Van Gogh with Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh – further letters to his brother

FURTHER LETTERS TO HIS BROTHER

THE city of Paris does not pay. It would break my heart to see Seurat’s pictures buried in a provincial museum or in a cellar; they ought to remain in living hands. If T. were only willing!…

If the three permanent exhibitions are established an important work of Seurat’s will be required for each of the following places—Paris, London and Marseilles.

How kind it is of you to promise G. and myself to make the realization of the projected union a possible thing! I have just received a letter from B., who for the last few days has been on a visit to G., L., and another man in Pont-Aven. In this letter, which, by-the-bye, is very friendly in tone, there is not a single word about G.’s having the intention of joining me here, nor is there any hint that they are expecting me there. Nevertheless the letter is a very friendly one. I have not received a line from G. himself for a month. I really believe that G. prefers to come to an understanding with his friends in the North, and if he have the good fortune to sell one or more pictures, he will probably no longer wish to join me here.

Whether G. comes or not is his affair; for, provided that we are ready to receive him, and that his bed and his quarters are prepared, we shall have kept our promise. I insist upon this, because, in so doing, my object is to release myself and a friend from the evil that thrives on our work, and that is the necessity of living in expensive hotels without our deriving any advantage from the arrangement—which is sheer madness. The hope of being able to live without money troubles, and of one day escaping from these eternal straits—what a foolish illusion this is! I should consider myself lucky 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.

Now it is definitely decided that I shall not go to Pont-Aven if I have to live in an hotel with these Englishmen and men of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, with whom one has to argue every evening—much ado about nothing!

This morning I was working at an orchard gay with plum-blossom, when suddenly there came a gust of wind and with it a peculiar effect which hitherto I had not observed in these parts, and which recurred from time to time. Now and again a shaft of sunlight would pierce the clouds and set all the little white blooms aglow—it was too beautiful for words! My friend the Dane joined me, and, at the risk of seeing all my paraphernalia fall to the ground at every gust of wind, I continued to paint. In this white light, there is a good deal of yellow, blue and mauve; the sky is white and blue. But what will people say of the execution when one works in the open air in this way? Afterwards I thoroughly regretted not having ordered my colours at dear old Tanguy’s; not that I should have gained anything, but he is such a comical little body! I often think of him. Do not forget to remember me to him when you see him, and tell him that if he would like some pictures for his shop-window, he can have some—and of the best.

Oh dear! It seems ever more and more clear to me that mankind is the root of all life. And even if the feeling that one has no share in real life remains a melancholy one (for it would surely be preferable to deal with living flesh and blood than with colour and clay, and one would sooner beget children than work at art or at the commerce of art), one feels notwithstanding that one does at least live, for among one’s friends are there not numbers who also have no share in real life? We should try to do the same with business matters as with the human heart—that is to say, acquire or revive friendships. As we no longer have anything to fear in regard to the ultimate fate of Impressionism, and as our victory is assured, we should behave decently and settle everything with calmness.

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I cannot help thinking of Marat as the equivalent of Xanthippe in a moral sense (even though he be more powerful). That woman with the embittered heart remains, in spite of all, a stirring figure.

You were right to order from the colourman’s the geranium lake which I have just received. All the colours that Impressionism has brought into fashion, are rather prone to lose some of their strength. That is why they should be laid on boldly and glaringly; for time will be sure to deaden them more than necessary.

Not one of the colours I have ordered: three chromes (deep, medium and pale), Prussian blue, veridian, emerald green etc. is to be found on the palettes of the Dutch painters Maris, Mauve and Israels. On the other hand they were on Delacroix’ palette, as he had a passion for the most prohibited colours—lemon yellow and Prussian blue; and with very good reason, for to my mind he created really magnificent things with this lemon yellow and blue.

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Now I must tell you that I am working at two pictures of which I wished to make copies. The pink peach tree gives me most trouble.

