My dear friend Rappard,
I just received your letter and croquis of your painting.1 It’s certainly a good subject, and I have nothing against the composition as regards balance.
May I say one thing — which I would not say if the painting was finished and consequently difficult to alter — which I do say since certain changes that do not concern the lines could be made to advantage? Look — the figure in the middle of the painting — the woman with the rake. Good in its place, but — raking the yard is an action that’s too much of a minor detail for a central figure to be carrying out, it seems to me. For this reason, for my part I would rather see the figure in the middle — in the foreground — carrying bricks (that being a very expressive and characteristic action here, accounted for by the whole thing). I would rather put the rake in the hands of the figure in the middle ground (who is now carrying bricks (and occupies a secondary place in the composition)).2
Is this possible? In respect to the progress of the work? If not — just think if you will about the question — for it seems to me that it’s not unimportant — and comments could be made about it. The fact that the figure is upright there is good, but — without altering the lines — isn’t there a more interesting action you could think of? Don’t hold this against me, please — I don’t think it can do any harm to put forward things like this for consideration when a painting is being planned. I don’t think that this is forcibly pressing my ideas on you. Making the actions expressive is an extremely important matter, in my view, particularly if the painting is to be a large format. I know this is asking a lot — I know that the lines and the balance of the lines may lay down the law here.
But those lines may well remain beautiful and tranquil. Anyway — I believe that it may be that I’m not wrong in this respect — and it’s about your central figure — so I didn’t dare not say what my impression was. If it’s not asking too much, I’d like to suggest having one of the brick-carriers stoop and put down the bricks, so that they aren’t both doing the same. But it comes to the same thing, since there would then be two stooping figures. And after all, that doesn’t matter so much. But the first comment is actually what I feel above all.
As regards my work, the thing with those potato eaters that you saw the lithograph of is a subject that I tried to paint, carried away by the singular lighting of the dingy cottage.3 It’s in such a low spectrum that the light colours, smeared on white paper, say, would look like ink blots — they appear as lights on the canvas because of the strong forces that are opposed to them, for instance Prussian blue laid on just as it is, without mixing. My own criticism is that while paying attention to this I lost sight of the shape of the torsos. Heads and hands were done with great care, though, and — since these were the most important and the rest almost entirely dark (so really quite different in effect from the lithograph), it may perhaps be more excusable of me than you think to have painted it as I did. And besides, the drawing in the actual painting is also different from either the rough sketch that I still have of it4 and which I made in the cottage in the evening by the light of a small lamp, or the lithograph.
I also wanted to tell you that since you were here I’ve painted a fairly large number of heads, and drawn quite a lot of figures of peasants, diggers, weeders, reapers. That in all this, either directly or indirectly, the great question occupied me — colour.
I mean the breaking of the colours, red with green, blue with orange, yellow with violet. Always how the complementary colours go together, their influence on each other. Of which nature is as full as of light and shade.
Another question — which I’m engrossed in every day — is precisely the one that you — I think unjustly — asserted that I neglect: the rendering of the modelling of the form, its main lines and masses, where one thinks of outline in the last place, not the first. See herewith a couple of croquis of small compositions — both of which I’ve painted. I’ve mostly been working in a fairly small format lately.5
As I continue to focus my attention specifically on the peasants, the landscape is something that I’m involved with every single day.
I had just painted some cottages when Wenckebach came to see me.6
I have literally nothing new as regards woodcuts, apart from — 4 large compositions by Lhermitte.7
To me, that man is MILLET II in the full sense of the word; I idolize his work as I do that of Millet himself. I think his genius on a par with that of Millet I.
My brother was here just recently, he told me several things about what’s going on in Paris that I find very encouraging. The success of the Eugène Delacroix exhibition.8 Then I was interested in what he told me about Raffaëlli, a figure painter, and Claude Monet, a colourist landscape painter.9
For the rest, you’ll notice it for yourself — it’s not so much a golden as an iron age for painters — I mean it’s not exactly easy to even stay alive. At least as far as I’m concerned, it’s sheer destitution — only with all that, my courage and perhaps my powers, too, are greater rather than less than before. Don’t think you’re the only one who thinks or thought — as you will — he had to criticize me to the point of total destruction — on the contrary, it’s pretty much the only thing I’ve experienced so far. Precisely because you aren’t or weren’t the only one who speaks solely like this, your criticism is related to other criticism, which, for my part, I counter with a conviction of having a raison d’être for my endeavours — and — will continue to counter more and more.
The reason why I — although I didn’t insist on my way but let you have your way — the reason why I started by asking you to consider — complete retraction of your criticism, wasn’t that I despotically wanted to bend or break your opinions. That wasn’t my intention in the least, although that’s how you took it.
