I’ve been to Amsterdam this week — I hardly had time to see anything but the museum.1
I was there 3 days; went Tuesday, back Thursday. Result is that I’m very glad I went, whatever the cost, and that I don’t propose going for so long again without seeing paintings.
I’d already put it off and put it off, that and so much else, because of the cost. But it’s much better that I can no longer imagine that this is the thing to do. I get too much out of it — for my work, and when I look at the old paintings, which I can decipher as regards technique very differently from before — then perhaps I have precious little need for conversation anyway.
I don’t know whether you remember that to the left of the Night watch,2 in other words as a pendant to the Syndics,3 there’s a painting — it was unknown to me until now — by Frans Hals and P. Codde, 20 or so officers full length.4 Have you noticed it???5 In itself, that painting alone makes the trip to Amsterdam well worth while, especially for a colourist. There’s a figure in it, the figure of the standard-bearer in the extreme left corner, right up against the frame.
1v:2 That figure is in grey from top to toe, let’s call it pearl grey, — of a singular neutral tone — probably obtained with orange and blue mixed so that they neutralize each other — by varying this basic colour in itself — by making it a little lighter here, a little darker there, the whole figure is as it were painted with one and the same grey. But the leather shoes are a different material from the leggings, which are different from the folds of the breeches, which are different from the doublet — expressing different materials, very different in colour one from another, still all one family of grey — but wait!
Into that grey he now introduces blue and orange — and some white.
The doublet has satin ribbons of a divine soft blue. Sash and flag orange — a white collar.
Orange, white, blue, as the national colours were then.6 Orange and blue next to each other, that most glorious spectrum — on a ground of grey judiciously mixed,
1v:3 precisely by uniting just those two, let me call them poles of electricity (in terms of colour, though) so that they obliterate each other, a white against that grey. Further carried through in that painting — other orange spectrums against a different blue, further the most glorious blacks against the most glorious whites — the heads — some twenty — sparkling with spirit and life, and how they’re done! and what colour! the superb appearance of all those fellows, full length. But that orange, white, blue chap in the left corner — — …… I’ve seldom seen a more divinely beautiful figure — — it’s something marvellous.
Delacroix would have adored it — just adored it to the utmost.
I stood there literally rooted to the spot. Now you know the singer, that laughing chap — bust in a greenish black with carmine.
You know the bust of the man in yellow — dull lemon — whose face, because of the opposition of tones, is a daring and masterly bronze, like wine-red (violet?).81r:4
Bürger wrote about Rembrandt’s Jewish bride9 just as he wrote about Vermeer of Delft,10 just as he wrote about Millet’s sower,11just as he wrote about Frans Hals12 — dedicating himself and surpassing himself. The Syndics is perfect — the finest Rembrandt — but that Jewish bride — not reckoned so much — what an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting, painted — with a glowing hand.13 You see, in The syndics Rembrandt is true to life, although even there he still goes into the higher — into the very highest — infinite. But yet — Rembrandt could do something else — when he didn’t have to be true in the literal sense, as he did in a portrait — when he could — make poetry — be a poet, that’s to say Creator. That’s what he is in the Jewish bride. Oh how Delacroix would have understood that very painting! What a noble sentiment, fathomlessly deep. One must have died many times to paint like this14 — is certainly applicable here. Still — one can speak about the paintings by Frans Hals, he always remains — on earth. Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.15 It is with justice that they call Rembrandt — magician16— that’s no easy occupation.
I’ve packed up various still lifes which you’ll receive next week, with two souvenirs of Amsterdam that I snatched in haste and also a couple of drawings.17 Will also send you before long a book by De Goncourt — Chérie.18 De Goncourt is always good, and the way he works so conscientious, and so much toil goes into it.
I saw two paintings by Israëls in Amsterdam, that is the Zandvoort fisherman and — one of his very latest, an old woman, hunched up like a bundle of rags, by a bedstead in which her husband’s corpse is lying.19 I thought them both masterly. Let people prattle on about technique as they will, with hollow, hypocritical, Pharisee words — the true painters — allow themselves to be guided by that conscience that’s called sentiment; their soul, their brains aren’t led by the brush, but the brush is led by their brains. Moreover it’s the canvas that’s afraid of a true painter, and not the painter who’s afraid of the canvas.
