MORE LETTERS TO HIS BROTHER
DURING the journey I thought just as often of you as of the new country through which I was travelling, and I said to myself, that later on you would perhaps come here frequently. It seems to me almost impossible to work in Paris, if one has not got at least a haven of refuge, where one can rest and recover one’s calm and one’s self-reliance. Otherwise one must become quite stupefied.
Before I reached Tarascon I saw a beautiful landscape: mighty yellow rocks with remarkably complicated lines and imposing forms; in the narrow coves between them there were a number of small round trees standing in rows, and to judge from their grey-green foliage they must have been lemon trees.
Here in Arles the ground is a magnificent red colour and is planted with vineyards. The background of the hills is of a delicate mauve, and many a stretch of the country lying under the snow, together with the white peaks, against a sky as luminous as the snow itself, looked like the winter landscape of the Japanese.
For the present I do not find living as inexpensive here as I hoped it would be; but—I have finished three studies—a feat which would probably have been impossible in Paris just now.
As for the Impressionists, I should think it right and proper if they were introduced into England if not directly through you, at least through your agent.
It seems to me as if my blood were beginning to circulate a little more actively. As this was not the case during the latter part of my time in Paris, I literally could not hold out any longer.
I was hoping to be able to paint a beautiful blue, and I do not yet despair of doing so; for in Marseilles one ought surely to be able to obtain the raw materials first hand. I should like to procure the sort of blue that Ziem paints, which is stronger and more decided than that of other painters.
The studies I now have are: “An Old Woman of Arles,” “A Snow Landscape,” “A Piece of the Street with a Pork-Butcher’s Shop.” The women here are really beautiful. I say this in all sincerity. On the other hand, the Arles Museum is appalling, and it is such a piece of humbug that it would be much more at home in Tarascon. I have also seen a museum of antiquities—the latter were genuine.
The draft of your letter to T. is perfect. I trust that in copying it you did not water it down too much. It seems to me that your letter to T. completes the one I wrote; as I was very much annoyed at having sent it in that form. For you must have observed that the idea of inducing T. to take the initiative in introducing the Impressionists into England occurred to me only while writing, so that I was only able to refer to it inadequately in a postscript. Whereas in your letter you discuss the question more in detail.
As to the Exhibition of the “Indépendents,” I leave you an absolutely free hand. What do you say to exhibiting the two great landscapes of the Butte Montmartre? I am more or less indifferent about it; I am relying more upon this year’s work.
Here it is freezing hard and the ground is continually under snow. I have painted a study of the snow-covered ground with the town in the background. I have also made two small studies of a branch of an almond tree, which, despite the wintry weather, is already blossoming.
At last, after all this time, the weather has changed. This morning early it became quite mild. I have thus had the opportunity of making the acquaintance of the Mistral. I have already taken several walks in the neighbourhood; but the wind was so strong on each occasion that it was impossible to paint. The sky was a vivid blue and the great sun shed such powerful rays that it melted almost all the snow away. But the wind was so dry and piercing that it made me have goose-skin all over. However, I saw some beautiful things; the ruin of an abbey on a hill, covered with holly, pines and gray olive trees. I hope to be able to tackle this very shortly.
For Gauguin—as for many of us, and certainly for ourselves—the future presents many great difficulties. I firmly believe that we shall triumph in the end; but will the artists themselves ever be able to taste of that triumph and enjoy happier days? Has T. written to you? In any case, believe me, your letter will do good. Even if he does not answer, he will at least hear about us, etc.
Poor Gauguin is unfortunate; I am afraid that convalescence in his case will last longer than the fortnight he has had to spend in bed. When shall we see a generation of artists with healthy bodies? At times I feel really wild with myself; for, after all, it is no good being either more sick or more sound than the others; the ideal thing would be to have a temperament strong enough to reach the age of eighty and to have healthy blood withal. Still without all this one would be consoled if only one were sure that a more happily constituted generation of artists was going to follow the present one.
I see that you have not yet had an answer from T. I do not think it necessary that we should petition him further by another letter. All the same, in the event of your having to discuss any matter of business with him, you might let him feel in a postscript that you are surprised he has not let you know whether or not he has received the letter in question.
To refer to my work once more: to-day I painted a picture on a canvas about 25½ in. by 19 in. It represents a drawbridge across which a small cart is being drawn, that stands out distinctly against the blue sky. The river is also blue, the banks are orange, and there is much green vegetation about them. A group of washerwomen are standing on the bank with corsets and caps of many colours. I have also painted another landscape with a small rustic bridge and some more washerwomen, and in addition to this, a grove of plane-trees close to the station. Since I have been here I have painted, in all, twelve studies.
Do you know, dear brother, I feel just as if I were living in Japan. I will say no more. And this notwithstanding the fact that I have not yet seen anything in its accustomed glory. And even if I feel sad about the expenses being so heavy and the pictures not being any good, I do not despair, for I am certain that my long sojourn in the south will be successful. Here I see and learn many new things, and if I am gentle with my body, it will not play me a bad turn. For many reasons I wish to found a home of refuge here, which in case of complete exhaustion might serve the purpose of putting one or two poor Paris cab-horses like yourself and many of our friends among the Impressionists, out to grass.
I painted my last three studies with the help of a view-finder divided into squares, which, as you know, I often use. I attach some importance to it, because I do not think it unlikely that, sooner or later, more artists will make use of it, just as the old German, Italian, and, I believe, the Flemish painters did. The modern way of using it may differ slightly from the old way; but is it not exactly the same with oil-painting? To-day absolutely different effects are aimed at from those which were sought by J. and H. van Eyck, the inventors of technique. This is to show you that I hope always to work independently and for myself alone. I believe in the absolute necessity of a new art of colour and drawing, as also of the whole of artistic life. And if we work with this strong faith, we may hope that it will not prove to be an illusion.
