72 blvd du Midi Bruxelles
My dear Theo,
In answer to your two good letters and prompted by a visit from Pa,1 which I’d been looking forward to for some time, I have a few things to tell you.
And this, first of all. I heard from Pa that you’ve already been sending me money without my knowing it, and in doing so are effectively helping me to get along. For this accept my heartfelt thanks. I have every confidence that you won’t regret it; in this way I’m learning a handicraft, and although I’ll certainly not grow rich by it, at least I’ll earn the 100 francs a month necessary to support myself once I’m surer of myself as a draughtsman and find steady work.
What you told us about the painter Heyerdahl2 has greatly aroused the interest of both Rappard and myself.
Because the former will no doubt write to you about it himself, I address this question only because it concerns me personally, to some extent.
Your remarks about the Dutch artists, that it’s doubtful whether they’d be able to give clear advice on the difficulties of perspective &c. with which I’m wrestling, I find in a certain sense quite correct and true. At any rate, I whole-heartedly agree with you that someone like Heyerdahl, because he seems to be such a highly cultivated man, would be far preferable to some others who might not have the ability to explain their way of doing things to anyone else, or to give one the guidance and advice that’s so necessary.
You speak of Heyerdahl as one who takes great pains to seek ‘proportions for the purpose of design’, that’s precisely what I need. Many good painters have no idea, or almost no idea, what ‘proportions for the purpose of design’ are, or beautiful lines or distinctive compositions, and ideas and poetry. Yet these are important questions which Feyen-Perrin and Ulysse Butin3 and Alphonse Legros, not to mention Breton and Millet and Israëls, take very much to heart and never lose sight of.
Many Dutch painters would understand nothing, absolutely nothing, of the beautiful work of Boughton, Marks, Millais, Pinwell, Du Maurier,4 Herkomer, Walker, to name but a few artists who are true masters as ‘draughtsmen’, over and above their qualities in other directions.
Many, I say, shrug their shoulders at such work, just as many — even among the painters here in Belgium, who should know better — do at the work of Degroux. I saw 2 things by Degroux this week that I didn’t know yet, namely a painting, The conscript’s departure,5 and a drawing in vertical format, The drunkard,6 two compositions that so much resemble Boughton that I was struck by the resemblance, as of two brothers who had never met each other but were nevertheless kindred spirits.
So you see that I share your view of Heyerdahl, that I’ll consider myself fortunate if you can put me in touch with that man later on, that I certainly won’t insist on having my way about going to Holland, not, at least, if I have the prospect of going to Paris later on and can more or less count on it.
In the meantime, though, what should I do? What would you think best? I can carry on working at Rappard’s for a week or so, but then he’ll probably be leaving. My bedroom is all too small and the light isn’t good, and the people would object to my shutting out some of the light coming in through the window, I’m not even allowed to hang my etchings on the wall or my drawings. So when Rappard leaves here in May I’ll have to move, and in that case I’d very much like to work in the country for a while, Heist,7 Kalmthout,8 Etten, Scheveningen, Katwijk or wherever. Or even, which is closer, Schaarbeek,9 Haren,10 Groenendaal.11 But preferably a place where there’s a chance of coming into contact with other painters, and if possible of living and working together, because that’s cheaper and better. The cost of accommodation, no matter where, is at least 100 francs a month, anything less means suffering deprivation, either bodily or through a lack of indispensable materials and tools.
This winter I spent around 100 francs a month, I reckon, although in truth it was scarcely that much. And of that I spent a considerable amount on drawing materials and also bought some clothes. Namely bought two workmen’s suits of coarse black velvet, of the material I think one calls velveteen.12 They look smart and one looks presentable in them; moreover, they’ll come in handy later on, for I’ll need a great many workman’s clothes later, and even now already, for my models, whom I naturally need like anyone else. Gradually I’ll have to acquire articles of clothing of all kinds, second-hand if necessary, both men’s and women’s clothing, for that purpose.
Naturally this doesn’t have to happen all at once, though I’ve already made a start and shall continue.
