My dear Bernard,
You do very well to read the Bible — I start there because I’ve always refrained from recommending it to you.
When reading your many quotations from Moses, from St Luke,1 &c., I can’t help saying to myself — well, well — that’s all he needed. There it is now, full-blown — — — — ... the artist’s neurosis.
Because the study of Christ inevitably brings it on, especially in my case, where it’s complicated by the seasoning of innumerable pipes.
The Bible — that’s Christ, because the Old Testament leads towards that summit; St Paul and the evangelists occupy the other slope of the holy mountain.
How petty that story is! My God, are there only these Jews in the world, then? Who start out by declaring that everything that isn’t themselves is impure?
The other peoples under the great sun over there — the Egyptians, the Indians, the Ethiopians, Babylon, Nineveh. Why didn’t they write their annals with the same care? Still, the study of it is beautiful, and anyway, to be able to read everything would be almost the equivalent of not being able to read at all.
But the consolation of this so saddening Bible, which stirs up our despair and our indignation – thoroughly upsets us, completely outraged2 by its pettiness and its contagious folly – the consolation it contains, like a kernel inside a hard husk, a bitter pulp — is Christ. The figure of Christ has been painted — as I feel it — only by Delacroix and by Rembrandt........ And then Millet has painted.... Christ’s doctrine.3
The rest makes me smile a little — the rest of religious painting — from the religious point of view — not from the painting point of view. And the Italian primitives (Botticelli, say), the Flemish, German primitives (V. Eyck, and Cranach)..... They’re pagans, and only interest me for the same reason that the Greeks do, and Velázquez, and so many other naturalists. Christ — alone — among all the philosophers, magicians, &c. declared eternal life – the endlessness of time, the non-existence of death – to be the principal certainty. The necessity and the raison d’être of serenity and devotion.
Lived serenely as an artist greater than all artists — disdaining marble and clay and paint — working in living flesh.4 I.e. — this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books..... he states it loud and clear.. he made.. living men, immortals.5
That’s serious, you know, especially because it’s the truth.
That great artist didn’t make books, either — Christian literature as a whole would certainly infuriate him, and its literary products that could find favour beside Luke’s Gospel, Paul’s epistles — so simple in their hard or warlike form — are few and far between. This great artist — Christ — although he disdained writing books on ideas and feelings — was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word — the parable above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig tree,6 &c.)
And who would dare tell us that he lied, the day when, scornfully predicting the fall of the buildings of the Romans, he stated, ‘heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’7
Those spoken words, which as a prodigal, great lord he didn’t even deign to write down, are one of the highest, the highest summit attained by art, which in them becomes a creative force, a pure creative power.
These reflections, my dear old Bernard — take us a very long way — a very long way — raising us above art itself. They enable us to glimpse — the art of making life, the art of being immortal — alive.
Do they have connections with painting? The patron of painters — St Luke — physician, painter, evangelist — having for his symbol — alas — nothing but the ox — is there to give us hope.8
Nevertheless — our own real life — is humble indeed — our life as painters.
Stagnating under the stupefying yoke of the difficulties of a craft almost impossible to practise on this so hostile planet, on the surface of which ‘love of art makes one lose real love’.9
Since, however, nothing stands in the way — of the supposition that on the other innumerable planets and suns there may also be lines and shapes and colours — we’re still at liberty — to retain a relative serenity as to the possibilities of doing painting in better and changed conditions of existence — an existence changed by a phenomenon perhaps no cleverer and no more surprising than the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly, of the white grub into a cockchafer.
That existence of painter as butterfly would have for its field of action one of the innumerable stars,
2r:3 which, after death, would perhaps be no more unapproachable, inaccessible to us than the black dots that symbolize towns and villages on the map in our earthly life. Science — scientific reasoning — seems to me to be an instrument that will go a very long way in the future.
Because look – it was thought that the earth was flat — that was true — it still is today — from Paris to Asnières,10 for example.
But that didn’t prevent science proving that the earth is above all round. Which nobody disputes nowadays.
