entered into attachments that are a little too strong here – attachments which could mean that later on the desire to work here will take hold of me again – while all the same it may well be that I’ll return to the north relatively soon.
Yes, for I don’t hide from you the fact that in the same way that I’m taking my food avidly at present, I have a terrible desire that comes to me to see my friends again and to see the northern countryside again.
Work is going very well, I’m finding things that I’ve sought in vain for years, and feeling that I always think of those words of Delacroix that you know, that he found painting when he had neither breath nor teeth left. Ah well, I myself with the mental illness I have, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and I tell myself that this doesn’t prevent one from practising the role of painter as if nothing had gone wrong.
When I see that crises here tend to take an absurd religious turn, I would almost dare believe that this even necessitates a return to the north. Don’t speak too much about this to the doctor when you see him – but I don’t know if this comes from living for so many months both at the hospital in Arles and here in these old cloisters. Anyway I ought not to live in surroundings like that, the street would be better then. I am not indifferent, and in the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great deal. Thus this time during my illness a misfortune happened to me – that lithograph of Delacroix, the Pietà, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled.
I was sad about it – then in the meantime I occupied myself painting it, and you’ll see it one day, on a no. 5 or 6 canvas I’ve made a copy of it which I think has feeling – besides, having not long ago seen the Daniel and the Odalisques and the Portrait of Bruyas and the Mulatto woman at Montpellier, I’m still under the impression that it had on me. This is what edifies me, as does reading a fine book like one by Beecher Stowe or Dickens. But what disturbs me is constantly seeing those good women who believe in the Virgin of Lourdes and make up things like that, and telling oneself that one is a prisoner in an administration like that, which very willingly cultivates these unhealthy religious aberrations when it ought to be a matter of curing them. So I say, it would be even better to go, if not into penal servitude then at least into the regiment. I reproach myself for my cowardice, I ought to have defended my studio better, even if I had to fight with those gendarmes and neighbours. Others in my position would have used a revolver, and indeed, had one killed onlookers like that as an artist one would have been acquitted. I would have done better in that case then, and now I was cowardly and drunk. Ill too, but I wasn’t brave. Then in the face of the Suffering of these crises I feel very fearful too, and so I don’t know if my zeal is something other than what I say, it’s like the man who wants to commit suicide, and finding the water too cold he struggles to catch hold of the bank again.
But listen – to be in a lodging-house like I saw Braat back then – fortunately that time is far off, no and again no.
It would be different if père Pissarro or Vignon, for example, wanted to take me into their home. Well I’m a painter myself – that can be sorted out, and better that the money goes to feed painters than to the excellent nuns.
Yesterday I asked Mr Peyron point blank: since you’re going to Paris, what would you say if I suggested that you be good enough to take me with you? He answered in an evasive way – that it was too quick, that he must write to you beforehand.
But he’s very kind and very indulgent towards me, and whilst he isn’t the absolute master here, far from it, I owe him many freedoms.
Anyway, one must not only make paintings but one must also see people and – from time to time, by associating with others too, recover one’s temperament and furnish oneself with ideas. I leave aside the hope that it wouldn’t recur – on the contrary I must tell myself that from time to time I’ll have a crisis. But then one might for that time go into an asylum or even to the town prison, where there’s usually an isolation cell. Don’t worry yourself in any case – work is going well and look, I can’t tell you how much it gives me a warm glow sometimes to say, I’m going to do this and that again, wheatfields &c.
I’ve done the portrait of the orderly, and I have a repetition of it for you. It makes quite a curious contrast with the portrait I did of myself, in which the gaze is vague and veiled, while he has something military about him, and dark eyes that are small and lively. I made him a present of it, and I’ll also do his wife if she wants to pose. She’s a faded woman, an unfortunate, quite resigned one, and really not much, and so insignificant that I myself have a great desire to do that dusty blade of grass. I spoke with her from time to time when I was doing olive trees behind their little farmhouse, and then she told me that she didn’t think that I was ill – anyway, you would say that too at present if you saw me working, with my thoughts clear and my fingers so sure that I drew that Delacroix Pietà without taking a single measurement, though there are those four outstretched hands and arms – gestures and bodily postures that aren’t exactly easy or simple.
