To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Monday, 28 January 1889.
My dear Theo,
Just a few words to tell you that I’m getting along so-so as regards my health and work.
Which I already find astonishing when I compare my state today with that of a month ago. I well knew that one could break one’s arms and legs before, and that then afterwards that could get better but I didn’t know that one could break one’s brain and that afterwards that got better too.
I still have a certain ‘what’s the good of getting better’ feeling in the astonishment that an ongoing recovery causes me, which I wasn’t in a state to dare rely upon.
When you visited I think you must have noticed in Gauguin’s room the two no. 30 canvases of the sunflowers. I’ve just put the finishing touches to the absolutely equivalent and identical repetitions. I think I’ve already told you that in addition I have a canvas of a Berceuse, the very same one I was working on when my illness came and interrupted me. Today I also have 2 versions of this one.
On the subject of that canvas, I’ve just said to Gauguin that as he and I talked about the Icelandic fishermen and their melancholy isolation, exposed to all the dangers, alone on the sad sea, I’ve just said to Gauguin about it that, following these intimate conversations, the idea came to me to paint such a picture that sailors, at once children and martyrs, seeing it in the cabin of a boat of Icelandic fishermen, would experience a feeling of being rocked, reminding them of their own lullabies. Now it looks, you could say, like a chromolithograph from a penny bazaar. A woman dressed in green with orange hair stands out against a green background with pink flowers. Now these discordant sharps of garish pink, garish orange, garish green, are toned down by flats of reds and greens. I can imagine these canvases precisely between those of the sunflowers – which thus form standard lamps or candelabra at the sides, of the same size; and thus the whole is composed of 7 or 9 canvases. (I’d like to make another repetition for Holland if I can get the model again.)
As it’s still winter, listen. Let me quietly continue my work, if it’s that of a madman, well, too bad. Then I can’t do anything about it.
However, the unbearable hallucinations have stopped for now, reducing themselves to a simple nightmare on account of taking potassium bromide, I think.
It’s still impossible for me to deal with this question of money in detail, but I want to deal with it in detail all the same, and I’m working furiously from morning till night to prove to you (unless my work is yet another hallucination), to prove to you that really, truly, we’re following in Monticelli’s track here and, what’s more, that we have a light on our way and a lamp before our feet in the powerful work of Bruyas of Montpellier, who has done so much to create a school in the south.
Only don’t be absolutely too amazed if, in the course of the coming month, I would be obliged to ask you for the month in full, and even the relative extra included. After all, it’s only right if in these productive times when I expend all my vital warmth should insist on what is necessary to take a few precautions. The difference in expenditure is certainly not excessive on my part, not even in cases like that. And once again, either lock me up in a madhouse straightaway, I won’t resist if I’m wrong, or let me work with all my strength, while taking the precautions I mention.
If I’m not mad the time will come when I’ll send you what I’ve promised you from the beginning. Now, these paintings may perhaps be fated for dispersal, but when you, for one, see the whole of what I want, you will, I dare hope, receive a consolatory impression from it.
You saw, as I did, a part of the Faure collection file past in the little window of a framer’s shop in rue Lafitte, didn’t you? You saw, as I did, that this slow procession of canvases that were previously despised was strangely interesting.
Good. My great desire would be that sooner or later you should have a series of canvases from me that could also file past in that exact same shop window.
Now, in continuing the furious work this February and March I hope I’ll have finished the calm repetitions of a number of studies I did last year. And these, together with certain canvases of mine that you already have, such as the harvest and the white orchard, will form quite a firm base. During this same time, so no later than March, we can settle what has to be settled on the occasion of your marriage.
But although I’ll work during February and March, I’ll consider myself to be still ill, and I tell you in advance that in these two months I may have to take 250 a month from the year’s allowance.
You’ll perhaps understand that what would reassure me in some way regarding my illness and the possibility of a relapse would be to see that Gauguin and I didn’t exhaust our brains for nothing at least, but that good canvases result from it. And I dare hope that one day you’ll see that in remaining upright and calm now, precisely on the question of money – it will be impossible later on to have acted badly towards the Goupils. If indirectly I’ve eaten some of their bread, certainly through you as an intermediary – Directly I will then retain my integrity.