You observe, from the four squares on the back, that the three orchards are more or less related. I am now painting an upright of a small pear-tree, which will be flanked by two landscape-shaped canvases. Altogether, then, that will make six pictures of orchards in blossom, and I hope that there will be three more to come, also related to each other in character. I should like to paint this series of nine pictures together. There is nothing to prevent us from regarding the nine pictures of this year, as the first rough plan of a final and much larger scheme of decoration which will have to be carried out at the same time next year, according to exactly the same themes.

Vincent van Gogh - Orchard

 

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My drawings are done with a reed which is cut after the manner of a goose quill. I am thinking of doing a series of them, and hope the others will be better than the first two. That is my method. I had already tried it in Holland; but there I had not such good reeds as I have here.

Do you remember, just before my departure, our speaking about the Universal Exhibition and the fact that, in connection with it, Bouguereau, Lefèbvre, Benjamin Constant and the whole set intended going to Boussod’s to make a complaint and to insist upon the firm B.’s (the first in the world) unflinchingly adhering to the principles of the highest and only desirable art (naturally their own art). And the upshot of it is, that we must be very careful; for it would be more than sad if you were to quarrel with these gentlemen. When one is released after having spent a long time in prison, there are moments in which one yearns for the walls of one’s cell again, simply because one is no longer quite at home in a state of freedom—probably so called owing to the fact that the exhausting hunt after daily bread does not leave one a moment of liberty.

But you yourself know all this as well as I do, and you will have to forsake a good many things in order to attain to others.

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Is it not true that Daumier is hung in the Beaux-Arts and Gavarni as well? Bravo to Daumier, but by no means to the Beaux-Arts!

I grow ever more and more doubtful about the legend concerning Monticelli, who is said to have drunk such great quantities of absinthe. With his life-work before one, it seems to me impossible that a man enervated by drink could possibly have produced such work.

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In a day or two you will receive a call from the Danish painter who has been staying here. He wishes to see the Salon and then to go back home, perhaps with the view of coming South again next year. His three last studies were better and more full of colour than anything he has done hitherto. I do not know whether he will ever do anything great, but he is a nice fellow, and I am sorry he is going. I told him that a Dutch painter is staying with you, and if K. would only conduct him up to the Butte Montmartre, he would probably make a few studies. I have told him a good deal about the Impressionists, all of whom he knew by name, and he was also acquainted with some of their pictures. The question interested him immensely. He has a letter of introduction to R. He recovered his health here and now feels uncommonly well. It will last for two years, and then he will be wise to come back here for the same reasons of health.

What is the new book like, about Daumier, the Artist and his Work?

According to what you say, I hope that I will shortly come to Paris. In the circumstances which you have mentioned, it would be a real stroke of luck, now that everything is going to the dogs, and they are not doing well.

Possibly it would be easier to bring a few picture-dealers and amateurs to an understanding with the object of buying impressionist pictures, than to get the painters to divide among themselves the proceeds of the pictures sold. And yet the artists could not do better than to stick together, hand their pictures over to the association and share the proceeds of the sales, if only for the reason that the society guarantees the means of work and existence to its members. Degas, Claude Monet, Renoir, Sisley, C. Pissaro should take the initiative and say: Each of us five will give ten pictures (or better still, each of us will contribute works to the value of 10,000 francs, which value must be decided by experts—for instance, by T. and you—whom the society would appoint. And these experts would also have to invest in pictures). In addition to that we undertake to make a yearly contribution to the value of so much. And we invite you all, Seurat, Gauguin and Guillaumin to join us, and the value of your pictures will be assessed by the same jury.

By this means the great Impressionists of the Grand Boulevard would preserve their prestige, and the others would not be able to reproach them with enjoying alone the advantages of a reputation for which there can be no doubt they are indebted, in the first place, to their personal efforts and their individual genius—but which in the second place is also increased, consolidated and maintained by a regiment of artists who up to the present have been in constant straits for money. It is only to be hoped that something will come of it all, and that T. and you will be chosen as experts (together with Portier perhaps). You, too, must surely be of the opinion that if T. and you join together you could persuade both Boussod and Valadon to grant credit for the necessary purchases. But the matter is pressing, otherwise other dealers will cut the grass from under your feet.