But what are we hearing from T.? Nothing at all? If I were you I would write him a few short lines couched in sober language, in order to express your surprise at not having received an answer from him. I say this more particularly for you; for even if he does not reply to me, he must to you. And you must press him to do so, otherwise you would lose your prestige, and this excellent opportunity ought really to be seized…. What you must particularly avoid is to allow yourself to be treated like a dead man or a pariah.
I have received a few lines from G., who complains about the bad weather. He is still unwell, and says that of all the vicissitudes of life, none is more harassing to him than straits for money. And yet he feels that he is to be cursed with this condition for ever.
We have had rain and wind every day of late. I have been working at home upon the study of which I made a sketch in my last letter to Bernard. I have tried to make the colours like that of stained glass windows, and the drawing direct and firm.
I am just reading Guy de Maupassant’s “Pierre’ et Jean.” It is very fine. Have you read the preface to it, in which he declares the artist free to exaggerate and to create a more beautiful, more simple, and more comforting life in the novel, and explaining what Flaubert wished to express with the words, “talent is a long trial of patience,” and originality an act of will-power and of most intense observation?
There is a porch here—that of St. Trophime—which I am beginning to think extremely beautiful. It is, however, so cruel, so monstrous, and so like a terrifying and grotesque spectre of dreamland, that, beautiful monument though it is, and great as is its style, it seems to me to be part of another world, to which I am just as pleased not to belong as I am not to have lived in the glorious world of Nero.
Shall I admit the truth, and add that the Zouaves, the houses of ill-fame, the charming little girls of Arles who go to their confirmation, the priests in their surplices, in which they look like dangerous antediluvian animals, and the drinkers of absinthe also seem to me like creatures from another world? All this does not mean that I should feel more at my ease in an artistic world, but simply that I prefer to laugh about it than to feel isolated; because I have the idea that I should be sad if I could not look at everything in a humorous light.
In the evenings I have company; for the young Danish painter who is here is a very nice fellow. His pictures are dry, correct, and sober; but in my opinion this is not a serious fault, provided that the artist be young and intelligent. He began by studying medicine; knows Zola’s, Goncourt’s, and Guy de Maupassant’s works, and has enough money to lead a pleasant life. In addition to this he is animated by the earnest desire one day to do better work than he is now doing. I believe he would do well to postpone his return to his Fatherland for a year, or to return here after only a short visit to his home.
One of these days we must certainly try to find out how the case stands with this Mr. T. In the interests of our friends he ought really to say something definite. It seems to me that we are all to some extent bound to see that we are not looked upon as dead. It is not our cause alone that is at stake, but the common cause of all Impressionists. Consequently, as he has been appealed to by us, he owes us a reply. You will agree with me that we cannot make any progress before we receive a categorical statement of his intentions. If we consider that a permanent exhibition of impressionist work in London and Marseilles is a desirable thing it is obvious that we shall strain every nerve to bring it about. Now the question is, will T. come in with us or not?… And has he reckoned, as we have done, on a possible depression of the market in pictures which now stand at high prices, a depression which, in my opinion, will very probably occur the moment the prices of impressionist pictures begin to rise. You must perceive that the purchasers of expensive pictures will only achieve their own ruin by opposing the triumphal progress of a school which, owing to its energy and perseverance, has for years shown itself worthy of a Millet or a Daubigny, etc.
I congratulate you heartily on your letter from T. I think it entirely satisfactory. I am convinced that his silence concerning me was not intended as a slight. Besides, he must have taken it for granted that you would let me read his reply.
Moreover, it is much more practical for him to write to you; and as for me, you will see that, provided he does not think too poorly of my work, he will write to me soon enough when he has seen it. I can only repeat that I am more pleased about his simple and kindly letter than I can tell you. You will have noticed that he says he wants to purchase a good Monticelli for his own collection. What do you say to telling him that in our collection we possess a picture of a bunch of flowers which is more artistic and more beautiful than a bouquet by Diaz; that Monticelli often painted a bouquet of flowers, in order to be able to unite the whole scale of his richest and most harmonious colours in one picture, and that one would need to go back to Delacroix to find a similar wealth and play of colours; that—and I am now thinking of the picture which is at the Delarbeyrettes—we know of another bouquet picture, excellent in quality and moderate in price, which we consider, in any case, far more valuable than his figure pictures, which are to be found for sale at every corner, and which belong to the period when Monticelli’s talent was declining. I hope you are sending him G’s lovely seascape. Heavens! how glad I am that T. has answered in this way!
I have just painted a group of blossoming apricot trees in a small fresh-green orchard. I really had a good deal of trouble with the picture of the sunset, the figures and the bridge, about which I wrote to Bernard. The bad weather prevented me from finishing the picture on the spot, and when I tried to finish it at home I completely spoilt the study. I immediately started painting the same subject again on another canvas; but the weather had changed completely, and all the tones were grey.
Many thanks for all the steps you have taken with the “Indépendents,” but—although it does not matter at all this time—in future please print my name in the catalogue just as I sign it on my pictures, i.e., Vincent, and not van Gogh; and this for the simple reason that in this country no one can pronounce our surname. Enclosed I return you T.’s and R.’s letters; perhaps it would be interesting to keep the correspondence of the artists for some future time. It would not be a bad plan to include B.’s small head of the Brittany girl in your next parcel. One ought to show that all Impressionists are good and that their work shows versatility.
