From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA:
This is one of five pictures of olive orchards that Van Gogh made in November 1889. Painted directly from nature but animated by Seurat-like stippling and stylized passages of broken color, these works responded to recent compositions by Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard. "What I’ve done is a rather harsh and coarse realism beside their abstractions," Van Gogh observed, "but it will nevertheless impart a rustic note, and will smell of the soil."
To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Friday, 3 May 1889.
My dear Theo,
Your kind letter did me good today, my word – let’s go for St-Rémy then, but I tell you one more time, if after due consideration and consultation with the doctor it would be perhaps either necessary or simply useful and wise to enlist, let’s consider that with the same eye as the rest, and without prior prejudice against it. That’s all. For dismiss the idea of sacrifice in it – I was writing to our sister the other day that throughout my life, or almost at least, I’ve sought something other than a martyr’s career, of which I’m not capable.
If I find annoyance or cause it, my word I remain stunned by it. Certainly I would gladly respect, I would admire martyrs &c., but you must know that in Bouvard et Pécuchet, for example, quite simply there is some other thing that adapts itself more to our little existences.
Anyway, I’m packing my trunk, and probably Mr Salles will go there with me as soon as he can.
Ah, what you said about Puvis and Delacroix is darned right, those fellows have well demonstrated what painting could be, but let’s not confuse things when there are immense distances. Now, myself as a painter, I’ll never signify anything important, I sense it absolutely. Supposing everything were changed, character, upbringing, circumstances, then this or that could have existed. But we’re too positive to confuse. I sometimes regret not having simply kept the Dutch palette of grey tones, and brushed landscapes in Montmartre without pressing the point.
Also, I’m thinking of beginning to draw more with the reed pen again which, like last year’s views of Montmajour, is less expensive and distracts me just as much. Today I’ve made one of those drawings which became very dark and quite melancholic for springtime, but anyway, whatever happens to me and in whatever circumstances I find myself, that’s something that I could keep as an occupation for a long time, and in some way could even become a means of earning a livelihood.
Anyway, all in all what does it matter to you or to me to have a little more or a little less annoyance.
Certainly you joined up much earlier than I did, if we come to that, at the Goupils’, where all in all you spent some pretty bad moments often enough, for which you weren’t always thanked. And indeed you did it with zeal and devotion, because then our father rather had his back to the wall with the big family at the time, and it was necessary for you to throw yourself into it completely in order to make everything work. I’ve thought again with much emotion of all these old things during my illness.
And in the end the main thing is to feel ourselves closely united, and that hasn’t yet been disturbed. I have a certain hope that with what I know of my art in total, a time will come when I’ll produce again, although in the asylum. What use would the more artificial life of an artist in Paris be to me – one by which, all in all, I would only be half duped and for which I consequently lack primitive enthusiasm, indispensable for launching myself into it. Physically it’s amazing how well I am, but that isn’t enough of a basis for going on believing that it’s the same mentally.
I would happily, once I was known there a little, try and make myself a male nurse little by little, in short to work at anything and take up an occupation again – the first one that comes along.
I’ll have terrible need of père Pangloss when it naturally comes about that I become amorous again. Alcohol and tobacco have after all this good or bad point – it’s a bit relative, this – that they’re anti-aphrodisiacs, one should call it that I think. Not always to be despised in the exercise of the fine arts.
Anyway, that will be the ordeal in which one mustn’t forget completely how to jest. For virtue and sobriety, I’m only too afraid, would lead me again into those parts where usually I very quickly lose the compass completely, and where this time I must try to have less passion and more bonhomie.
The possible passionate thing is no great thing for me, although the power remains, I dare believe, to feel oneself attached to the human beings with whom one lives. How is père Tanguy – you must give him my warm regards.
I hear in the newspapers that there are good things at the Salon. Listen – don’t make yourself a completely exclusive Impressionist after all, if there’s good in something let’s not lose sight of it. Certainly colour is making progress, precisely by the Impressionists, even when they go astray. But Delacroix was already more complete than they are. And my goodness, Millet, who has hardly any colour, what work his is!
Madness is salutary for this, that one becomes perhaps less exclusive.
I don’t regret having wanted to know a little technically about this question of the theories of colours.
As an artist one is merely a link in a chain, and whether you find or you don’t find, you can console yourself with that.
