My dear Theo,
Thanks for your letter and 150 francs enclosed. Wanted to tell you that I’m glad to have come here. I painted 3 more studies last week; one of the backs of old houses — seen out of my window1 — two in the park.2 I’ve exhibited one of them at a dealer’s. Furthermore, I’ve also left what I brought with me from the country with two others on commission.3 At a fourth I can exhibit a view of the wharf as soon as the weather allows me to paint it,4 because he had a Mols that he wanted something to show alongside. Furthermore, I got another address from the last of them, where he assured me I’d be well received. Now these dealers aren’t the biggest in Antwerp, but all the same I saw at all of them, among much that I didn’t like, such things as appealed to me, for instance at one a painting by Van Goyen and a study by Troyon, at another a Mols and tiny little Dutch paintings — at another that little painting which I told you was like Raffaëlli — it’s by Moormans5 — and some good watercolours — at another various good seascapes by young Belgians. I saw very few figures, and I consequently intend to try to paint some figures.
The address that the dealer in question gave me is actually that of one of the large dealers (Nicolié)6 who don’t have a shop window but hold their exhibitions in a private house. I want to take figures there, though.
Then I’ve also discovered useful sources for paint &c., where I’ll be able to get things quite cheaply. I’ve also hunted out Linnig,7 whom you mentioned in the summer when I asked you if you knew people in Antwerp — but he has nothing but a few miserable old paintings; paints himself rather like Vertin,8 but seemed to me to be a discouraged man in so far as he ever had any courage, which I reckon wasn’t much. All these gentlemen, though, are complaining bitterly that nothing’s moving. Still, that’s not news. I hope to go and see the painting you write about before long. I’ve been busy going backwards and forwards, though, and still am, tracking down those fellows, and at the same time hunting for models, too. That last is always terribly difficult, but I’ve done it elsewhere and so I’ll manage here too. I have an appointment for tomorrow with a splendid old man — will he come???
Today I got my stock of paint that they forwarded to me from Eindhoven and paid for it, more than 50 francs. It’s hard, terribly hard to keep working when people don’t buy, and literally to have to pay for one’s paint out of what wouldn’t be excessive just for food and drink and lodgings alone, living frugally. And on top of that, the models. Anyway. Still, there’s a chance, and a good one even, for there are relatively few people working at present. To my mind they’re only half to blame for this (for the other half they are) because it’s sometimes too tough. And yet they build national museums costing hundreds of thousands and similar things, but meanwhile the artists sometimes starve. But be all this as it may, I needed to look into things for myself, and the chance of doing something isn’t less but rather a great deal more than I’d imagined. I’ve seen various photographs of Jan van Beers’s work. Some of his things are done with a great deal of character. But I imagine that someone like Manet, say, is very much more of a painter than Van Beers, and does it better, more artistically. If only I knew my way around here rather better, if only I could get the models I saw! Yesterday I was in the Scala café concert,9 something like the Folies Bergères10 — I thought it was tedious and hackneyed, of course, but — I amused myself looking at the audience.
1r:4 There were magnificent women’s heads, really extraordinarily fine, among the worthy bourgeois folk in the back rows, and on the whole I find what they say about Antwerp true indeed, that the women are good-looking here.
Ah! I’ll say it again, if I could only get the models I want! What leaves me quite cold are the mass of German girls, all manufactured from a single model one would say, that one sees at the café concerts. It seems that one sees that same breed everywhere nowadays, like Bavarian beer. It seems to be an article that’s exported in bulk. I’m bored to tears by all these German elements that lurk wherever one goes these days. It’s sure to be just the same in Paris, with the Boches worming their way in everywhere. Anyway, it’s a boring thing to talk about.
Seeing some paintings by other people has given me all sorts of ideas for when I’m back in the country in the spring; at the same time my confidence to carry on with all the strength at my disposal is being boosted in general. Antwerp is a beautiful colour, and it’s worthwhile for the subjects alone.
One evening I saw a popular dance for sailors &c. down by the docks — it was quite charming and all very respectable. That won’t be the case at all these dances, though. No one there was drunk, for instance, nor did anyone drink much.
There were very good-looking girls there, the best-looking of whom was ugly. I mean, a figure that struck me like an amazingly beautiful Jordaens or Velázquez or — Goya — was one in black silk, probably some inn landlady or other, with an ugly and irregular face, but with vivacity and piquancy à la Frans Hals. She danced excellently in an old-fashioned manner — among others, once with a well-to-do little farmer type who had a large green umbrella under his arm, even while he was waltzing amazingly fast. Other girls were wearing ordinary jackets and skirts and red scarves — the sailors, cabin-boys &c., quite charming. Retired ship’s captain types who came to watch. Extraordinarily authentic. It does one good to see people who are really enjoying themselves.11
Well, you can see that I’m not sitting idle — but I can’t stress enough how terribly difficult it is to be short of money. My best chance is in figures because there are relatively very few who do it, and I must make the most of this chance. I have to work my way in here, until I come into contact with good figure painters — Verhaert,12 for instance, and then portrait painting, I imagine, will be the way to earn something for grander things.
I feel a power to do something within me. I see that my work holds its own against other work, and that gives me an incredible desire to work; and lately, when I was in the country, I was starting to have doubts precisely because I noticed that Portier seemingly doesn’t care for it any more.13
I’d be able to do more if I were better off. But I’m partly dependent on my purse as far as production is concerned.
I also have an idea for a sort of shop sign14 that I hope to carry out. I mean, for instance, still lifes of fish for a fishmonger, for flowers, for vegetables, for a restaurant. It seems to me that if one took well-arranged subjects — large — 1 metre by 1/2 a metre or 3/4, say, a canvas like that would cost me 50 francs, no more — even 30 francs with luck, and it would be worth trying to make a few.
This much is certain, I want to be seen — we may have to lose heart later,
2v:7 but we’ll manage to put it off for a long while.
Do write to me again if you have time. The end of the month would certainly be hard unless you can give me a little support then. For me, so much may depend on my being able to stick to my guns.
And one can’t afford to look hungry or wretched. On the contrary, one must see to it that one helps to liven things up.
Regards, with a handshake.