Would you like me to go to America with you? It would only be natural for the gentlemen to defray my travelling expenses. I could be indifferent to a good deal, but not to all things! And among the things about which I am not indifferent is, above all, your health, which you must recover completely. Now I believe that you ought to seek more refreshment than you do from Nature and from artists. And I would prefer to see you independent of Goupil’s and established on your own account with the Impressionists, rather than that you should adopt this alternative and be constantly travelling with valuable pictures belonging to the gentlemen in question. When our uncle was the partner, he made them pay him very well for many years; but see what it cost him! Yes, yes, your lungs are good, but … just try a year at looking after yourself properly, and then you will realize the danger of your present life. You now have ten years of life in Paris behind you. That is more than enough. To this you will probably reply that Détaille, for instance, has perhaps thirty years of Paris life behind him, and that he is as straight as a die. Very well, do as he has done, if your constitution is anything like his; for in our family we are very tough. All I should like to say may be summed up as follows: If these gentlemen want you to do their dirty work for them, and at such a great distance too, then either demand a high price for the work, or else decline it and devote yourself entirely to the Impressionists. For even if you do less business with their work and turn over less money, you will at least be able to spend more of your time with nature. My health is decidedly improving and my digestion has been getting much better during this last month. I often suffer from unaccountable and involuntary fits of excitement or of apathy; but they pass away when my nerves grow calm again.
I constantly reproach myself with the fact that my painting does not bring in as much as it costs, and yet one must work. You must, however, remember that if ever it should become necessary for me to go into business, in order that your lot may be lighter, I should do so without regret.
It is strange; on one of my last evenings in Mont-Majour I saw a red sunset; the trunks and needles of pines which were growing on a mass of rock, were vividly illuminated. The rays of the sun bathed the trunks and the needles in a fiery orange-yellow light, while the other pines in the background formed a mass of Prussian blue against a pale blue-green sky. That is surely precisely the same effect as that picture of Claude Monet’s of which you spoke to me. It was simply glorious. The white sand and the layers of white rock beneath the trees were bluish in colour. How glad I should be to paint the panorama of which you have the first drawings. Its expanse is so vast! And it does not get grey in the background, but remains green to the farthermost line.
You must understand that I would prefer to drop my art than to think that you were slaving your life out to earn money. It is certainly necessary; but are we so situated that we must go to all these pains to get it? If you realize so well that to prepare for death (a “Christian idea” which in my opinion Christ fortunately did not share at all—he who according to the view of such people as considered him crazy, loved men and things on earth not wisely—but too well); if then, I say, you realize so well that to prepare for death is a thing one would prefer to leave severely alone, do you not also see that self-denial, and sacrifice for others is an error too, especially if it is as good as suicide, for in that case one turns one’s friends into murderers. If things have come to such a pass that you have to travel about in this way without being able to take a rest, I really feel as if I no longer had any desire ever to be quiet again. And if you accept these proposals, well and good; but in that case make a stipulation with these Goupils that they should take me back into their employ as soon as they can, and that they should let me join you on these journeys. Men are more important than things, and the more I worry myself about pictures, the colder they leave me. My reason for trying to paint them is that I would fain be reckoned among the artists.
I have painted a canvas in the open, in an orchard. The ground was ploughed and mauve in colour, there was a fence of reeds and two pink peach trees against a bright blue and white sky. Perhaps it was the best landscape I have ever painted. The very moment I had brought it home, our sister sent a Dutch essay to me in memory of Mauve (the portrait in it is very good—a fine etching—the text is bad). I do not myself know what moved me so profoundly and made my throat feel tight, but on my picture I wrote: “In memory of Mauve. Vincent and Theo.” And if you also like it, send it as it is to Madame Mauve. I purposely selected the best study I have painted here; who knows what they will say about it at home; but we do not mind that. I had the feeling that something cheerful and delicate would be fitting in memory of Mauve, and not a heavy, serious study.
Tant qu’il y aura des vivants
Les morts vivront, les morts vivront.
That is how I look upon it—no more sadly than that.
Now you must be more careful to keep in touch with T. Whether we are all successful or not, I am beginning to think that within a year or so, everything will be all right. It seems to me as if T. and not R. should found the Impressionists’ exhibition in England.
You can tell G. quite frankly that my decided opinion is that in his own interests as well as in the interests of the firm, his prices were ludicrous. After all that has happened, R. must either pay handsomely or the artists must shut the door in his face. I have seen enough of that sort of thing already, and after mature consideration that is my opinion. With a price of 300 francs one spoils one’s subsequent sales, and that is a thousand pities.
