My dear sister,
Many thanks for your letter, which I’d been looking forward to; I daren’t give way to my desire to write to you often or to encourage this on your part. All this correspondence doesn’t always help to keep us, who are of a nervous disposition, strong in cases of possible immersions in melancholy of the kind you refer to in your letter and which I myself have too every now and then. A friend of mine asserted that the best treatment for all ills is to treat them with the most profound contempt.
The remedy for the immersions you refer to doesn’t, as far as I know, grow among the usual medicinal herbs. Nonetheless I drink large quantities of bad coffee in such cases, not because this is very good for already bad teeth but because my strong powers of imagination in this respect enable me to have a religious faith — worthy of an idolater, Christian or anthropophagus — in the cheering effect of the aforementioned fluid. Fortunately for my fellow creatures I have so far carefully refrained from recommending this or similar remedies to them as being efficacious. The sun here, that is something else, and if for a while one just drinks wine that at least in part has been pressed from grapes. I assure you that the people in our country are as blind as moles and criminally stupid because they don’t make more effort to go to the Indies or somewhere else where the sun shines. It’s not good to know only one thing; it stultifies one. One shouldn’t rest until one also knows the opposite.
What you say about extenuating circumstances, that sadly they don’t take away the fact of having done something wrong or spoiled something, is very true.
Well, just think of our national history, rise and fall of the Dutch republic,1 and you’ll understand what I mean, we mustn’t give way too much to the extenuating circumstance of not being able &c., it’s less Christian (in the sense in which people water it down these days), but it’s better for us and perhaps even for others. And energy generates energy, and conversely paralysis paralyzes others.
We’re now living here in a world of painting where it’s unspeakably paralyzed and wretched. The exhibitions, the shops for paintings, everything, everything is occupied by people who all intercept money. And you mustn’t think that I’m imagining this. People pay a lot for the work when the painter himself is dead.
1v:2 And people always disparage living painters by pointing unanswerably to the work of those who are no longer with us.
I know that we can’t do anything to change this. For the sake of peace one must therefore resign oneself to it, or have some sort of patronage or captivate a rich woman or something, otherwise one can’t work. Everything one hopes for in terms of independence through one’s work, of influence on others, absolutely nothing comes of it.
And yet it’s something of a pleasure to make a painting, and yet there are 20 or so painters here right now, all of them having more debts than money &c., all of them with a way of life something like that of curs, who will perhaps mean more than the whole official exhibition in so far as the future manner of working is concerned.
The principal characteristic of a painter, I imagine, is to paint really well; those who can paint, those who can do it best, are the germs of something that will continue to exist for a long time, just as long as there are eyes that enjoy something that is singularly beautiful.
Well I constantly regret that one can’t make oneself richer by working harder — on the contrary.
If one actually could do that, one would be able to accomplish much more, be able to associate with others, and what not. For now everyone is bound by his opportunity to earn his living, and one is far from free, exactly.
You talk about ‘whether I had submitted something to Arti’2 — certainly not – only Theo sent Mr Tersteeg a consignment of paintings by Impressionists and there was one of mine in it.3 However, all that transpired was that neither Tersteeg nor the artists, so Theo heard, had found anything in it.
Well that’s very understandable because it’s always the same, people have heard of the Impressionists, they have great expectations of them... and when they see them for the first time they’re bitterly, bitterly disappointed and find them careless, ugly, badly painted, badly drawn, bad in colour, everything that’s miserable. That was my first impression, too, when I came to Paris with the ideas of Mauve and Israëls and other clever painters. And when there’s an exhibition in Paris of Impressionists alone, I believe a host of visitors come back from it bitterly disappointed and even indignant, in just the same mood as the good Hollanders were at the time when, coming out of church, they attended a lecture by Domela Nieuwenhuis or other socialists a moment later.4
And yet — you know — in the space of 10 or 15 years that whole edifice of a national religion fell and — the socialists are still there and will be there for a long time, although neither you nor I belong very much to either persuasion.
Well art — official art — and its education, management, organization, is as stultified and mouldering as the religion we see falling — and it won’t last, however many exhibitions, studios, schools &c. there may be, won’t last any more than tulip mania.5
But this doesn’t concern us, we’re neither founders of something new nor called upon to be preservers of something old.
