My dear Theo,
By chance I’ve finally seen something by Lhermitte — a very superficial reproduction in woodcut. It showed an old woman on a pew. Beside her a kneeling girl.1 Whatever the shortcomings of the reproduction, it has given me some idea of his work. It reminded me straightaway of Degroux and Legros, for example. There must undoubtedly be many similarities between his work and that of Millet or Breton.
However superficial the small woodcut was, it stayed in my mind for days, and I still think of it, precisely because I’d heard about Lhermitte, due to one thing and another, I was on the lookout and searching for something by him. You remember that I wrote to you about him in connection with reviews of the Black and White.2
I’ve received the natural chalk — many thanks — it’s very good — softer than what I first had from you, though, and the pieces are shorter by half. I would still like to have the harder kind in larger pieces, but I’m very pleased with this.
I’ve done a large drawing with it, more specifically with it and lithographic crayon. It’s a drawing of a digger — I took as my model the orphan man you’re familiar with — a bald head bent forward over the black earth3 — it seemed to me to have a certain significance, making one think of ‘in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’, for instance.4
The appearance of the drawings of the woman with the spade5 and of this digger is such that people won’t think they were done in some complicated way, but won’t give any thought, I believe, to how they were done.
Only I think that if I had done them in ordinary conté, something deathly or iron-like would have entered into them that would have made people say immediately: that isn’t life or nature.
Through certain greys — through a certain warmth of life and pith in the black — one prevents it being deathly and iron-like.
And in my view these little things make it worthwhile to go to the trouble of finding such materials as natural chalk and lithographic crayon. I’m very glad that you sent it.
This morning a painter saw these two drawings — it was Nakken, who didn’t come for me but rang my bell in the belief that Van Deventer lived here, but he lives in the other street.6 I put him right and asked him if he’d like to have a look at the studio. He did so. Since I was working on that digger, that was what he saw first on the easel and he said, ‘That’s strongly drawn and seriously studied’.
1v:3 Leaving that remark aside without picking it to pieces, it still gave me pleasure, because I hardly think Nakken would say of a figure that it was well drawn if it wasn’t properly put together. But I attach no further importance to it. I write to you about it because the drawing was the very one in natural chalk, and you can see from this that if you take the trouble to get me some, I for my part like nothing better than to work with it.
Now to what degree such drawings could match up to certain charcoal drawings — Lhermitte is an ideal — and reaching that standpoint a long way off — aspiring towards it, though, is an everyday concern.
Anyway, when you come sooner or later, we’ll be better able to talk about it.
I spoke to Smulders about lithographs recently — he asked me on the street whether I was going to do some more.7 Which I’d like to do.
But I must discuss it with Rappard sometime, and he must first see my studies.
It often seems to me that something that would have a raison d’être could be made from figures of workmen.
The lithographs by Emile Vernier after Millet and Corot and Daubigny have qualities I rate very highly.8 How one would like to talk to someone with such a mastery of the craft. Not with the aim of making reproductions of paintings, but better to understand what lithography is capable of.
Imagine original drawings with those curious greys and that curious rendering of fabric. Bodmer found that — he is original as an artist and at the same time he has what one might call the lithographic spectrum of colours, or rather spectrum of greys. In some respects that’s entirely different from Gavarni’s lithography. With Bodmer they are prints finished like paintings. I mean not only Bodmer’s actual lithographs like At Bas-Bréau and Stags fighting,9 but the prints from L’Illustration as well, or Monde Illustré.10 Respect for and a need and desire for advice or correction by others mustn’t, however, become an excuse for standing idle, in my view. To say I don’t need others is premature, however, if on the basis of that one systematically finds others wanting.
I’ve always thought printing a miracle, the kind of miracle by which a grain of wheat becomes an ear. An everyday miracle — all the greater because it’s everyday. One sows a single drawing on the stone or in the etching plate and one reaps a multitude.11
Can you understand that it’s something I think about a great deal while at work, and that I have a great love of it? Anyway, my chief concern now is to ensure that the quality of the seed (namely the drawings themselves) improves, and if it takes a little longer I’ll be content, provided the harvest is better as a result. But I still have my eye on that harvest.
Now write again soon and believe me, with a handshake,
I kept this letter for a few days because today, Sunday, I have more time to write. I’m reading Les misérables by V. Hugo.12 A book of which I have old memories, but at the same time I felt a need to read it again — just as one can feel a strong desire to see some painting again.