I am in a frenzy of work, for the trees are blossoming, and I wished to paint a Provence orchard in all its unbounded cheerfulness and beauty. To keep a clear head for writing in the midst of it all, is therefore no easy matter. Yesterday, for instance, I wrote some letters which I afterwards tore up. Every day I feel more strongly that we must do something in Holland, and it must be done with the utmost verve and with that French gaiety which is worthy of the cause for which we stand. This is therefore a plan of campaign which will cost us the best pictures which we have produced together, pictures which are certainly worth a few thousand franc notes, or which have cost us, at least, something in money and a great deal in health and life. It would be a clear and sonorous reply to all the whispered suggestions that we are already half dead, and a revenge for your journey last year, and your cold reception, etc. But enough of this. Well, then, suppose we give Jet Mauve the picture in memory of Mauve, a study to Breitner (I happen to have got one which is like the study I exchanged with R. and Pissaro: oranges on a white ground, with a blue background) then a few studies to our sister, and to the Modern Museum at the Hague (as so many memories are connected with it) the two Montmartre landscapes which are at the Independants’ exhibition. There still remains one other unpleasant thing. When T. wrote: “Send me impressionist pictures, but only those which you consider very good” you put one of my pictures among the batch. And now I am in the infernal position of having to convince T. that I am and will remain a real Impressionist of the petit boulevard. What do you say to my giving him a picture for his collection? Just lately I have been thinking things over, and have found something ever so much more amusing than my usual kind of study; it is a drawbridge, with a small yellow carriage upon it and a group of washerwomen. In this study the ground is a glaring orange, the grass is very green, and the sky and the water are blue. It must have a frame of royal blue and gold, the inside blue and outside a gilt moulding. The frame might be made of blue plush; but it would be better to paint the wood blue…. I cannot find time to write a quiet letter; my work absorbs me too much. But what I particularly wished to say to you is that I should like to paint a few studies for Holland, so as to have done with it. Quite recently, whilst thinking of Mauve, T., our mother and Will, I got more excited than was good for me, and I was comforted by the thought of painting a few pictures for home. After that I shall think no more about them, and think only of the petit boulevard.
I am once again in the midst of work and am still painting blossoming orchards.
The air here is decidedly good for me, I only wish you could fill your lungs full of it. One of its effects is very strange; a small glass of cognac makes one drunk here. But as I do not feel the need of such stimulants in these parts to keep my blood circulating, my constitution will not suffer so much.
I hope to be able to make real progress this year; for I sorely need to do so.
I have a new orchard which is just as good as the pink peach trees. It is an orchard of apricot trees, most delicately pink in colour. At present I am working at some plum-trees with yellow-white blossom and a maze of black branches.
I am using an enormous amount of canvas and paint; but I trust that the money will not be wasted.
Yesterday I witnessed a bull fight in which five men tormented the animal with banderillas and cockades. One of the toreadors was badly wounded while springing over a barricade. He was a fair man with blue eyes and displayed tremendous coolness. It was said that he had had enough for some time. He was dressed in light blue and gold, just like the three figures in the wood, in our picture “Le’ Petit Cavalier,” by Monticelli. The arena is superb when it is crammed full of men and the sun is shining.
This month will be hard for you and me; and yet if we can only see our way to doing so, it would be to our advantage to paint as many blossoming orchards as possible. I am now in full swing, and I believe I shall have to paint the same subject ten times over. You know that, in my work, I like variety; my passion for painting orchards will not last for ever. After them it will probably be the turn of the arenas. I also have a tremendous amount of drawing to do; for I should like to make drawings after the manner of Japanese crape prints. For I must strike the iron while it is hot, and after the orchards I shall be completely exhausted, for the sizes of the canvases are, 32 in. by 24½ in., 36 in. by 27½ in., and 29 in. by 22½ in. We should not have too many with twice the number; for I have an idea that these might break the ice in Holland.
Mauve’s death was a hard blow to me, and you will notice that the pink peach trees were painted with some agitation.
I must also paint a starry night, with cypresses, or, perhaps, over a field of ripe corn. We get wonderful nights here. I am possessed by an insatiable lust for work. I shall be glad to see the result at the end of the year. I trust that by that time I shall be less tormented by a certain feeling of ill-ease that is troubling me now. On some days I suffer terribly! but I am not greatly concerned about it, for it is simply the reaction of the past winter, which was certainly not normal. My blood renews itself, and that is the most important thing of all.
My ambition is to make my pictures worth what I spend on them; or something more, because one must think of past expenses. But we shall succeed even in this; and even if everything does not turn out all right, work is at least progressing all the while.
I am constantly meeting the Danish painter; but he is soon going home. He is an intelligent fellow and his character and manners are impeccable, though his painting is still very weak. You will probably see him when he passes through Paris. You were quite right to visit Bernard. If he is going to do his military service in Algiers—who knows but what I may go to keep him company there.
I do believe that what K. says is quite right, I do not pay sufficient attention to values. But later on they will have even more to complain about, and they will say things that are no less true. It is impossible to attach the same importance both to values and to colours. Theodore Rousseau understood the mixing of colours better than any one. 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.
If you think the picture “In Memory of Mauve” will pass muster, you ought to put it in a plain white frame and include it in the next batch of pictures you send to the Hague. If you should find among the other studies, one which you think would be suitable for T. you might send it too, without dedication, and then you could keep the study on which there is a dedication, and all you would have to do would be to scratch the words out. It is better to send him a picture without any dedication; for then if he should prefer not to have a picture of mine he can appear as if he did not know that we wished to present him with one and quietly send it back. In any case I must offer him something, just to prove that I am interested in the cause, and that I know how to value to the full the fact that he has taken it in hand. But, after all, do everything as chance ordains…. As Mauve and he were very great friends, in the excitement of the moment it seemed to me the most natural thing in the world to paint something for T. at the same time as I painted the picture “In Memory of Mauve.” And that is all I thought about the matter.
Your Moslem notion that death comes when it must, might be looked into a little more deeply. It seems to me that we have no proof of such a distinct control of destiny by a power above. On the contrary, it strikes me that a reasonable and hygienic mode of life can not only lengthen existence but can also render it both merry and bright, whereas the neglect of hygiene in addition to disturbing the even course of our life may also bring it to a premature end. Have I not with my own eyes witnessed the death of a noble creature, simply because he had no intelligent doctor to attend him? He was so clear and so calm through it all, and kept repeating: “If only I had another doctor!” And he died with a shrug of his shoulders, and an expression on his face which I shall never forget.