So, far from still remaining awkward with each other almost all the time because of that, we can feel like brothers again after that has been sorted out. You’ll have been poor all the time to feed me, but I’ll return the money or turn up my toes.
Now your wife will come, who has a good heart, to make us old fellows feel a bit younger again.
But this I believe, that you and I will have successors in business, and that precisely at the moment when the family abandoned us to our own resources, financially speaking, it will again be we who haven’t flinched.
My word, may the crisis come after that... Am I wrong about that, then?
Come on, as long as the present earth lasts there will be artists and picture dealers, especially those who are apostles at the same time, like you. And if ever we’re comfortably off, even while perhaps being old Jewish smokers, at least we’ll have worked by forging straight ahead and won’t have forgotten the things of the heart that much, even though we have calculated a little.
What I tell you is true: if it isn’t absolutely necessary to shut me away in a madhouse then I’m still good for paying what I can be considered to owe, at least in goods. Then, my dear brother, we have 89. The whole of France shivered at it and so did we old Dutchmen, with the same heart.
Beware of 93, you may perhaps tell me.
Alas there’s some truth in that, and that being the case let’s stay with the paintings.
In conclusion I must also tell you that the chief inspector of police came yesterday to see me, in a very friendly way. He told me as he shook my hand that if ever I had need of him I could consult him as a friend. To which I’m a long way from saying no, and I may soon be in precisely that case if difficulties were to arise for the house. I’m waiting for the moment to come to pay my month’s rent to interrogate the manager or the owner face to face.
But to chuck me out they’d more likely get a kick in the backside, on this occasion at least. What can you say, we’ve gone all-out for the Impressionists, now as regards myself I’m trying to finish the canvases which will indubitably guarantee my little place that I’ve taken among them.
Ah, the future of that... but from the moment when père Pangloss assures us that everything is always for the best in the best of worlds – can we doubt it?
My letter has become longer than I intended, it matters little – the main thing is that I ask categorically for two months’ work before settling what will need to be settled at the time of your marriage.
Afterwards, you and your wife will set up a commercial firm for several generations in the renewal. You won’t have it easy. And once that’s sorted out I ask only a place as an employed painter as long as there’s enough to pay for one.
As a matter of fact, work distracts me. And I must have distractions – yesterday I went to the Folies Arlésiennes, the budding theatre here — it was the first time I’ve slept without a serious nightmare. They were performing — (it was a Provençal literary society) what they call a Noel or Pastourale, a remnant of Christian theatre of the Middle Ages. It was very studied and it must have cost them some money.
Naturally it depicted the birth of Christ, intermingled with the burlesque story of a family of astounded Provençal peasants. Good — what was amazing, like a Rembrandt etching — was the old peasant woman, just the sort of woman Mrs Tanguy would be, with a head of flint or gun flint, false, treacherous, mad, all that could be seen previously in the play. Now that woman, in the play, brought before the mystic crib — in her quavering voice began to sing and then her voice changed, changed from witch to angel and from the voice of an angel into the voice of a child and then the answer by another voice, this one firm and warmly vibrant, a woman’s voice, behind the scenes.
That was amazing, amazing. I tell you, the so-called ‘Félibres’ had anyway spared themselves neither trouble nor expense.
As for me, with this little country here I have no need at all to go to the tropics.
I believe and will always believe in the art to be created in the tropics, and I believe it will be marvellous, but well, personally I’m too old and (especially if I get myself a papier-mâché ear) too jerry-built to go there.
Will Gauguin do it? It isn’t necessary. For if it must be done it will be done all on its own.
We are merely links in the chain.
At the bottom of our hearts good old Gauguin and I understand each other, and if we’re a bit mad, so be it, aren’t we also a little sufficiently deeply artistic to contradict anxieties in that regard by what we say with the brush?
Perhaps everyone will one day have neurosis, the Horla, St Vitus’s Dance or something else.
But doesn’t the antidote exist? In Delacroix, in Berlioz and Wagner? And really, our artistic madness which all the rest of us have, I don’t say that I especially haven’t been struck to the marrow by it. But I say and will maintain that our antidotes and consolations can, with a little good will, be considered as amply prevalent. See Puvis de Chavannes’ Hope.