The full text of The Letters of a Post-Impressionist being the Fimiliar Correspondence of Vincent van Gogh is reproduced here, including the original monochrome images, in its translation from the original German by the British philosopher, sociologist and translator Anthony M Ludovici, first published in 1913.
INTRODUCTORY ESSAY ON VAN GOGH AND HIS ART.
THOUGH the collection of letters contained in Cassirer’s publication, “Vincent Van Gogh. Briefe,” is not a complete one, from my knowledge of a very large number of the letters which are not included in this volume, I feel able to say that the present selection is in any case very representative and contains all that is essential in respect to Van Gogh’s art-credo and general attitude of mind.
For reasons into which it is unnecessary for me to enter here, it was found convenient to adopt the form of Cassirer’s publication arranged by Margarete Mauthner, and my translation has therefore been made from the German (Fourth Edition, 1911). Still, with the view of avoiding the errors which were bound to creep into a double translation of this sort, I took care, when my version was complete, to compare it with as many of the original French letters as I was able to find, and I am glad to say that by this means I succeeded in satisfying myself as to the accuracy of every line from page 39 to the end.
The letters printed up to page 38, some of which I fancy must have been written in Dutch—a language which in any case I could not have read—have not been compared with the originals. But, seeing that the general quality of the German translation of the letters after page 39 was so good that I was able to discover only the small handful of inaccuracies referred to in the appendix, I think the reader may rest assured that the matter covering pages 1 to 38 is sufficiently trustworthy for all ordinary purposes.
I say that “I fancy” some of the letters which occur between pages 1 and 38 were written in Dutch; for I am not by any means certain of this. In any case I can vouch for the fact that the originals of all the letters after page 38 were in French, as I have seen them. But in this respect Paul Gauguin’s remark about his friend Van Gogh is not without interest: “Il oubliait même,” wrote the famous painter of négresses, “d’écrire le hollandais, et comme on a pu voir par la publication de ses lettres à son frère, il n’écrivait jamais qu’en français, et cela admirablement, avec des ‘Tant qu’à, Quant à,’ à n’en plus finir.”
Rather than disfigure my pages with a quantity of notes, I preferred to put my remarks relative to the divergencies between the original French and the German in the form of an appendix (to which the Numbers 1 to 35 in the text refer), and have thus kept only those notes in the text which were indispensable for the proper understanding of the book. Be this as it may, the inaccuracies and doubts discussed in the appendix are, on the whole, of such slight import, that those readers who do not wish to be interrupted by pedantic quibbles will be well advised if they simply read straight on, without heeding the figures in the text. To protect myself against fault-finders, however, such readers will understand that it was necessary for me to prepare some sort of a list referring to those passages which, in the German, differed even slightly from the French original.
In the letters not included in Cassirer’s publication, there are, of course, a few passages which, for obvious reasons, could never have been brought before the German or English reading public; as will be seen, however, the present letters in themselves are but more or less lengthy fragments, carefully edited by the friends of the deceased painter, while the almost complete omission of dates and other biographical information usually accompanying a volume of this sort, may also at first be felt as a rather disturbing blemish.
I would like, however, to seize this opportunity to defend Margarete Mauthner against the charge of having made a “fantastic arrangement” of these letters; for, if the person who made this charge had only been acquainted with the facts of the case, he would have known that she had done no more (at least from page 39 onwards) than faithfully to follow Emile Bernard’s original arrangement of his friend’s correspondence in the “Mercure de France”; and surely we must assume that Emile Bernard, Van Gogh’s devoted admirer, was the best judge as to what should, or should not, appear of all that his friend had written.
With regard to dates, however, Emile Bernard does give a little more information than Margarete Mauthner; but it is very little, and it is as follows: the letters to E. Bernard from page 39 to page 73 were written during 1887; those from page 73 to page 86 were written during 1888; those from page 108 to page 112 were written during 1889, and the remainder, as Margarete Mauthner also tells us, were written during 1890. Of the letters to Van Gogh’s brother, I am afraid I can say nothing more definite than that all those which occur after page 87 were written in Arles, and probably San Remy, between 1887 and 1890.
Now, postponing for a moment, the discussion of Van Gogh’s actual place in the history of the art of the nineteenth century, and bearing in mind the amount of adverse criticism with which his work has met for many years, it does not seem irrelevant here to lay stress upon the fact that these letters are all private, intimate communications, never intended to reach the public eye. And I feel all the more inclined to emphasize this point, seeing that, to the lay student of art, as also to the art-student himself, it is often a difficult task to take the sincerity of the art-innovator for granted. Confronted with a new technique and an apparently unprecedented conception of the outer-world—faced, in fact, by a patch of strange blood; for that is what it comes to after all—we are prone to doubt that our man is bonâ fide. Filled with the prejudices and prepossessions of centuries, and knowing from sad experience that the art-world is not without its arch-humbugs, we find it difficult to believe that such a strange and foreign grasp of reality could actually have been felt by the innovator in our midst. And, rather than question our own values and our own grasp of reality, we instinctively, and, as I think, very healthily, incline to doubt the sincerity of the representative of this new standpoint which is offensive to us.
In Van Gogh’s case, however, we are particularly fortunate; for we possess these letters which are proof enough of the sincerity with which he pursued his calling. And, as I say, he did not write them for the press, nor did he compose them as a conscious teacher. They simply took shape quite naturally in his moments of respite, when he felt the need of unburdening his heart to some sympathetic listener; and in writing them he was as ingenuous and as unembarrassed as a child. He wrote to his brother and to a bosom friend, Emile Bernard. As I have mentioned, a good deal in these letters had to be suppressed—and very naturally too. For if this correspondence had not contained much that was of too intimate a character for publication, it is obvious that the very parts that were considered publishable, would not have had a quarter of the value which we must now ascribe to them. It is precisely because these letters are, as it were, soliloquies which Van Gogh held in the presence of his own soul, that they seem to me to be of such incalculable value to all who think and work in the domain of art, and even in the domain of psychology and morality to-day.
For everyone who is acquainted with the literature of Aesthetic, must know how poor we are in human documents of this nature, and how comparatively valueless the greater part even of our poor treasure is, when it is compared with the profound works which men who were not themselves painters or sculptors, have contributed to our literature on the subject.
Who has not been disappointed on reading Ghiberti’s commentaries, Leonardo’s note books, Vasari’s discourses on “Technique,” Antoine Raphael Mengs’s treatises, Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty, Reynolds’ Discourses, Alfred Stevens’ Aphorisms, etc.? But who has not felt that he was foredoomed to disappointment in each case? For an artist who could express the “why” and the “how” of his productions in words would scarcely require to wield the chisel or the brush with any special power. The way in which one chooses to express oneself is no accident; it is determined by the very source of one’s artistic passion. A true painter expresses himself best in paint.
With Van Gogh’s letters, however, we are not concerned with a painter who is writing a text-book for posterity, or undertaking to teach anybody his art, or to reveal the secrets of it to his fellows. The communications to his brother and his friend, printed in this volume, partake much more of the nature of a running commentary to his life-work, a Sabbath’s meditation upon and contemplation of his six days’ labour, than a series of technical discourses relating to his procedure and its merits. True, technical points arise, but they are merely the fleeting doubts or questionings of an expert chatting intimately with an intimate, and are quite free from any pedagogic or didactic spirit. On the other hand, however, that which he gives us, and which the others above-mentioned scarcely touch upon, is the record of his misgivings and fears concerning the passion that animated him, the value of this passion, and the meaning of his function as a painter in the midst of civilised Europe of the nineteenth century. These letters are not only a confession of the fact that he participated heart and soul in the negative revolution of the latter half of that century, they are also a revelation of the truth that he himself was a bridge leading out of it, to better and more positive things.
