My dear Theo,
I’ve just received your very welcome letter and want to reply immediately, since today I’m having a bit of a rest anyway. I thank you for it, and for the enclosure and for one or two things you say in it.
And for your description of the scene with the workmen in Montmartre, which I found most interesting, because you give the colours as well so that I can see it — many thanks.
I’m glad you’re reading the book about Gavarni. I thought it very interesting, and have become doubly attached to G. because of it.1
Paris and its surroundings may be beautiful, but we can’t complain here either. This week I painted something which I believe may give some idea of the impression of Scheveningen as we saw it when we walked there together. A large study of sand, sea, sky — a big sky of delicate grey and warm white through which an occasional spot of soft blue shines — the sand and the sea light — so that the whole becomes blond, though enlivened by the bold and distinctively coloured figures and pinks, which take on tone.2 The subject of the sketch I made of it is a pink weighing anchor.3 The horses stand ready to be hitched to the pink before pulling it into the sea. I enclose a scratch of it.4 I really laboured over it — I wish I’d painted it on panel or canvas. I tried to get more colour into it, namely depth, firmness of colour.
It certainly is curious how you and I often seem to have the same thoughts. Yesterday evening, for example, I came back with a study of the woods,5 and this week in particular, especially then, I was very absorbed in the question of depth of colour. And would have liked to discuss it with you, particularly in connection with the study I had made — and lo and behold, in your letter of this morning you happen to remark on how you were struck in Montmartre by the very pronounced colours, which nonetheless remained harmonious. I don’t know if it was exactly the same thing that struck us, but I’m absolutely sure you would also have felt what particularly struck me and probably seen it in the same way. I’ll begin by sending you a scratch of the subject and telling you what the problem was.6
The woods are already getting really autumnal — there are colour effects which I only rarely see depicted in Dutch paintings.
Yesterday evening I was occupied with an area of woodland with a slight upward slope covered in rotting and dead beech leaves. The ground was lighter and darker red-brown, all the more so because of the cast shadows of trees that threw bands across, weaker or stronger, half blotted out. The problem, and I found it to be most difficult, was to get the depth of colour — the enormous strength and fixity of that area — and yet it was only while painting that I noticed how much light there still was in that darkness. To keep it light and yet keep the glow, the depth of that rich colour, for there’s no carpet imaginable as splendid as that deep brown-red in the glow of an autumnal evening sun, although tempered by the wood.
Out of the ground shoot young beech trees that catch the light on one side — are brilliantly green there — and the shaded side of those trunks a warm, strong black-green. Beyond these trunks, beyond the brown-red ground, is a sky, a very delicate blue-grey, warm — almost not blue — sparkling. And set against this is another hazy edge of greenness and a network of slender trunks and yellowish leaves. A few figures gathering wood move about like dark masses of mysterious shadows. The white cap of a woman who bends over to pick up a dry branch suddenly stands out against the deep red-brown of the ground. A skirt catches the light — a cast shadow falls — a dark silhouette of a fellow appears on top of the undergrowth against the brushwood fence. A white cap, bonnet, shoulder, bust of a woman set off against the sky. These figures — they’re large and full of poetry — appear in the half-light of the deep shadow tone like huge terracottas7 being made in a studio. I’m describing nature to you — to what extent I conveyed it in my sketch I’m not sure myself — but I do know that I was struck by the harmony of green, red, black, yellow, blue, brown, grey. It was very Degroux-like, an effect similar, for example, to that sketch of the conscript’s departure formerly in the Palais Ducal.8
Painting it was hard graft. There are one and a half large tubes of white in the ground — yet that ground is very dark — in addition red, yellow, brown ochre, black, terra sienna, bistre, and the result is a red-brown that varies from bistre to deep wine-red and to pale, blond reddish. Then there are also mosses and an edge
1v:3 of fresh grass that catches the light and sparkles brightly and is very difficult to get. There at last you have a sketch which — whatever may be said about it — I maintain has some meaning, says something.
