Van Gogh made twenty-one paintings in Saint-Rémy that were "translations" of the work of Jean-François Millet. Van Gogh did not intend for his works to be literal copies of the originals. Speaking specifically of the works after Millet, he explained, "it's not copying pure and simple that one would be doing. It is rather translating into another language, the one of colors, the impressions of chiaroscuro and white and black."
To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 24 March 1889.
My dear Theo,
I’m writing to tell you that I’ve seen Signac, which did me a lot of good. He was very nice and very straight and very simple when the difficulty arose of whether or not to force open the door closed by the police, who had demolished the lock. They began by not wanting to let us do it, and yet in the end we got in. As a keepsake I gave him a still life which had exasperated the good gendarmes of the town of Arles because it depicted two smoked herrings, which are called gendarmes, as you know. You know that I did this same still life two or three times before in Paris, and once exchanged it for a carpet back then. That’s enough to say what people meddle in and what idiots they are.
I find Signac very calm, whereas people say he’s so violent, he gives me the impression of someone who has his self-confidence and balance, that’s all. Rarely or never have I had a conversation with an Impressionist that was so free of disagreements or annoying shocks on either side.
For example, he went to see Jules Dupré and reveres him. No doubt you had a hand in his coming to boost my morale a little, and thank you for that. I took advantage of my trip out to buy a book, Ceux de la glèbe by Camille Lemonnier. I’ve devoured two chapters of it – it’s so serious, so profound. Wait for me to send it to you. This is the first time for several months that I’ve picked up a book. That tells me a lot and heals me a great deal.
In fact there are several canvases to send to you, as Signac was able to see – he wasn’t frightened by my painting, or so it seemed to me. Signac thought I was looking well, and it’s perfectly true.
On top of that, I have the desire and the taste for work. Of course, it’s still the case that if things were to be messed up for me in my work and in my life every day by gendarmes and venomous layabouts of municipal electors who petition against me to their mayor elected by them (and who is consequently keen on their votes) it would be only human on my part that I should succumb once more. Signac, I’m led to believe, will tell you something similar.
In my opinion we must squarely oppose the loss of the furniture &c.
Then – my word – I must have my freedom to practise my profession.
Mr Rey says that instead of eating enough and regularly I have been particularly sustaining myself with coffee and alcohol. I admit all that, but it will still be true that I had to key myself up a bit to reach the high yellow note I reached this summer. That, after all, the artist is a man at work, and that it’s not for the first passer-by who comes along to vanquish him once and for all.
Must I suffer imprisonment or the madhouse – why not? Didn’t Rochefort with Hugo, Quinet and others give an eternal example by suffering exile, and the first even the penal colony. But all I want to say is that this is above the question of sickness and health.
Naturally one is beside oneself in parallel cases – I don’t say equivalent cases, as I have only a very inferior and secondary place – but I say parallel. And that was the first and last cause of my going out of my mind.
Do you know that expression by a Dutch poet
I am tied to the earth
With more than earthly bonds.
That’s what I experienced in many moments of anguish – above all – in my so-called mental illness. Unfortunately I have a profession which I don’t know well enough to express myself as I would wish.
I’ll stop dead for fear of relapsing, and move on to something else.
Could you send me before you leave
3 tubes blanc zinc white
1 tube same size cobalt
1 ,, ,, ,, ultramarine
4 ,, ,, ,, Veronese green
1 ,, ,, ,, emerald ,,
1 ,, ,, ,, orange lead
This in case – probable if I find the means to take up my work again – that in a short while I can set to work again in the orchards.
Ah, if only nothing had happened to mess things up for me!
Let’s think carefully before going somewhere else. You can see that in the south I have no more luck than in the north. It’s about the same everywhere. I’m thinking of squarely accepting my profession as a madman just like Degas took on the form of a notary. But there it is, I don’t feel I quite have the strength needed for such a role.
You speak to me of what you call ‘the real south’. Above is the reason why I’ll never go there. I rightly leave that to people more complete, more entire than myself. As for me, I’m good only for something intermediate and second-rate and insignificant.
However much intensity my feeling may have or my power of expression may acquire, at an age when the material passions are more burned out – never can I build an imposing edifice on such a mouldy, shattered past.
So I don’t really mind what happens to me – even staying here – I think that my fate will be balanced in the long term. Beware of sudden impulses – since you’re getting married, and I’m getting too old – it’s the only policy that can suit us.
More soon, I hope – write to me without much delay and believe me, after asking you to give my warm regards to Mother, Sister and your fiancée, your brother who loves you dearly,
I’ll send you Camille Lemonnier’s book quite soon.