He touches upon these questions lightly, as is only fitting in letters that bear other tidings of a more prosaic nature, but he never can conceal the earnestness with which he faced the problems that were present in his mind, and as a stenographic report of these problems these letters make the strongest claim upon our attention.
With regard to his ultimate dementia, I have little doubt myself as to how it was brought about. As in the case of Nietzsche and many another foreign or English poet or thinker, I cannot help suspecting it was the outcome of that protracted concentration of thought upon one or two themes (the chief characteristic of all mania, by-the-bye), which he and a few other unfortunate and whole-hearted men found it necessary to practise in the midst of a bustling, changing, and feverishly restless age, if anything of lasting worth was to be accomplished.
Imagine a man trying to study the laws governing a spinning top in the midst of the traffic of the city, and you have a fair image of the kind of task a sincere artist or thinker undertakes at the present day, if he resolve, in the midst of the rush and flurry of our age, to probe the deep mystery of that particular part of life to which he may happen to feel himself drawn by his individual tastes and abilities. Not only is he foredoomed to dementia by the circumstance of his occupation, but the very position he assumes—bent over his task amid the racket and thunder of the crowded thoroughfare of modern life—gives him at least the aspect of a madman from the start.
And Van Gogh himself was perfectly aware of this. For he realized that the claims which nowadays are put upon the energy of one individual concentrated seeker, are so enormous that even the complication of marriage may prove one strain too many for him. He admits that the Dutch artists married and begat children; but, he adds: “The Dutchmen led a’ peaceful, quiet, and well-ordered life” (page 61). “The trouble is, my’ dear old Bernard,” he says, “that Giotto and Cimabue, like Holbein and Van Eyck, lived in an atmosphere of obelisks—if I may use such an expression—in which everything was arranged with architectural method, in which every individual was a stone or a brick in the general edifice, and all things were interdependent and constituted a monumental social structure…. But we, you know, live in the midst of complete laisser aller and anarchy; we artists who love order and symmetry isolate ourselves and work at introducing a little style into some particular portion of the world” (page 59).
And this is no empty lament; it is a plain statement of the fact that in the disorder and chaos of the present day, not only has the artist no place allotted to him, but also that the very position he tries to conquer for himself, is hedged round with so many petty obstacles and minor personalities, that his best and most valuable forces are often squandered in a mere unproductive attempt at “attaining his own.” That he should need, therefore, to practise the most scrupulous economy with his strength—a precaution which in a well-ordered age, and in a healthier age, would not be necessary—follows as a matter of course.
“I should consider myself lucky,” sighed Van Gogh, “to be able to work even for an annuity which would only just cover bare necessaries, and to be at peace in my own studio for the rest of my life” (page 88).
Without his brother Theodor’s devotion and material help it is impossible to think without alarm of what might have become of this undoubted genius. For it must be remembered that his brother practically kept him from his Hague days in 1881 until the very end in 1890, at Auvers-sur-Oise. It is only when we think of the irretrievable loss which we owe to the fact that Monet himself had to remain idle for six months for want of money, that we can possibly form any conception of what the result would have been if Theodor Van Gogh had ever lost faith in his elder brother, and had stopped or considerably reduced his supplies, or had ever accepted his offer to change his calling (see page 129).
On the other hand, we have evidence enough in these letters to show that Vincent took this self-sacrifice on his brother’s part by no means lightly. We have only to see the solicitude with which he speaks of his brother’s exhausting work (pages 127-30, 146) and of his health, in order to realize that it was no mean egoism that prompted him to accept this position of a dependent and of a protégé. In fact, if we value his art at all, it is with bated breath that we read of the cheerful and stoical manner with which for his brother’s sake Vincent stopped painting for a while (page 102). But the words will bear being repeated:
“I am not so very much attached to my pictures,” he says, “and will drop them without a murmur; for, luckily, I do not belong to those who, in the matter of works of art, can appreciate only pictures. As I believe, on the contrary, that a work of art may be produced at much less expense, I have begun a series of drawings” (see also page 50).
Again and again he complains of the cost of paint and canvas, and to have allowed him carte blanche in the purchase of these materials, the brother must, considering his circumstances, have been capable not only of very exceptional generous feeling, but of very high artistic emotion as well. For it must have been no easy matter for this employee of Messrs. Boussod and Valadon to have worked year in and year out and, without any certain prospect of recovering his outlay, to have paid these monthly bills for Vincent’s keep and Vincent’s work. It is true that occasionally a picture of Vincent’s would sell; but in those days prices were low, and even Vincent himself was often willing to accept a five-franc piece for a study. Besides, the expenses must have been made all the heavier thanks to Vincent’s inveterate carelessness and lack of order in little things, and there can be no doubt that a fair portion of the materials purchased must have been literally wasted, if not lost.
Gauguin, speaking of his meeting with Van Gogh in Arles, writes as follows:
“Tout d’abord je trouvai en tout et pour tout un désordre qui me choquait. La boîte de couleurs suffisait à peine à contenir tous ces tubes pressés, jamais refermés, et malgré tout ce désordre, tout ce gâchis, un tout rutilait sur la toile.”
Still both Van Gogh and his brother had an indomitable faith in the former’s work—a faith which touches upon the sublime—though neither of them lived to see their highest hopes realized.
“As to the market value of my pictures,” Vincent wrote (pages 8 and 9), “I should be very much surprised if, in time, they did not sell as well as other people’s. Whether this happens directly or later on does not matter to me” (see also page 17, line 20).
The finest words concerning this ideal brotherly relationship, however, have been written by Vincent’s great friend, Emile Bernard.
“Mais ce que je veux dire, avant tout,” says Bernard, “c’est que ces deux frères ne faisaient pour ainsi dire qu’une idée, que l’un s’alimentait et vivait de la vie et de la pensée de l’autre, et que quand ce dernier, le peintre, mourut, l’autre le suivit dans la tombe, seulement de quelques mois, sous l’effet d’un chagrin rare et édifiant.”
Thus Theodor and Vincent died, perhaps hoping, but little believing that Van Gogh’s present triumph would ever be realized. And, indeed, even to the calm and reflecting student of art to-day, there must be something surprising, something not altogether sound and convincing, in this stupendous leap into fame which the work of this poor, enthusiastic, and thoughtful recluse, has made within recent years. If the means or the measure for placing him had been to hand, if all this posthumous success had been based upon a definite art-doctrine which knew what to select and what to leave aside, nothing could have been more imposing than this sudden exaltation of one whom a former generation had spurned. But who would dare to maintain for a moment that Van Gogh’s present position is in itself a proof of his value as an artist?