You say, and rightly so, that financial matters have done a lot both to assist and to thwart people in the world. So be it, and the words of Bernard Palissy remain true: ‘Poverty prevents good minds succeeding’.13 But when I think about it, I nonetheless say, Could it be that in a family like ours, in which 2 Messrs van Gogh are very rich, and that in the art business, C.M. and our uncle at Princenhage,14 and in which you and I in the present generation have also chosen that line of work, albeit in different spheres, I say, notwithstanding these facts, could it be that I can’t continue to count in one way or another on those 100 francs a month for the time that must necessarily elapse before I obtain regular employment as a draughtsman? 3 years ago I had words with Uncle Cor15 on an entirely different matter, but is that any reason for C.M. to bear me ill will for ever and ever? I much prefer to assume that he never bore me any ill will, and view it as a misunderstanding for which I gladly take the entire blame, rather than bickering about whether and to what extent I’m to blame, because I have no time for such arguments.
Now, Uncle Cor so often does things to help other draughtsmen, and would it now be so very unnatural for him to take an active interest in me as well, should the occasion arise? I say these things, however, not so much to obtain financial help from His Hon. but rather because I think it wouldn’t be good if he were to show himself completely unwilling for there to be a vigorous renewal of harmony, at least, between us. His Hon. could help me a great deal in a wholly different way than by giving me money,
1r:4 for example by putting me in touch, if possible, now or later, with people from whom I could learn a great deal. And, if possible, by His Hon.’s mediating to bring about one thing or another during the time that must still elapse before I obtain regular employment — in Paris, for example — at some illustrated magazine or other. I also spoke to Pa in this vein, I don’t know whether it will be of any use, but I noticed that they were talking about how strange and inexplicable it was that I had to struggle so hard even though I belonged to such and such a family. In reply to this I said that I thought that this was a passing thing and would be set to rights later. Nonetheless, it seemed to me advisable to speak to Pa and to you about it, and I wrote to Mr Tersteeg and mentioned it briefly, but His Hon. seems not to have understood my meaning, because he took it to mean that I was planning to live out of C.M.’s pocket and, this being his interpretation, he wrote me a rather discouraging letter and said that I had no right to such a thing. I don’t claim to have the right, but I wish to prevent the matter being talked about sooner or later in the studios, and so, in my opinion, harmony must be restored between me and the family, at least temporarily and in the eyes of the world, in expectation of their changing their minds about me. If they refuse, so be it, but then I can’t prevent it being talked about here and there. If I were to write immediately to C.M., or to go and see His Hon., there would be a chance that he wouldn’t read my letter or would receive me all too brusquely, so I’m speaking about it to Pa and to you, because you’ll probably be able to say a word or two about it in passing, and then he won’t misconstrue my meaning. It isn’t my intention to obtain money from His Hon., as Mr Tersteeg thought, unless it be the case that after talking to me he acquires faith and confidence in my future and starts to see me in an entirely different light. And if he were to be convinced of it, then I’d certainly not spurn his help, that goes without saying, and then he would be able to smooth my way a little in an entirely different way than by giving me money, for instance, in the interval of time between now and going to Paris. I wrote to Mr Tersteeg that it didn’t surprise me in the least that he had interpreted my letter in that way, since you had also spoken at one time of ‘idling’.16 And just as I now understand from the tone of your letter that you no longer see my difficult position in that dismal light, and experience it as well through
2r:5 your effective assistance, so I hope that Mr Tersteeg, too, will gradually change his opinion. The more so because His Hon. was the first to help me with those Bargues,17 for which I’ll always be grateful.
Now you write about a manikin.18 There’s no particular hurry, but it would be of great use to me in composing and finding poses, you’re sensible of that. However, I’d rather wait a bit longer and have a better one than have a tool sooner that was far too inadequate.
Be sure and keep an eye out, though, for all manner of prints or books about proportion, and find out as much as you can about them, that’s of inestimable value, without it one can’t make a figure drawing quickly. Moreover, it would be very beneficial for me to have a thing or two about the anatomy of the horse and sheep, cow, not with an eye to veterinary medicine but rather with a view to drawing the aforementioned animals. If I’m asking you for all these things like this, it’s because you’ll most likely have an opportunity to find such prints very cheaply, relatively speaking, just as I’ve already found a few myself, and you’d perhaps pay them less heed if I hadn’t said that they’re of such great use to me. If you ever have an opportunity to ask Bargue or Viollet-le-Duc, for example, about those prints about proportion, that’s most probably the best place for such information.
I should, of course, find it wonderful to live with you later on, but we haven’t reached that point yet. If C.M. could be persuaded to give me a chance to learn the ropes somewhere on a temporary basis, I’d certainly not scorn it. One can sometimes learn much indirectly even from relatively bad artists, just as, for example, Mauve learned a great deal from Verschuur19 about bringing a stable and a wagon into perspective, and the anatomy of a horse, and yet how Mauve towers above Verschuur.