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There are several themes here which have exactly the same character as in Holland: the only difference lies in the colour. Everywhere a cadmium yellow, produced by the burning sun, and in addition a green and blue of such extraordinary intensity! I must say that the few landscapes by Cézanne which I happen to have seen, give an excellent idea of it; but it is a pity I have not seen more of them.

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I think you are quite right to take the “Books” to the “Indépendents” also; you ought to call this study “Paris’ Novels.”

I should be so glad if you could succeed in convincing T.! But only have patience! Every day I think of this artists’ union, and the plan has developed further in my mind; but T. ought really to belong to it, and much depends upon that. For the moment the artists might possibly be convinced by us; but we can proceed no further without T.’s help. Without him we should have to listen to every one’s complaint from morning till night; and then every member would come singly to ask for explanations concerning the rules.

I think that, on the whole, I live like a workman here and not like an effeminate foreigner who is travelling for pleasure; and I should show no strength of will at all if I allowed myself to be taken advantage of as he does. I am beginning to set up a studio which will be able to serve the purpose of local painters or of friends who come this way.

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I believe that you will soon make a friend of my Dane. It is true that he has not yet done anything good; but he is clever and his heart is in the right place, and he has probably begun to paint only quite recently. Do please avail yourself of a Sunday to make his acquaintance.

Do you know G.’s expression when he compresses his lips and says “no women?” That would make a fine Degas head. It cannot, however, be gainsaid; for to spend one’s whole day at mental work, reckoning and meditating and thinking over business, is in itself enough for the nerves.

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In the midst of an artistic life there arises again and again the yearning for real life, which remains an unrealizable ideal. And often enough the desire to devote one’s self completely to art, with ever fresher strength, entirely disappears. One feels exactly like an old cab horse, and one knows that one must always return to the same old shafts when all the while one would so love to live in the fields, in the sun, near the river, in the country, with other horses, also free, and have the right to procreate one’s kind. And I should not be at all surprised if this were whence the heart trouble comes. One offers no resistance, neither does one resign one’s self; the fact is, one is ill; the thing will not go away of its own accord, and yet there is no remedy for it. I really do not know who called the state “a case of death and immortality.”

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The cart one draws must be useful to people whom one does not know. If we believe in the new art, and in the artists of the future, our presentiment does not deceive us. Shortly before his death good old father Corot said: “Last night in my dream I saw landscapes with pink-coloured skies.” And, as a matter of fact, are not pink and even yellow and green skies to be found among impressionist landscapes? This is only to show how many things of whose coming one has a presentiment, actually do come to pass in the future. We do not, however, yet stand on the edge of the grave, and we feel that art is greater and longer than our lives. We do not feel moribund, but of little account; and in order to be a link in the chain of artists we pay a heavy price in youth, health, and freedom. And we no more enjoy the latter than the poor cab-horse does, that has to convey people, who wish to enjoy the spring, out into the open country. That hope of Puvis de Chavannes’ should and must be realized: there is an art of the future, and it must be so beautiful and so young that even if we now sacrifice our own youth to it, we must make up our loss in the joy of living and in peace.

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I do not see the future black, but full of difficulties, and often I ask myself whether these will not prove stronger than I. This thought occurs chiefly in times of physical weakness, as for instance, during the week when I suffered so infernally with toothache that I was forced to waste time. Nevertheless I have just dispatched a roll of small pen-and-ink-drawings to you—I think about a dozen—and from these you will be able to see that even if I have ceased from painting, I have not given up work. Among them you will find a rapid sketch on yellow paper; a stretch of grass on the open space at the entrance of the town, and in the background a house, of which I have rented the right wing (four rooms, or rather two rooms and two little closets). The house is painted yellow outside and whitewashed within. It stands right in the sun and I have taken it at a rental of fifteen francs a month.

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If our hopes do not prove false—which I am convinced they will not—and the impressionist pictures rise in price, we ought to paint a large number and avoid selling them too cheaply. This is one more reason for being careful of the quality and for losing no time. Then in a few years I see the possibility of holding the disbursed capital, if not in money, in any case in treasure, in our own hands.