It is an empty illusion to suppose that history necessarily “places” a man, or even a whole age, and gives to both their proper level. What history has shown and probably will continue to show is, that whereas time very often elevates true geniuses to the dignity which is their due, and confers upon them the rank that they deserve, it also certainly raises vast numbers to the position of classics, who never had a tittle of a right to that honour, and frequently passes over others in silence who ought to have had a lasting claim upon the respect and appreciation of their fellows. Such things have happened so often, and sometimes with such a disastrous effect, that one can but feel surprised at the almost universal support that the doctrine of the infallibility of posterity enjoys.
All posthumous fame, however, should be weighed in relation to the quality of the period that concedes it, and before we concur too heartily with the verdict of an age subsequent to the man it lionises, we ought, at least, to analyze that age and test its health, its virtues, and its values.
The fact that Van Gogh’s pictures are now selling for twice as many sovereigns as he, in his most hopeful and sanguine moments thought that they would realize in francs, is the most deceptive and the most misleading feature about his work. In any case it should neither prepossess us in his favour, nor prejudice us against him. In a world governed largely by the commercial principle which places quantity before quality, at a period in history when journalism with all its insidious power can, like the famous Earl of Warwick, make and unmake kings at will—finally, on a continent in which all canons in respect of right living, religion, art, morality, and politics, have been blasted to the four winds, what does it signify that a work of art which thirty years ago was not thought to be worth 25 francs, now sells for £200 sterling? It signifies simply nothing whatsoever. Would anybody venture to assert that everything which to-day is selling at 200 times the price at which it was selling thirty years ago, is on that account worthy of particular admiration and respect—I mean, of course, from people of taste, not from hawkers, pedlars, and chapmen?
A vast and unprecedented revolution has been convulsing the art-world for almost a century now, a revolution in which men like Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Rodin, and others, have fought like Titans. Who has ever heard of a revolution enduring for almost a century? Even the Grand Rebellion lasted only for six years. And this revolution of art has seen its heroes and its traitors, its kings, and its usurpers, its romance and its squalor—all beneath the very nose of the layman, all beneath the very walls of his fool’s paradise, without his ever having suspected that something even significant was brewing.
For art is always the expression of the most sensitive men of an age. They, the artists, are the first, by their movements and by the manner in which they garner their treasure, to prophesy meteorological changes of a nature vast enough to shake even the layman into a state of gasping wonder. But, as a rule, it is only when these highly sensitive men have manifested their signs, and have more or less depicted the first lightning flash of the tempest that is imminent, that the sky really does become dark and overcast—patently overcast even to the layman’s eyes—and that the storm which they felt was coming actually begins to rage in the concrete world of politics and of national life. And then the pictures, poems, and parables already stored away, classified and catalogued in public museums, are but the crystallized harbingers of a fact that has become patent to all.
The general truth that nearly all the principal figures in this Grand-Rebellion Drama were themselves innovators, renovators, and subverters, does not in itself justify us in summarily disposing of them as noisy revolutionaries and nothing more. One can revolt against sickness in an age of sickness, and assume the title of a revolutionary or a rebel with both pride and dignity. On the other hand, a resentful valetudinarian, who feels rebellious at the sight of sleek, fragrant and rosy healthiness, may also claim the title “revolutionary”; but woe then to the age that allows itself to be lured over to his side by his intellect and his art.
It is important, therefore, that we should know with whom we are dealing.
We are aware that in the majority of cases all the noise of this art-revolution has been concentrated around questions of technique. The purpose of art was tacitly assumed to be to obtain as faithful a transcript as possible of nature and of reality, pure and simple—not nature linked up with a higher idea, or reality bathed in the atmosphere of a love that transcended mere actualities—but simply nature and reality as they were felt by anybody and everybody. And the milestones along the highway covered by this revolutionary band, do not mark the acquisition of new passions or new loves, but rather the adoption of new technical methods and mannerisms for accomplishing this transcript in ever more perfect and more scientific ways. Nature with its light and its atmospheric effects roused men like Manet and his friends to heroic deeds of determination. Peasants, “innocent” and “unsophisticated,” seemingly belonging to nature and not to town or “artificial” life, were included in the category nature, from which it was legitimate to make a transcript. Café scenes, scenes of town life, glimpses “behind the’ scenes,” were included in the category reality, provided their “artificiality” and “unnaturalness” were mitigated by a certain “character” of which it was also legitimate to make a transcript. And all this was done, not because the peasant or the scenes from town life were linked up with any higher purpose or any definite scheme of life which happened to fire the hearts of the painters of last century; but because, as a matter of fact, all life-passions, all life-schemes were at an end, and anything was good enough, picturesque enough, trivial enough, for these artists (whose general scepticism drove them to technique as the only refuge), to tackle and to try their new technique, their new method, or new watchword upon. Light, the play of complementaries, the breaking up of light, the study of values!—little things please little minds!
It was these preoccupations that usurped the place of the rapidly vanishing “subject” in pictures. But what was the subject? What part had it played? It is true that the subject picture in Manet’s time was rapidly becoming a mere farce, an empty page filled arbitrarily with any sentiment or mood that happened to be sufficiently puerile, or at least sufficiently popular. But it had had a noble past. It had had a royal youth. The subject picture was merely the survival of an age when men had painted with a deep faith. It was the last vestige of an historical period in which men had been inspired to express their relationship to life by something higher and greater than both themselves and their art. In fact, it had always flourished in periods when humanity had known of a general direction, a general purpose in life, and of a scheme of life which gave their heart-beats and their breath some deeper meaning than they have at present.
The degeneration of the subject picture, then, into a mere illustration of some passing event or ephemeral sentiment, had a deeper significance than even its bitterest enemies recognized. For while they, as new technicians seeking light and complementaries and values, deplored the spiritless and uninspired “oliographs” of their academical contemporaries, they completely overlooked the deeper truth; their artistic instincts were not strong enough to make them see that the spiritless and uninspired subject picture was the most poignant proof that could be found of the fact that mankind no longer possessed, to any passionate or intense degree, that which made the subject picture possible—that is to say, a profound faith in something greater and more vital either than the artists themselves or their art, something which gave not only art but also life a meaning and a purpose.
This, as I have pointed out elsewhere, was the great oversight of the revolutionary movement in Art of the second half of the nineteenth century. In abusing the degenerate “subject” picture, these innovators were simply inveighing against a pathological symptom. In saying the subject did not matter, they deliberately scouted the responsibility of eradicating or even of confronting the evil; while in concentrating upon technique and in finding their inspiration in such secondary matters as the treatment of light, values, and complementaries, besides revealing the poverty of their artistic instincts they merely delayed the awakening which was bound to come and which already to-day is not so very far distant—the awakening to the fact that the artist, the architect, the painter, the poet, and the preacher, are bankrupt unless some higher purpose and direction, some universal aim and aspiration, animate their age, inspire them in their work, and kindle in them that necessary passion for a particular type of man, on which they may lavish their eloquence, their chromatic, musical, architectural, or religious rhetoric with conviction, power, and faith.
Where does Van Gogh stand in this revolutionary drama which I have attempted briefly to sketch in the above lines?
