Vincent van Gogh - Old Man in Sorrow. On the Threshold of Eternity 1890

Old Man in Sorrow. On the Threshold of Eternity 1890
Old Man in Sorrow. On the Threshold of Eternity
Oil on canvas 81.0 x 65.0 cm. Saint-Rémy: April-May, 1890
Otterlo: Kröller-Müller Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Octave Maus. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Wednesday, 20 November 1889.
I accept with pleasure your invitation to exhibit with the Vingtistes.1 Here is the list of canvases I intend for you
No 1 Sunflowers
2 Sunflowers
3 The ivy
4 Orchard in blossom (Arles)
5 Wheatfield. Rising sun (St-Rémy)
6 The red vineyard (Montmajour)
(All these canvases are no. 30 canvases.)

I am perhaps exceeding the 4 metres of room but as I believe that the 6 together, thus chosen, will make a rather varied colour effect, perhaps you will find a way of placing them. Please accept the expression of my entire fellow-feeling for the Vingtistes.
Vincent van Gogh

To Emile Bernard. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Tuesday, 26 November 1889.
My dear friend Bernard,
Thank you for your letter, and thank you especially for your photos, which give me an idea of your work.
Incidentally, my brother wrote to me about it the other day, saying that he very much liked the harmoniousness of the colour, a certain nobility in several figures.
Look, in the adoration of the shepherds, the landscape charms me too much for me to dare to criticize, and nevertheless, it’s too great an impossibility to imagine a birth like that, on the very road, the mother who starts praying instead of giving suck, the fat ecclesiastical bigwigs, kneeling as if in an epileptic fit, God knows how or why they’re there, but I myself don’t find it healthy.
Because I adore the true, the possible, were I ever capable of spiritual fervour; so I bow before that study, so powerful that it makes you tremble, by père Millet — peasants carrying to the farmhouse a calf born in the fields. Now, my friend — people have felt that from France to America. After that, would you go back to renewing medieval tapestries for us? Truly, is this a sincere conviction? no, you can do better than that, and you know that one has to look for the possible, the logical, the true, even if to some extent you had to forget Parisian things à la Baudelaire. How I prefer Daumier to that gentleman!

An annunciation of what — — — I see figures of angels, elegant, my word, a terrace with two cypresses, which I like very much; there’s an enormous amount of air, of clarity in it.... but in the end, once this first impression is past, I wonder if it’s a mystification, and these secondary characters no longer tell me anything.
But this is enough for you to understand that I would long to see things of yours again, like the painting of yours that Gauguin has, those Breton women walking in a meadow, the arrangement of which is so beautiful, the colour so naively distinguished. Ah, you’re exchanging that for something — must one say the word — something artificial — something affected. Last year, from what Gauguin was telling me, you were doing a painting more or less like this, I imagine.
Against a foreground of grass, a figure of a young girl in a blue or white dress, lying full length. Behind that: edge of a beech wood, the ground covered in fallen red leaves, the verdigrised trunks crossing it vertically — I imagine the hair a colourful note in the tone required as complementary to the white dress: black if the clothing was white, orange if the clothing was blue. But anyway, I said to myself, what a simple subject, and how he knows how to create elegance with nothing.
Gauguin spoke to me of another subject, nothing but three trees, thus effect of orange foliage against blue sky, but still really clearly delineated, well divided, categorically, into planes of contrasting and pure colours — that’s the spirit!
And when I compare that with that nightmare of a Christ in the Garden of Olives, well, it makes me feel sad, and I herewith ask you again, crying out loud and giving you a piece of my mind with all the power of my lungs, to please become a little more yourself again.
The Christ carrying his Cross is atrocious. Are the splashes of colour in it harmonious? But I won’t let you off the hook for a commonplace — commonplace, you hear — in the composition.
When Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to be led into abstraction, as you know, in a woman rocking a cradle, a dark woman reading novels in a yellow library, and at that time abstraction seemed an attractive route to me. But that’s enchanted ground, — my good fellow — and one soon finds oneself up against a wall. I’m not saying that one may not take the risk after a whole manly life of searching, of fighting hand-to-hand with reality, but as far as I’m concerned I don’t want to rack my brains over that sort of thing. And the whole year, have fiddled around from life, hardly thinking of Impressionism or of this or that.
However, once again I’m allowing myself to do stars too big, &c., new setback, and I’ve enough of that.
So at present am working in the olive trees, seeking the different effects of a grey sky against yellow earth, with dark green note of the foliage; another time the earth and foliage all purplish against yellow sky, then red ochre earth and pink and green sky. See, that interests me more than the so-called abstractions.
And if I haven’t written for a long time, it’s because, having to struggle against my illness and to calm my head, I hardly felt like having discussions, and found danger in these abstractions. And by working very calmly, beautiful subjects will come of their own accord; it’s truly first and foremost a question of immersing oneself in reality again, with no plan made in advance, with no Parisian bias. Besides, am very dissatisfied with this year, but perhaps it will prove a solid foundation for the coming one. I’ve let myself become thoroughly imbued with the air of the small mountains and the orchards. With that, I’ll see. My ambition is truly limited to a few clods of earth, some sprouting wheat. An olive grove. A cypress; the latter not easy to do, for example. You who love the primitives, who study them, I ask you why you appear not to know Giotto. Gauguin and I saw a tiny panel of his in Montpellier, the death of some sainted woman or other. The expressions in it of pain and ecstasy are human to the point that, 19th century though it may be, you feel you’re in it — and believe you were there, present, so much do you share the emotion. If I saw your actual canvases, I believe the colour could nevertheless excite me. But then you speak of portraits that you’ve done, and have captured precisely; that’s something that will be good, and where you will have been yourself.