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I am convinced that in this place nature seems to have been made for the very purpose of being painted chromatically, and that is why the chances of my ever being led away from the spot, grow fewer every day.

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Raffaëlli has painted Edmond de Goncourt’s portrait; it must be very beautiful, is it not?

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The studio is in such a prominent position here that I do not think my establishment is likely to attract any female; and an affair with a petticoat might too easily lead to a binding relationship. Moreover, it seems to me as if the morality here were far more human and natural than in Paris. But with my temperament it would be impossible to lead a loose life and to work as well, and circumstances being as they are, one must be content to paint pictures, which is by no means real happiness or real life. But, after all, even the artistic life, though we know it is artificial, seems to me so vigorous and vital, that we should be ungrateful not to be satisfied with it.

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I shall hang a few Japanese knick-knacks on my walls.

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At Claude Monet’s you will see some beautiful things, and what I am sending you will appear bad beside them. I am dissatisfied with myself and with my work; but I see the possibility of doing better in the future. Later on, I hope that other artists will appear in this beautiful land, who will create an art like that which the Japanese have created in their own country; and to pave the way to this is not so bad after all.

I feel certain that I shall always love the scenery of this place. It is like Japanese art, once it has found a place in one’s heart one can never cast it out.

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The other day I received a visit from M. K., R.’s friend, who, by the by, came back last Sunday. I must really call on him one day, and look at his work; for I have not yet seen anything he has done. He is a Yankee who probably does better work than most of his countrymen; but in spite of it all—a Yankee! Does that not cover everything? I shall be able to judge of his capacities only when I have seen his pictures and drawings.

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It seems to me as if Messrs. B. and V. cared nothing for the good opinion of artists. But, to be quite open, I thought the news was bad, and I could not help breaking into a cold sweat on hearing of it. I have been thinking about it ever since; for this conversation with the said gentlemen is to a certain extent a symptom of the fact that Impressionism has not taken deep enough root.

As for me, I immediately stopped painting pictures, and continued work upon a series of pen-drawings; for, I said to myself, a breach with these gentlemen might make a reduction in my expenses a desirable thing from your point of view. I am not so very much attached to my pictures, 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 pen-drawings.

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The people here take too much advantage of the fact that with my canvases I need a little more room than other customers, who do not happen to be painters, and they improve the occasion by extorting exorbitant payments from me…. It is always a nuisance to have to cart all one’s materials and pictures about with one, and it considerably impedes one’s movements.

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Very often I am obsessed by the discomfiting feeling that we are both being duped by Messrs. B. V. and Co. But I try to quell this feeling. Above all, do not let them make you their dupe…. This is enough for to-day.

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Do you know what I think, on the whole, of the women of Arles, and of their much vaunted beauty? They are certainly very attractive; but they are surely no longer what they must have been. And as their race is degenerating they are now much more like a Mignard than a Mantegna. Nevertheless they are beautiful (I here refer only to the Roman type, which is somewhat monotonous and trivial) and by way of exception there are women like those whom Renoir and Fragonard paint, and some who cannot be classified according to any school of painting of the past. Taking all these facts into consideration the best thing to do here would be to paint portraits of women and children. But—I do not feel that this is my allotted task—I am not enough of a “Bel-Ami” for the work. But I should be mightily glad if this Bel-Ami of the South (Monticelli was not the man, although he prepared the way for him, and I feel that he is in the air, even if I myself am not the man)—I should be mightily glad, I say, if an artist could be born among painters, such as Guy de Maupassant was among writers, who could joyfully paint the beautiful people and things which are to be found here. As for me, I shall go on working, and now and again I shall paint something lasting. But who is going to paint men as Claude Monet painted landscapes? Be this as it may, you must feel the same as I do about it—it is in the air.

Rodin? He is no colourist. He is not the painter of the future. For the painter of the future will have to be a colourist such as has never yet been seen. Manet prepared the way for him; but you know that the Impressionists have already shown themselves even stronger than Manet in their colour. I cannot imagine this painter of the future leading the life I lead. He would not have to go to small restaurants, wear false teeth and visit third-rate cafés frequented by Zouaves. But I have a feeling that all this will come in a later generation. And we must do all we possibly can to promote its advent, without doubting or flinching.