Without esteeming him nearly so highly as many of his most enthusiastic admirers do, and without sharing in the least in that hysterical exaggeration of the value and beauty of his works which has characterized the attitude of large numbers of his followers on the Continent—an exaggeration which, as I shall show, he would have been the first to deprecate and to condemn—I must still confess that, as an impressionist, i.e., as a revolutionary of the ’eighties who, to my mind, strove to surpass impressionism, as also so-called post-impressionism, he is a painter for whom I feel a much greater respect than I can feel for Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Whistler. Let me make it quite plain that I realize the superiority in some respects of the latter’s art-forms; let me emphasize the fact that in my opinion Van Gogh was by no means so mature in his procedure as any one of these artists (save, perhaps, in so far as his drawing far excelled Renoir’s); but that his aims were higher and more vital, that he realized more keenly what was wrong and what was desirable, that he was a thousand times more profound than his predecessors—of all these things, after careful consideration, and I must admit grave doubts, I have at last grown quite convinced.
Before proceeding with my argument, let me lay stress on the point that I feel very little sympathy whatever with any of these impressionists, art-form-maniacs, and their followers inasmuch as they obscured the issues at the very moment—half way through the last century—when the issues were growing so plain that they must have found a solution sooner or later. But, if we are going to speak of preferences, if in a gingerly manner we are going to put on gloves and draw out from among this crowd the men whom we feel we can tolerate most readily, then, from the sculptor Rodin to his friend Renoir, of all the names that are now household words in the impressionistic and post-impressionistic movement of the late nineteenth century, I for my part, certainly select Van Gogh and, perhaps a little way before him, his friend Gauguin, as the only two whom I can contemplate with equanimity—not to speak of approval.
In judging Van Gogh, one of the critic’s greatest difficulties is, in the first place, to see a sufficient number of his pictures; for he passed through so many phases that isolated examples of his work may prove merely misleading. Now, thanks to the Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910-1911 in London, the Sonderbund Austellung in Cologne (1912), and a visit to Amsterdam, I have been able to see about 200 of Van Gogh’s paintings, and about a quarter as many drawings; but when one remembers that the largest exhibition of his work which has ever been held contained some 450 pictures alone, not to speak of drawings, it will be seen that to be acquainted with 200 of his works is a long way from possessing a complete knowledge of what he achieved. Still the specimens I have seen I believe to have been thoroughly representative, and in any case sufficient to warrant my forming an opinion as to his merits.
Van Gogh died when he was only thirty-seven years of age, and Emile Bernard reminds us that though he always used to draw, he really did not give his attention wholly to painting until the year 1882—that is to say, when he was fully twenty-nine years old. About this time he writes to his brother: “In a sense I am glad that I never learned to paint…. I really do not know how to paint. Armed with a white panel I take up a position in front of the spot that interests me, contemplate what lies before me, and say to myself, ‘that white panel must be turned into something!’” And concerning two studies finished at this period, he says: “I feel quite certain that on looking at these two pictures, no one will ever believe that they are the first studies I have ever painted” (pages 15 and 4).
It is true that in the early ’eighties he studied a little with Mauve, who was a distant relative, and later on spent some time at the Academy at Antwerp; but, on the whole, like Gauguin, he was self-taught, and when we reckon the number of years during which this self-tuition lasted, we can but be amazed at the result, and believe him when he says that painting was in his very marrow (page 16).
A still more remarkable fact about Van Gogh is, however, that during the last eight years of his life—the only years, that is to say, in which he may really be said to have devoted himself entirely to painting, whether at the Hague, Drenthe, Nuenen, Antwerp, Paris, Arles, San Remy, or Auvers-sur-Oise—he practically epitomised in his own work the whole of the development of modern painting, from the academical manner of his own day, to a style which I maintain was on the point of bearing him far beyond the impressionists and so-called post-impressionists. And when I say “far beyond the impressionists and so-called post-impressionists,” I do not mean it in the accepted sense of this phrase, I do not mean that with Gauguin he promised to land in any of the futile absurdities with which those artists that were hung beside them provoked the mirth of London at the famous exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in 1910-1911. I mean it in this case as something peculiar to Van Gogh and Gauguin alone—something which I shall explain in due course and which I regard as valuable and worthy of a more sound artistic instinct than that possessed by all their contemporaries.
I have myself seen pictures which I could not help thinking must have been painted in Van Gogh’s academic period; Meier Graefe even thinks that Van Gogh’s work of this period is likely to rise in public esteem; I have little doubt, therefore, that Van Gogh did go through an academic stage, however short or however undistinguished it may have been.
And as for his purely impressionistic period, pictures of this stage of his development abound. “The Moulin de la Galette,” and a still-life, “Basket and Apples,” in the possession of Frau A. G. Kröller, the “View’ of Paris from Montmartre,” belonging probably to the family, and the wonderful “Apples in a Basket” dedicated to his friend Lucien Pissaro, in the possession of Frau Kröller—all seem to belong to this period; and they are by no means incompetent or unworthy examples of the school of which they are examples.
At this stage he had the same contempt as all modernists had for academicians, and we find him endorsing Jacques’ words that they are “mere illustrators!” It is now that he feels that light, and truth, and transcripts of nature matter tremendously. He says he has done with “grays” and with Mauve and Israels as well (page 48).
He enters heart and soul into a study of nature—no pains are too great, no sacrifices too heavy, provided only that he may become “absorbed in’ nature,” and thoroughly at ease as her interpreter. Possessed as he was of a remarkable gift of observation, nature fortunately did not take long to tell him all that she has to tell the truly instinctive artist; for a man who could paint that still-life, “Apples in a Basket,” dedicated to Pissaro, and the still-life “A Statuette, a Rose and’ Books,” belonging, I believe, to Van Gogh’s family—not to speak of dozens of other marvels of observation, such as the “Chestnut in Bloom,” belonging to Frau Kröller, in which the essential character of the tree is beautifully seized by the happiest of conventions—would necessarily be a rapid and courageous learner of all that nature can teach, and would soon become conscious of having reached that decisive Rubicon, the imperative crossing of which means one of two alternatives—either the continuation of the old attitude to nature, which at this stage becomes mere slavery and no longer discipleship, or the mastering of nature which is the first step that reveals the mature artist of sound instincts.
Van Gogh writes: “I do not wish to argue studying from nature, or struggling with reality, out of existence. For years I myself worked in this way with almost fruitless and in any case wretched results. I should not like to have avoided this error, however.
“In any case I am quite convinced that it would have been sheer foolery on my part to have continued to pursue these methods—although I am not by any means so sure that all my trouble has been in vain” (p. 30).
So far, then, Van Gogh’s sole excuse—and it is an adequate one—for having concerned himself wholly with such subordinate things as art-forms and nature transcripts, is that he was a learner. A time comes, however, when in the case of the mature artist, we must take technical competency for granted, and graybeards, as many of the impressionist sculptors and painters grew to be, who continue to concentrate upon technical questions and to regard them as ends in themselves, merely reveal the fact that they never were artists at all. In this respect I cannot help quoting some fine words of Gauguin’s. Writing to Charles Morice in April 1903, he said:
“Nous venons de subir, en art, une très grande période d’égarement causée par la physique, la chimie, la mécanique et l’étude de la nature. Les artistes, ayant perdu tout de leur sauvagerie, n’ayant plus d’instinct, on pourrait dire d’imagination, se sont égarés dans tous les sentiers pour trouver des éléments producteurs qu’ils n’avaient pas la force de créer.”
The reader who is familiar with my aesthetic views, will understand that I do not regard “la physique, la chimie et la mécanique,” as sufficient causes of this state of affairs; nevertheless Gauguin adds that the painters of this “période d’égarement,” had lost their instincts, and here, of course, I am with him.
