My dear Theo,
The fine weather of these past few days has disappeared and has been replaced by mud and rain. But it will surely return before the winter.
Only it’ll be a matter of taking advantage of it because —
the fine days — are short —
Especially for painting. I plan to do a lot of drawing this winter. If only I could draw figures from memory, I’d always have something to do, but — take a figure by the most skilful of all the artists who sketch from life — Hokusai, Daumier, for me this figure is never what the figure painted from the model by these same masters would be, or other master portraitists.
Ah well — if inevitably we’re too often faced with a shortage of models, and especially of intelligent models, we mustn’t despair or grow weary of the struggle for that reason.
I’ve arranged all the Japanese prints in the studio,1 and the Daumiers2 and the Delacroixs and the Géricault. If you come across the Delacroix Pietà,3 or the Géricault,4 I urge you to buy as many of them as you can.
Another thing that I’d very much like to have in the studio is Millet’s Labours of the fields5 — and Lerat’s etching of his Sower that Durand-Ruel is selling for 1.25 francs.6 And lastly the little etching by Jacquemart after Meissonier, The reader.7 A Meissonier that I’ve always found admirable. I can’t help liking Meissoniers.
I’m reading an article on Tolstoy in the Revue des Deux Mondes — it appears that Tolstoy takes an enormous interest in his people’s religion.8 Like George Eliot in England.9
There’s said to be a religious book by Tolstoy, I believe it’s called ‘Ma religion’; it must be very beautiful. From what I gather from that article, in it he’s searching for what will remain eternally true in the religion of Christ, and what all religions have in common;
1v:2 it appears that he admits of neither the resurrection of the body nor even that of the soul, but says like the nihilists that after death there’s nothing more, but when a man’s dead, and well and truly dead, living humanity remains for ever.10
Anyway, not having read the book itself, I couldn’t say exactly how he conceives of the matter, but I believe that his religion cannot be cruel and increase our sufferings, but on the contrary, it must be very consoling and must inspire serenity, and energy, and the courage to live, and a whole lot of things.
Among Bing’s reproductions I find the drawing of the blade of grass, and the carnations, and the Hokusai admirable.11
But whatever one may say, for me the more ordinary Japanese prints, coloured in flat tones, are admirable for the same reason as Rubens and Veronese. I know perfectly well that this isn’t primitive art. But the fact that the primitives are admirable isn’t in the very least a reason for me to say, as is becoming a habit, ‘when I go to the Louvre I can’t go beyond the primitives’.12
Supposing one were to say to a serious collector of Japanese art — to Lévy13 himself — sir, I cannot help finding these 5-sous Japanese prints admirable —
It’s more than likely that that person would be a bit shocked and would pity my ignorance and my bad taste.
Exactly as in the past it was in bad taste to like Rubens, Jordaens, Veronese.
I believe that eventually I’ll stop feeling lonely in the house, and that on days of bad winter weather, for example, and in the long evenings, I’ll find an occupation that will absorb me completely.
A weaver, a basket-maker, often spends entire seasons alone, or almost alone, with his work as his only pastime.
But what makes those people stay where they are is precisely the feeling of the house, the reassuring, familiar look of things. Of course I’d like company, but if I don’t have it I won’t be unhappy on that account, and then, above all, the time will come when I’ll have someone. I have little doubt about that. Now in your home too, I believe that if one is willing to put people up one can find plenty among artists, for whom the matter of somewhere to stay is a very serious problem.
And for me, I believe that it’s my absolute duty to try to earn money with my work, and so I see my work quite clearly ahead of me.
Ah, if only all artists had enough to live on — enough to work on — but that not being so, I wish to produce, and to produce a great deal, and with intense effort and determination. And perhaps the day will come when we can expand our business and be more influential for others.
But that’s a long way off, and there’s a great deal of work to be got through first.
If we were living in wartime we’d possibly have to fight, we’d regret it, we’d bemoan not living in peacetime, but at all events, the necessity being there — we’d fight.
And in the same way, we surely have the right to wish for a state of affairs in which money wouldn’t be needed in order to live. However, since
1r:4 everything’s done with money now, we must think hard about making some while we spend it. But I have a better chance of earning from painting than from drawing.
