LETTERS TO E. BERNARD
I STILL believe that in studios one learns next to nothing about painting and certainly nothing about life, and that one should do all one can to learn to live and to paint without having recourse to those old fools and wiseacres.
When our relations with a painter are so strained as to make us say: “If that fellow exhibits any of his pictures by the side of mine, I shall withdraw mine,” and then proceed to abuse him, it seems to me that this is not the proper way to act; for, previous to arriving at such drastic conclusions one should make quite sure, and give the matter careful thought. After due reflection we are almost sure to find—particularly when we happen to be at loggerheads with the artist—that there is as much to criticize in our own work as in the other man’s. He has as much right to exist as we have. When it is remembered that this man or that—be he a pointilliste or a member of another school—has often done good work, instead of disparaging him, we should speak of him with respect and sympathy, more particularly if he happen to be in disagreement with us. Otherwise we become too narrow-minded and are no better than those who can say no good of others and regard themselves alone as right. The observance of this principle ought even to be extended to the academicians. Take one of Fantin-Latour’s pictures, for instance, or even the whole of his life-work! In any case he is not a revolutionary, and yet there is something restful and confident in his work, which elevates him to the rank of the most independent characters. For the good of all concerned, it is worth while abandoning the selfish principle: “Everyone’ for himself.”
MY DEAR BERNARD,
As I promised to write to you, I shall at once begin by saying that the country in these parts seems to me just as beautiful as Japan, as far as the clearness of the air and the cheerful colouring are concerned. In the landscape the water looks like sheets of fine emerald or of a rich blue of the shade with which we are familiar in crape prints. Pale sunsets make the ground appear quite blue. Glorious golden suns! And I have not yet seen the country in the usual splendour of its summer garb. The costume of the women is pretty, and on Sundays especially very simple and happy combinations of colour may be seen on the boulevard. And there can be no doubt that in summer things will be even gayer still. I only regret that living here is not so cheap as I had hoped it would be, and up to the present I have not succeeded in finding such inexpensive quarters as are to be found in Pont-Aven. At first I had to pay five francs a day, and now I pay four. If one could only speak the local dialect and eat bouillabaisse and aioli, one might certainly find an inexpensive pension in Arles…. Even if the Japanese do not make any headway in their own land, their art is certainly being continued in France. At the beginning of this letter I send you a small sketch of a study on which I am now engaged, and of which I should like to make something. Seamen with their sweethearts are going to the town, which, with its drawbridge, stands in wonderful outline against the yellow disc of the sun. I have also another study of the same drawbridge, with a group of washerwomen.
I should be very glad to have a word from you, just to know how you are and where you are going. With best wishes to you and our friends.
Your old friend
I have just read a book about the Marquesas Islands. It was neither beautiful nor well-written, but it was heartrending inasmuch as it described the extermination of a whole tribe of aborigines—cannibals! They were cannibals in the sense that they ate one man, say once a month (what did that matter?)
The thoroughly Christian whites could think of no better way of putting an end to this barbarity, which on the whole was only mildly bloodthirsty, than by exterminating not only the tribe of aboriginal cannibals, but also the tribe with which they used to fight the battles calculated to provide both sides with the necessary prisoners of war to be eaten.
Then the two islands were annexed, and since then they have been unspeakably gloomy!
These tattooed races, niggers, Indians—everything, everything is either disappearing or degenerating. And the dreadful white man with his brandy, his purse, and his syphilis!—when will the world have had enough of him? The horrible white man, with his hypocrisy, his lust of gold, his sterility! And these poor savages were so full of gentleness and love!
There is real poetry in Gauguin’s negresses. And everything that comes from his brush has something charming, something heartrending and astounding about it. He is not yet understood, and he suffers greatly from not being able to sell his work like other true poets.
I have just taken a house. It is painted yellow outside and whitewashed within, and it stands right in the sun.
I have painted the following still-life: a blue-enamelled coffee pot, a royal blue cup and saucer, a milk jug decorated with pale-cobalt and white squares, a vase with a blue and orange pattern on a white ground and a blue majolica pot decorated with pink flowers and greeny brown leaves, the whole upon a blue tablecloth against a yellow background. There are in addition two oranges and three lemons. The result is a symphony of blue tones, animated by a scale of yellows ranging to orange. And I have another still-life: lemons in a basket against a yellow background. Besides this, a view of Arles. Of the town itself only a few red roofs and a tower are visible, the rest is hidden by the foliage of fig trees, all of it quite in the background, and a thin strip of blue sky above. The town is surrounded by meadows covered with dandelions, a sea of gold. Right in the foreground a ditch which is full of purple irises cuts through the meadows. While I was busy painting this view, the grass was cut, that is why it is only a study and not the finished picture I intended it to be. But what a lovely theme—eh? A sea of yellow flowers with the reef of purple irises, and in the background the charming little town with its beautiful women!
I grow ever more and more convinced that the pictures which ought to be painted, the pictures which will be necessary and inevitable if painting is ever to attain to the serene heights of Greek sculpture, German music and French fiction, will be beyond the strength of one individual. They will therefore have to be executed by a group of painters, who will collaborate in order to carry out an idea which they hold in common. Suppose, for instance, that this man were a brilliant colourist who lacked ideas, while another overflowed with a number of perfectly new, harrowing, or charming inspirations, which, however he did not know how to express adequately. This would be a sufficient reason to deplore the absence of esprit de corps among artists, who criticize and persecute one another, though fortunately without being able to exterminate their kind. You probably think this is all very trivial? Who knows? But the thing itself, the possibility of a Renaissance, is surely no trivial matter!
I often feel very sorry that I cannot induce myself to work more at home, from imagination. Imagination is surely a faculty that one should develop; for it alone enables us to create a more inspiring and comforting world than we can apprehend by means of a fleeting glance at reality, which is for ever changing and which vanishes like a flash of lightning. How glad I should be one day to try to paint the starry heavens as also a 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?
In painting I observe no system; I lash the canvas with irregular strokes and let them stand. Impasto—bare patches here and there—some places left quite unfinished—others overpainted—brutal touches, and the result is (at least I must assume that this is so) sufficiently disconcerting and irritating to displease people who have pre-conceived notions about technique.