The fact, however, that a painter or a sculptor has not lost his instincts is not sufficient to reform the civilization or the culture in which he lives. A still greater and more powerful artist must set to work first, and he is the legislator. The most a painter or a sculptor of sound instinct can do, is to recognize the lack of the great legislator, and reveal by his work and by the things upon which he concentrates his mind, that he realizes where the fault lies.
Now I maintain that Van Gogh and Gauguin took up this position.—But I am anticipating.—Van Gogh passed through another stage before he reached this final one. It suddenly flashed across his mind that he had something to bestow, something to bequeath, and that an artist’s life was not all taking, robbing, or copying. He felt a richness in him which bade him dispense and no longer receive.
He writes: “One begins by plaguing oneself to no purpose in order to be true to nature, and one concludes by working quietly from one’s own palette alone, and then nature is the result” (page 30).
And again: “I often feel sorry that I cannot induce myself to work more at home from imagination. Imagination is surely a faculty one should develop” (page 44).
And listen to this! “How glad I should be, one day to try to paint the starry heavens, as also a vast meadow studded with dandelions in the sunlight. But how can one ever hope to succeed in doing these things unless one resolves to stay at home and to work from imagination?”
He also begins to throw off the technique of transcript painting. He recognizes that chiaroscuro with its essential “study of values,” is part of the equipment of the mere slavish transcripist, and he writes: “It is impossible to attach the same importance both to values and to colours. Theodore Rousseau understood the mixing of colours better than anyone. But time has blackened his pictures, and now they are unrecognizable. One cannot be at the Pole and at the Equator at once. One must choose one’s way; at least this is what I hope to do, and my way will be the road to colour” (page 137).
And again: “Tell him (Seurat) it is my most fervent desire to know how to achieve such deviations from reality, such inaccuracies and such transfigurations, that come about by chance. Well yes, if you like, they are lies; but they are more valuable than real values” (page 23).
These are the thoughts of his most prolific period—the period during which he produced perhaps all his most striking pictures—the last three years of his life. Such pages of beauty as the “Orchard in Provence,” belonging to Madame Cohen Gosschalk-Bonger, “A Street in Arles,” in the possession of the Municipal Museum at Stettin, “A Street in Auvers,” belonging to A. von Jawlensky, Munich, hail from this period, as also “The Lawn,” probably in the possession of the family—a finished masterpiece of beauty; “The Sunset” belonging to Frau Tilla Durieux-Cassirer—excellent; and a number of other landscapes belonging to Frau Kröller, Frau Mauthner, Frau Cohen Gosschalk-Bonger, etc.—all of great splendour and mastery.
The fact that he was never able to work successfully from imagination alone, proves nothing against the art of working from imagination. I have heard some artists argue as if their individual incapacity to produce great work from imagination were a sufficient proof of the fallacy of the principle. Such argumentation is, of course, beneath contempt. On such lines any incompetence, impotence, ignorance, or incapacity, could be glorified and exalted. Van Gogh, however, is more honest. He says working from imagination is an “enchanted land” (page 112). Although he recognizes the desirability, the superiority, of such methods, he feels that he is not good enough for them. He says: “Others may be more gifted for the painting of abstract studies, and you [Bernard] are certainly one of these, as is also Gauguin.” And he concludes by saying that when he is older he too may do the same.
All his imagination could do, therefore, was to introduce something into his landscapes and studies that made them more than mere transcripts, that constituted them new gifts rather than repetitions, placed in the hand of the grateful public. And this “something” which he introduced, was the step to higher things, which I believe to be the chief characteristic of his final period—the period at the very threshold of which he unfortunately met with his tragic end.
But before I proceed let me explain why I use the adjectives “beautiful, excellent, splendid, masterful” in regard to these pictures. I am not in the habit of lavishing epithets of this vague description indiscriminately upon works of art. A vague adjective is a wonderful thing to help lame arguments over stiles. It is an indispensable helpmeet when one is not quite clear concerning any particular thing: but in regard to Van Gogh, this is not precisely my position. Not so much for my own sake, then, as for the sake of clarity in these questions, in which difficulties are so often smoothed over with empty phrases, it would seem desirable to explain why I speak of “beauty,” “mastery,” “excellence,” in regard to these pictures of what, in my opinion, may be called Van Gogh’s penultimate period, and which all critics, save myself, regard as belonging to his ultimate or post-impressionist period.
In the first place, then, let me pronounce this fundamental principle, as far as I personally am concerned—that there is no beauty, no mastery, and no excellence, which cannot in the end be interpreted in the terms of humanity. There is no such thing as beauty per se, mastery per se, and excellence per se. All these qualities can ultimately be traced to man and to man’s emotion; and without man I maintain that such qualities would cease to exist on earth.
A beautiful poem is one that can be linked up rapidly or by degrees, consciously or unconsciously, with things which are desirable in humanity, or in a certain kind or part of humanity. The poem that praises Pity in rhythmic cadence, for instance, will charm the Christian of the twentieth century; for him, Pity is a desirable attribute of the modern human creature, and rhythm is a convincing and commanding art-form in which to cast a desirable thought. On the other hand, it would either revolt the pagan or leave him indifferent, while he might regard it as a sacrilegious act to squander such a precious art-form as rhyming verses upon so futile a subject.
All beauty, then, in the end, is human beauty, all ugliness is human ugliness. No healthy people of the world have ever considered youth (I do not mean infancy) in any manifestation of nature, as ugly; because youth is the sure promise of human life and of a multiplication of human life. On the other hand, no healthy people have ever considered ulcers, gangrenous limbs, or decay in any form, as beautiful; because ulceration, gangrene, and decay, are the end of human life and the reduction of it. It is true that the “beautiful consumptive,” the “love of consumptives,” the “captivating cripple,” are notions which can be found in Bulwer Lytton and George Eliot, not to speak of a host of minor English writers. But then, let us remember from what part of the world they hail—from the most absurdly sentimental, over-Christianized, and over-Puritanized country on earth—England. But the whole of North-Western Europe is now quite able to vie with England in this sort of nonsense, otherwise the Eugenic Society, which ought to be superfluous, would not require to be so active.
But all this by the way. The beauty, mastery, and excellence of Van Gogh’s penultimate period, then, in my opinion, is twofold. Its content is beautiful and its form is beautiful. Its content is only just beginning to be beautiful, because we must remember that this is the work of a man who started in a school that scorned content. But is it not written that “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety-nine just persons which need no repentance”? And the beauty of his content is, that it is turning ever more and more definitely towards humanity. It is true that the importance of the content in general is only creeping into his works; but the little of it that there is, is human. No longer negative to man, he begins to introduce human moods into his landscapes, and with human virtues he anthropomorphizes the ground, the trees, the sky, and the distance. There is as much difference between his work now and the work of his impressionistic days as there is between these two descriptions of the rising sun: (1) “The yellow sun ascends into a pink and pale yellow sky which fades away into watery green and finally into a pure azure,” and (2), “Rosy-fingered dawn stands tip-toe on yonder hill.”
He himself writes concerning a certain study: “My desire was to paint it in such a way that the spectator must read and sympathize with the thoughts of the signalman … who seems to say: ‘Oh, what a gloomy day it is!’” (page 8).
