My dear Theo,
Just wanted to write and tell you that I’ve pressed ahead with models. I’ve made two fairly large heads by way of a trial for a portrait.1
Firstly that old man I already wrote to you about — a type of head in the style of V. Hugo’s2 — then I also have a study of a woman.3
In the woman’s portrait I’ve introduced lighter tones in the flesh, white tinted with carmine, vermilion, yellow, and a light background in greyish yellow, from which the face is separated only by the black hair. Lilac tones in the clothes.
Rubens is certainly making a strong impression on me. I find his drawing immensely good, by which I mean the drawing of heads and hands in themselves. I’m utterly carried away, for instance, by his way of drawing the features in a face with strokes of pure red or, in the hands, modelling the fingers with similar strokes. I go to the museum quite often and then look at little else but a few heads and hands by him and Jordaens.4 I know that he isn’t as intimate as Hals and Rembrandt, but those heads are so alive in themselves. I probably don’t look at the ones that are most generally admired. I look for fragments such as those blonde heads in St Theresa in Purgatory.5
I’m also looking for a blonde model just because of Rubens.
But you mustn’t take it too much amiss of me when I tell you that I can’t manage on my money for this month.
I’ve bought some more paint and two new types of drawing brush which I’m extremely pleased with and with which I can work more accurately. Then the canvases I brought with me were too small for the heads, since using other colours means I need more room for my surroundings. All this and the models are ruining me.
I’m telling you this as urgently as possible, because if one has to lose time, one loses double.
Towards the end of the month, when I’ve done a few more heads, I hope to make a view of the Scheldt,6 which I’ve also got a canvas for. If the weather’s bad I can go into an inn at St Anne,7 which is right opposite the rise where the Church of Our Lady is.8 Other painters have been there before.
I’m very glad to have come here, because it’s useful and necessary for me for many things. I’ve made the acquaintance of Tyck,9 the best paint manufacturer here, and he was very obliging in giving me information about some colours. The greens that persist, for example. For instance, I asked him things about Rubens’s technique, to which he replied in a way that proves to me that he analyzes well, which is doing something that not everyone thinks of, and which is nonetheless a very useful thing. Now what else shall I tell you? Oh yes — I’ve seen two collections of modern paintings. Firstly what was bought at the exhibition for the lottery,10 and then a collection of paintings that was sold.11 That’s why I saw various fine things, two studies by Henri de Braekeleer, you know that he has nothing to do with the old De Braekeleer,12 I mean the one who’s a famous colourist and analyzes rigorously — Manet-like, at any rate as original as Manet. One was a woman in a studio or other interior with Japanese objects, the woman had on a costume, yellow and black. Flesh colour, white and carmine. All sorts of strange little tones in the surroundings.
The other was a half-finished study of a landscape.13
1r:4 Flat, faded yellow fields as far as the eye could see, a black cinder road with a canal alongside it crossing them. Above a sky of lilac, grey, with accents of carmined lilac. Far distant a small red (vermilion) note of a roof and two little black trees.14 So nothing, and yet I found a lot because of the singular feeling for contrasting colours. I also saw an old study by Degroux, Woman by a cradle,15 something like an old Israëls. What else shall I tell you about these new paintings? I think many of them very fine, and by that I mean precisely the work of the Colourists or those who try to be, who look for mother-of-pearl-like combinations everywhere in the lights. Only for me, it’s by no means always that — it’s too contrived and I’d rather see a simple brushstroke and a less contrived, less difficult colour. More simplicity, in a word that knowledgeable simplicity which isn’t afraid of frank technique. I like Rubens precisely because of his straightforward manner of painting, his working with the simplest means.
I don’t count Henri de Braekeleer among those seekers of mother-of-pearl everywhere, for with him it’s a strange, a very interesting endeavour to be literally true, and he stands very much on his own.
Also saw various grey paintings, among others a printer’s workshop by Mertens,16 a painting by Verhaert of his own studio, where he sits etching and his wife stands behind him,17 De la Rivière, an Amsterdam undertaker after the funeral18 — very fine in the blacks, a Goya-like conception — that tiny little painting was masterly.
Landscapes and Seascapes — saw very fine ones — in both collections.
But as regards paintings — it’s the fisher boy by Frans Hals,19 Rembrandt’s Saskia,20 a number of countenances by Rubens, smiling or weeping, that come most to my mind.
Ah — a painting has to be painted — and why not simply? If I look at life itself now — I have similar impressions. I see the people in the street — very well — but I often find the servant girls so much more interesting and beautiful than the ladies — the labourers more interesting than the gentlemen. And I find a power and vitality in those common girls and fellows which, to express them in their singular character, would have to be done with a firm brushstroke, with a simple technique.
Wauters understood that, at one time anyhow, for I saw nothing by him this time.
What I find so fine about Delacroix is precisely that he reveals the liveliness of things, and the expression and the movement, that he is utterly beyond the paint.21
And — well — many of the fine things I saw — although I think they’re good, often it’s much too much paint.
At the moment I’m getting more and more accustomed to talking to the models while I’m painting, so as to keep the liveliness in their faces.
I’ve discovered a woman who formerly — she’s old now — when living in Paris — provided models for painters, for Scheffer, Gigoux, Delacroix, she says for instance, and to another one who was painting a Phryne. Now she’s a washerwoman and knows a lot of women, and would always be able to provide them, she says.
It has snowed, and first thing this morning the city was beautiful in the snow — splendid groups of street-sweepers.
It’s a good thing I came, because I’m already full of ideas — for when I’m back in the country, too. I read an article by E. Bataille, I think it was in L’Etoile Belge, reprinted from Le Figaro, about the situation in Paris,22 an article that gave me the impression of being very sound, but according to him affairs in general are really bad. In Amsterdam, contrary to the opinion of Dutch journalists, this Mr Bataille also expressed himself pessimistically about the state of affairs in Holland.23 As far as the art trade is concerned — here, as I already wrote, the dealers are complaining — sheer destitution. And yet — I believe that so much more might still be done.
To mention just one thing — in the cafés, the restaurants, the cafés chantants — one sees no paintings, at least as good as none. And how this goes against nature! Why aren’t there any still lifes hanging there, in the way Fijt, Hondecoeter,24 so many others made splendid decorations in the old days? Why — if girls are what they want — no portraits of women? I know that one has to work cheaply for such purposes, but one can work relatively cheaply. Pushing the prices high is the ruin of the trade and makes it as quiet as the grave. Anyway.
Regards, do write again between times if you will.
As to the money, do what you can, but know this, that we have to do our utmost to succeed. And I’m not abandoning my idea of the portraits, because it’s a cause worth fighting for to show people that there’s something else in human beings besides what the photographer is able to get out of them with his machine. Regards, with a handshake.
I’ve noticed the many photographers here, who are much the same as everywhere and apparently have plenty to do.
But always the same conventional eyes, noses, mouths, waxy and smooth and cold.
It still always remains dead.
And painted portraits have a life of their own that comes from deep in the soul of the painter and where the machine can’t go. The more photographs one looks at, it seems to me, the more one feels this.