But this remains — a painter is someone who paints, just as a genuine flower lover is someone who loves plants and grows them himself, and not the tulip dealer.
And so those 20 or so painters whom people call Impressionists, although a few of them have become fairly rich and fairly big men in the world — all the same, the majority of them are poor souls who live in coffee houses, lodge in cheap inns, live from one day to the next.
But — in one day all those 20 whom I mentioned to you paint everything they set eyes on, and better than many a great man who has a big reputation in the art world.
I say this to get you to understand what sort of tie binds me to the French painters whom people call the Impressionists — that I know many of them personally and like them.
And furthermore that in my own technique I have the same ideas concerning colour, which even I was thinking about when I was still in Holland.
Cornflowers with white chrysanthemums and a few marigolds. There you have a motif in blue and orange.
Heliotrope and yellow roses, motif in lilac and yellow.
Poppies or red geraniums in bold green leaves, motif in red and green.
There you have basics that one can subdivide further, can elaborate, but enough to show you without a painting that there are colours that make each other shine, that make a couple, complete each other like man and wife.
Explaining the whole theory to you would take quite a lot of writing, but still, it could be done.
Clothes, wallpaper, what couldn’t one make a good deal nicer by taking account of the laws of colour.
You understand that Israëls and Mauve, who didn’t use whole colours, who always worked in grey, do not, with the greatest respect and love, satisfy the present-day longing for colour.6
Something else: someone who can really play the violin or piano is, it seems to me, a mightily entertaining person. He picks up his violin and starts to play, and a whole gathering enjoys it all evening long. A painter has to be able to do that too.
And this sometimes gives me pleasure, to work outside when someone’s looking on. One is in the wheat, say. Well then, in the space of a few hours one has to be able to paint that wheatfield and the sky above it and the prospect in the distance. Anyone who watches that will certainly keep his mouth shut afterwards about the clumsiness of the Impressionists and their bad painting, you see. But nowadays we seldom have acquaintances who are interested enough to come along now and again. But when they do, then they’re sometimes won over for good.
Now contrast that with the fellows who need a studio, months and months, and I don’t know what else to make something — only too often rather dull, after all that.
Can’t you understand then that there’s something in the new manner? And I also want this — I want to be able to paint a portrait in a morning or an afternoon, and I’ve done that now and again, as a matter of fact.
This work definitely doesn’t alter the fact that one can work longer on other paintings. Yesterday I sent you by post a drawing that’s the first scratch for quite a large painting.7
But isn’t it curious that, as I said to you just then, there are at least a score of fellows who in an hour or so can paint a portrait with character in it — people hardly ever ask for one — 20 or so fellows who can do whatever landscape you please, at whatever hour of the day, with whatever colour effect you please, on the spot, without hesitation — nobody looks on, they always work alone. If only everyone knew this, though — but you see the circumstances are so little known. Only I imagine that a generation later or in one of the later generations — this working decisively without hesitation, measuring correctly in an instant, skilful mixing of the colour, drawing at lightning speed — a generation will come that will do this not as we do now, alone, unloved, but with a public that will like it both for portraits of people and for portraits of landscapes or interiors.
However, I’m writing to you much too much about painting, only by doing so I wanted to get you to understand that it’s rather important that Theo has got things to the point that in the firm he manages there’s always an exhibition of Impressionists nowadays.8 Next year will be rather important. Just as the French are undeniably the masters in literature, so it is in painting too, in modern art history there are names like Delacroix, Millet, Corot, Courbet, Daumier, who dominate everything that was produced in other countries. Yet the clique of painters who currently stand at the head of the official art world is resting on the laurels won by those earlier men, and is in itself of much lesser calibre. So they can’t do much at the forthcoming World Exhibition to help French art retain that importance it’s had until now. Next year the attention, not of the public — who naturally look at everything without wondering about the history — but the attention of those who are well informed, will be attracted by the retrospective exhibition of the paintings of the great men who are already dead, and by the Impressionists. Even that won’t immediately change the circumstances in which the latter find themselves, but it will at least help to disseminate the ideas and generate a bit more enthusiasm. The dull schoolmasters who are now on the selection committee for the Salon won’t even admit the Impressionists though. The latter won’t want that anyway, though, and will exhibit on their own. When you realize that I want to have at least 50 or so paintings by then, you’ll perhaps see that I, who don’t exhibit, will nevertheless slowly and steadily play my part in a battle of which one can at least say this, that if one takes part in it, one doesn’t have to fear a prize or medal like a good boy. They’re ambitious here too, but still there’s a difference, and many here are beginning to understand how ridiculous it is to make oneself dependent on the opinion of others about what one does. I detest writing about myself and I don’t know why I do it. Perhaps to give you answers to your questions. You see what I’ve found, my work, and you also see what I haven’t found, everything else that’s part of life. And the future? Either become wholly abstracted from whatever isn’t the work or... I dare not elaborate on that ‘or’ because becoming nothing but a work machine, unfit for and indifferent to all the rest, could be either better or worse than that average. I could quite easily resign myself to that average, and for the time being the fact is I’m still in exactly the same junk heap as ever.
