My dear Theo,
Now I’ve already written about it once, I’ve thought about it again since then, out on the heath. The same thing I’ve already thought about many times.
Both among the old and among the modern painters there’s the constantly recurring phenomenon of two brothers who are painters, whose work diverges less than it runs parallel. They’re very different, yet complement each other perfectly. Take the Ostades, Adriaan and Isaac. Anyway, you know very well, of course: a multitude of cases. The Van Eycks as well. And Jules and Emile Breton in the present day, to mention just a few.
And I’ve already thought so very often that it must be so almighty pleasant to work together, and both could be so productive for the very reason that one supports the other and many melancholy times disappear. I can’t repeat to you enough, old chap — one is just beginning in one’s thirtieth year. Look at the history of those people; even many of them who painted from an early age only change then, only become themselves then. I just want you to consider these things. Now I know that one is faced with the question — bread.
I don’t think it wrong, but quite right to reason: I have to eat, live somewhere.
All right, fine, but there’s one thing I ask everyone who says, I don’t have the means — that question is: My friend, what are your demands, how high do you set your standard? Is your character such that you think the same about it as Corot, say, who wasn’t embarrassed, if he could dine out, to buy a loaf from the baker and eat it in the fields?1 In short, managing to make do and not clinging in the least to life’s routine.
This is precisely what you are au fond, and you would adapt perfectly to a host of things. And even if the question of ‘bread’ hasn’t been resolved, it has been largely cleared up.
When I think now about the possibility or impossibility of your coming here, now or later, and start working it out, then I come to the conclusion that together we’d need little more or no more than I alone. And besides, for myself I firmly believe that I would receive stimulation from you in so many things, would find support by talking and discussing things with you, friction of ideas &c., that I would be able to work better.
Now not a day passes, so to speak, but that I make one thing or another. I can’t help but make progress precisely through learning by doing; every drawing one makes, every study one paints is a step. It’s true that it’s like going along a road, one can see the steeple in the distance, but the land undulates, so that when one thinks one is there, there’s another stretch that one didn’t see at first and which is added on. However, one does get nearer. In a while, longer or shorter, I don’t know how long, I’ll reach a point where I start selling. Very well, once I’ve reached that point, it won’t be by halves for I don’t do things by halves. And I’m doing different things at the same time; I’ll have more than one string to my bow, and hence more than one arrow too. So you see what I for my part can throw into the ‘bread’ gulf. Things can change for me, and if I’m still not selling now, with all my hard graft — I repeat, that can change.
We’d have to have, let’s say, 150 francs a month as a minimum, preferably 200.
Credit would have to be found for that, not without a security, but that security would be our work.
Let’s say that we’d have to work for another 2 years before we start to earn quickly, and more than the outgoings, so that we can pay off the debt.
200 francs a month over 2 years is 24 x 200 francs = 2,400 francs. Let’s call it 1,500 guilders.2
The guarantee of this — I’m talking now about you and me working together — is that we’ll already have thrown a lot into it ourselves and have laid a certain foundation. What I can do, I can do, some aspects of drawing, yes and even some aspects of painting are firmly ingrained in me, and not in the least coincidentally but acquired through honest work. I say, yet another guarantee that we aren’t just talking hot air.
Listen Theo, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you if you didn’t have a certain self-confidence, a certain self-knowledge. I may already have told you before that, au fond, you’re an artist, as time goes by that feeling gets stronger and stronger in me. You’ll say ‘I can’t make anything’ — well of course you can’t now, but just work for a year, wait till the initial things have become a little clearer, and you’ll feel with the greatest serenity that, yes, perhaps not everyone can become a painter through his own hard graft if he doesn’t have a certain turn of mind, but for yourself you would discover that you really do have that turn of mind of reflection, of thinking and analyzing, of feeling the beauty in nature, and that you therefore can be an artist, because you have a desire to work and energy, although they’re now going in another direction, so that nothing can be left for art. But were that same desire to work to be the driving force behind your feeling for beauty, the result would be a true painter.
I’ll just return briefly to the ‘bread’ question. A lot of things that people say can’t be done actually can.
Let me just suppose for a moment that you were at a point where you had to change — (you aren’t at that point yet, I’m just supposing it for a moment). Then you could get a position in another firm. Very well, but your more distant future, not the foreground but the background, the horizon, is that bright? It seems to me to be very much in darkness.
Take, similarly, the more distant future if you become a painter; the darkness isn’t there but it’s close by, right in the foreground.