And again, in regard to the other study, he writes: “While working upon it, I said to myself: ‘Do not put down your palette before your picture seems to partake of the mood of an autumn evening, before it is instinct with mystery and with a certain deep earnestness‘” (page 14). See also the passage about Provence on page 109.
It is now, too, that he writes to his friend Bernard: “I have painted seven studies of corn; unfortunately quite against my will, they are only landscapes” (page 75), and that he feels sympathy with a soldier who prefers a landscape to the sea, because the former is inhabited (page 85). This alone is already a sign that he is turning his back on the sentimental and negative love of landscape as landscape, peculiar to the modern English, French, and Germans, inspired by Rousseau and Schiller—that love of landscape in which man or the hand of man is entirely absent.
With regard to the beauty of his technique in the pictures of this period, the characteristic I chiefly admire in them is their gradual glorification of colour, and neglect of values. But why should one admire colour more than values? In the first place it should be remembered that technique is important only as a means of betraying how a man approaches and deals with reality; while all the virtues of a good technique will once more be traceable to human standards, and be human virtues. Now the technique which places colour above values, is admirable for three reasons: first, because inasmuch as its results are simpler and more definite than those of the “values-technique,” it implies a much more masterful grasp of reality; secondly, since its results betray far less compromise and blended, grey, or democratic harmony, than those of the values-technique, it implies a much braver and less tolerant attitude towards reality; and, thirdly, because its results are so much more luminous and more bright than those of the values-technique, it betrays a much greater love of sunshine, a much more hearty yea-saying and positive attitude towards life. And these reasons are independent of the fact that the painting of both Greece and Egypt in their best period are based entirely upon colour and line technique free from all values and chiaroscuro.
Compare Van Gogh’s pictures of this period with any of those ridiculously funereal fiascos produced by the Glasgow school within the last twenty-five years, and you will be convinced of the difference between the bright, laughing, yea-saying attitude to life, and the dark, gloomy, negative, churlish, Puritanical, and, in many respects, essentially British attitude to life.
How sincere and how deep Van Gogh’s love of colour was at this period may be judged from a note written in August 1887 to his brother. He says: “I am at work upon a portrait of our mother; as I could no longer endure the sight of the black photograph. I do not wish to possess black photographs, and yet I certainly wish to have a portrait of our mother.”
The fact that, occasionally, his whole-hearted devotion to colour led him to produce what I cannot help regarding as an absolute failure, cannot, of course, be denied. More than once, at Cologne and Amsterdam, I was conscious in the presence of some of his pictures of being before a man who was trying to enjoy the glory of fireworks at midday, under a brilliant sun, and the result was naturally disappointing. I cannot, however, say that I had this feeling often. By far the worst examples of such failures (although I am sure their fanatical owners do not think so) are the “Cornfield with the Reaper,” belonging to Frau Kröller, the “Sunflower against a Yellow Background,” belonging to Frau Cohen Gosschalk-Bonger, and “A Cornfield in Sunshine,” at the Amsterdam Museum of Modern Art.
And now I am going to express what will perhaps seem to many the most daring of all the views advanced in this essay, the view that Van Gogh, towards the end, became quite positive not only in his attitude towards life itself, but above all in his attitude towards man. After much tribulation, and the gravest and most depressing doubts, he at last realized this fundamental truth, that art, sound art, cannot be an end in itself, that art for art’s sake is simply the maddest form of individualistic isolation—not to use a less sonorous but more drastic term—and that art can find its meaning only in life, and in its function as a life force. The highest art, then, must be the art that seeks its meaning in the highest form of life. What is the highest form of life? Van Gogh replies to this question as emphatically and uncompromisingly as every sane and healthy artist has done in all the sanest and healthiest periods of history. He says “Man.”
Now all that he has acquired—art-forms, technique, stored experience, practised observation—is but a means, a formidable equipment which he is deep enough, artist enough, human enough, to wish to lay at the feet of something higher. Now his storehouse of knowledge becomes an arsenal which he consecrates solemnly to the service of a higher cause and a higher aim than the mere immortalizing of “decorative pages of colour”—“interesting and strong colour-schemes” and “exteriorisations of more or less striking impressions.” When these things are pursued as ends in themselves, as they were by the Impressionists and the Whistlerites, they are the signs of poverty, both of instinct and intelligence. They are also signs of the fact that the mere craftsmen, the simple hand-workmen, or the mere mechanic—in other words, the proletariat of the workshop, has been promoted to the rank of artist, and that matters of decoration, technique and treatment (which are fit subjects for carpenters, scene-painters, and illustrators to love and to regard as the end of their mediocre lives) have usurped the place of higher and holier aims.
In about as many years as it takes some painters to learn their palette, Van Gogh had learnt the great and depressing truth at the bottom of all the art of his age—the truth that it was bankrupt, impoverished, democratized, and futile. Divorced from life, divorced from man, and degraded by the great majority of its votaries, art was rapidly becoming the least respected and least respectable of all human functions.
He realized that art was an expression of life itself, that pictorial art was an expression of life’s satisfaction at her passions become incarnate. All expression is self-revelatory. Pictorial art, then, is the self-revelation of life herself looking into her soul and upon her forms. It is life pronouncing her judgment on herself. Alas! it is less than that: it is a certain kind of life pronouncing its judgment on all life. Where life is sick and impoverished, her voice speaking through the inferior man condemns herself, and paints herself bloodless and dreary, probably with a sky above depicted in a lurid and mysteriously fascinating fashion, calculated to make the earth seem gray and gloomy in comparison. Where life is sound and exuberant, her voice, speaking through the sound man, extols herself and paints herself in bright, brave colours, which include even bright and brave nuances for pain and the like.
The sound, healthy artist, then, once he has attained to proficiency in his métier—a result which, if he be really wise and proud, he will not attempt to accomplish before the public eye as every one is doing at present—naturally looks about him for that higher thing in life to which he can consecrate his power. His passion is to speak of life itself, and life in its highest manifestation—Man. But, alas, whither on earth must the poor artist turn to-day in order to find that type which would be worthy of his love and of his pictorial advocacy?
Is the hotch-potch, democratic, democratized, hard-working, woman-ridden European a subject to inspire such an artist? True, he can turn to the peasant, as many artists, and even Van Gogh himself, did. At least the peasant is a more fragrant and nobler type than the under-sized, hunted-rat type of town-man, with his wild eyes that can see only the main chance, with his moist finger-tips always feeling their way tremblingly into another’s hoard, and with his womenfolk all trying to drown their dissatisfaction with him by an endless round of pleasure and repletion; but, surely there is something higher than the peasant, something greater and nobler than the horny-handed son of toil?
Gauguin and Van Gogh knew that there was someone nobler than the peasant. But the tragedy of their existence was that they did not know where to find him.
Fortunately for himself Van Gogh died on the very eve of this discovery. Gauguin suffered a more bitter fate than death; he went searching the globe for a nobler type than his fellow-continentals, at whose feet he might lay the wonderful powers that nature, study, and meditation had given him. But in doing this he was only doing what the whole of Europe will soon be doing. The parallel is an exact one. The prophecy of the artist will be seen to have been true. And Gauguin’s search for a better type of humanity is only one proof the more, if such were needed, of the intimate relationship of art to life, and of the miraculous regularity with which art is always the first to indicate the direction life is taking.