I have been thinking of Gauguin and have come to the following conclusion: if he cares to come here, it will only cost him his journey and the two beds or two mattresses which we shall be compelled to buy. But, as G. is a seaman, we might perhaps be able to cook our food ourselves, and live together for the same sum as that which it costs me to live alone. You know that I have always thought it exceedingly foolish for painters to live alone; one always loses when one is quite isolated. You cannot manage to send him the wherewithal to live in Brittany, and me all that I need in Provence; but you might think it a good plan for us to share a common lot, and then you might fix a certain sum (let us say 250 francs per month) for which, in addition to my work, you would receive a Gauguin once a month.
Just a line in great haste to tell you that I have this minute received a note from Gauguin. He says that he has been too hard at work to write before, but is ready to come south at any moment, as soon as he can see the possibility of so doing. They are having an amusing time over there, painting, discussing, and contending with the virtuous Englishmen. He speaks in high praise of Bernard’s work, and B. is equally flattering about Gauguin’s. I am now painting here with as much enthusiasm as the man of Marseilles eats his bouillabaisse, and this will not surprise you seeing that my subject consists of sunflowers. I have three pictures in progress: (1) Large flowers in a green vase; (2) Three flowers, two in the bud and one in bloom, on a royal blue ground; (3) Twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (the latter being light against light), will I hope be the best of the three. I shall probably not leave it at that. Pending the time when I shall share my studio with G., I should like to decorate it with a scheme consisting only of large sunflowers. In a restaurant near your shop (in the Boulevard Montmartre), there is, as you know, a beautiful decoration of this sort. In my mind’s eye I can still see the great sunflower in the shop window before me. The whole scheme is to be a symphony of yellow and blue. I set to work every morning from daybreak onwards; for the flowers fade quickly and the whole thing must be done at one go. I have a host of ideas for new pictures. To-day I saw the same collier being unloaded by coal-heavers as that which I have already mentioned to you. At the same time I also saw vessels with cargoes of sand, of which I have sent you a drawing. That would be a splendid subject! But at present I am trying to discover a more simple technique which perhaps is not impressionistic. I should like to paint in such a way that everyone with eyes to see could not help but read a clear message from my pictures.
I have received a letter from G. in which he mentions the —— francs which you sent him and over which he was deeply touched. He also refers to your having made suggestions concerning our project (he had not yet received the definite proposal at the time of writing). He says that when he was with his friend L. in Martinique, he discovered that they were able to live more cheaply together than apart, and that he is quite convinced of the advantages of a joint establishment. His abdominal pains are as bad as ever, and he seems to be very sad. He hopes to be able to collect 600,000 francs with the view of founding an art-dealer’s establishment for Impressionists, of which he will give you more explicit details; he also says that he would like to have you at the head of the undertaking. I should not be at all surprised if all this did not prove to be a Fata Morgana—castles in the air inspired by hunger. The greater one’s straits for money—more particularly if one is ill besides—the more readily one thinks of possibilities of this sort. In this very idea, therefore, I seem to see the proof that he is broken down, and that he must be put on his legs again as soon as possible. He says that when seamen have to lift a heavy weight, or when they are weighing anchor, they all sing together, in order to increase their strength and to raise their spirits—and that is just what the artists do not do.
I should be very much surprised, therefore, if he were not glad to come here. But in addition to his hotel and travelling expenses, there will also be his doctor’s bill to pay; so it will be somewhat difficult.
It seems to me that he will have to escape from the place with his debts, and leave pictures there as a pledge. I had to do the same thing in order to go to Paris; although I lost a heap of things on that occasion, one cannot do otherwise in such circumstances. For it is better to step forward than to stand still and rot. If G. prefers to run the risk of plunging into business; if he really hopes to achieve something in Paris, in Heaven’s name let him go there! But I think it would be wiser for him to come here, at least for a year. I have seen some one here who came back from Tongking quite ill through his stay in that delightful country. But he has completely recovered his health here.
If you were to see La Camargue, and many other places in this part of the world, you would be as surprised as I am at the country being so exactly in the character of Ruysdael. I am at work upon a new theme: fields as far as the eye can see, both green and yellow. I have drawn them twice already and am beginning a picture of them. It is just in the style of a Salomon Konink—you know, the pupil of Rembrandt who used to paint those vast and endless plains—or of a Michel or a Jules Dupré. In any case it is something very different from rose-gardens. It is true that I have studied only one side of Provence, and that on the other side nature has another aspect, such as Claude Monet used to render, for instance. I am really anxious to know what G. is going to do. He says that on one occasion he had 35,000 francs’ worth of impressionist pictures bought by Durand-Ruel, and hopes to be able to do the same for you. In my opinion Gauguin’s safest line of business would be the painting and sale of his own pictures.
I still have in my possession “A’ Starry Night,” “The’ Furrows,” “The Poet’s Garden,” “The’ Vineyard.” What! poetical landscapes? We will not attach too much importance to these studies, which, though the painting of them certainly cost one more in heart’s blood than the others, are nevertheless not so marketable. If you had sent me 100 francs I should also have painted the sea at Saintes-Maries. The ruthless Mistral is now blowing, which is bad for work; but before real winter comes, we shall have some more fine weather, and in any case I hope to be able to add a few more studies to the series I now have in hand.
I can only finish a picture when it is framed.