By the way, talking of junk. It might still be worth while salvaging anything any good from the junk of mine which, so Theo says, is still somewhere in an attic in Breda, but I daren’t ask it of you and perhaps it’s been lost, so don’t worry about it.9
But this is the question. You know Theo brought a whole batch of woodcuts with him last year? Even so, a few of the best portfolios are missing and the rest isn’t as good precisely because it’s no longer complete. Obviously woodcuts from illustrated magazines get rarer and rarer as the volumes get older. Enough, this junk doesn’t leave me completely indifferent; for instance, there’s a copy of Gavarni’s Mascarade humaine,10 a book Anatomy for artists,11 in short, a few things that are actually much too good to lose. I consider them as lost in advance, though; anything that still turns up is pure gain. I didn’t know when I left that it would be for good like this. Because the work wasn’t going badly in Nuenen and it was only a matter of going on with it. I still miss my models who were made for me and whom I still adore; if only I had them here now — I’m sure my 50 paintings would hit the mark. Do you understand that I’m not angry with the human race because they think I’m this or that — I freely admit in advance that they’re absolutely right, but it saddens me that I don’t have enough power to get what I want to pose for me, where I want and for as long or as short as I want. The problem I have to bring to an end, to overcome, lies there and not in the technical difficulty. And today I’m a landscape painter whereas I’m actually more suited to portraits. So it wouldn’t surprise me much if I were to change style again sometime. A painter — Chaplin — who paints the portraits of the most beautiful women in Paris mightily well, ladies in boudoirs dressed or undressed, has painted powerful landscapes and herds of pigs on the moors. What I’m saying is one has to do what lies to hand and hold fast to one’s technique.
If you were within my reach you would, I fear, have to get down to painting. There are Parisian ladies among the Impressionists, at least one really good — even 2 good ones.12
And when I think how the new manner could help to put the women who are incapable of precision, who feel musically, on the right track, then I sometimes regret getting older and uglier than is in my interest.
It’s very good of Theo to have invited you to come to Paris — I don’t know what sort of impression it would make on you. The first time I saw it I felt above all the miseries that one cannot wave away, any more than the smell of sickness in the hospital, however clean it may be kept. And that stayed with me later, but later I gained an understanding of how it’s a hotbed of ideas, and how the people try to get everything out of life that could possibly be in it. Other cities shrink by comparison, and it seems as big as the sea. But one always leaves a whole piece of life behind there. And this is certain, nothing is fresh there. That’s why, when one comes from there, one finds a mass of things elsewhere excellent.
I’m very glad that you’ve recovered your health; one does everything unwittingly and wrongly, without understanding it oneself, when one’s ill.
You would not, I think, find the sun here unpleasant at all; I feel fine working outside in the hottest part of the day. It’s a dry, clean heat.
The colour here is actually very fine; when the vegetation is fresh it’s a rich green the like of which we seldom see in the north, calm. When it gets scorched and dusty it doesn’t become ugly, but then a landscape takes on tones of gold of every shade, green-gold, yellow-gold, red-gold, ditto bronze, copper, in short from lemon yellow to the dull yellow colour of, say, a pile of threshed grain. That with the blue — from the deepest royal blue in the water to that of forget-me-nots. Cobalt above all, bright clear blue — green-blue and violet-blue.