Your own diligence can make you a painter, and other people won’t be able to stop you, but in the art business your own diligence may well not be the article that certain bosses, even new ones, might require, particularly at times when they themselves have got the wind up. With all your own diligence you could end up like Wisselingh, who’s also very diligent and was with G&Cie.3
I said many things that people say can’t be done actually can be when you come down to it. Why shouldn’t we be able to live with Pa if circumstances meant that we had to? I don’t say for nothing, but in the event that we couldn’t get as much credit as we’d need to last out here in Drenthe. But never mind that and concentrate on the former. We’d have a hard struggle, but the pleasure of being together, living together in this inexpressibly beautiful nature, above all the consciousness of being two craftsmen, old chap, how almighty pleasant it would be. So almighty pleasant that I scarcely dare think of it and yet can’t help myself, although that happiness seems too tremendous to me, for you as well as for me myself, since we aren’t accustomed to having pleasure in our lives, and feel as if that were more for other people — not for us.
We’d have to have 1,500 guilders credit. I don’t know where and how it would be possible to come by it. I’ll work out for you what it would buy. We’d make an arrangement for 2 years with the man here, if necessary pay a sum in advance, I think that he’d do it for 1,000 guilders, give us both food for those two years, let us this room I’m living in now; in short, we’d be free of all domestic cares for 2 years and could work in peace and quiet.
Two years is a long time, is all you’ll need in the circumstances to reach a certain level. We’d then have enough left over to lay in a big batch of paint, to set ourselves up properly.
Few things could then upset us or divert us from our plan, or anything else. Then we must and then we can.
We’ll have assured our lives as far as food and shelter are concerned, and can no longer go back but must, must, must go forward and win.4
As for you, I would think that you must do other than I did. Mine is in the past, I did what I did up to today, but I wish above all that you would start painting straightaway; I do know what you’d want to make here. I would like you to get down straightaway to landscapes conceived in the spirit of Michel, which I see over and over again, wholly and utterly Michel, that is absolutely what it is here. I’m pretty sure I would be able to help you on the way. Time will tell what you want later but, as I say, I believe I’d be able to help you on the way because I’ve been tackling things in that genre myself in the last few days; I don’t pretend that they’re Michels, but I do dare say that once you’ve gone that far you’ll find your own way from there.
For my part, particularly if you were here, I would concentrate more and more on the figure. I’ll just scribble down for you the landscapes I have on the easel.5
You see here the genre of studies that I’d like you to tackle straightaway. To learn to take a broad view of the landscape in its simple lines and contrast of light and shade. I saw the top one today, was wholly and utterly Michel. That earth was superb in reality. I don’t think my study is mature enough yet, but the effect made an impression on me, and as far as light and shade are concerned it was as I draw it here for you.
The bottom one, with a little delicate green wheatfield in the foreground and withered grasses behind the cottage and stacks of peat, is another glimpse of the heath, and the sky very light. You see, what I’m getting at is that you ought to start in that genre, and would do well from the outset, it seems to me, definitely not to draw exclusively.
I mean everything I write to you here in absolute, absolute earnest, I’ve already thought about it for so long.
And wouldn’t have spoken about it if everything had remained well at G&Cie, but now, in the circumstances, it’s only because of my own wretched finances that I don’t say even more decidedly, come here straightaway. Otherwise I wouldn’t say anything more than that. The country is superb, superb, everything calls out to you: paint! So distinctive and so varied. Look, old chap, however things go, aren’t there always financial difficulties everywhere, and where are they less than here, and where or how on earth can a time of struggle lead to a more permanent peace? To a great peace that no one can disturb. For myself, I can say no more than that I’m willing to pledge all my own studies as security for the repayment of what we absolutely need for the first two years. What’s more, we don’t need all the money at once. I think it must be possible to find it. I suggest the minimum because both you and I would arrange things very economically.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, I have a lot of plans, but for myself I do wish that I could spend a hundred guilders to improve my equipment. And I wish that I knew for certain that I would be able to be here for two years, say, come what may. At the moment I have so little security for the future, and I wish that I knew for sure that I wouldn’t have to leave here again in a while.
The plan I’m just setting out here can be changed. It seems to me that the fundamental point remains that we must manage things for two years such that we can have peace. Once the two years are up, I’ll have reached a point where I’ll be earning regularly, and I hope I’ll have regular work on such conditions that both you and I could continue in the same way. The plan is simple enough. There would be talk about you, too, but there would be 6 hours’ walking through Michels between the miserable little town of Hoogeveen and you, so you wouldn’t be in the least bit bothered by it, would you? You would be done with all of it, and by the time you’re 30 even the house of Goupil would seem to you to be something out of a dream, and you wouldn’t understand how you were once the boss on the boulevard and were treated civilly, always civilly by M. l’administrateur général. About my coming to Paris, oh, it’s a roundabout way, it seems to me, although if it’s more convenient, very well — but it’s so wholly and entirely bound up with the change you make, and if you change other than becoming a painter, I really fear that it would nevertheless have to come to that in the end, and meanwhile it would have become even more problematic. And would it then not be something for you to refresh yourself and renew yourself wholly and entirely here. Through and through, you know, renew everything, everything, through and through.
I cannot write other than as I write.