The pitiless Mistral is blowing! but I have to keep myself constantly ready; for I have to paint during the short intervals and then everything must be in order for the battle to be fought. The canvas has not yet been sent, and the matter is most urgent. Do please order ten or at least five metres at once. It is pressing. To-day I bought some here in order, weather permitting, to be ready to-morrow or the day after. I am wholly absorbed in my work, and I will certainly not give in if only I can keep in the vein. All these large pictures are good, but very trying. Enclosed I send you a letter I wrote yesterday. In it you will see what I think of the portrait of G. which he has sent me. It is too black and too sad. Even so, I must confess that I like him. But he will change and must come here. One should not work Prussian blue into one’s drawing of a face; for then it ceases to be flesh and becomes wood. I think and hope, however, that the other Brittany pictures are better, as regards colour, than this portrait, which after all was painted in a hurry.
Believe me, I exaggerate neither in regard to G. nor to his portrait. He must eat, take walks with me, see our house as it is, and give a helping hand, and, in a word, thoroughly divert himself. He has lived cheaply, it is true, but it has made him so ill that he can no longer distinguish a bright from a sombre tone. In any case it is exceedingly distressing, and it is high time for him to come here, where he will soon get well again. Meanwhile, forgive me if I exceed my allowance; I shall work all the more for it. Since Thursday I have been so hard up that from then until Monday I had only two real meals. At other times I had only bread and coffee, which I had to have on credit and I paid for it to-day. If you can, therefore, send me something quickly.
This time things have gone pretty hard with me; I got to the end of my money on Thursday, and it seemed an age to wait until noon on Monday. During these four days I have lived principally upon 23 cups of coffee, and the bread I ate with them is not yet paid for. That is not your fault but mine—if one speak of fault at all in the matter. For I was frantically anxious to see my pictures in their frames and had paid a little more than I could afford, more particularly as the month’s rent and attendance had to be settled as well. As far as I am concerned, old chap, it would not matter, but I feel how you too must suffer under the stress which work imposes upon us; and my only consolation is to think that you would approve of my using every possible effort, so long as the fine weather lasts. I cannot say it has been fine for the last few days, as a ruthless north wind has been blowing and has driven all the faded leaves furiously before it. But between this and winter, the finest days and the most beautiful effects of light will come, and then I shall have to devote all my energies to my work. I am so much in the mood for painting that I simply could not stop suddenly.
Do you know how much I have left for the week, and after four days of fasting? Exactly six francs. I had something to eat at midday; but this evening all I shall have will be a crust of bread. And all my money is spent on the house and on the pictures. For I have not even got three francs left in order to….
One ought not to attach most importance to those studies which give one a great deal of trouble, and which nevertheless are not so pleasing as the pictures which are the result and fruit of those studies, and which one paints as if in a dream, without nearly so much trouble. Inclosed I send you a letter which I wrote a day or two ago on G.’s portrait. I have not the time to write it again; but I lay the most stress on the following points: I do not like all this ugliness in our work, save in so far as it shows us the way. Our duty is, however, neither to tolerate it on our own account, nor to make others tolerate it; on the contrary. I also send you herewith a letter from G.; fortunately he is getting well again. I should be extremely glad if R. were to do something for him; still—R. has a wife, children, and a studio, and he is building a house; so I can well understand that even a rich man cannot always spend money on pictures, even if it were only a hundred francs. I believe it would be a great change for me, if G. were here, for day after day goes by now without my ever exchanging a word with a soul. In any case his letter was a great joy to me. If one live too long in the country, one gets quite besotted, and even if this has not happened to me yet, it might make me unproductive in the winter. This danger would vanish if he came, for we should never be at a loss for ideas. If work progresses favourably and courage does not fail us, we may reckon on a number of interesting years in the future.
At the present moment I am holding an exhibition, for I have taken all my studies off their stretchers, and nailed them on the wall to dry. You will see that once I am in possession of a whole number of them, and a selection is made from them, it will come to the same thing as if I had lavished more work and study upon them; for whether one paint the same subject again and again on the same canvas or on several canvases does not make any difference to the seriousness of the work.
So our uncle is dead! Our sister wrote me the news this morning. They seem to have expected you at the funeral, so probably you were there. Life is short and vanishes like smoke! But that is no reason for despising the living. And we are right after all to think more of the artists than of the pictures.
M. K. returned here yesterday, and liked my pictures of the little girl and my garden. But I do not know whether he has any money. I am now busy painting a postman in a blue uniform with gold trimmings; he is a fanatical Republican like old T., and much more interesting than most people are.
If it were possible to call R.’s attention to it, he might perhaps take the picture by G. which you bought; and if there is no other way of helping G. what shall we do? I will say to him (R.): “Look here, our picture pleases you very much just as it is, and I believe we shall see even better work by this painter; why do you not do as we do? We believe in the man as he stands and like everything he does.” And then I will add: “that, if it has to be, we shall naturally let him have the large picture, but that as G. is sure to be constantly in need of money, it would not be right for us in his interests to keep back the picture until his prices had risen three or four fold, which they are certain to do sooner or later.” If R. then makes a plain and definite offer, we shall be able to consider it—and G. might say that although he had let you, his friend, have the picture at a certain price, he would not think of letting an art lover have it for the same sum. But let us first wait to hear what he will say.
The change that I am trying to introduce into my work is to attach more importance to the figure. In painting this is really the only thing which moves me to the depths, and which gives me a more vivid idea of infinity than anything else.
To-day I shall write to our sister; how sad they must be! As she herself says: “As soon as a man has left us, we can remember only his happy moments and his good points.” And yet, the most important thing would be to see these things while he is living. It would be so simple, and would so enlighten us concerning the cruelties of life, which surprise us now and make our hearts so sore. If life had another invisible half, on which one landed when one died, we should then give those who started on this solemn and interesting journey our best wishes and our most hearty sympathy on the road thither.