Please send me the canvas soon, if that’s possible, and then I think I’ll need 10 tubes of zinc white as well.
However, I know quite well that recovery comes, if one is brave, from inside, through the great resignation to suffering and death, through the abandonment of one’s own will and one’s self-love. But it’s not coming to me, I love to paint, to see people and things and everything that makes up our life – artificial – if you like. Yes, real life would be in something else, but I don’t think I belong to that category of souls who are ready to live and also at any moment ready to suffer.
What a funny thing the touch is, the brushstroke. Out of doors, exposed to the wind, the sun, people’s curiosity, one works as one can, one fills one’s canvas regardless. Yet then one catches the true and the essential – that’s the most difficult thing. But when one returns to this study again after a time, and orders one’s brushstrokes in the direction of the objects – certainly it’s more harmonious and agreeable to see, and one adds to it whatever one has of serenity and smiles.
Ah, I’ll never be able to render my impressions of certain figures I’ve seen here. Certainly the road to the south is the road where there’s something brand new, but men of the north have difficulty in getting through. And I can see myself already in advance, on the day when I have some success, longing for my solitude and distress here when I see the reaper in the field below through the iron bars of the isolation cell. Every cloud has a silver lining.
To succeed, to have lasting prosperity, one must have a temperament different from mine, I’ll never do what I could have and ought to have wanted and pursued.
But as I have dizzy spells so often, I can only live in a situation of the fourth or fifth rank. While I clearly sense the value and originality and superiority of Delacroix, of Millet, for example, then I make a point of telling myself, yes I am something, I can do something. But I must have a basis in these artists, and then produce the little I’m capable of in the same direction.
So père Pissarro has been really cruelly struck by those two misfortunes at the same time.
As soon as I read that I had this idea of asking you if there would be a way of going to stay with him.
If you pay him the same thing as here, he’ll find it worth his while, for I don’t need much – except for working.
So do it directly, and if he doesn’t want to I would willingly go to Vignon’s.
I’m a little afraid of Pont-Aven, there are so many people there. But what you say about Gauguin interests me a lot. And I still tell myself that G. and I will perhaps work together again. I myself know that G. can do things even better than what he has done, but how to reassure him! I still hope to do his portrait. Have you seen that portrait he did of me painting sunflowers? My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.
And yet to see the country one must live with the common people and in the little houses, the bars &c. And that was what I said to Boch, who complained of seeing nothing that tempted him or made an impression on him. I go walking with him for two days and I show him thirty paintings to do, as different from the north as Morocco would be. I’m curious to know what he’s doing at the moment.
And then do you know why the paintings of E. Delacroix – the religious and historical paintings, Christ’s barque – the Pietà, the Crusaders, have this allure? Because E. Delacroix, when he does a Gethsemane, went to see on the spot beforehand what an olive grove was like, and the same for the sea whipped up by a hard mistral, and because he must have said to himself, these people whom history talks to us about, doges of Venice, crusaders, apostles, holy women, were of the same type and lived in a manner analogous to those of their present-day descendants.
So I must tell you it, and you can see it in the Berceuse, however failed and weak that attempt may be. Had I had the strength to continue, I’d have done portraits of saints and of holy women from life, and who would have appeared to be from another century and they would be citizens of the present day, and yet would have had something in common with very primitive Christians.
The emotions that that causes are too strong though, I wouldn’t survive it – but later, later, I don’t say that I won’t mount a fresh attack.
What a great man Fromentin was – for those who want to see the orient he will always remain the guide. He was first to establish relationships between Rembrandt and the south, between Potter and what he saw himself.
You’re right a thousand times over – one mustn’t think about all that – one must do – even if it’s studies of cabbages and salad to calm oneself down, and after being calmed then – what one is capable of.
When I see them again I’ll do repetitions of that study of the Tarascon diligence, the Vineyard, the Harvest and above all the Red bar, that night café which is the most characteristic as regards colour. But the white figure in the middle, correct as regards colour, must be redone, better constructed. But I dare say that this is a bit of the real south, and a calculated combination of the greens with the reds.