When I paint direct from nature, I always try to seize what is essential by means of line. Then I fill up the defined spaces (whether they have been expressed or not; for they have been felt at all events) with simple flat tones as follows: all ground or soil will contain the same violet tone, practically the whole of the sky will be kept blue in tone, while foliage will be blue-green or yellow-green (either the blue or the yellow may be deliberately intensified) in short, no photographic imitation, that is the chief thing!
Here is a question of technique for you! Just tell me your view of the matter! I wish to put black and white, as I buy them at the colourman’s, boldly on my palette, and to use them as they are. If in a green park with pink footpaths, I see (please to remember that I have in mind the Japanese method of flat simple colouring) a man dressed in black—a magistrate, for instance, reading the “Intransigeant,” and the sky above him is pure cobalt, why on earth should I not paint the said legal gentleman in pure black, and the “Intransigeant” in pure white?
For the Japanese pays no heed to the play of light, and paints flat tones one beside the other—characteristic lines, which seize the movement or the form in a simple manner.
Now, apropos of another idea: in a scheme of colour which contains a golden evening sky, for instance, one might at a pinch paint a crude white wall against the sky with pure white, or with the same crude white modified by a neutral tone; for the sky itself will lend it a pale mauve tinge.
In this very simple landscape, consisting of a completely white cottage (even the roof is whitewashed), standing on orange-coloured ground (for the southern sky and the Mediterranean both tend to produce very intense orange colouring, as their blue is very strong), the black note of the door, the window and the small cross on the roof makes a contrast of black and white, which is just as agreeable to the eye as the contrast of orange and blue.
On the same principle, here is another still more amusing theme: a woman in a black and white check dress, standing in the same simple landscape, with the sky blue, and the ground orange. The black and the white can quite adequately play the part of colours (at least, in many cases they may be considered as such), for their contrast is just as piquant as that of green and red, for instance. Moreover, the Japanese made use of the same tones; with magic beauty they render the dull pale complexion of a little girl and its fetching contrast with her black hair, by means of four strokes of the pen on white paper; and they do the same thing with their black bramble bushes, which they cover with countless white flowers.
At last I have seen the Mediterranean Sea and have spent a week in Saintes-Maries. I went there in the diligence, via la Camargue, through vineyards and meadows, and across plains, like those in Holland. In Saintes-Maries I saw some little girls who reminded me of Cimabue and Giotto—very much so, in fact; they were thin, rather sad, and mystic. On the beach, which is quite flat and sandy, I saw a number of green, red and blue boats, which were so delightful both in form and colour, that they made me think of flowers. One man alone can navigate a boat of this sort, but they do not go far out. They only venture into deep water when the wind is low and they return as soon as it rises.
I should also very much like to see Africa. But I will not make any definite plans for the future. Everything will depend upon circumstances. What I wanted to experience was the effect of a deep blue sky. Fromentin and Gérôme see no colour in the South, and a number of others are like them. But good Heavens!—if you take a little dry sand up in your hand and hold it close to your eyes, of course it is colourless, just as water and air would be. There is no blue without yellow and orange, and when you paint blue, paint yellow and orange as well—am I not right?
I feel decidedly better in the South than in the North. I work even during the hour of noon, in the glaring sunlight, without a scrap of shade; and, believe me, I feel as happy as a cricket. Heavens! why did I not get to know this country at 25 instead of at 35 years of age! In those days, however, I was mad on grays, or rather on the absence of colour. I always dreamt of a Millet, and had my friends in the artistic circle of Mauve and of Israels, etc.
I have painted the “Sower.” Oh, how beautiful the illustrations in the old calendars were!—with the hail, the rain, the snow and fine weather always rendered in the perfectly primitive manner which Anquetin favoured for his “Harvest.”
I may as well tell you that I do not dislike country life—for I grew up in the midst of it. Sudden recollections of old times and a longing for that infinite of which the “Sower” and the “Sheaf of Corn” are evidence, still enchant me now, just as they did formerly. But when shall I paint the starry heavens?—that picture which is always in my mind? Ah, what the worthy Cyprian says in J. K. Huysmans’ “En’ Ménage,” is very true!—“The most beautiful pictures are those of which one dreams when one is smoking a pipe in bed but which one never paints.” And yet one must tackle such pictures, however incompetent one may feel in the presence of the inexpressible perfection and triumphant splendour of nature.
Here is another landscape for you!—A setting sun, a rising moon? In any case, a summer’s evening. A violet city, yellow stars, a green-blue sky, crops of all colours, old-gold, copper, green-gold, red-gold, yellow-gold, yellow-bronze, green and red. I painted it in the midst of a North wind.
I should like to say the following about black and white:—take my “Sower”! The picture is divided into two halves, the upper portion is yellow and the lower portion violet. Now you observe that the white trousers are both restful and cheering to the eye while the strong and glowing contrast of the yellow and the violet might at the same time irritate it.
One reason for working is that the pictures are worth money. You will say, in the first place, that this reason is prosaic, and secondly that it is untrue. But it really is true. One reason for not working is that, in the first place, canvas and colour cost a lot of money. Drawings are the only things that can be produced cheaply.
My chief reason for being so fond of this part of the country is that here I am not in such fear of the cold which retards my circulation, and thus prevents me from thinking and doing anything at all. You will realize this only when you are a soldier and chance to come to these parts. Your melancholy will take wing,—for it is very probable that it is only the outcome of your having too little blood. And all this is the result of the confoundedly bad wine and infamous beef of Paris. Things had gone so far with me that my blood had almost ceased to circulate, or practically so in the true sense of the word. But here, in about a month’s time, it began to flow again. And, my dear fellow, at that time I had a fit of melancholy like the one you have at present, and I would have suffered from it as much as you are suffering from yours, had I not greeted it joyfully as a sign of my recovery, which, by the by, was soon an established fact.
To paint and to love women are incompatible. This is really a confounded nuisance!
The symbol of St. Luke, the patron saint of painters, is as you know an ox. Thus one must be as patient as an ox if one would wish to cultivate the field of art. But how lucky oxen are to have nothing to do with this confounded business of painting!