In short, there are many more people who can skilfully make a croquis than people who can paint freely and who grasp nature from the point of view of colour. That will always be rarer, and whether or not the paintings are slow to be appreciated, they’ll find their collector one day.
But I believe that as for the paintings with rather thick impasto, they’ll have to dry longer here.
I’ve read that Rubenses in Spain have remained infinitely richer in colour than those in the north.14 Ruins, even exposed to the open air, remain white here, whereas in the north they turn grey, dirty, black, &c. You can be sure that if the Monticellis had dried in Paris they’d now be very much duller.
I’m beginning now to see better the beauty of the women here, and so always, always I think again of Monticelli.
Colour plays an immense part in the beauty of the women here — I’m not saying that their forms aren’t beautiful, but that’s not where the local charm lies. It’s the broad lines of the colourful costume, worn well, and it’s the tone of the flesh more than the form. But I’ll have trouble before I’ll be able to do them in the way I’m beginning to feel it. But what I’m certain of is making progress while staying here. And a certain skilfulness isn’t enough to make a painting that would be truly of the south. It’s looking at things for a long time that matures you and makes you understand more deeply.
I hadn’t thought when leaving Paris that I would have found Monticelli and Delacroix so true. It’s only now, after months and more months, that I’m beginning to realize that they didn’t imagine anything. And I think that next year you’ll see the same subjects again: orchards, the harvest, but — with a different colour and above all, altered execution. And that will still continue, these changes and these variations. Even while working, I feel that I needn’t rush. After all, what would it do to put into practice the old saying that one should study for ten years or so, and then produce a few figure paintings?15 That’s what Monticelli did, though. Think of several hundred of his paintings as no more than studies.
Then, however, figures the way the yellow woman16 was, the way the woman with the parasol is, the small one that you have,17 the lovers that Reid had,18 those are complete figures, in which as far as the drawing goes there’s absolutely nothing to do but to admire it. Because there Monticelli achieves a way of drawing that’s as rich and superb as Daumier and Delacroix. Certainly, at the prices Monticellis are at, it would be an excellent speculation to buy some. The day will come when his fine drawn figures will be valued as very great art.
I believe that the town of Arles was once infinitely more glorious for the beauty of its women, for the beauty of its traditional dress. Now it all looks sickly and faded as far as character goes.
But if you look at it for a long time, the old charm reveals itself.
And that’s why I understand that I’m losing absolutely nothing by staying where I am, and contenting myself with watching things go by, the way a spider in its web waits for flies.
I can’t force anything, and as I’m settled now I can take advantage of all the fine days, all the opportunities to catch a real painting from time to time.
Milliet’s lucky, he has all the Arlésiennes he wants, but there you are, he can’t paint them, and if he was a painter he wouldn’t have any. I must bide my time now, without rushing anything.
I’ve read an article on Wagner — L’amour dans la musique, by the same author who wrote the book on Wagner, I believe.19 What a need we have of the same thing in painting!
It seems that in the book Ma religion, Tolstoy suggests that whatever may occur in the way of a violent revolution, there will also be a private, secret revolution in people, from which a new religion, or rather, something altogether new, will be reborn, which will have no name but which will have the same effect of consoling, of making life possible, that the Christian religion once had.20
2v:7 It seems to me that that book must be very interesting. We’ll eventually have enough of cynicism, scepticism, mockery, and we’ll want to live — more musically. How will that come about, and what will we find? It would be curious to be able to predict it, but it’s even better to have a feeling of what it will be, instead of seeing in the future absolutely nothing but disasters, which will nevertheless be sure to fall into the modern world and civilization like so many terrible thunderbolts, through a revolution or a war or the bankruptcy of moth-eaten governments.
If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.
But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.
Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?
And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.21
Isn’t it saddening that up to now Monticellis have never been reproduced in fine lithographs or vibrant etchings? I’d like to see what artists would say if an engraver like the one who engraved the work of Velázquez22 were to do a fine etching of them. Be that as it may, I believe it’s still more our duty to try to admire and to know things for ourselves than to teach them to others. But the two things can go together. I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects. While I’ve been writing you this letter, I’ve drawn a good dozen of them. I’m on the track of finding it. But it’s very complicated, because what I’m after is that in a few strokes the figure of a man, a woman, a kid, a horse, a dog, will have a head, a body, legs, arms that will fit together. More soon, and good handshake.