I’ve heard talk of a completely green interior with a green woman at the Salon which people were saying good things about, as well as a portrait by Mathey, and another by Besnard, ‘The siren’. People were also saying that there’s something extraordinary by a fellow called Zorn, but they didn’t say what, and that there was a Carolus-Duran there, Triumph of Bacchus, bad. However, I still find his ‘Lady with a glove’ in the Luxembourg so good; anyway, there are things that aren’t serious that I like a lot, such as a book like Bel-ami. And Carolus’s work is a little like that. Our epoch has been like that, though, and all Badinguet’s time too. And if a painter does as he sees, he always remains someone.
Ah, to paint figures like Claude Monet paints landscapes. That’s what remains to be done despite everything, and before, of necessity, one sees only Monet among the Impressionists. For after all in figures, Delacroix, Millet, several sculptors have otherwise done better than the Impressionists, and even J. Breton.
Anyway, my dear brother, let’s be just, and I say to you as I retire, let’s think, just when we’re getting too old to class ourselves with the young ones, of what we have loved in our time, Millet, Breton, Israëls, Whistler, Delacroix, Leys. And be fully assured that I myself am sufficiently convinced that I shan’t see a future beyond that, nor moreover desire one.
Now society is as it is, naturally we can’t wish for it to adapt itself just to our personal needs. Anyway, however while finding it really really good to go to St-Rémy, however with people like me it would really be more just to stuff them into the legion. We can’t do anything about it, but more than probably they’d refuse me there, at least here where my adventure is too well known, and above all exaggerated. I say this very, very seriously, physically I’m better than I have been for years and years, and I could do military service. So let’s think again about that while going to St-Rémy. I shake your hand heartily, and your wife’s too.
Ah, when I wrote to you that we mustn’t forget to appreciate what’s good in those who aren’t Impressionists, I didn’t exactly mean to say that I was urging you to admire the Salon beyond measure, but rather a heap of people like, for example, Jourdan, who has just died in Avignon, Antigna, Feyen-Perrin, all those whom we knew so well before, when we were younger, why forget them or why attach no importance to their present-day equivalents? Why are Daubigny and Quost and Jeannin not colourists for example? So many distinctions in Impressionism do not have the importance one wanted to see in them.
Crinolines also had something pretty and consequently good about them, but anyway the fashion was fortunately short-lived all the same. Not for some people.
And thus we’ll always retain a certain passion for Impressionism, but I sense that I’m returning more and more to the ideas I already had before coming to Paris.
Now that you’re married we no longer have to live for great ideas but, believe it, for little ones only. And I find that a real relief which I don’t complain about at all.
(In my room I have the famous portrait of a man (the wood engraving) that you know, a mandarin woman by Monorou (the large print from the Bing album), the blade of grass (from the same album), the Pietà and the good Samaritan by Delacroix, and Meissonier’s reader, then two large reed pen drawings.)
At the moment I’m reading Balzac’s Le médecin de campagne, which is really fine, in it there’s a character of a woman, not mad but too sensitive, who is really charming, I’ll send it to you when I’ve finished it. Wil wrote me a kind letter, still very firm and calm.
They have a lot of room here at the hospital, there’d be enough to make studios for thirty or so painters.
I really must make up my mind, it’s only too true that an awful lot of painters go mad, it’s a life which makes you very distracted, to say the least. If I throw myself fully into work again, that’s good, but I still remain cracked. If I could enlist for 5 years I would recover considerably and would be more rational and more the master of myself.
But one or the other, it’s all the same to me.
I hope that in the heap of canvases I’ve sent you there may be some which will end up giving you pleasure. If I remain a painter, then sooner or later I’ll probably see Paris again, and I firmly promise myself that I’ll thoroughly touch up several old canvases on that occasion. What’s Gauguin doing, I’m still avoiding writing to him until I’m completely normal, but I think of him so often, and I’d so much like to know if everything is going relatively well for him.
If I hadn’t been in such a hurry, if I’d kept my studio, this summer I would have worked again on all the canvases I’ve sent you. As long as the impasto isn’t dry all the way through, naturally it can’t be scraped.
You’ll clearly see that the two women’s expressions are different from the expressions one sees in Paris.
Is Signac back in Paris yet?