My strength has been exhausted too quickly, but I can see from afar the possibility for others to do an infinity of beautiful things. And again and again that idea remains true, that to facilitate the journey of others it would have been good to found a studio somewhere in these parts.
To make the journey from the north to Spain in one go, for example, isn’t good, one won’t see there what one ought to see – one must first and gradually accustom one’s eyes to the different light.
I myself have no great need to see works by Titian and Velázquez in museums, I’ve seen certain living types who have made me know better now what a painting of the south is than before my little journey.
My God, my God, the good people among artists who say that Delacroix is not of the true orient! Look, is the true orient then what Parisians like Gérôme do?
Because you paint a bit of sunny wall, even from life and well and true according to our northern way of seeing, does that also prove that you’ve seen the people of the orient? Now that’s what Delacroix was seeking there, which didn’t prevent him at all from painting walls in the Jewish wedding28 and the Odalisques.
Isn’t that true – and then Degas says that it’s too expensive to drink in the bars while doing paintings, I don’t say no, but would he then have me go into the cloisters or the churches, there I’m the one who’s afraid.
That’s why I make an effort at escape through the present letter, with many handshakes to you and Jo.
I still have to congratulate you on the occasion of Mother’s birthday, I wrote to them yesterday but the letter hasn’t gone off yet, because I wasn’t in the mood to finish it.
It’s funny that the idea had already come to me 2 or 3 times before to go to Pissarro’s, this time, after you’ve told me of his recent misfortunes, I don’t hesitate to ask it of you. Yes we must be done here, I can no longer do both things at once, working and doing everything in my power to live with the odd patients here – it’s unsettling. I’d like to force myself to go downstairs, but in vain. And yet it’s almost 2 months since I’ve been out in the open air.
In the long run here I would lose the faculty to work, now there I begin to call a halt, and so I’ll send them packing, if you agree. And paying for it what’s more, no, then one or the other of the artists fallen in misfortune will consent to set up house with me.
Fortunately, you can write that you’re well, and Jo too, and that her sister is with you. I’d very much like to be back myself when your child arrives – not with you, certainly not, that isn’t possible, but in the area around Paris with another painter.
I could, to mention a third, go and stay with the Jouves, who have a lot of children and a whole household.
You’ll understand that I’ve tried to compare the second crisis with the first, and I say only this to you: it appears to me to be some kind of influence from outside rather than a cause that comes from within myself. I may be mistaken, but whatever the case I think you’ll consider it right that I’m a little horrified by all religious exaggeration. I can’t help thinking of good André Bonger, who himself let out loud shouts when anyone wanted to try out some unguent or other on him. Good Mr Peyron will tell you heaps of things, about probabilities and possibilities of involuntary actions. Good, but if he’s specific I’ll believe none of it. And we’ll see then what he specifies, if it’s specific. The treatment of the patients in this hospital is certainly easy to follow, even on a journey, for they do absolutely nothing about it, they leave them to vegetate in idleness and feed them with stale and slightly spoiled food. And I’ll tell you now that from the first day I refused to take this food, and until my crisis I ate nothing but bread and a little soup, which I’ll continue to do as long as I remain here. It’s true that after this crisis Mr Peyron gave me some wine and meat, which I willingly accept in these first days but wouldn’t want to make an exception to the rule for a long time, and it’s right to respect the establishment according to their ordinary regime. I must also say that Mr Peyron doesn’t give me much hope for the future, which I find justified, he makes me really feel that everything is doubtful, that nothing can be ensured in advance. But I myself am counting on it recurring, but only work preoccupies me so thoroughly that I think that with the body I have it will continue like this for a long time. The idleness in which these poor unfortunates vegetate is a plague, and there you are, it’s a general evil in the towns and country areas under this stronger sun, and having learned differently it’s a duty to resist it, certainly for me. I finish this letter by thanking you again for yours and asking you to write to me again soon, and many handshakes in thought.