But let me tell you this, that after your fit of melancholy you will feel fresher than you did before. Your health will grow stronger, and you will find the world about you so beautiful, that you will have but one wish—to paint. I believe that your poetry will also change in the same way. After many eccentricities you will succeed in producing things full of Egyptian repose and grand simplicity.
You will doubtless agree that neither you nor I can form a complete image of what Velasquez or Goya were as men and painters; for neither you nor I have seen Spain, their native land, and all the lovely pictures which have remained in the South. But this does not alter the fact that the little we do know is really very great indeed.
In order to understand the painters of the North, and above all Rembrandt, it is unquestionably of paramount importance to know and understand their country—and the somewhat petty and intimate history of their age, as well as the customs of their ancient fatherland. I must repeat that you and Baudelaire have not a sufficiently thorough knowledge of Rembrandt, and as for you, I still feel that I should like to induce you to make a long study of the greater and lesser Dutch Masters, before you form a definite opinion about them. For it is not a matter only of rare and costly jewels, one has to select precious stones from out a mass of precious stones, and many a false diamond will be found among genuine specimens. Thus, although I have studied the schools of my fatherland for over twenty years, a discussion concerning the painters of the North is usually conducted in such a false spirit, that I should in most cases hold my peace whenever the conversation chanced to turn upon them.
I can only urge you, therefore, in Heaven’s name, to examine them a little more thoroughly; your trouble will be repaid a thousandfold.
If, for instance, I declare that the Ostade of the Louvre, representing the family of the artist—the man himself, his wife and his ten children—like the “Congress’ of Münster,” by Terborch, is a picture which though infinitely worth being studied and deeply thought about [is sadly neglected]; and that precisely those pictures in the Louvre collection which I particularly value and regard as the most remarkable, are very often overlooked by artists—even by those who come on purpose to see the Dutch School—these mistakes do not surprise me. For I know that my choice is based upon specialised knowledge which the majority of French people cannot acquire. If, however, I disagree with you on these points, I am nevertheless convinced, that in time to come you will share my view of the matter.
What always makes me so desperate in the Louvre, is to be compelled to look on while the asinine authorities allow their Rembrandts to be spoilt, and ruin so many beautiful pictures.
For the disagreeable jaundiced tone of some of the Rembrandts is the result of discolouration brought about by dampness or other causes (heating, dust, etc.), a thing I could easily prove to you.
And that is why it is just as difficult to ascertain Rembrandt’s colouring as it is to discover accurately what greys were used by Velasquez. For the want of a better expression one might overcome the difficulty by speaking of Rembrandt’s gold; but it is very vague.
When I came to France I learnt to understand Delacroix and Zola perhaps better than many a Frenchman. And my admiration for both of these men is now as unbounded as it is sincere. Armed with an almost complete mastery of Rembrandt, I discovered that Delacroix obtained his effects by means of his colour, and Rembrandt by means of his values; but they are worthy of each other.
Zola and Balzac, who are, among other things, the painters of a whole epoch, afford their admirers many rare artistic delights owing to the fact that they express the whole of the age which they describe.
Even though Delacroix paints only mankind and life, instead of a whole age, he belongs none the less to the class of universal geniuses. I particularly like the closing words of an article which, if I am not mistaken, was written by Théophile Silvestre, who ended a hymn of praise as follows: “Thus, almost with a smile on his lips, did Eugène Delacroix die. A noble painter, he bore the sun in his head and a tempest in his heart, and he could turn from warriors to saints, from saints to lovers, from lovers to tigers, and from tigers to flowers.”
Daumier is also a great genius, while Millet is likewise the painter of a whole generation and of its atmosphere. Maybe, these great geniuses are a little crazy, and it is possible that we may be a little crazy too, to have such faith in them and to feel such unbounded admiration for their art. If this be so, I prefer my folly to the cold wisdom of others.
Perhaps the most direct way is to study Rembrandt. But, first of all, let me tell you something about Franz Hals, who has never painted the Saviour, the Angel announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds, the Crucifixion or the Resurrection, and who has never painted naked, voluptuous, or cruel female figures.
He always painted portraits and nothing else—soldier pictures, officers’ banquets, portraits of magistrates assembled to discuss affairs of State, and portraits of matrons with pink or sallow complexions, wearing white caps and dressed in black wool or satin, discussing the budget of an orphanage or a hospital.
He also painted a drunken toper, an old fishwife as a lively witch, a beautiful Bohemian courtesan, unweaned babies in arms, and an elegant cavalier—a bon-vivant, with a bristly moustache, top-boots, and spurs.
He painted himself and his wife as young lovers, sitting on a grassy bank in the garden, after the wedding night.
He painted tramps and laughing street-boys, musicians, and a fat cook.
We cannot do anything else; but all this is worthy of Dante’s “Paradise,” the masterpieces by Michelangelo and Raphael, and even the Greeks; it is as beautiful as Zola, but more healthy and more cheerful, though equally true to life. For the age of Hals was healthier and less wretched. What then is Rembrandt? Precisely the same, a portrait painter! One must first have this sound, clear and comprehensive idea of these two Dutch masters, who are worthy of each other, and then one can enter more deeply into this subject. If one can picture the whole of this glorious state, revealed in grand outline by both of these prolific portrait painters, plenty of room is left for the landscapes, interiors, pictures of animals and philosophical subjects. But I implore you to follow my reasoning closely; I am trying to make it as simple and as clear as possible.
Let every corner of your brain be permeated with that master, Franz Hals, who painted the portraits of an entire, important, living, and immortal state. Also let every corner of your brain be permeated with that other by no means minor great master of the Dutch state, Rembrandt van Ryn, a man of mighty gifts, and just as naturalistic and healthy as Hals. And now from this source—Rembrandt, we see arise as direct and genuine pupils: Jan van der Meer of Delft, Fabritius, Nicholas Maës, Pieter de Hooch, Bol; as also such artists as Potter, Ruysdael, and Ostade, who are under his influence. I have mentioned Fabritius to you, only two of whose pictures we possess. But in all this I have not referred to a whole host of good painters, and above all not to the false diamonds. And it is precisely with these spurious stones that the French man in the street is best acquainted. Have I made myself clear? I have tried to reveal the great and simple fact: the painting of mankind, or, preferably, of a whole state, by means of portraits. Much later we shall have to deal with magic art, with the pictures of Saviours and of nude women—these things are extremely interesting, but they are not everything.