You’re a man of business; precisely because that’s what you are I don’t believe you’ll reject all this out of prejudice. After all, there are always financial difficulties and concerns, one can’t escape them anywhere, and fundamentally this is something solid, since it will make you into an artisan. Is that a backward step? No, it isn’t a backward step, and it seems to me that it’s the right way. It would be the act of a man, an act that calls for collier’s faith.6 Well then, I say, have that collier’s faith. Now, old chap, with a handshake
Do write again very soon.
Think of Barbizon, that’s a wonderful story. The ones who originally started there when they got there – by no means all of them were outwardly what they really were au fond. The country shaped them, all they knew was: it’s no good in the city, I must go to the country; I imagine they thought, I must learn to work, become something entirely different, yes, the opposite of what I am now. They said, I’m no good now, I’m going to renew myself in nature. At least, that’s how I reason, and although I’d go to Paris if it was absolutely necessary, and also find something to do there — I believe my future here is infinitely, infinitely better. Theo, your case is curious, almighty interesting. Dare — risk — yes, that’s what you must do; have collier’s faith all the same and even so, yes, you must have. But think now quite coolly about your highly curious position. I can’t mince my words now, old chap — don’t hold it against me — I just have to say it as it seems to me. You see a way in the art trade — as far as I can see that makes you something like Wisselingh, to mention a good man. I have great respect for Wisselingh, I like him, what you will, but even now I’d like to say to him, old chap, become a painter even now. You’re much too honest for the present-day art trade, much too clever &c. Now is not the time for it. If, on the contrary, you now persevere even more, seek your own diligence, your own craft even more and say, I won’t hesitate, I’ll risk it, I’ll push off from the shore into the open sea, you’ll get a certain sombre seriousness straightaway — something mightily serious rises up from inside — one looks at the calm shore, very well, it’s very pleasant — but the secret of the deep, the intimate, serious charm of the Ocean, of the artist’s life — with the Something on high7 above it — has taken hold of you. Very well — you aren’t a Wisselingh any more — you’re something very different. You personally are what the little boat is in a seascape by Jules Dupré.8 You are smaller but you are bigger — you’re an artist and you can do nothing — sure enough, your act of submission has already changed you — your own impotence or power is irrelevant here. No, the renewal of life9 makes your whole nature different, your thoughts and insights different, so that you would rather keep silent about it, and work. Your work is ugly — fine — let it be ugly — it will annoy but not discourage you. After scrabbling around for a while, lo and behold a scratch with a je ne sais quoi in it — fine — that’s the portent.
It bobs up and down — now you think: it will happen, then you think: it will never work, but the longer you go on the more you’ll learn to have collier’s faith. It will become more resolute even if there are still moments of bitter melancholy.
Matters of art soon become so serious that what people say about it is like the croaking of ravens. The heath speaks to you, you listen to that still voice of nature, and nature sometimes becomes a little less hostile; ultimately you are her friend. Then your work is beautiful and calm too.
3v:10 But nature demands some kind of submission, and she demands a period of wrestling with her.
I can’t do anything else, if I speak honestly through and through I have to say, Theo, become a painter, find a way to break out and come to Drenthe. People may make a fuss, but you won’t hear much of it, a 6-hour walk through Michel landscapes lies between you and the everyday world.
You would awaken, and when you got up you would find yourself by a peasant’s open peat fire with a cradle beside it. You would think better there and feel Correggio’s anche io — I too am a painter.10
They’d say, you aren’t — you would reply, well, well. Now, if you were here — I mustn’t echo you now, but all things considered say the same as you write to me — if you were here, I would have a comrade, and as a result my work would make better progress. You wouldn’t be without friends. You would soon have a very much more jovial rapport with Rappard than before, Wisselingh would also remain loyal to you — although he’d probably advise you against it. If you were here, I would become productive sooner, I say the same, it’s too big for me on my own, I scarcely dare attempt it on my own. I must have someone to discuss things with. Who knows what a painting is. The thing that attracts me most about Paris, that would be of most use in my progress, is actually being with you, having that friction of ideas with someone who knows what a painting is, who understands the reasonableness of the quest. I think Paris is all right because you’re in Paris, and if consequently I were less alone I would get on faster, even there. Enough about this for the moment. I don’t say that it could be done if we couldn’t afford to pay for our coarse bread and our workplace. But with what I mentioned as the minimum, I for one would very definitely cross off the impossibility.
I have a simple plan for myself; I’ll go out and make whatever strikes me, fill my lungs with heathland air, believe that in a while I’ll be fresher, newer, better myself.
Come on, old chap, come and paint with me on the heath, in the potato field, come and walk with me behind the plough and the shepherd — come and stare into the fire with me — just let the storm that blows across the heath blow through you. Break out. I don’t know the future, how it could be different or not, whether everything will go well for us. But all the same I can’t speak otherwise. Don’t look for it in Paris, don’t look for it in America, it’s all the same, always exactly the same. Change indeed, look for it on the heath.
Regards, write soon, with a handshake.