Now at present, despite that, we’re still in the position of believing that life is flat and goes from birth to death.
But life too is probably round, and far superior in extent and potentialities to the single hemisphere that’s known to us at present.
Future generations — probably — will enlighten us on this subject that’s so interesting — and then science itself — could — with all due respect — reach conclusions more or less parallel to Christ’s words concerning the other half of existence.
Whatever the case — the fact is that we are painters in real life, and it’s a matter of breathing one’s breath as long as one has breath.11
Ah — E. Delacroix’s beautiful painting — Christ’s boat on the sea of Gennesaret, he — with his pale lemon halo — sleeping, luminous — within the dramatic violet, dark blue, blood-red patch of the group of stunned disciples. On the terrifying emerald sea, rising, rising all the way up to the top of the frame. Ah — the brilliant sketch.12
I would make you some croquis were it not that having drawn and painted for three or four days with a model — a Zouave – I’m exhausted — on the contrary, writing is restful and diverting.
What I’ve done is very ugly: a drawing of the Zouave, seated,13 a painted sketch of the Zouave against an all-white wall14 and lastly his portrait against a green door and some orange bricks of a wall.15 It’s harsh and, well, ugly and badly done. However, since that’s the real difficulty attacked, it may smooth the way in the future. The figures that I do are almost always detestable in my own eyes, and all the more so in others’ eyes — nevertheless, it’s the study of the figure that strengthens us the most, if we do it in a different way than we’re taught at Monsieur Benjamin-Constant’s, for example.16
Your letter gave me great pleasure — the CROQUIS IS VERY VERY INTERESTING17 and I do thank you for it — for my part I’ll send you a drawing one of these days — this evening I’m too worn out in that respect; my eyes are tired, even if my brain isn’t.
Listen — do you remember John the Baptist by Puvis?18 I find it marvellous and as much the MAGICIAN19 as Eugène Delacroix.
The passage about John the Baptist that you dug out of the Gospel is absolutely what you saw in it... People pressing around somebody — art thou Christ, art thou Elias?20 As it would be in our day to ask Impressionism or one of its searcher-representatives, ‘have you found it?’21 That’s just it.
At the moment my brother has an exhibition of Claude Monet — 10 paintings done in Antibes from February to May. It seems it’s very beautiful.
Have you ever read the life of Luther? Because Cranach, Dürer, Holbein belong to him — it’s he — his personality — that’s the lofty light of the Middle Ages.22
I like the Sun King no more than you do – extinguisher of light23 it rather seems to me — that Louis XIV — my God, what a pain, in every way, that Methodist Solomon. I don’t like Solomon either, and the Methodists not at all, as well. Solomon seems a hypocritical pagan to me; I really have no respect for his architecture, an imitation of other styles, nor for his writings, which the pagans have done much better.24
Tell me a bit about where you stand as far as your military service is concerned; should I talk to that second lieutenant of Zouaves or not?25 Are you going to Africa or not? In your case, do the years count double in Africa or not? Most of all, see that your blood’s in order — you don’t get very far with anaemia — painting goes slowly — better try to make your constitution as tough as old boots, a constitution to make old bones — better live like a monk who goes to the brothel once a fortnight — I do that, it’s not very poetical — but anyway — I feel that my duty is to subordinate my life to painting.
If I was in the Louvre with you, I’d really like to see the primitives with you.
In the Louvre, I still return with great love to the Dutch, Rembrandt first and foremost — Rembrandt whom I once studied so thoroughly — then Potter, for example — who makes — on a no. 4 or no. 6 panel, a white stallion alone in a meadow, a stallion neighing, and with a hard-on — forlorn under a sky brewing up a thunderstorm – heartbroken in the tender green immensity of a wet meadow26 — ah well, there are wonderful things in the old Dutchmen having no connection with anything at all. Handshake, and thank you again for your letter and for your croquis.
The sonnets are going well27 — i.e. — the colour in them is good — the design isn’t as strong, less sure of itself, rather; the conception’s still hesitant, I don’t know how to put it — its moral purpose isn’t clear.