I do not think that the question of the Dutch masters which we raised a day or two ago, is without interest. In all matters of humanity, originality, or naturalism, it is very interesting to consult them. But, in the first place, I must speak about you and two still-life pictures you have painted, as also two portraits of your grandmother. Have you ever succeeded better in anything else? Were you ever more yourself, more individual, in any other work? My answer is No! The thorough study of the first subject, the first person, that was at hand, sufficed to make you work with earnestness. Do you know what it was that made these three or four studies so valuable to me? Something inexplicably arbitrary, something very clever, deliberate, firm and self-reliant—that is what it was. Never, dear friend, have you been closer to Rembrandt than while painting those studies. It was in Rembrandt’s studio, under the eyes of that incomparable Sphinx, that Vermeer of Delft found that extraordinarily sound technique which was never to be surpassed, and which people are so ardently longing to find to-day. I know, of course, that we are now engaged in the problem of colour, whereas they were concerned with chiaroscuro and values. But what do these slight differences matter when that which is, above all, necessary is to be able to express oneself with vigour and strength?
At the present moment you are investigating the technique of the early Italians and Germans, and the question of the symbolic significance which the spiritualized and mystic painting of the Italians may possess—by all means continue!…
A certain anecdote about Giotto strikes me as being very neat. There was a prize competition opened for the best picture of the Virgin, and a host of sketches were sent in to the judging committee of fine arts of the day. The one signed by Giotto was a simple oval, a plain, egg-shaped space. The jury entirely confident, although perplexed, gave Giotto the commission for the picture. Whether it is true or not, I like the story.
Now, however, let me return to Daumier and to the portrait of your grandmother. When will you again send us studies of such sterling value? I urge you most earnestly to do so, although I by no means underestimate your attempts at line composition, and am far from indifferent to the effect of contrasted lines and forms. The trouble is, my dear old Bernard, 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. If the Socialists construct their edifice in the same logical manner—a thing they are very far from doing—the above-mentioned order of society will certainly come back to life in a similar way. 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.
Puvis knew this very well, and when—clever and honest man that he was—he forgot his Elysian fields, and descended into our age, he painted a very beautiful portrait, “The Jovial Old Man”—a figure of a man sitting in a blue room, reading a yellow covered book, with a glass of water, containing a water-colour brush and a rose, at his side. And he also painted a stylish lady such as the Goncourts might have described.
Yes, the Dutch painted things as they were, certainly without reflecting much upon them; as Courbet painted his naked beauties, so they painted portraits, landscapes and still-life subjects. And it is not by any means the most foolish way. But if, owing to the fact that we do not know what to do, we imitate them, we do so only to avoid squandering our modest powers in fruitless metaphysical brooding which cannot press chaos into a tumbler; for that is precisely why it is chaos, because it cannot enter into a tumbler of our calibre.
We are only able—and this is just what these Dutchmen did, who for people with a system were infernally clever,—to paint an atom out of the chaos: a horse, a portrait, a grandmother, apples or a landscape.
Degas’ painting is manly and impersonal simply because, for his part, he was content to be a simple bourgeois who did not wish to have anything to do with the enjoyment of life. All around him he saw human animals … living and enjoying themselves, and he painted them well, because, unlike Rubens, he made no pretensions of being a good cavalier or a society man….
Yes, yes, Balzac, that great and powerful artist, said quite rightly that the modern artist is strengthened by being, relatively speaking, chaste. The Dutchmen were married and begat themselves children. That is a fine, in fact a very fine way of filling a life, and quite a natural way too!… One swallow does not make a summer. There may be a good deal of virility in your new Brittany studies; but I am unable to judge as I have not yet seen them. However, I have already seen virile works of yours—the portrait of your grandmother and the still-life. To judge from the drawings I have a slight suspicion that your new Brittany studies do not possess the same power, regarded precisely from the standpoint of virility.
The studies which I mentioned first constitute the spring of your artistic life. If we wish to keep all our strength for our life-work, we must only have very little to do with women and according as our temperament demands, live either like soldiers or monks. For the Dutchmen led a peaceful, quiet and well-ordered life. Delacroix—ah! he was a fine fellow—he used to say: “I discovered the art of painting when I no longer had any more teeth or breath.” And those who had seen him painting said: “When Delacroix paints, he looks like a lion devouring a piece of flesh.” He had very little to do with women, and indulged only in loose love affairs so as not to waste any of the time consecrated to his life’s task. To judge from the opinions expressed in this letter, it would appear to be less in keeping than I should like it to be with our correspondence and friendship of former years; but if from its contents you gather that I am rather anxious about your health, you are right. I know that the study of the Dutchmen must be beneficial; for their works are so full of virility, power and health.
A short time ago I discovered a small etching by Rembrandt and I bought it. It was of a nude figure of a man, realistic and simple. He stands leaning against a door or a pillar, in a dark room, and a ray of sunshine from above strikes the bowed head and its abundant red locks. The body is conceived with so much truth, and is so vigorous, that it almost reminds me of Degas.
I say, have you carefully studied “The’ Ox,” or “The Inside of a Butcher’s Shop” at the Louvre? I doubt it. I should really greatly enjoy spending a morning with you in the Dutch Galleries. These things are hard to describe; but in front of the actual pictures I could call your attention to such splendid and wonderful things, that beside them the very Primitives themselves take a second place in my admiration. But then I have such a very slight strain of eccentricity in my composition!
A Greek statue, a peasant by Millet, a Dutch portrait, a naked woman by Courbet or Degas; it is beside the serene and elaborate perfection of these things that the works of the Primitives and the Japanese seem only like written characters as compared with painting. It really interests me immensely, but a complete work of art, a piece of perfection enables us to conceive infinity; and to enjoy beauty to the full gives one a feeling of eternity…. Do you know a painter called Jan van der Meer? He painted a very distinguished and beautiful Dutch woman, in pregnancy. The scale of colours of this strange artist consists of blue, lemon-yellow, pearl-grey, black and white. It is true, in the few pictures he painted the whole range of the palette is to be found; but it is just as characteristic of him to place lemon-yellow, a dull blue, and light grey together, as it is of Velasquez to harmonize black, white, grey and pink. Of course the Dutch painters are too widely distributed over the Museums and collections of the world for us to be able to form any adequate idea of their work, and this is still more difficult when one knows only the Louvre. And yet it is precisely the Frenchmen, Ch. Blanc, Thoré and Fromentin, who have written the best things about them.