Here are details that are perfectly correct. I let fly at you about drawing plaster models, and I even have to confess frankly that I’d be capable of doing it again.10
And about other questions — I can’t always sit quietly by; it sometimes seems to me as if people are physically touching me, so bound to the question do I sometimes feel and so much is my conviction sometimes a part of myself.
It’s true that there are definitely faults in the lithograph and in much other work, too. But in other work I prove too clearly what I’m seeking for people to be justified or acting in good faith when they do other than judge it as a whole and more broadly — taking into account the aim and endeavour — namely to paint peasants in their setting — the peasant at home.11
Now you call that totality of my work extremely weak, and demonstrate at great length that the faults outnumber the qualities.
Thus about my work, thus about my person.
2v:6 Well now, I do not accept that, definitely not.
The work in question, painting the peasants, is such laborious work that the extremely weak would never even embark on it. And I have at least embarked on it and have laid certain foundations, which isn’t exactly the easiest part of the job! And I’ve grasped some solid and useful things in drawing and in painting, more firmly than you think, my dear friend. But I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.
But it bores me and you to write about this. I’ll end by saying the labour is hard, and it would be wise for the fellows who paint peasants and the common people to join hands as much as is possible instead of quarrelling. Unity is strength, and what we should be fighting is not one another but those fellows who, even now in this period, stand in the way of the progress of the ideas for which Millet and others of a previous generation fought and were pioneers. Nothing is more obstructive than this fatal quarrelling among ourselves.
And as for you and me, let this be at an end, for our objective is the same.
But my reason was precisely that your endeavour and mine, although they’re not the same, nonetheless run parallel rather than being diametrically opposed. And while as a direction and in principle there are points of agreement enough and, I think, will continue to be, it occurred to me that your criticism as a whole was inconsistent, in its application to me, with the character of your own work.
We have in common with each other that we seek our subjects in the heart of the people, and then we have in common a need — either as an objective or as a means — to take our studies from reality. And that — is having a lot in common with each other. And at bottom, as to whether we’re opposed in regard to either drawing technique or painting technique, I for my part am not convinced of that. You’re ahead of me in many things, I don’t deny it, but I still believe you went too far.
But be that as it may — what I consider desirable is that because if we want to and try to we could perhaps be of use and give support to each other — and because unity is strength — we must remain friends.
As regards technique — I’m still searching for many things and with me it’s the case that, although I find some of them, there remain infinitely many that I lack. But — all the same, I know why I work as I work — and base my search on solid ground.
I said to Wenckebach recently that I didn’t know a painter who had as many faults as I have — but that for all that it did not convince me that I’m radically wrong.
With me it’s sometimes a matter of: two negatives making a positive. Take whichever study or drawing of mine you like, even the one I’d point out to you myself with relative equanimity. And — there’ll be mistakes both in the drawing and in the colour or tone that a realist wouldn’t readily make. Certain inaccuracies of which I’m convinced myself, which if need be I myself will sometimes point out more severely than other people. Inaccuracies sometimes, or imperfections.
And yet I believe that — even if I keep producing work in which people, if they want to look at it precisely from that angle and with that aim, can find faults — it will have a certain life of its own and raison d’être that will overwhelm those faults — in the eyes of those who appreciate character and mulling things over in their minds.
3v:9 And with all my faults, people won’t find it as easy to overwhelm me as they think. I know too well what aim I have in view, I’m too absolutely and utterly convinced that I am, after all, on the right path — when I want to paint what I feel and feel what I paint — to worry too much about what people say of me.
All the same, it sometimes makes life very difficult for me and — I consider it very possible that some people will later regret either the things they said about me, or the opposition or indifference with which they plagued me. What I do in response is withdraw so much that I literally don’t see anybody other than — the peasants — with whom I’m directly concerned in order to paint them.
And this will remain my system, and it may even very well be that before long I’ll give up my studio and go and live in a cottage, so that I no longer hear or see anything of those who call themselves civilized people.
When I say to you that I want to remain friends, and mean it, though, it’s because I see in you an endeavour that I regard very highly. You go deep into the people and you have the strength of will to carry it through. When I say we could perhaps be of use and give support to each other — then I say it
3r:10 because, in the event that you don’t submit to conventions, you will probably, as you become better known, possibly make even bolder things, and then it could come to a positive clash between paintings of one school and another. And in such circumstances it could be a good thing for various painters to act in unison. From another angle — I don’t think it’s useless to share ideas and see one another’s work.
Here’s a third little scratch of a study I did yesterday.12
Regards — I feel obliged to offer the comment about the action of the woman in the middle of your composition for your consideration; for the rest I think the composition very sensible and the whole design sympathetic. When you see Wenckebach, would you please give him my regards.
You can see from my croquis that, for my part, I take a lot of trouble specifically to get action — being occupied — doing something — into my figures.
I think it’s good that one figure in your composition, at any rate, is already stooping — being in the process of working is perhaps something that a lot of vertical lines in the composition would make harder to express.