I have just dispatched the large drawings: the upright of the small peasant garden seems to me the best. The garden with the sunflowers belongs to a bathing establishment. As to the third garden, which is landscape shape, I have also made oil sketches of it. The orange-coloured, yellow patches of flowers grow exceedingly brilliant under the blue sky, and everything is bathed in a happier and more loving atmosphere than in the north: it vibrates, like your bunch of flowers by Monticelli. Although I have done about 150 drawings and oil-sketches I feel as if I had done absolutely nothing. I would readily content myself with being a precursor of the painters of the future who will paint here in the south.
There are a number of fine lithographs to be seen: Daumiers, reproductions of Delacroix, Decamps, Diaz, Rousseau, Dupré, etc. Soon, however, this will cease, and what a pity it is that this art is about to disappear!
Why do we not stick to what we have once discovered in our art, as the doctors and the engineers do? With them, when anything is discovered, the knowledge of it is carefully preserved. But in the wretched fine arts everything is forgotten; we hold fast to nothing. Millet created the synthesis of the peasant, and now? Oh, of course, there are Lhermitte and perhaps one or two others as well—Meunier, for instance. But have painters really learnt to see a peasant in the proper way? Not at all! Scarcely one of them is capable of such a thing. And does not the fault lie a little with the Parisians, who are changeable and deceptive as the sea? You are quite right in saying that we must go our own way, quite unconcerned, and work for ourselves. Do you know that even if Impressionism were sacrosanct, at times I should, nevertheless, like to be able to paint things which the former generation, Delacroix, Millet, Rousseau, Diaz, Monticelli, Isabey, Decamps, Dupré, Ziem, Jonkind, Israels, Mauve, and a host of others, Corot, and Jacques … would be able to understand.
Manet and Courbet got very near to treating colour and form together as equal in importance. I should like to prepare myself for ten years by means of studies for the task of painting one or two figure pictures. The old and eternal plan—so very often recommended and so seldom carried out!
The small upright of the peasant garden, as I saw it in nature, is glorious in colour. The dahlias are a deep and severe purple, and on one side there is a double row of flowers which is a mass of pink and green, and on the other there is a mass of orange with scarcely any green. In the centre there is a low white dahlia and a small pomegranate tree with greenish yellow fruit, and blossom of an ardent orange red colour. The ground is grey, the tall reeds are blue green, the trees viridian, the sky blue, the houses white with green window frames and red roofs. That is how it looks in the morning in full sunlight; at evening it is all immersed in the deep shadows cast by the fig trees and the tall reeds. That is the whole thing. To seize all these beauties, a whole school of artists would be necessary, who would work together and complete one another in the same country, like the old Dutchmen: portrait painters, painters of genre pictures, landscapists, animal painters, painters of still-life, etc.
I have now received the two portraits. In B’s portrait of himself a portrait of G. hangs on the wall, and in G’s. portrait of himself there is a portrait of B. in the background. At first one can only see G.; but B’s. picture appeals to me very much indeed too.
It is only a painter’s idea, only a few summary tones and a few black lines; but it is as chic as a genuine Manet. The G. shows more study and is more carefully carried out, and that is exactly what makes one feel as if it were the representation of a captive. It shows no trace of good cheer, no particle of flesh; but all this may be ascribed simply to his intention, which was to produce something melancholy. Those parts of the skin which are in shadow are a sombre blue. Now at last I have the opportunity of comparing my painting with my friends’. There is no question that my portrait which I am sending to G. in exchange for his, holds its place quite well beside the latter. I wrote to G. that if I might be allowed to lend unmerited importance to my personality in a picture, I had tried to paint, not exactly myself, but the portrait of an impressionist, and had therefore conceived this picture as that of a bonze in abject adoration before his great Buddha. And when I place my conceptions and G’s. side by side, I find mine just as serious as his but not so full of despair. And G’s. portrait seems to say to me: this must go on no longer, he must grow contented again, he must become the old G. of yore, who meanwhile has grown richer, through the south and the negresses.
I am extremely glad that I have the portraits of our friends at this period. They will not remain as they are; in time they will have a cloudless life, and I feel plainly that it is my duty to do everything in order to reduce our poverty. Poverty is impossible in our profession. I feel that he is more like Millet than I am, but I am more like Diaz than he is. And like Diaz I will try to please the public in order to help him. My work has cost more than theirs; but I do not mind this now that I have seen their painting; they worked amid too much poverty to have success; for, believe me, I have better and more saleable work than that which I sent to you, and I feel that I am capable of even better things. I feel quite confident that there are many people to whom the poetical subjects in particular will appeal. The “Starry’ Sky,” the “Vine-Branch,” the “Furrows,” the “Poet’s Garden.” For I consider it our duty, yours as well as mine, to aim at comparative wealth, as we shall have great artists to provide for. If you have Gauguin, you can be as happy as Sensier. He will be so pleased with the house as a studio, that he will even want to rule and manage it. B. has sent me a collection of ten drawings…. You will soon see all these things; but I shall keep the portraits by me, and enjoy them for a little while longer, before I send them to you. Some day you will probably see the portrait of myself which I sent to G., for I hope G. will keep it: it looks quite ashen-grey against a pale emerald green (not yellow) background. I am wearing the brown jacket with the blue edging. I intensified the brown to a purple, and I broadened the edging. The head is modelled entirely in light colour, light on a light ground, almost free from shadows; but I have painted the eyes somewhat oblique, à la japonaise.