I have shown how, from a negative and futile impressionist, Van Gogh became more and more positive and human in his content, and ever more positive, brave and masterly in his technique, and that this healthy development naturally led him to the only possible goal that lies at the end of the path he had trodden—Man himself.
In 1886 he writes to Bernard: “I want to paint humanity, humanity and again humanity. I love nothing better than this series of bipeds, from the smallest baby in long clothes to Socrates, from the woman with black hair and a white skin to the one with golden hair and a brick-red sunburnt face” (page 85).
At about the same time he writes to his brother: “Oh, dear! It seems’ ever more and more clear to me that mankind is the root of all life” (page 89); and “Men are more important than things, and the more I’ worry myself about pictures the colder they leave me” (page 131).
But the finest words in all these letters, words which at one stroke place Van Gogh far above his contemporaries and his predecessors, at least in aim, are the following: “I should like to prepare myself for ten years, by means of studies, for the task of painting one or two figure pictures …” (page 152).
In his heart of hearts, however, Van Gogh was desperate. There can be little doubt about that. Not only did he feel that his was not, perhaps, the hand to paint the man with the greatest promise of life; but he was also very doubtful about the very existence of that man. Not only did he ask: “But who is going to paint men as Claude Monet painted landscape?” (page 103); he also shared Gauguin’s profound contempt of the white man of modern times.
Indeed, what is his splendid tribute to Christ as a marvellous artist, a modeller and creator of men, who scorned to immortalize himself in statues, books, or pictures (pages 65 et seq.) if it is not the half-realized longing that all true artists must feel nowadays for that sublime figure, the artist-legislator who is able to throw the scum and dross of decadent civilizations back into the crucible of life, in order to mould men afresh according to a more healthy and more vigorous measure? The actual merits of Christianity as a religion do not come into consideration here; for Van Gogh was not a philosopher. All he felt was simply that craving which all the world will soon be feeling—the craving for the artist-legislator, which is the direst need of modern times. For, in order that fresh life and a fresh type can be given to art, fresh vigour and a fresh type must first be given to life itself.
Personally, although I am prepared to do all honour to Van Gogh for having been profound enough and brave enough to come face to face with the tragic dilemma of modern art and modern times, I must say that I am almost inclined to share his own doubts as to whether his was precisely the hand to limn the man of great promise even if he could have found him.
Only fanatical disciples could praise and value his figure pictures to the extent to which they have been praised and valued; for in all but one or two cases, they are, in my opinion, the most incompetent and the most uninviting examples of his art.
Of thirty-eight figure-pictures of his which I myself have seen, two only pleased me a little (“Old Man Weeping,” probably in the possession of the family; and “An Asylum Warder,” belonging to Frl. Gertrud Müller of Solothurn), and one (“Fair Girl’s Head and Shoulders,” probably in the possession of the family) pleased me so exceedingly that I would willingly give all the rest for it. It is a most genial piece of work, mature and rich in conception, and full of a love which will come to expression. Nothing obtrudes in the technique. Indeed, the means seem to be so well mastered that one feels not the slightest inclination to consider them; while the content is so eloquent of the sleek, smooth bloom of youth, and of the half-frightened eager spirit of the young girl who is just beginning to see and to realize who she is and where she is, that this picture alone would make me hesitate to say definitely that Van Gogh could not have achieved his ideal if only he had lived, and if only he had found the type whose pictorial advocacy he might have undertaken.
Here in this picture, all the dramatic effect of budding womanhood, of which Schopenhauer spoke so scornfully, is concentrated into a head and a pair of shoulders. All the mystery and charm of mere potentialities, undefined and still untried, is told in a thrilling and fairy-like combination of lemon yellow, black, Prussian blue, and the most delicate of pinks. The freshness is that of an old Dutch master like Johannes Hannot, for instance, who could paint fruit to look cold and raw on a pitch-black ground. This virgin, too, like all virgins, is cold and raw—and the effect is due to the masterly and almost devilish skill with which her qualities have been marshalled in her portrait, against a pitch-black ground.
It is a wonderful work. Maybe it stands as the only justification of all Van Gogh’s otherwise overweening aspirations. In any case it makes me feel that if he had lived, he would have learnt to regret even more than he already did, that no artist-legislator existed to inspire his brush and give his art some deeper meaning.
With regard to the rest of his figure work, I can only say I am unsympathetic. And to all those who may accuse me of Philistinism and the like for my refusal to agree with the extravagant encomiums they lavish upon his figure pictures, I can only reply by pointing to Van Gogh’s own modest and very sensible words: “Any figure that I paint is generally dreadful, even in my own eyes. How much more hideous must it therefore be in the eyes of other people” (page 69).
And now what did the admirable Gauguin have to do with all this? What part did he play in this final development of his friend’s genius and in directing his brother artist’s last thoughts and hopes?
We do not need to be told, we feel sure from our knowledge of the two men’s work, that Gauguin played a great part in Van Gogh’s life at this time. We also know that Gauguin was an older, more able, and more experienced painter than the Dutchman, with a personality whose influence is said to have been irresistible.
It was in vain that Van Gogh tried to hold him at arm’s length. It was in vain that he pointed to the narrowness of Gauguin’s forehead, which he held to be a proof of imbecility; in the end he had to yield, and was, as Gauguin declares: “forcé de me reconnaitre une grande’ intelligence.”
“Quand je suis arrivé à Arles,” says Gauguin, “Vincent se cherchait, tandis que moi, beaucoup plus vieux, j’étais un homme fait…. Van Gogh sans perdre un pouce de son originalité, a trouvé de moi un enseignement fécond.”
And Van Gogh was as ready to admit this as we are compelled to recognize its truth. Writing to Albert Aurier, he once said: “Je dois beaucoup à’ Paul Gauguin.” But his latest and best work, as also the ideals and aims of his last years constitute the most convincing evidence we have of the great influence Gauguin exercised over him, and although the older man was ready to acknowledge that the seeds he sowed in Van Gogh fell upon “un terrain riche et fécond,” it is impossible to overlook the great value of these seeds.
For, who was this magician, the painter of those sublimely beautiful canvases “L’esprit veille,” “Portrait de M. X.” and “Enfants.”
He was a man who had felt more keenly than any other European painter of his day the impossibility of consecrating his powers to the exaltation and glory of the modern white man with whom he was “fatally’ contemporaneous.” He was a deep and earnest thinker who was both clear and brave enough to confront even a tragic fact. And there can be no doubt that comparatively early in life he came face to face with the truth that the modern European and his like all over the globe, could not and must not, be the type of the future. Anything rather than that! Even black men and women were better than that—cannibals, idolators, savages, anything! And this parched thirst for a nobler and more positive type drove him like a haunted explorer all over the world, until at last he thought he had found what he wanted. It was an illusion, of course, and he would probably have admitted this; but it was the love and not the hatred of man that drove him even to that error.
Charles Morice ascribes Gauguin’s lust of travel to the nature of his origin. He argues that inasmuch as Gauguin’s father was a Breton and his mother a Péruvienne, the great painter was born with the desires of two continents already in his soul—a fact which somehow or other Morice links up with Gauguin’s visit to the Marquesans and the Tahitans.