The Dutchmen had no imagination, but they had tremendous taste and an unerring sense of composition; they painted no pictures of the Saviour or of the Saints…. Rembrandt did! That is true; but he is the only one, and even with him pictures containing a genuine Biblical feeling are comparatively rare occurrences he was the only one to paint pictures of Christ, etc. But his pictures resemble no other kind of religious painting; in his case it is a sort of metaphysical sorcery.
This is how he painted angels: He made a portrait of himself, toothless and with a cotton cap on his head.
The first picture he painted from nature, by means of a looking glass. He dreamt and dreamt, and his hand painted his portrait once again, but from imagination, and the impression became more harrowed and more harrowing.
Second picture. He continued to dream and dream and, how it happened I do not know, but just as Socrates and Muhammed had their guardian spirits, behind the hoary patriarch who is not unlike himself, Rembrandt painted an angel with the enigmatical smile of a head by Leonardo… But now I am calling your attention to an artist who dreams and works from his imagination, after having declared that the characteristic feature of the Dutch painters is that they have no inventive genius and no imagination. Am I therefore illogical? No! Rembrandt invented nothing; he knew and felt this angel and these peculiar saints perfectly well.
Delacroix painted a crucified Christ for us, by setting, quite unexpectedly, a light lemon-yellow tone on the canvas. This vivid note of colour lent the picture that indescribable and mysterious charm as of a solitary star in a dark evening sky. Rembrandt works with values in the same way as Delacroix does with colours. A long distance, however, separates Delacroix’ and Rembrandt’s methods from those of all the rest of religious painting.
I have just finished the portrait of a little girl of twelve. Her eyes are brown, her hair and eyebrows are black, she has an olive skin, and stands before a white background containing a strong tinge of emerald green, in a blood-red jacket with violet stripes, a blue skirt with large orange-coloured spots, and an oleander flower between her dainty little fingers. This study has exhausted me to such an extent that my head does not feel like writing.
The Bible is Christ, for the Old Testament works up to this climax. St. Paul and the Evangelists live on the other side of the Mount of Olives. How small this history is! Heavens! here it is in a couple of words. There seem to be nothing but Jews on earth—Jews who suddenly declare that everything outside their own race is unclean. Why did not all the other Southern races under the sun—the Egyptians, the Indians, the Ethiopians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians—write their annals with the same care? It must be fine to study these things, and to be able to read all this must be about as good as not being able to read at all. But the Bible which depresses us so much, which rouses all our despair and all our deepest discontent, and whose narrow-mindedness and parlous folly tear our hearts in two, contains one piece of consolation like a soft kernel in a hard shell, a bitter core, and that is Christ. The figure of Christ, as I conceive it, has been painted by Delacroix and Rembrandt, and only Millet painted Christ’s teaching. At the rest of their religious painting I can only smile commiseratingly—not from the religious but from the pictorial standpoint. The early Italians, Flemings and Germans are, in my opinion, pagans, who interest me only as much as Velasquez and so many other naturalistic painters do.
Of all philosophers, sages, etc., Christ was the only one whose principal doctrine was the affirmation of immortality and eternity, the nothingness of death, and the necessity and importance of truth and resignation. He lived serenely as an artist, as a greater artist than any other; for he despised marble, clay and the palette, and worked upon living flesh. That is to say, this marvellous artist, who eludes the grasp of that coarse instrument—the neurotic and confused brain of modern man—created neither statues nor pictures nor even books; he says so himself quite majestically—he created real living men, immortals. That is a solemn thing, more particularly because it is the truth. This great artist, then, wrote no books. There can be no doubt that Christian literature, on the whole, would only make him indignant. For how seldom is anything to be found among its productions that could find favour beside the Gospel of St. Luke and the Epistles of St. Paul, which are so simple in their austere and warlike form? But even if this great artist, Christ, scorned to write books about his ideas and sensations, he certainly did not despise either the spoken word or still less the parable. (What vigour there is in the parable of the sower, the harvest, and the fig tree!) And who would dare tell us that he lied when, in predicting the downfall of the Roman State, he declared: “Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.”
These spoken words which he, as a grand seigneur did not even think it necessary to write down, are the highest pinnacle ever attained by art; in such pure altitudes art becomes a creative force, a pure creative power.
Such meditations lead us far afield, very far afield (they even elevate us above art). They give us an insight into the art of moulding life, and of being immortal in life itself, and still they are not unrelated to painting. The patron saint of painting, St. Luke—doctor, painter and evangelist, whose device, alas! is an ox—is there to give us hope. But our true and real life is really a humble one; we poor unhappy painters are vegetating beneath the besotting yoke of a craft which is barely practicable on this ungrateful planet, whereon the love of art makes us unable to taste of real love.
As, however, there is nothing to gainsay the supposition that there are similar lines, colours and forms on innumerable other planets and suns, we may be allowed to retain a certain amount of good spirits in view of the possibility that we shall be able to paint among higher conditions and in another and different life, and that we shall reach that life by a process which perhaps is not more incomprehensible or surprising than the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, or of a grub into a cockchafer. The scene of this existence for the painter-butterfly could be one of the innumerable stars which, when we are dead, might perhaps be as accessible to us as are the black spots that in this terrestrial life represent the cities and towns on our maps.
Science! Scientific reasoning seems to me to be a weapon which with time will develop in quite an unsuspected manner; in the old days, for instance, the world was supposed to be flat. This was perfectly right too. It is still flat between Paris and Asnières. This, however, does not alter the fact that science proves the earth to be round—a fact no one any longer disputes. Now, in the same way, it is assumed that human life is flat and that it leads from birth to death. Probably, however, life also is round, and much vaster in its extent and its capacities than we have suspected heretofore. Later generations will probably enlighten us concerning this interesting problem, and then possibly science might—with all due respect to her—come almost to the same conclusions as those which Christ summed up in his doctrine concerning the other half of life. However this may be, the fact remains that we painters are living in the midst of reality, and that we should breathe our spirit into our creations as long as we ourselves continue to breathe.
