1 Nov.

My dear Theo,
For several days I’ve been completely taken up by something that may also be of interest to you and I think it well worth writing to you about it especially. In a letter from Rappard I received an extract from a lecture by Herkomer on the subject of the wood engravings of recent times.1
I can’t tell you about the whole thing in detail, you may have read the article yourself (which was in an English art magazine, perhaps the Art Journal). It was mainly about the drawings in The Graphic. Herkomer relates how he himself worked on them with great ambition and enthusiasm, and he particularly recalls the splendid prints in the first volumes.2 Feels that no words can express sufficiently forcefully how important he finds the work of those first artists. He reviews the progress made in process and technique, the difference between the old and the modern wood engraving, &c. &c. Then talks about the present day, and that brings him to the real subject of his lecture. He says: the wood engravers are cleverer than ever, but nonetheless I see a decadence if I think back to when The Graphic began.3 And — he goes on — in my view the reason lies in two things against which I protest. One has to do with the publishers, the other with the artists.  1v:2
Both have their faults, which will ruin things if one doesn’t combat them.
The publishers, he says, demand things done for effect: ‘correct and honest drawing is no longer wanted, complete designs are no longer in request, a “bit” just covering an awkward corner of a page, is all that is required’.4
‘The managers declare that the public require the representation of a public event or so and are satisfied if it is correct and entertaining, caring nothing for the artistic qualities of the work. I do not believe what they say. The only excuse you may accept is “dearth of good draughtsmen”’.5
Then6 he comes to the artists, and says that he regrets that these days all too often it’s the wood engraver, not the draughtsman, who makes the prints beautiful. Urges the artists not to accept this — to draw soberly and forcefully so that the engraver remains what he should be, the translator of the draughtsman’s work, and doesn’t get the upper hand. Then comes his conclusion, a forceful plea to all to continue supporting the cause warmly, and not to allow any weakening.
There’s something of a reproach in his plea, and it isn’t without some melancholy that he speaks, and as one fighting against the indifference he finds intolerable.
‘To you — the public — the art offers infinite pleasure and edification. For you it is really done. Therefore clamour loudly for good work and be sure it will be forthcoming’ — are his closing words.7  1v:3
The whole thing is thoroughly sound, firm, honest. His manner of speaking makes the same impression on me as some letters by Millet.
It gives me encouragement, and it truly does me good to hear someone talk like that for once.
I say that it’s a terrible pity that here there’s no enthusiasm, so to speak, for the art that’s most suitable for the common people.
If the painters were to close ranks to ensure that their work (which, after all, is made for the people, in my view — at least I believe that is the highest, noblest vocation for any artist) could also come into the hands of the people and was put within everyone’s reach, that would be something that would produce the same results as were produced in the first years of The Graphic.
Neuhuys, Van der Velden and a few others made drawings this year for ‘De Zwaluw’, a magazine that appears monthly and costs 7 1/2 cents.8 There are some good ones, but one can see that most were done with a weak hand (not the original drawings but the way of popularizing them), and from what I hear the magazine is no more likely to keep going than its predecessors. Why doesn’t it work? — the booksellers say they earn nothing from it, and instead of circulating it they block it.
And as for the painters, I believe they haven’t yet made every effort to take the matter to heart. The definition that many a painter here in Holland gives in reply to the question ‘What is a wood engraving?’ is: ‘it’s those things lying in the Zuid-Hollandsch Koffiehuis’.9 So they rank them among the drinks. And the makers of them among the drunks, perhaps.  1r:4
And what do the dealers say? Suppose I went to anyone here with around 100 sketches that I’ve gathered together. At best I fear I would be told ‘did you imagine those things had commercial value?’
My love and respect for the great draughtsmen of both the age of Gavarni and of the present day increases the better acquainted with their work I become, and above all as I do my best myself to make something from what one sees every day on the streets.
What I value in Herkomer, in Fildes, in Holl and the other founders of The Graphic, why I find and will continue to find them even more sympathetic than Gavarni and Daumier, is that, while the latter seem to view society more with mockery, the former, like such men as Millet, Breton, Degroux and Israëls,10 choose subjects which — while as true as those of Gav. or Daum. — have something noble and in which there’s a more serious sentiment. That, above all, must remain, it seems to me.
An artist need not be a minister or a collector in church, but he must have a warm heart for people, and I find it a noble thing that, for example, no winter passed without The Graphic doing something to keep alive sympathy for the poor. For instance, I have a print by Woodville showing the distribution of turf tickets in Ireland,11 another by Staniland entitled Help the helpers depicting various scenes in a hospital — where money was short,12 Christmas in the workhouse by Herkomer,13 Homeless and hungry by Fildes14 &c. I find them even more beautiful than the drawings by Bertall or somebody for the Vie Elégante or other élégances.15 Perhaps you’ll find this a tedious letter — but everything was once more fresh in my mind. I had gathered together and mounted my 100 or so studies and when I had finished the job a slightly melancholy sense of ‘what’s the good?’ came over me — but then Herkomer’s forceful words calling on people not to weaken and saying that it’s more necessary than ever to keep the hand to the plough16 did me so much good, and I thought I’d briefly tell you the substance of what he said. With a handshake in thought, believe me

Ever yours,

I hope to hear from you in the coming days, I received a good letter from home.