But, probable as it may be that Gauguin’s double soul contributed greatly to his ability for making a clear-sighted analysis and condemnation of Europe, it can scarcely be regarded as the principal, or even as the partial cause of his visit to the Marquesas Isles and Tahiti. That his mission to these places was a supremely artistic one is proved by the manner in which he spent his time there, while the fact that it was discontent with, and scorn of, European conditions and people that drove him in search of better climes and nobler types, is proved by his behaviour both in Tahiti and in the Marquesas Islands.
Although we do not forget that Gauguin had been a sailor, if it were merely a sort of restless “Wanderlust” à l’Americaine that sent him to Oceania, why did he do all in his power to fight Occidental civilization in these parts? If in his heart of hearts he had not been utterly without hope and without trust where Europe was concerned, why did he start a paper at Papeete, in which he sought to convert the colonists and educated natives to his hostile attitude towards the European? Why, too, did he jeopardize his peace of mind as well as his safety, by taking the side of the Marquesans when they implored him to defend them against their white oppressors? For we know that he was not only arrested but heavily fined for this action.
It is obvious that Gauguin was much more than a mere itinerant painter out for “new material.” He was above the modern senseless mania for rugged landscape as an end in itself, or for “tropical sunsets” and “dramatic dawns,” in the South Pacific. And when we read Van Gogh’s words on the natives of the Marquesas (page 42) we can no longer doubt, not only that Gauguin influenced him, but also that this influence was deep and lasting.
Personally, I feel not the slightest hesitation in accepting Gauguin’s own words, quoted above, concerning his relationship to Van Gogh, and though I ascribe the latter’s final positive and human attitude in art very largely to the soundness of his own instincts, I cannot help feeling also that the spirit of that half-Breton and half-Peruvian magician was largely instrumental in determining the less-travelled and less-profound Dutchman to assume his final phase in art.
If Van Gogh had had more opportunities for figure painting, and if his hand and eye had grown more cunning in the art of depicting his fellows, I am of opinion that he might have surpassed even his master and inspirer. For that isolated event, that “sport,” the portrait of the “Fair Girl,” which was, alas, the one swallow that did not make a summer, remains stamped upon my memory as a solid guarantee of his exceptional potentialities. Unfortunately, however, he came to figure-painting all too late, and his opportunities for practising his hand were rare and more or less isolated. In these letters he says: “I’ suffer very much from having absolutely no models” (page 116) while in a letter to his brother, not included in this volume, he writes rather amusingly as follows: “Si on peignait lisse comme du Bouguereau les gens n’auraient pas honte de se laisser peindre. Je crois que cette idée que c’était ‘mal fait,’ que c’était que des tableaux pleins de peinture que je faisais, m’a fait perdre des modèles. Les bonnes putains ont peur de se compromettre et qu’on se moque de leur portrait.”
There is now only one more point to be discussed, and I shall draw this somewhat lengthy essay to a close. I feel, however, that it would be incomplete without some reference to Van Gogh’s personal appearance. Whatever democratic and over-Christianized people may say to the contrary, a man can be neither ugly nor good-looking with impunity. Looks are everything. “Appearances are deceptive,” is a proverb fit only for those who are either too corrupt or too blind to use with understanding and profit the precious sense that lies beneath their superciliary arches. Van Gogh’s personal appearance is, therefore, in my opinion a most important matter, for I absolutely refuse to believe that beauty can proceed from ugliness or vice versâ. I leave such beliefs to those who have ugly friends or relatives to comfort or console. Then the doctrine that a fine mind or a fine soul can sanctify or transfigure any body—however foul, ugly, or botched—is, I admit, an essential and very valuable sophism.
Now, I am in the unfortunate position of one who has only portraits to judge from. But although I have seen only portraits, perhaps the number of these is sufficiently great to justify my forming an opinion. In all I have seen seven portraits of Van Gogh painted by himself, and one painted by Gauguin. The best and by far the most beautiful of all these is Van Gogh’s portrait of himself now in the possession of Leonhard Tietz of Cologne. If we take this as a trustworthy record of Van Gogh’s features, he certainly must have been what I would call a good-looking man. His brow was thoughtful, his eyes were deep, large, and intelligent, his nose was not too prominent and it was shapely, while his lips, both full and red, gave his face that air of positiveness towards life and humanity, which we find both in ancient Egyptian and present Chinese countenances. The only faults I find with his features and general colouring are, first, that they are inclined to be a little too northern and too Teutonic in type—a fact which suggests that his positive attitude to life was more intellectual than physiological—and, secondly, that his furtive eye suggests more timidity than mastery. This portrait is, however, a remarkable piece of work, and taking all its other qualities into consideration, I see no reason to doubt precisely the accuracy of the likeness. A genial work of this sort is not genial only in particulars.
If, however, we are to judge from the other portraits, especially from the one in the possession of H. Tutein Nolthenius (of Delft), then we must certainly agree with Meier Graefe, that Van Gogh was “by no means engaging in appearance.” I mean by the expression “unengaging” that a face is negative, chaotic, misanthropic, resentful. And in two or three of the portraits by himself, Van Gogh certainly does give the impression of being all these things. I should only.” like to remind the reader that in each of the “ugly” portraits, the technique and general treatment is so inferior to the work in the picture belonging to Tietz of Cologne, that one is justified in suspecting that the likeness has also suffered from inadequate expression.
If we now turn to Gauguin’s portrait of his friend, in the possession of Frau Gosschalk-Bonger, we do indeed find an interesting, if not a good-looking face, though the northern and barbarian features are perhaps a little marked. The question is, was Gauguin able to seize a likeness? I have every reason to believe that he could, and I am even prepared to accept his uncorroborated testimony on this point.
Speaking of his first arrival in Arles, on a visit to his friend Van Gogh, he says:
“Un portrait de moi que j’avais envoyé à Vincent est suffisant pour expliquer l’exclamation du patron. Lui faisant voir mon portrait, Vincent lui avait expliqué que c’était un copain qui devait venir prochainement.”
Thus I have attempted to make clear what I personally have learnt from Van Gogh, and what I believe to have been the course of his development and of his aspirations. In the process of my exposition I have spoken about stages and periods in his development and life, as if they were well-defined and plainly to be detected in his work, and I have even instanced particular pictures which I regard as more or less characteristic of his four manners or styles. I should like to warn the reader, however, that he must not expect to find these stages and periods as clearly defined in the mass of Van Gogh’s life-work, as this essay may have led him to suppose he would. For the purpose of tracing this Dutch artist’s career it was necessary to speak of these periods and stages as if they had been more or less definite. But, as a matter of fact, not only do they overlap each other to such an extent as completely to invalidate any claim to the effect that Van Gogh’s progress was regular and gradual, but often his pictures as well as his thoughts of the first and second period, after the manner of harbingers, tell so plainly what will be the aim and the triumph of the next or even ultimate period, that it is impossible to fix or even to find exact boundaries.
All that there now remains for me to do is, in the first place, to offer an explanation as to the inordinate length of this introductory essay, by pointing to the fact that nothing of the kind has previously been done for the English-reading public, and that I therefore felt my task of introducing Van Gogh might be done both conscientiously and exhaustively without my running the risk wearying the reader; and, secondly, to express the hope of that this introduction may prove as helpful to the student interested in Van Gogh’s works, as I feel it would have been to me at the time when I first set out to study the life, the aims and the works of this remarkable and much misunderstood Dutch painter.
ANTHONY M. LUDOVICI.