Here’s description of a canvas that I have in front of me at the moment. A view of the garden of the asylum where I am, on the right a grey terrace, a section of house, some rosebushes that have lost their flowers; on the left, the earth of the garden — red ochre — earth burnt by the sun, covered in fallen pine twigs. This edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red ochre trunks and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black. These tall trees stand out against an evening sky streaked with violet against a yellow background. High up, the yellow turns to pink, turns to green. A wall — red ochre again — blocks the view, and there’s nothing above it but a violet and yellow ochre hill. Now, the first tree is an enormous trunk, but struck by lightning and sawn off. A side branch thrusts up very high, however, and falls down again in an avalanche of dark green twigs.
This dark giant — like a proud man brought low — contrasts, when seen as the character of a living being, with the pale smile of the last rose on the bush, which is fading in front of him. Under the trees, empty stone benches, dark box. The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun — the last glimmer — exalts the dark ochre to orange — small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks. You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’. And what’s more, the motif of the great tree struck by lightning, the sickly green and pink smile of the last flower of autumn, confirms this idea. Another canvas depicts a sun rising over a field of new wheat. Receding lines of the furrows run high up on the canvas, towards a wall and a range of lilac hills. The field is violet and green-yellow. The white sun is surrounded by a large yellow aureole. In it, in contrast to the other canvas, I have tried to express calm, a great peace.
I’m speaking to you of these two canvases, and especially the first, to remind you that in order to give an impression of anxiety, you can try to do it without heading straight for the historical garden of Gethsemane; in order to offer a consoling and gentle subject it isn’t necessary to depict the figures from the Sermon on the Mount — ah — it is — no doubt — wise, right, to be moved by the Bible, but modern reality has such a hold over us that even when trying abstractly to reconstruct ancient times in our thoughts — just at that very moment the petty events of our lives tear us away from these meditations and our own adventures throw us forcibly into personal sensations: joy, boredom, suffering, anger or smiling. The Bible — the Bible — Millet was brought up on it from his childhood, used to read only that book and yet never, or almost never, did biblical paintings. Corot did a Garden of Olives with Christ and the star of Bethlehem: sublime. In his work you feel Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles too, sometimes, as well as the Gospels, but how sober and always giving due weight to modern, possible sensations common to us all. But, you’ll say, Delacroix — yes, Delacroix — but then you’d have to study in a very different way, yes, study history before putting things in their place like that.
So, they’re a setback, my dear fellow, your biblical paintings, but... there are few who make mistakes like that, and it’s an error, but your return from it will be, I dare to say, astonishing, and it’s by making mistakes that one sometimes finds the way. Look, avenge yourself by painting your garden as it is, or anything you like. In any case, it’s good to look for what’s distinguished, what’s noble in figures, and your studies represent an effort that’s been made, and so something other than wasted time.
To know how to divide a canvas into large, tangled planes like that, to find contrasting lines and forms — that’s technique — trickery, if you like, but anyway, it means you’re learning your craft more thoroughly, and that’s good. No matter how hateful and cumbersome painting may be in the times in which we live, the person who has chosen this craft, if he nevertheless practises it with zeal, is a man of duty, both sound and loyal. Society sometimes makes existence very hard for us, and from that too comes our impotence and the imperfection of our works. I believe that Gauguin himself suffers greatly from it, too, and cannot develop as he yet has it in him to do.
I myself suffer in that I’m utterly without models. On the other hand, there are beautiful sites here. Have just done 5 no. 30 canvases of the olive trees. And if I still stay here it’s because my health is recovering greatly. What I’m making is harsh, dry, but it’s because I’m trying to reinvigorate myself by means of rather arduous work, and would fear that abstractions would make me soft. Have you seen a study of mine with a little reaper? A field of yellow wheat and a yellow sun. It isn’t there yet — but in it I’ve again attacked this devil of a question of yellow. I’m talking about the one that’s impastoed and done on the spot, not about the repetition with hatching, in which the effect is weaker. I wanted to do it in pure sulphur. I’d have plenty more things to tell you — but although I write today that my mind is somewhat stronger, previously I was afraid of overheating it before I was cured. In thought a very warm handshake, to Anquetin too, to other friends if you see them, and believe me
Ever yours,

No need to tell you that I regret, for you as well as for your father, that he didn’t approve of your spending the season with Gauguin. The latter wrote to me that for reasons of health your service has been postponed for a year. Thank you anyway for the description of the Egyptian house. I would still have liked to know if it was larger or smaller than a cottage back home — the size relative to the human figure, in short. I was looking for information about the colouring in particular.