Br. 1990: 279 | CL: 240
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: The Hague, Wednesday, 1 November 1882

1. The article, published in The Art Journal, is ‘Drawing and engraving on wood’ (Herkomer 1882). A note to the article says: ‘This paper was delivered at the London Institution in January, 1882’. The tenor of the passages cited corresponds with what Herkomer wrote. There is no way of knowing whether Van Rappard enclosed the extracts from the article in his letter (cf. letter 276) or sent them separately, with or without an accompanying letter.
2. The Graphic first appeared in December 1869.
3. The word ‘decadence’ is found in Herkomer and must have particularly impressed Van Gogh; he refers to it several times. After a brief history of the wood engraving, in which the engraving was done by a person other than the draughtsman, Herkomer wrote: ‘Now, here we pass to modern times, when some of our best painters have drawn their best works on wood, and for whom a body of engravers has been raised up who have brought the art of engraving on wood to such a degree of perfection, that the most modern work, especially that of the Americans, is done to show the skill of the engraver rather than the art of the draughtsman. I do not hesitate to say that this is the first sign of a decadence’ (Herkomer 1882, p. 167, col. 2; cf. for the word also p. 133, col. 2).
4. In the original article on p. 167, col. 2.
5. This quotation is on p. 168, col. 1.
6. In the original article the passage cited below came before the one above; Van Rappard may have turned them round in his extract.
7. This quotation is derived from p. 168, col. 2.
8. De Zwaluw. Volksblad met Platen onder Toezicht van de Maatschappij tot Nut van ’t Algemeen (1882) was aimed at the lower classes. It included four folio pages in each issue, one with a large illustration and another with a small one. The short texts were moralistic or didactic in character. The magazine appeared only in the years 1882-1883 and was published under the supervision of the Society for General Welfare. The price was 7.5 cents per issue and 90 cents per volume in 1882, and 5 cents per issue and 60 cents per volume in 1883.
Two drawings by Albert Neuhuys were published: Gerrit, Aaltje en de wieg (Gerrit, Aaltje and the cradle) and Rika met de kinderen (Rika with the children). The engravers were Auguste and Emile Tilly (no. 4, April 1882, p. 4 and no. 8, August 1882, p. 4).
Two drawings by Pieter van der Velden were published, both engraved by Johannes Walter: Piet van den Visscher (Piet van den Visscher) and De bellenblazer (The bubble-blower) (no. 2, February 1882, p. 1 and no. 7, July 1882, p. 1).
[424] [425]
9. For the ‘Zuid-Hollandsch Koffiehuis’, see letter 214, n. 9.
11. Richard Caton Woodville (ii), The state of Ireland: Distributing relief tickets in the turf-market, Westport, County Mayo, in The Illustrated London News 76 (6 March 1880), engraved by W.I. Mosses, ‘Extra supplement’, between pp. 224 and 225. Ill. 1992 [1992]. Van Gogh is mistaken in his interpretation of the print; the accompanying text speaks of the ‘distribution of relief tickets for small portions of “yellow meal” or maize flour doled out by the local Relief Committees’ (p. 227).
12. Charles Joseph Staniland, “Help the helpers!” – Hospital Sunday, June 13 1880, in The Graphic 21 (12 June 1880), pp. 596-597. Ill. 1351 [1351]. Van Gogh derived his knowledge about the call for money from the commentary accompanying the illustration in the magazine (p. 594).
13. Hubert von Herkomer, Christmas in a workhouse, engraved by Charles Roberts, in The Graphic 14 (25 December 1876), Christmas Number, p. 30. Ill. 166 [166]. (t*93).
15. Charles Albert Bertall, vicomte d’Arnoux, depicted the beau-monde in numerous magazine illustrations (fashion, horse racing, sport, hunting and at the beach). He also illustrated an edition of Balzac’s Petites misères de la vie conjugale (1845). As far as can be made out, he did not contribute to the sumptuous magazine La Vie Elégante, that had the same type of illustrations.