Naturally this induces orange — a face tanned by the sun looks orange; further, because of all the yellow, the violet really speaks — a wicker fence or grey thatched roof or a ploughed field look much more violet than at home. Further, as you already suspect, the people here are often handsome. In a word, I believe that life here is rather more rewarding than in many other places. Only it seems to me that the people are getting a little slack here, slipping a little too much onto the downward slope of carelessness, indifference, whereas if they were more energetic the land would probably yield more. I haven’t read much lately, except Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti.13
Also L’abbé Constantin by Ohnet, terribly sweet and heavenly, so that even his Mâitre de forges, already tending that way, becomes even more suspect.14 Sometimes, out of ravenous hunger, I even read the newspaper here with fury, but don’t take this to mean that I have a need to read. On the contrary, in fact, because I prefer to look at things myself. But it’s simply become a habit to read for a few hours in the evening, so one can’t help feeling that one’s missing something, but you can tell that this isn’t irksome from the fact that what one sees is interesting. I spent a week by the Mediterranean, you would think it beautiful. What strikes me here and what makes painting here attractive to me is the clarity of the air, you can’t know what that is because it’s precisely what we don’t have at home — but at an hour’s distance one can make out the colour of things, the grey-green of olive trees and the grass green of the meadow, for instance, and the pink-lilac of ploughed land; at home we see a vague grey line on the horizon; here the line is sharp and the shape recognizable from far, far away. This gives an idea of space and air.
Since I’m now so occupied with myself, I’d also like to see if I can’t make my own portrait in writing. First I start by saying that to my mind the same person supplies material for very diverse portraits.
Here’s an impression of mine, which is the result of a portrait that I painted in the mirror, and which Theo has: a pink-grey face with green eyes, ash-coloured hair, wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad, but the lips are full, a blue smock of coarse linen, and a palette with lemon yellow, vermilion, Veronese green, cobalt blue, in short all the colours, except of the orange beard, on the palette, the only whole colours, though. The figure against a grey-white wall.15 You’ll say that this is something like, say, the face of — death — in Van Eeden’s book16 or some such thing – very well, but anyway isn’t a figure like this — and it isn’t easy to paint oneself — in any event something different from a photograph? And you see — this is what Impressionism has — to my mind — over the rest, it isn’t banal, and one seeks a deeper likeness than that of the photographer.
I look different nowadays, in so far as I no longer have either hair or beard, both being always shaved off close; further, my complexion has changed from green-grey pink to grey-orange, and I have a white suit instead of a blue one, and am always dusty, always more laden like a porcupine with sticks, easel, canvas, and other merchandise. Only the green eyes have remained the same, but another colour in the portrait, naturally, is a yellow straw hat like a grass-mower17 — and a very black pipe. I live in a little yellow house with green door and shutters, whitewashed inside — on the white walls — very brightly coloured Japanese drawings18 — red tiles on the floor — the house in the full sun — and a bright blue sky above it and — the shadow in the middle of the day much shorter than at home. Anyway — but can’t you understand that one can paint something like that with a few strokes, but at the same time can’t you understand that some people say ‘it looks too strange’, not to mention the ones who find it nothing or abominable? If it just looks like it, but looks different from the work of the pious photographer with his black shadows — it should be done for that reason alone. I really don’t like Mr Vosmaer at all, and am callous enough not to care much about the man’s exchange of the temporary for the eternal.19 It’s a very good thing that you and Ma have acquired a garden, with cats, tomcats, sparrows and flies, rather than have an extra flight of stairs.20 I could never get used to climbing the stairs in Paris, and was always dizzy in a dreadful nightmare that has left me here, but recurred regularly there.
Were I not to put this letter in the post I would certainly tear it up if I read it over first — so I won’t read it over and I doubt the legibility, I don’t always have time to write.
I don’t think there’s anything in this letter and can’t understand how I managed to make it so long. Thank Ma for her letter.
A long time ago I meant you to have a painted study, and you shall get it.21 I’m afraid that by post, even if I pay the postage, they’ll make you pay excess postage, like the flowers from Menton,22 and this is even bigger — but Theo will certainly send you one, if I don’t think about it, ask him for it.
Embracing you and Ma in thought.
Theo works for all the Impressionists, he’s done something for and sold for all of them, and will certainly go on doing so. But just these few things that I write to you about the matter will show you how he’s something very different from the run of dealers, who care nothing for the painters.
Was there enough postage on the drawing? Write and tell me that, because I ought to know.