Letter from G…. who tells me that he has sent you a batch of pictures and studies. I should be very glad if you could find the time to write me a few details about them. With G’s. letter I also received a note from B. in which he confirms the receipt of my pictures, all seven of which they mean to keep. B. is making me a present of one more study in exchange, and the three others, M., L., and another young painter, will, I hope, also send portraits. G. has my portrait and B. writes that he would very much like to have one in the same style, although he already possesses one which I gave him in exchange for his portrait of his grandmother. And I was glad to hear that they were not displeased with my figure pictures.
I have been and still am half dead, after my last week’s work. I cannot do anything yet but, as it happens, a terrific north wind is blowing at present, which whirls up clouds of dust and covers the trees from top to bottom in a coat of white. Willy-nilly, therefore, I am obliged to remain idle. So I have slept sixteen hours at a stretch; it has done me a tremendous amount of good, and to-morrow, thanks to this thorough rest, I shall be well again. But I have a good week behind me: five canvases are no small matter; if one suffer a little for that sort of thing it really is no wonder. If I had worked more slowly, however, the storm would only have interrupted me. When the weather is fine one should take advantage of it, otherwise one can make no headway.
What is Seurat doing? If you see him, tell him that I have a scheme of decoration in view which, as far as I can tell at present, will extend to fifteen pictures, and which, in order to be complete, will require another fifteen. Tell him also that I am encouraged in my labours upon this serious scheme by recollections, not only of his own good self, but also of the fine large pictures which I saw in his studio.
We ought also to have a portrait of Seurat by himself.
I wrote to G. that when I suggested an exchange of portraits between us, I had naturally taken it for granted that he and B. had made studies of each other; and that as this did not prove to be the case, and that he had painted one specially for me, I could not accept this picture in exchange, as I regarded it as too important a work of art for the purpose. Nevertheless, he replied that I absolutely must accept it in exchange, and his letter contained a host of compliments which, as they were undeserved, I pass over.
I am sending you an article about Provence which, in my opinion is well written. The “Félibres” are a literary and artistic society, composed of Clovis Hugues, Mistral, and others, who write excellent sonnets in the Provençal dialect and in French. If ever the “Félibres” deign to take any notice of me here, they will all come into my little house. But I should like this to occur only when I have finished my decorations. As I love Provence just as whole-heartedly as they do, I feel that I have some right to their consideration. If ever I avail myself of this right, it will be in order that my pictures may remain here or in Marseilles, where, as you know, I should like to work. For the artists of Marseilles would do well to continue the work begun by their fellow-townsman Monticelli. If G. or I were to write an article for one of the local papers here, it would suffice to open up relations with them.
I must tell you that I have made a very interesting expedition through various local farm properties, in the company of some one who knows this part of the country very well. They are all small peasant holdings, à la Millet, translated into Provençal. M. K. and B. cannot make head or tail of it all, and even though I am beginning to feel a little clearer in regard to it all, I should have to live here a jolly long time in order to be able to paint it.
I often feel that the only possible way of carrying out our plan will be for me to set out on a journey, in case Gauguin does not succeed in escaping from the place. And, then, after all, I should still remain with the peasants. I even believe that we should hold ourselves in readiness to go to him; for sooner or later he is sure to be in dire distress, if, for instance, his landlord refuses to allow him any more credit. This is more than probable, and then his need might be so great, that our plans would have to be carried out with all possible dispatch. As far as I am concerned the only expense would be my journey thither; for, according to him, the cost of bare necessaries is much lower there than it is here.
People are better off in this place than in the north, even when they are quite hard up. For the weather is always fine, and the Mistral itself makes no difference to it. That glorious sun, in the rays of which Voltaire used to bask while sipping coffee, continues to shine notwithstanding. In all directions one is reminded quite involuntarily of Zola and Voltaire. There is such an abundance of vital energy everywhere. It is like Jan Steen and Ostade’s work. The conditions for the formation of a school of painting are certainly to be found here. You will reply, however, that nature is beautiful everywhere, if only one enters sufficiently deeply into her spirit.
I have seen a wooden figure of a woman, in a peasant garden here, which came from the prow of a Spanish ship. It stood in the midst of a group of cypresses, and the whole effect was very like Monticelli. Oh! what a lot of poetry there is in these farm-gardens, with their abundance of lovely red Provençal roses, these vineyards, these fig trees, and the perennially powerful sun, in spite of which the green of the vegetation remains so fresh! There are also the reservoirs with their clear water running over the orchards through diminutive channels which constitute a regular canal system on a small scale; and the old grey horse of “la Camargue” which sets the machine in motion. No cow is to be found in these farmyards. My neighbour and his wife (who are grocers) are extraordinarily like the Buteaux. But in these parts the peasant holdings, the inns, and even the lowest cafés, are less gloomy and less tragic looking than they are in the north; for the heat makes poverty less cruel and less lugubrious. I wish to Heavens you had seen this country! But our first concern must be to await developments in Gauguin’s quarter.
Gauguin responded to the call of his friend and came to join him in his work in sunny and gay-coloured Provence. A fit of insanity, however, seized Van Gogh and broke up the companionship of the two artists. From that time onward, Van Gogh lived in an asylum, where in his moments of lucidity he was still able to paint beautiful pictures.
Concerning the last days of his friend, Gauguin writes as follows: “In his last letter from Auvers, near Pontoise, he said that he had always hoped that his health might so far improve as to permit him to paint with me in Brittany, but that he was then convinced that recovery was out of the question. ‘My dear master, after having known you and grieved you, it is more dignified to die while I am fully conscious of what I am doing, than to take leave of this world in a state which degrades me.’ He fired a bullet at himself, and, a few hours later, while lying in bed smoking his pipe, with all his wits about him, full of passionate love for his art, and without any feelings of resentment towards humanity, he quietly passed away.”