Sunday afternoon

My dear Theo,
Your letter and the enclosure gave me very great pleasure, I don’t need to tell you that. It’s just what was needed and is a mighty help to me.
It’s still autumnal weather here — rainy and chilly, but full of atmosphere — especially good for figures, which show a range of tones on the wet streets and roads in which the sky is reflected. It’s what Mauve, above all, does so beautifully time and again.
As a result I’ve been able to do some more to the large watercolour of the crowd of people in front of the lottery office,1 and I’ve also just started another of the beach, of which this is the composition.2

I can agree entirely with what you say about times one occasionally has when one seems to be deadened to the things of nature, or when nature no longer seems to speak to us.
I, too, often have that, and sometimes it helps if I turn to something very different. If I’m dead to landscape or effects of light, I tackle figures, and vice versa. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done except wait for it to pass, but on many occasions I manage to get rid of the unresponsiveness by changing the subjects I’m concentrating on. I’m becoming more and more fascinated by figures though. I remember having had a time in the past when the feeling for landscape was very strong within me, and I was much more struck by a painting or drawing in which a light effect or the mood of a landscape was well expressed than by figures. In general, the figure painters even inspired in me a kind of fairly cool respect rather than warm sympathy. However, I well remember being particularly struck at the time by a drawing by Daumier, an old man under the chestnut trees in the Champs Elysées (an illustration for Balzac),3 although the drawing wasn’t that important. But I remember that it struck me so forcefully that there was something so firm and manly in Daumier’s approach that I thought: it must be good to feel and think like that and overlook or ignore a mass of things so as to concentrate on something that’s thought-provoking and appeals to a human being as a human being more directly than meadows or clouds.  1v:2
And similarly the figures of either the English draughtsmen or the English writers, on account of their Monday morning-like sobriety and deliberate austerity and prose and analysis, continue to attract me as something solid and firm which gives one something to hold onto on days when one is feeling weak.4 And those of Balzac and Zola among the French writers just as much. As yet I don’t know the books by Murger you write about, but I hope to become acquainted with them.5
Did I write to you before that I read Daudet’s Les rois en exil?6 I thought it rather beautiful.
The titles of those books sound very attractive, La bohème among others.7 How far we have strayed in our age from la bohème of Gavarni’s day!8 It seems to me that things were a little warmer then, and more good-humoured and livelier than now. But I don’t know, and there’s also much that’s good in the present, or would be more than is actually the case if there were rather more joining together.
At the moment a wonderful effect can be seen from the window of my studio. The city with its towers and roofs and smoking chimneys stands out as a dark, sombre silhouette against a horizon of light. The light, though, is only a broad strip; above it hangs a heavy shower, more concentrated below, above torn by the autumn wind into great tufts and clumps that float off. But that strip of light makes the wet roofs glisten here and there in the sombre mass of the city (in a drawing you would lift it with a stroke of body-colour), and ensures that, although the mass all has the same tone, you can still distinguish between red tiles and slates.
Schenkweg runs through the foreground as a glistening line through the wet, the poplars have yellow leaves, the banks of the ditch and the meadow are deep green, figures are black.
I would draw it, or rather try to draw it, if I hadn’t spent the whole afternoon toiling at figures of peat carriers9 which are still too much in my mind for there to be room for something new, and must remain there.  1v:3
I do so often long for you and think of you so much. What you write about some characters in Paris, about artists who live with women, are less petty-minded than others perhaps, try desperately to stay young, seems well observed to me. Such people exist there and here. It’s perhaps even more difficult there than here for a person to keep some freshness in domestic life, because that’s almost more of an uphill struggle there. How many have become desperate in Paris — calmly, rationally, logically and rightly desperate? I read something along these lines about Tassaert, among others, whom I like very much, and was pained by what happened to him.10
All the more, all the more, I think every attempt in this direction is worthy of respect. I also believe that it may happen that one succeeds and one mustn’t begin by despairing; even if one loses here and there, and even if one sometimes feels a sort of decline, the point is nevertheless to revive and have courage, even though things don’t turn out as one first thought. Moreover, don’t think that I look with contempt on people such as you describe because their life isn’t founded on serious and well-considered principles. My view on this is as follows: the result must be an action, not an abstract idea.11 I think principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds, and I think it’s good to reflect and to try to be conscientious, because that makes a person’s will to work more resolute and turns the various actions into a whole. I think that people such as you describe would get more steadiness if they went about what they do more rationally, but otherwise I much prefer them to people who make a great show of their principles without making the slightest effort to put them into practice or even giving that a thought. For the latter have no use for the finest of principles, and the former are precisely the people who, if they ever get round to living with willpower and reflection, will do something great. For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.  1r:4
What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently. And behold, how can one remain dedicated to such a task without allowing oneself to be lured from it or distracted, unless one reflects and organizes one’s life according to principles? And it’s the same with other things as it is with artistic matters. And the great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed. Whether originally deeds lead to principles in a person or principles lead to deeds is something that seems to me as unanswerable and as little worth answering as the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
But I believe it’s a positive thing and of great importance that one should try to develop one’s powers of thought and will.
I’m very curious about what you’ll think of the figures I’m doing at present, when you see them sooner or later. It’s the same with them as with the question of the chicken and the egg: should one make figures for a composition one has done first, or combine the figures made separately so that the composition flows from them? I believe it comes down to the same thing. Just as long as one works. I end with that with which you close your letter — that we have in common a liking for seeing behind the scenes or, in other words, are inclined to analyze things. Now this, I believe, is exactly the quality one must have in order to paint — one must exercise this power when painting or drawing. It may be that there has to be something innate in us, to some extent (but that too you have, and so do I — for that we may have to thank our childhood in Brabant and a background that helped, much more than is usually the case, to teach us to think), but above all, above all, it’s only later that the artistic sense develops and ripens through working. How you might become a very good painter I don’t know, but I certainly believe that it is in you and will come out.12
Adieu, old chap, thanks for what you sent, and a hearty handshake.