While making it I said to myself: let me not leave before there’s something of an autumn evening in it, something mysterious, something with seriousness in it.
However, because this effect doesn’t last, I had to paint quickly. The figures were done with a few vigorous strokes with a firm brush — in one go. I was struck by how firmly the slender trunks stood in the ground — I began them using a brush, but because of the ground, which was already impasted, one brushstroke simply disappeared. Then I squeezed roots and trunks into it from the tube, and modelled them a little with the brush. Yes, now they stand in it — shoot up out of it — stand firmly rooted in it. In a sense I’m glad that I’ve never learned how to paint. Probably then I would have learned to ignore effects like this. Now I say, no, that’s exactly what I want — if it’s not possible then it’s not possible — I want to try it even though I don’t know how it’s supposed to be done. I don’t know myself how I paint. I sit with a white board9 before the spot that strikes me — I look at what’s before my eyes — I say to myself, this white board must become something — I come back, dissatisfied — I put it aside, and after I’ve rested a little, feeling a kind of fear, I take a look at it — then I’m still dissatisfied — because I have that marvellous nature too much in mind for me to be satisfied — but still, I see in my work an echo of what struck me, I see that nature has told me something, has spoken to me and that I’ve written it down in shorthand. In my shorthand there may be words that are indecipherable — errors or gaps — yet something remains of what the wood or the beach or the figure said — and it isn’t a tame or conventional language which doesn’t stem from nature itself but from a studied manner or a system.
Herewith also a scratch from the dunes.10 Standing there were small bushes whose leaves are white on one side and dark green on the other, and which constantly move and sparkle. Behind them dark wood.
As you see, I’m immersing myself in painting with all my strength — I’m immersing myself in colour — I’ve held back from that until now, and don’t regret it. If I hadn’t drawn I would never have felt or tackled a figure that looks like an unfinished terracotta. But now, I feel I’m on the high seas — painting must proceed with all the strength that we can muster.
If I work on panel or canvas, the costs go up again — everything is so expensive — paint is expensive too, and is used up so quickly. Well, these are drawbacks that all painters face — we must see what’s possible. I know for sure that I have a feeling for colour that will develop more and more, that painting is in my very marrow. I appreciate it enormously that you support me so loyally and strongly. I think of you so often — I would so much like my work to be substantial, serious, manly, and for it to give you pleasure as soon as possible.
I want to bring one thing to your attention as important. Wouldn’t it be possible to get paint, panels, brushes, &c. for the net price? At present I have to pay the retail price. Are you in touch with Paillard or someone like that? If so, it seems to me it would work out considerably cheaper to buy paint, for example, in larger quantities, such as white, ochre, terra sienna, and we could come to an arrangement as to the money. It would of course be cheaper. Think about it, if you will. Good painting doesn’t consist in using a great deal of paint, but to give a ground true strength, to make a sky bright, sometimes one mustn’t worry about a tube more or less.
Sometimes the subject requires that one paints thinly, sometimes the material, the nature of the things, makes it self-evident that they must be impasted. At Mauve’s — who paints very soberly in comparison with J. Maris, and even more so in comparison with Millet or Jules Dupré — in the corners of the studio there are nevertheless cigar boxes with the remains of tubes as numerous as the empty bottles in the corners of rooms at a soirée or meal such as Zola describes, for example.11 Now, if this month a little extra is possible, that would be wonderful. If not, then not. I’ll work as far as I can. You enquire after my health, but how’s yours? I believe that my remedy could also be yours. Being outdoors, painting. I’m well. I’m still troubled when I’m tired, but it’s getting better rather than worse. I believe that it’s also beneficial that I live as frugally as possible, but painting is my chief remedy. I hope with all my heart that you have some happiness and will find much more.
Accept a handshake in thought, and believe me
As you see, in the scratch of the seascape there’s a blond, soft effect, and in the woods a more sombre, serious mood. I’m glad that both of these exist in life.