Oh, what a beautiful picture that is of Eugène Delacroix—“Christ on the Lake of Gennesaret!” He, with his pale yellow halo—asleep and luminous, bathed in a glow of dramatic violet, dark blue, reddish blue—and the group of frightened disciples upon the terrible viridian sea, with waves reaching up to the top of the frame. What a splendid conception!
I would make a few sketches for you were it not for the fact that I have just been busy with a model for three days—drawing and painting a Zouave—and simply cannot do anything more. Writing, on the other hand, rests and distracts me. What I have done is hideous; a drawing of the Zouave sitting; then an oil sketch of him against a perfectly white wall; and then a portrait of him against a green door and a few yellow bricks of a wall—it is all hard, ugly, and badly done. Albeit, as I tackled real difficulties in its production, it may pave the way into the future. Any figure that I paint is generally dreadful even in my own eyes, how much more hideous it must be therefore in other people’s! And yet one derives most experience from the study of the figure, when one sets about it in a manner that is different from that which M. Benjamin Constant used to teach us, for instance. I say, do you remember Puvis de Chavannes’ “John the Baptist”? I think it is simply wonderful and just as magic as Eugène Delacroix’ work.
My brother-in-law is at present holding an exhibition of Claude Monet’s work—ten pictures painted at Antibes between February and May. It appears that it is extraordinarily beautiful. Have you ever read the life of Luther? It is necessary to do this in order to be able to understand Cranach, Holbein and Dürer. He and his powerful personality are the high light of the Renaissance. If ever we happened to be in the Louvre together I should very much like to see the Primitives with you. At the Louvre my greatest love is, of course, the Dutch school, Rembrandt above all, whom I studied so much in the past. Then Potter. Upon a surface from about four to six metres he gives you a white stallion, neighing passionately and desperately, with a dark and stormy sky above it, and the animal sadly isolated upon a pale green infinity of moist meadow land. Altogether there are glories to be found in these Dutchmen, which can be compared with nothing else.
To-day I am sending you one or two sketches painted from oil studies. In this way you will become acquainted with themes drawn from the nature which inspired old Cézanne. For the Crau near Aix is much the same as the country in the neighbourhood of Tarascon and the Crau of this district. Camargue is even simpler still, for there vast stretches of waste ground are covered with nothing but tamarind bushes and stiff grasses, which bear the same relation to these lean meadows as alfa grass does to the desert.
As I know how very fond you are of Cézanne, I thought that these sketches from Provence would please you. Not because there is any trace of resemblance between my drawings and Cézanne’s—God forbid that I should mean that—any more than there is between Monticelli and myself; but I passionately love the same country as they loved so much, and for the same reasons—the colouring and the definite drawing.
When I used the word “collaboration” some time ago I did not mean that two or three painters should work at the same picture, but that they should each produce different works which nevertheless should belong to and complete one another. Look at the early Italians, the German Primitives, the Dutch School, and the later Italians—do not all their works together quite involuntarily constitute a group, a series?
As a matter of fact, the Impressionists also constitute a group, despite all their wretched domestic warfare, in which both sides, with an enthusiasm worthy of a better cause, endeavour to eat each other up. In our northern school Rembrandt is lord and master, for his influence is felt by every one who approaches him. For instance, we find Paul Potter painting animals at rut, and passionate, in storm, sunshine, and the melancholy of autumn; while this same Potter, before he knew Rembrandt, was dry and feeble.
Rembrandt and Potter are two men who are as closely related as brothers, and even if Rembrandt never put a brush stroke on Potter’s pictures, Potter and Ruysdael nevertheless have to thank him for all the best qualities their work possesses—that intangible something which thrills us to the core when we succeed in recognizing a corner of old Holland à travers leur tempérament.
Besides, the material difficulties of the painter’s life render something in the way of collaboration and combination between artists a very desirable thing (such as existed at the time of the St. Luke Guilds); for if only they would appreciate each other as good comrades instead of being always at logger-heads, they might considerably alleviate one another’s difficulties. Painters would then be happier, and, in any case, less ridiculous, foolish and vile. But—I don’t wish to insist on this point—I know well enough at what a frantic pace life travels nowadays, and that one has not the time to discuss things and to act as well. And that is why, in view of the remoteness of any possible artistic association, we painters are now in mid-sea, and are sailing alone in our wretched little craft, on the great billows of our age. Is it an age of development or of decay? We cannot judge of this; for we are too closely connected with it to be able to avoid being led astray by the distortions of perspective. Contemporary events probably assume exaggerated proportions in our eyes, whether they be to our advantage or disadvantage.
I have had another very busy day to-day. I wonder what you would say about my present work? In any case you would seek in it in vain for Cézanne’s conscientious and almost timid brush stroke. As, however, I am painting the same stretch of country, La Crau and La Camargue, although from a somewhat different standpoint, you might after all find some of my colouring reminiscent of his work. How do I know? At times I have thought involuntarily of Cézanne, when I happened to recall his clumsy brush-strokes (excuse the word “clumsy”) in many a study which, probably, he painted in a strong north wind. As half the time I have to contend with the same difficulties, I can understand how it is that Cézanne’s brush-stroke is sometimes firm and steady, and at other times clumsy—his easel shook. Once or twice I have worked at a mad speed; if it is wrong to do so, I cannot help it. For instance, I painted “The Summer Evening,” on a canvas about 35 in. by 35 in. at one sitting. Could I work on it again?—Impossible! Why should I spoil it?—more particularly as I set out to paint it in the midst of a strong north wind. Are we not much more keenly in search of strength of conception than of sober brush-work, and, after all, is it always possible to work in a quiet and perfectly regular manner when painting a study which is a first impression, on the spot itself, and from nature?
’Pon my soul, this would seem to me just as impossible as in fencing.