It’s immensely beautiful, and I find the figure of Monseigneur Myriel or Bienvenu sublime.13
In your last letter you spoke of ‘exercising influence’ with regard to your patient. That Mgr Myriel reminds me of Corot or Millet — although he was a priest and the other two painters. But because in the world of painting Corot and Millet too, or Breton, awoke so much energy in others which would never have fully developed without them, apart from doing their own work.
You know Les misérables, don’t you? — and no doubt the illustrations Brion drew for it14 — very good and convincing.
It’s good to read a book like that again, it seems to me, just to keep some feelings and moods alive. The love of man above all, and faith in and consciousness of something higher, in short of the something on High.15
This afternoon I was engrossed in it for a few hours and then came into the studio — about the time the sun was setting. From the window I looked out on a broad, dark foreground — dug-over gardens and soil, mostly warm black earth, very deep in tone. Running obliquely across that is the little road of yellowish sand with green edges of grass and the thin, spindly poplars. A background of a grey silhouette of the city with the round roof of the station and towers and chimneys. And, by the way, the backs of houses still everywhere – but in the evening everything is brought together by the tone. And so, overseeing the whole, simply a foreground of black, dug-over earth, a road crossing that, a grey silhouette of a city with towers behind, just above that and almost on the horizon the red sun.
It was just like a page in Hugo — and something that would certainly have struck you and that you could describe better than I. And I thought of you at the time.
I’ve already written that I’ve drawn with the natural chalk — yesterday I began a second drawing with it, a woman sewing.16 Particularly with an eye to chiaroscuro. I believe that when you come to the studio again you’ll soon see that although I no longer talk so much about that plan of figures of workmen for lithography, I’ve borne it in mind all the time.17
The position is, though, that it’s beginning to weigh on me more and more, in the sense that I want to make my figures more beautiful.
I have a sower18 — a mower19 — a woman at the wash-tub20 — a woman miner21 — a woman sewing22 — a digger23 — a woman with a spade24 — the orphan man25 — Prayer before the meal26 — a fellow with a wheelbarrow of manure.27
Yet more if need be — but I believe you’ll understand that the very making of them, having the models before one, thinking about them, doesn’t lead to one’s being content with the work but rather to the opposite, namely that one says, yes, the same as that but better still and more serious still.
Now I wouldn’t be attached to this idea if I thought it was impracticable, but the very fact that these drawings already exist means that the desire to make them better is more a matter of actual toil on them than just an idea. And I haven’t got any further with making a final plan, since I find the execution of it more interesting.
It seems to me that these drawings are all striving straight in the direction you meant when you wrote about it recently — although matching those charcoal drawings by Lhermitte, for instance, is a very long way off. You will understand that.
Lhermitte’s secret, it seems to me, is none other than that he knows the figure in
2v:7 general — namely the sturdy, severe workman’s figure — through and through, and takes his subjects from the heart of the people. To reach the same level as he — one shouldn’t talk of that — one must work and see how far one gets. Because talking about it would be presumptuous on my part, I believe, while working, on the other hand, would be a sign of respect and trust and faith in artists like him.
Have you ever seen anything by an American called Abbey? In New York at the moment there’s a club of draughtsmen who call themselves The Tile Club or The tile painters and some of whose drawings I’ve seen, in a Xmas number of illustrations from Harper’s among other places. I ask because these gentlemen have apparently all been to Paris together, judging by a sheet of humorous sketches by one of them.28
In my view Abbey is by far the cleverest. His figures often have something of Boughton. Boughton is also a member or honorary member of the club, but is I believe more solid than all the rest of the club put together, and doesn’t make so much noise. But Abbey is very fine all the same. A figure of a woman in the snow by him that I have29 recalls both Boughton and Heilbuth.30
A large pen drawing of a Christmas party in the age of Washington or slightly earlier31 recalls Henri Pille, for instance.32
He has style — and that’s a great thing, but Boughton had that even more — especially in the past.
I write about it because I believe you’ll agree with me that not all Americans are bad. That, on the contrary, there too extremes meet,33 and that besides a host of noisemakers and bunglers of the most insufferable and impossible sorts there are characters who have the effect of a lily or a snowdrop among thorns.34
Now I’m going to read a little more of Les misérables, although it’s already late. A book like that warms one up, just like paintings by Dupré and old Millets — or several Decamps’ — it’s written with what’s called verve.
I saw that a new volume by Zola has come out: ‘Au bonheur des dames’,35 if I remember rightly.