Ever yours,

I have the stove in place already13 — old chap, how I wish we could look at drawings and sketches for an evening sometime — and woodcuts. I have some more splendid ones.

This week I hope to have orphan boys to pose, then I may be able to rescue the drawing of orphan children14 after all.


Br. 1990: 274 | CL: 237
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: The Hague, Sunday, 22 October 1882

1. The poor and the money (F 970 / JH 222 [2398]).
2. The letter sketch Beach with people strolling with boats (F - / JH 248) was done after the watercolour with the same title F 982 / JH 247 [2405].
3. Van Gogh is possibly referring to Daumier’s illustration ‘Ferragus, les deux mains sur sa canne’ (Ferragus leaning on his walking stick) for the story ‘Ferragus’ in Balzac’s Histoire des Treize. Ill. 54 [54]. It appeared in Le Charivari (20 November 1846) and was included in several editions of Balzac’s Oeuvres complètes and Oeuvres illustrées. See Bouvy 1995, cat. no. 735 and Honoré de Balzac, La comédie humaine v. Etudes de moeurs. Scènes de la vie de province. Scènes de la vie parisienne. Histoire des treize. Ed. Rose Fortassier. Paris 1977. Cf. also letter 162, n. 2.
4. This plea for firmness and sobriety, and the words ‘Monday morning’ and ‘solid’, especially in this context, make it all the likelier that this is an allusion to the following passage at the beginning of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley: ‘If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.’ Ed. London 1857, p. 1. Van Gogh knew the book; see letters 170 and 187. Later he writes ‘prosaic as Monday morning’ (letters 341 and 342).
5. A month later Van Gogh was to read Les buveurs d’eau (1854) by Henri Murger; see letter 288.
6. Alphonse Daudet, Les rois en exil – Roman parisien (1879) is a novel about the royal family of Illyria, which is in exile in Paris after a revolution and waiting to return to the homeland. Their ‘race’ and ‘blood’ are exhausted, however, and the son and heir has to renounce the throne because of his poor health. Daudet describes aristocratic circles in Paris and how their show of strength is confronted by reality.
7. When giving the titles by Murger, Theo would have been bound to include Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851), a highly successful book with a mix of romanticism and realism. The main characters are a painter, a musician, a philosopher and a poet. The life of these bohémiens in the Quartier Latin in Paris takes shape in long dialogues and details about interiors, dress and music – it is extravagant and theatrical. At first money and romance are the central concerns, but eventually they have ‘arrived’ and they leave the free and easy ways of their younger years behind them.
8. Van Gogh was familiar with Gavarni’s combination of a free way of life and a successful career as an artist from the biography Gavarni, l’homme et l’oeuvre by Jules and Edmond de Goncourt. Meanwhile Theo had the book (see letter 277). A series of lithographs entitled ‘Bohèmes’ was included in La mascarade humaine, which Vincent had (see letter 302).
9. No figure studies of peat carriers from this period are known.
10. Nicolas François Octave Tassaert was obsessed by death; it ‘foreshadowed his own later self-destruction by asphyxiation’. ‘In April 1874, faced with starvation and with no hope of earning a living, Tassaert committed suicide, using the same type of coal stove he had depicted in his genre scenes of the garrets of the poor’. See exhib. cat. Cleveland 1980, pp. 44-45, 311.
11. Van Gogh mentions this idea several times: see letters 312, 398 and 400. He probably borrowed it from Sartor resartus by Thomas Carlyle, who writes ‘The end of Man is an Action, and not a Thought, though it were the noblest’ (book 2, chapter 6). See also ‘existence was all a Feeling, not yet shaped into a Thought. Nevertheless, into a Thought, nay into an Action, it must be shaped’ (book 2, chapter 5). See Carlyle 1987, pp. 120, 112. Van Gogh must have had a copy of Sartor resartus as early as 1875. See Pabst 1988, p. 25. For this novel, see letter 325, n. 34.
12. Vincent had earlier suggested that Theo would be a good painter: see letter 211.
13. It was not unusual to dismantle stoves in the spring to give more space in a room. They were reassembled in the autumn (cf. letter 218).
14. Van Gogh had sent Orphans (F - / JH 203), the letter sketch of this unknown drawing: see letter 265.