If only painters could unite in order to collaborate in the production of great things! The art of the future might then give us examples of their work. For the execution of their pictures, painters would then have to collaborate, in order to be able to bear the material difficulties. Unfortunately, however, we are not so far advanced, things do not go so fast with the fine arts as with literature. To-day, like yesterday, I am writing to you in great haste, and quite exhausted with work. For the moment I do not feel equal to making any drawings, my morning in the fields has worn me out completely. How this southern sun fatigues one! I am quite incapable of judging my own work; I cannot see whether my studies are good or bad. I have painted seven studies of corn; unfortunately, quite against my will, they are only landscapes. They are all of a yellow tone, and were executed at a frantic speed, just as the reaper works silently in the sweltering sun, with only one thought in his mind—to cut down as much as possible.
I can well understand that you were a trifle surprised to hear how little I liked the Bible, although I have often tried to study it more thoroughly. Only its kernel—Christ—seems to me, from an artistic point of view, to stand higher than, or at any rate to be somewhat different from Greek, Indian, Egyptian, and Persian antiquities, although these also stood on a very high plane. But, I repeat, this Christ is more of an artist than all artists—he worked in living spirits and bodies—he made men instead of statues. When I think of this I feel a regular beast in the field; for am I not a painter? And I admire the bull, the eagle, and man with such an intense adoration, that it will certainly prevent me from ever becoming an ambitious person.
I grow ever more and more convinced that cooking has something to do with our capacity for thinking and for painting pictures. I know, for instance, that if my digestion is upset, my work does not by any means improve. In the south the powers of the senses are intensified; one’s hand is more nimble, one’s eyes are more acute, and one’s brain is clearer. All this, of course, on condition that no dysentery or any other indisposition arises to spoil everything and to pull one down. On this account, I venture to declare, that he who would fain devote himself to artistic work will find his capacities increase in the South.
Art is long and life is fleeting, and one must try with patience to sell one’s life as dearly as possible. I should like to be your age, and, with all I know, to go to Africa to serve as a soldier there. In order to work well, one must be well lodged, well fed, and able to smoke one’s pipe and drink one’s coffee in peace. I do not wish to imply that there are not many other good things; let everyone do as he pleases; but my system seems to me better than many others.
Almost at the same moment as I was dispatching my studies, Gauguin’s and your parcel arrived. I was overjoyed, my heart became really all aglow when I saw your two faces. Your portrait, as you must know, pleased me greatly. But you don’t require to be told that I like everything you do. Before I came on the scene nobody, perhaps, appreciated your work as much as I do now. Let me urge you to make a special study of portrait painting; work at it as hard as you can and do not give in; we must in time conquer the public by means of the portrait—in my opinion the future lies there. But do not let us become involved in hypotheses.
I have ruthlessly to destroy a large picture of Christ with the angel in Gethsemane, and another representing a poet standing under the starry heavens; for, although the colour was good in both, the drawing was not studied in the first place from the model, which in such cases is essential.
Maybe, my last studies are not impressionistic at all, but that I cannot help. I paint what I paint, in complete subjection to nature, and without thinking of anything else.
I cannot work without models. I do not mean that I never turn my back boldly upon nature …; but I am frightened to death of losing accuracy of form. Perhaps later on, after ten years of study, I shall try; but really and truly, I am so devoured by curiosity for the possible and the actual, that I have neither the wish nor the courage to seek an ideal which could arise out of my abstract studies. Others may be more gifted for the painting of abstract studies, and you are certainly one of these, as is also Gauguin. Maybe, I shall be the same, some day, when I am old; meanwhile I feed on nature. At times I do indeed exaggerate or alter a theme; but I never invent a whole picture—on the contrary, I actually find it at hand and complete—all I have to do is to extract it from nature.
My house will seem less empty to me now that I have these pictures of you both. How glad I should be to have you here, even this winter! It is true that the journey is rather expensive. But could we not risk the expense and try to recover it by painting? In the winter it is so difficult to work in the North. Possibly it is so here, as well; I cannot speak from experience on this point. I shall have to wait and see; but the better to understand the Japanese it is deuced necessary to know the South, where life is led more in the open air. Besides this, a good many places here have something mysteriously sublime and noble about them, which would please you immensely.
I ought to have sent you some sketches long ago, in return for those you sent me. But just lately, during the lovely weather, I have been wholly occupied by a few canvases about 36 in. by 27½ in. in size, which simply exhaust me, and which I intend using for the decoration of my house.
If your father had a son who sought and found gold in stones or on the pavement, he would certainly not think lightly of this talent. Well, in my opinion, you possess a talent which is, at least, equally valuable. Your father might deplore the fact that what you found was not brand new and glittering gold, already stamped like the coin of the realm; but he would, nevertheless, collect all your findings and sell them only at a good price. Well, then, that is what he should do with your pictures and drawings, which are just as valuable as marketable commodities as stones or metal; for to paint a picture is just as difficult as to find a small or large diamond. At present the world recognizes the value of a gold piece, or of a genuine pearl. Unfortunately, however, those who paint pictures and those who believe in the painting of pictures, are extremely rare. Still there are a few such people, and in any case we cannot do better than bide our time patiently, even though we have to wait a long while.
The idea of forming a sort of freemasonry among artists does not please me particularly; I am a great enemy of all regulations and institutions, etc. I am in search of something very different from dogmas, for they never by any chance set things in order, and only lead to endless disputes. That is a sign of decay. As, for the present, a union of painters exists only in very vague outline why not leave things as they are at least provisionally? It is much nicer when an organization of the sort we have in our minds crystallizes all of its own accord. The more things are discussed, the less will be done. If you wish to take a part in helping the cause, all you have to do is to continue working away with me and Gauguin; the affair is now started; do not let us say a word more about it. If it is to come it will do so without any elaborate negotiations, but simply by means of calm and well-considered action.
I am sending five studies, and must also include at least two attempts at somewhat more important pictures—a portrait of myself and a landscape painted in a most terrible north wind. There are also a study of a small garden with flowers of all colours, a study of grey, dusty coal, and finally another still life, “A Pair of Peasant’s Shoes,” and a little landscape, a trifle, just a small stretch of country.
In the event of these studies not meeting with any appreciation, and one or the other of our friends not being able to take a fancy to any of them, please keep those that are liked and return the others together with the pictures sent in exchange for those that are retained.