If by any chance you can recommend the painting of Madiol at the Salon, do so, for there’s much that’s beautiful in it, and the man is in a fix and has lots of small children. He’s painting a smithy that will also be good, and he recently made a little old woman that is superb in its drawing and especially colour.20 But he’s very inconsistent. His chalk drawings are often outstanding.21
This letter is really rather long, but I can’t make it any shorter. If I mention that it would be desirable for at least the general public, but in fact even more so for C.M. and others, to change their minds about me, it’s because people like Roelofs, for example, don’t know what to think of such an untoward position, whether there is something wrong with me or with the other side, but he sees that there is something wrong somewhere anyhow.22
Such a person is therefore too circumspect and will have nothing to do with me at present, just when it’s most necessary for me to receive advice and help.
And such experiences are unpleasant, to say the least, it remains to be seen whether, working on with patient energy, I gradually make progress notwithstanding.d I mean to. Where there is a will there is a way.23 e
And would I be to blame later on if I were to take revenge?
Nonetheless, a draughtsman doesn’t draw for the sake of revenge but for the love of drawing, and that’s more compelling than any other reason. And so it’s likely that later on some things will be set to rights that aren’t quite right yet.
I’ve collected a lot of woodcuts this winter. Your Millets have been augmented with various others, and you’ll see that your wealth of woodcuts &c. haven’t had an unproductive stay with me. I now have 24 woodcuts by or after Millet, counting the Labours of the fields.24 But my own drawing is the main thing, and everything has to work towards that.
The cheapest thing, of course, would be for me to spend this summer in Etten, there’s subject matter enough there. If you think this desirable, you can write to Pa about it, I’m willing to conform to what they want as regards clothing or anything else, and I’d most likely run into C.M. there this summer, if he were to go there or to Princenhage. There’s no real objection to it, as far as I know. I’ll always be judged or talked about in differing ways, whether within or outside the family, and one will always hear the most wide-ranging opinions being put forward.
And I don’t blame anyone for it, for relatively very few people know why a draughtsman does this or that.
Peasants and townsfolk, however, generally impute very great wickedness and evil intentions never dreamt of by one who betakes himself to all manner of places, corners and holes that others prefer not to visit, in order to find picturesque places or figures.
A peasant who sees me drawing an old tree-trunk and sees me sitting there in front of it for an hour thinks I’m mad, and naturally laughs at me. A young lady who turns up her nose at a workman in his patched and dusty and sweaty work-clothes can’t understand, of course, why anyone visits the Borinage or Heist and goes down a coal-mine all the way to the maintenages, and she, too, comes to the conclusion that I’m mad.
All that, though, doesn’t matter to me in the slightest, of course, if only you and Mr Tersteeg and C.M. and Pa and others I’m concerned with know better and, far from criticizing it, say instead, your line of work involves that, and we understand why it is so. So that I repeat, in the circumstances there’s actually no particular reason why I shouldn’t be able to go to Etten, for example, or to The Hague, if it should work out that way, even if little gentlemen and ladies chop logic on the subject. So, since Pa said to me during his visit, do write to Theo and arrange with him what would be best and least expensive, be so good as to let me know your views on this matter before long. Heist (near Blankenberge, thus on the sea) or Kalmthout are very picturesque, there’s subject matter in Etten as well, here too if necessary, although I’d move to Schaarbeek all the same. Scheveningen or Katwijk would of course be possible if C.M. were to change his opinion of me, and then I could profit directly or indirectly from the artists in Holland. As far as expenses go, I reckon them to be at least around 100 francs a month, less isn’t possible, ‘thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn’.25
And so I’ll wait until you write more concerning one thing and another, and will work at Rappard’s in the meantime. Rappard has really painted some spirited studies, including a few from the models at the academy which are vigorously conceived.26 A bit more passion or emotion would do him no harm, a little more self-confidence and a little more daring. Someone once said to me, We must make an effort like the lost, like the desperate. But he isn’t doing it yet.27 I find his landscape drawings in pen28 very witty and pleasing, in those too, though, gradually a bit more passion please! And now I take my leave with a handshake in thought, and remain
I’m sending you three scratches that are still awkward, but from which I hope you’ll nonetheless see that there’s gradual improvement.29 You must remember that I haven’t been drawing for long, even if I did sometimes make little sketches as a boy. And also that this winter the most important thing for me was to make strict anatomical studies and not my own compositions.