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I have just read Zola’s “Au Bonheur des Dames” again; and it seems to me more beautiful every time.

I am writing to you again to-day, because, when I wanted to pay my bill at my hotel, I again discovered that I had been robbed. I suggested an arrangement which, however, has not been accepted, and when I wished to remove my things they refused to allow me to do so. “Very’ well,” I said, “we shall discuss the matter before the Justice of the Peace” (where I shall probably be declared in the wrong). Now I must retain enough money to be able to pay in the event of my being held to be wrong—67·40 francs instead of 40 francs, which is the sum I owe. A thing that often makes me feel sad is that living is dearer here than I had reckoned, and that I cannot manage to subsist on the same amount as our friends in Brittany. But now that I am feeling better I refuse to think that I am defeated. After all, you have not yet seen any of my work here, and I have already spent a good deal of money. I am therefore sending you a case containing all the work I have done, with the exception of one or two studies which I had to destroy. I have not signed them all; a dozen of them are off their stretchers, and fourteen of them are still stretched. One is a little landscape with a white, red and green cottage, and a cypress. You have the drawing of that one, and I painted it all in my studio. It will show you that if you like I can paint you small pictures, after the manner of crape prints, from all my drawings.

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Meanwhile I must pay my hotel bill, but there is a note upon it to the effect that the payment is being made only in order that I may recover possession of my things, and that the exorbitant charges will be laid before the Justice of the Peace. But with all this I have scarcely a halfpenny left. It is very annoying, for this business interferes considerably with my work, and it is very beautiful out of doors just now.

Strangers are bled in these parts; on the other hand the natives are quite justified in regarding them as fair game and in extorting as much as possible from them. But it is discouraging to work hard and to see how the money pours into the pockets of people one abhors. But we must put a stop to it. I am going to set up a studio here which is to be more than a temporary affair, and in which, if necessary, I shall be able to accommodate another painter. It is cheaper to live right in the heart of the country, like M. K., but he is exceedingly lonely, and up to the present has done very little work. In that case it is better to work hard and to pay more, if there is no other way out of it.

Vincent van Gogh - Tree

If you will lay aside the best pictures in the batch I have sent you and regard them as in part payment of my debt to you, on the day when I shall have sent you 10,000 francs in pictures, I shall feel much more at ease. The money already spent during former years must return our way, at least in the form of articles of value. It is true that I am still very far from having achieved all that is necessary; but I feel that in the midst of the beautiful scenery here, everything is at hand to make me do good work. It will only be my fault, therefore, if I do not succeed. You once told me that in the space of one month Mauve had painted and sold 6000 francs’ worth of water-colours. So such strokes of luck are possible, and in spite of all my monetary troubles I do not see why they should not happen to me.

In the batch I am sending you there are the “Pink’ Orchard,” painted on coarse canvas, the “White’ Orchard” (landscape shape) and the “Bridge.” I am of opinion that these pictures will rise in value later on. And fifty or so pictures like these would compensate us for the small amount of luck we have had hitherto. Take these three pictures for your collection and do not sell them; for later on each one of them will certainly fetch 500 francs. I shall begin to breathe freely only when we have collected fifty such pictures.

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Just a few lines to tell you that I have called upon the gentleman whom the Jew in “Tartarin” called the “Zouge’ de paix.” I have, at least, saved twelve francs, and my landlord was reprimanded for having detained my box despite the fact that I had not refused to pay. It would have been very disastrous for me if the other party had won his case, for he would certainly have told everybody that I could not, or would not, pay, and that he was compelled to detain my box. As it was, however, when we were walking out of the place together, he said to me that the whole thing had happened in a moment of anger, and that he had no intention of offending me. Of course this was precisely what his object had been, for he had probably seen that I had had enough of his place and did not wish under any circumstances to remain a day longer in it. In order to obtain the reduction which was actually due to me I ought probably to have claimed very much more. You can well understand that if I were to allow anybody and everybody to do as they pleased with me, I should soon be robbed of my last farthing.

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