In Amsterdam I saw other present-day paintings, Witkamp20 and others. Witkamp’s certainly the best, reminds me of Jules Breton; others I have in mind but won’t name, who — fence — with what they call technique, for my part I found WEAK precisely in the technical sense. You know — all those cold, grey tones that they think are distinguished and that are flat and bloody boringly, childishly mixed. Nowadays, for the convenience of painters who work in what they think is a distinguished, light spectrum, they deliberately manufacture colours consisting of — the ordinary ones mixed with pure white. Bah!
Listen — the technique, the mixing of colour, the modelling of the Zandvoort fisherman, for instance, is to my mind Delacroix-like and superb, and the present-day cold, flat greys — don’t mean much in terms of technique, become paint, and Israëls is beyond the paint.21 To be sure — I’m not talking about Jaap Maris, Willem Maris, Mauve, Neuhuys, who each worked in his singular spectrum in the right manner — Blommers &c.
2v:7 But the school of the masters, their followers, Theo — I think they’re getting threadbare.
The still lifes I’m sending you are studies for colour. I’m going to do some more — don’t think this is pointless. They’ll sink in after a while, but in a year, say, they’ll be better than now once they’re dry right through and are given a thorough varnishing. If you use drawing pins to hang a large number of my studies on a wall in your room, both the earlier ones and these — just jumbled together — you’ll see, I believe, that there’s a link between these studies, that the colours work well alongside one another.
Speaking — of — too black — I’m very glad, all the more so as I see more of the paintings in cold, childish spectrums — that they think my studies are too black.30
Look at the Zandvoort fisherman, and what is it painted with? Is it painted with red, with blue, with yellow, with black and some off-white, with brown (all well mixed and broken) or not? When Israëls says that one mustn’t be black, he certainly never means what they’re making of it now; he means that one gives colour to the shadows, but of course that really doesn’t rule out a single spectrum, however low, not that of the blacks and browns and deep blues.
But what’s the point of thinking about it — it’s better to think about Rembrandt, about Frans Hals, about Israëls, than about that respectable impotence.
I’m writing at some length — even if you perhaps don’t believe what I say about the colours, and even if you think me pessimistic when I say that much of what they call subtle grey is very ugly grey, even if you think me pessimistic or worse still when I also condemn the smooth finishing of faces, hands, eyes, since all the great masters worked differently — perhaps, little by little, your own study of art, which you have happily begun again properly, will change you too. Now I have a favour to ask you. That friend of mine in Eindhoven, who went with me to Amsterdam,31 bought Bürger, Musées de la Hollande, Van der Hoop et Rotterdam at C.M.’s, but C.M. didn’t have the first volume, Musées de la Haye et d’Amsterdam.32 We must have that one though. It’s out of print, but you’ll be able to dig one up somewhere, and he’s even prepared to give 10 francs for it if need be, although preferably cheaper, of course. I’ll send you what it costs you straightaway, since it’s for him, and he charged me with this on that condition. So will you do your best to get it? If you do find it, read it through again yourself first — because it’s so good.
The two little panels I painted in Amsterdam were done in a tearing hurry, one of them, mark you, in the station waiting room when I was a bit early for the train, the other one in the morning, before I went to the museum at about 10 o’clock. Even so, I’m sending them to you, in the manner of tiles on which one has dashed something off with a few strokes.
As regards the end of this month — old chap, I’m literally cleaned out — what’s to be done? Couldn’t you send an extra twenty francs or something? I have to pay for paint again next month, 1 Nov. 25 guilders rent.
As regards connections for my work — I did speak to someone, and if I ever go again I’ll take work with me. There’s a general laxness that MAKES it EASY ENOUGH as regards finding a chance to exhibit.
LET´S PAINT A VERY GREAT DEAL. That’s the message if we want to succeed, work a lot precisely because it’s slack — then one day, rather than finding all ports closed to us — we may be able to lash a broom to the mast.33 Regards.