There is no hurry, and when business is done by barter, it is but right and proper for both sides to try and offer only good work.
If in the morning it is sufficiently dry to be rolled up, I shall also send you a landscape containing figures unloading sand, and in addition to that the rough sketch of a picture which is full of a mature will.
What about the gentleman so diligently engaged in art whom I found in your last letter, and who looked so like me—was he supposed to be me or somebody else? As far as the face is concerned he looks very like me; but in the first place I always smoke a pipe, and then I positively dread sitting on a thin ledge of rock overlooking the sea, for I suffer from giddiness. In the name of these presents I therefore protest most solemnly against the other resemblances I have already mentioned.
The decoration of my house is absorbing me entirely, and I hope and believe that it will be very tasteful even if it be very different from everything you do.
That reminds me that on one occasion some time ago you spoke to me of certain pictures which were to represent flowers, trees, and fields, respectively. Now I have the “Poet’s Garden” (two canvases), the “Starry Night,” the “Vineyard,” the “Furrows,” the “View from my House,” which might also be called “The’ Street.” As you see, without any intention on my part, a certain natural sequence seems to connect them together.
I should be very curious to see sketches of Pont-Aven; but you must send me a more finished study. You are, however, sure to do everything in the best possible way; for I am so fond of your talent that in time I shall make quite a little collection of your works. I have always been very much moved by the thought that Japanese artists often bartered their pictures among themselves. That does indeed show that they loved one another and were united, that a kind of harmony prevailed among them, and that they lived in brotherly concord instead of in intrigues. The more we resemble them in these things the more we shall prosper. It also appears that a few of these Japanese artists earned very little money and lived like simple workmen. I have the reproduction of a Japanese drawing (Bing’s publication) representing a single blade of grass. What a paragon of conscientiousness it is! I shall show it to you when I get the chance.
What surprised me in your letter were your words: “Ah, as for painting Gauguin’s portrait—that is impossible!” Why impossible? That’s all nonsense. But I will not press you further. And has not Gauguin, for his part, ever thought of painting your portrait? You are a funny pair of portrait painters, I must say! You live all day long shoulder to shoulder and cannot even agree so far as to act as each other’s models. The end of it will be that you will part without having painted each other’s portraits. All right, I will not urge you any more. But I hope that one day I shall be able to paint both your portrait and Gauguin’s. I shall do it as soon as we all come together, which is sure to happen some day.
Whereas the finest plans and calculations so often come to naught, if only one work on the off chance and take advantage of the happy accidents the day brings with it, one can accomplish a host of good and astonishing things. Make a point of going to Africa for a while—you will be enraptured with the South, and it will make you a great artist. Even Gauguin is greatly indebted to the South for his talent.
For many months now I have been contemplating the strong sun of the South, and the result of this experiment is that, in my opinion, and chiefly from the standpoint of colour, Delacroix and Monticelli, who are now wrongly reckoned among the pure romanticists and the artists with fantastic imaginations, are entirely justified. Think of it, the South which Fromentin and Gérome have depicted so dryly, is even in these parts a land the intimate charm of which can be rendered only with the colours of the colourist.
In my sketch of “The’ Garden,” there may be something like Des tapis velus—de fleurs et verdure tissus. I wished to reply to all your quotations with the pen, even if I dispensed with words. My head does not feel very much like discussing to-day; I am head over ears in work. I have just done two large pen-drawings, for instance, a bird’s-eye view of an endless plain seen from the top of a hill: vineyards, and fields of stubble reaching to infinity, and extending like the surface of the sea to the horizon, which is bounded by the hills of La Crau. It does not look Japanese, and yet, truth to tell, I have never painted anything so essentially Japanese. A tiny figure of a labourer and a small train running through the cornfields, constitute the only signs of life in the picture. Think of it! on one of my first days at this place, a painter friend of mine said to me: “It would be absurdly tedious to paint that!” I did not attempt to answer, but thought the spot so beautiful that I could not even summon the strength to upbraid the idiot. I returned to the locality again and again, and made two drawings of it—this flat stretch of country which contains nothing save infinity, eternity. And then, while I was drawing, a man walked up to me—not a painter this time, but a soldier. “Does it surprise you,” I asked him, “that I should think this as beautiful as the sea?” “No, it does not surprise me in the’ least that you should think this as beautiful as the sea,” came the reply (the fellow knew the sea, by-the-bye); “for I think it even more’ beautiful than the ocean, because it is inhabited.”
Which of the two men understood the most about art, the painter or the soldier? According to my way of thinking, the soldier did; am I not right?
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 sun-burnt face. Meanwhile I am painting other things.
But among my studies I have one of a figure which is a perfect continuation of my Dutch pictures. On one occasion I showed these to you, together with various other pictures of my Dutch days, the “Potato-Eaters,” etc., and I should like you to see these as well. They are all studies in which colour plays such an important part that the black and white of a drawing could not give you any idea of them. I had actually thought of sending you a very large and careful drawing of the one in question. But, however accurate it might be, it would result in something totally different; for colour is the only thing that can suggest the effect of the hot parched air of a midsummer’s day at noon, in the midst of harvest-making; and if this effect is lacking, the whole picture is altered. You and Gauguin know what a peasant is, and how much of the beast must lie in his constitution if he belong to the right race.
Oh, how the gorgeous sunlight gets to one’s head here in the country! I do not doubt but what it can drive a man a little crazy. As, however, I was already a little inclined that way, now I have only the enjoyment of it.
I am thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen sunflowers. It will be a decorative effect in which the glaring or broken tones of chromes will stand out vividly against a background of variegated blue, ranging from the most delicate emerald green to royal blue, enclosed in narrow strips of golden yellow. It will produce the sort of effect that Gothic church-windows do.
Oh we crazy-pates! What joys our eyes give us—don’t they? Nevertheless nature takes her revenge on the animal in us, and our bodies are pitiable, and often a terrible burden. This has been so ever since the time of Giotto, who was a sickly sort of man. But what a delightful sight and what amusement we get from the toothless laughter of that old lion, Rembrandt, with a cloth round his head and his palette in his hand.