My dear Theo,
Thinking it over later, I thought it might possibly have seemed strange to you to find in my last letter a remark about something I’d never discussed with you before, a remark, moreover, in a rather peremptory tone, namely something like: Theo, let it all go hang and become a painter. There’s a great landscapist in you. It may well be that these words slipped out at a time when my emotions were somewhat aroused. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the same with this as it is with other things that sometimes escape my lips in spite of myself, in anger or if some emotion or other is aroused. The fact is that what I say at such times are things I’ve kept bottled up for a long time, which I then say, sometimes in rough terms. But even though I’d express it better in a calmer mood, or keep it to myself, it’s absolutely certain that I’m most decidedly of that opinion, particularly in a calm mood.
Now it’s out, so out it will stay, I finally said it in spite of myself – I couldn’t help it – in rough words anyhow – but you know my secret thoughts. And if I wrote ‘remain something better than HGT’ and if I gave you to understand that I don’t think very highly of art dealers in general – it’s true that those are things I could have kept to myself – but now that I’ve broken the silence and spoken – well, then, this is how I speak.
As regards H.G.T., I knew His Hon. during a remarkable period in his life, when he’d only just ‘worked his way up’, as they say, and was newly married as well.1
The impression he made on me then was a strong one – he was a practical man – extremely clever and lively, energetic in small and large things as well, he radiated poetry, as it were, but of the true, unsentimental kind. Then I had such respect for him that I always kept my distance, and I considered him a being of a higher order than myself.
Since – since – since – I’ve sometimes doubted – more and more – and yet I never had the courage to take the scalpel of analysis and scrutiny to him. Now, though, at a time when I must be very much on the qui vive and mustn’t spoil my career for anyone’s sake, the above-mentioned scalpel hasn’t spared him. And while I was sitting in his little office or speaking to him in the gallery with a very ordinary expression on my face, asking him a couple of very ordinary questions, I was taking the measure of him as cold-bloodedly as I could.
I’d thought that he was someone who gave himself the air of a money man, of a man of the world – anyway I don’t know how to say it in one word, I think you’ll understand what I mean, who had a lot of feeling and a warm heart hidden behind that iron mask.
But I found that armour to be incredibly thick, so thick that I can’t say for certain whether the man is made of solid metal, be it steel or silver, or whether deep, deep down in that iron there’s still some small corner in which a human heart beats. If there’s no heart in him then my affection for him comes to an abrupt end, and instead there’s a ‘what are you doing to me? you irritate me’. So that in half a year or a year he’ll either leave me completely cold or – or perhaps – I’ll find a way to get along better with His Hon. Meanwhile – he’s His Hon. to me. One doesn’t think in those terms of someone for whom one feels warm sympathy. His Hon. suggests something boring. Enough. Enough.
Theo, I’m certainly no landscape painter, if I were to make landscapes there would always be something of the figure about them.
I think it very good, though, that there are also people who are essentially landscapists. And it preoccupies me greatly that you might be just such a person – without knowing it. The opposite preoccupies me just as much. Namely, Theo, are you in fact essentially a dealer?
If I had to prove the theory, I’d perhaps turn it round and reduce it to an absurdity.2 Be that as it may, think about it sometime, I don’t have to tell you to think it over before beginning to paint, but perhaps you won’t hold it against me if I say: Theo, until now you’ve been free to do whatever you like, but if
1r:4 you ever make an agreement with Messrs G&Cie in which you promise to remain with their firm for the rest of your life, you’ll no longer be a free man.
And – it appears to me that there’s a possibility that there will come a time in one’s life when one regrets having bound oneself in that way.
You’ll no doubt say to me, the time may come when some will regret having become painters. And, for my part, what could I say to that? Those who come to regret it are those who neglect serious study in the beginning and rush helter-skelter to get to the top. At any rate, the men of the day are men of one day, but anyone who has so much faith and love that he takes pleasure precisely in what others think tedious, namely the study of anatomy, perspective and proportion, they remain, and mature slowly but surely.
When, short of money, I forgot myself for a moment and thought, I’ll simply try and make something that has a certain look, the result was appalling, I couldn’t do it – and Mauve rightly got angry at me and said: that’s not the way, tear those things up. And at first that sounded too harsh to me, but later I cut them up myself. But then when I started drawing more seriously, Tersteeg criticized it and got angry – and overlooked the good things in my drawings and demanded ‘saleable’ ones right away. Anyway, you immediately see from this that there’s a difference between Mauve and Tersteeg. Mauve is increasingly serious, the more one thinks about him, but can Tersteeg stand the test? I hope so, but doubt whether he’ll stand up to scrutiny as well as M. And how is it with those who are at bottom serious, even though they often have something unpleasant about them? – one begins to love them and starts to feel at home with them – one gets bored with those who aren’t serious enough.
You mustn’t think that I’ve overlooked the change in financial circumstances that a change of career would mean for you.
Yet what impels me to speak to you about this is that I feel, even beset by financial difficulties, that nothing is more solid than ‘handiwork’, in the literal sense of working with the hands. If you became a painter, one of the things that would amaze you is that painting and everything connected with it is really rather hard work from a physical point of view; quite apart from the mental exertion, turning things over in one’s mind, it requires a fair amount of effort, and that day after day.
Well, I shan’t talk about it any more today, only to say this: when you come to Holland I’d like to talk to you alone, not for half an hour but for an entire morning, for instance, about some practical things I’ve learned, whether through practising on my own or through Mauve or others, as if I had to explain them to you in order to teach you. I hope that you won’t object – at worst you’ll be bored that morning, but perhaps it won’t bore you. I only hope that, then, in the meantime, you won’t be thinking of ‘selling’ paintings but of ‘how to do it’.3
And that you won’t consider it a temptation of the devil. Well, we’ll see.
If you could send me some money around the end of this month it would be very welcome. Around that time I also hope to have the 12 for C.M. finished. If he pays for them straightaway
2v:6 that will put 30 guilders in my pocket. If something from you is added to that, I’d venture to buy a couple of shirts and underwear, which I need very, very badly. Seeing as the shirts &c. that I have are getting into a deplorable state, and I have very few anyway.
Since I wrote to you I’ve been working always with the same models, and I must say I’m glad to have found ones like them. I’m busy drawing heads,4 I must also – though it can’t all be done at once – draw hands and feet, it’s really high time.
And when summer comes and the cold is no longer an obstacle, I simply must make some studies of the nude one way or another. Not exactly academic poses. But I wanted, for instance, so very, very much to have, for example, a nude model for a digger or seamstress. From the front, from the back, from the side. To learn to see and sense the shape through the clothing and get a clear idea of the movement. I reckon that 12 or so studies, 6 men, 6 women, would already give me a great deal of insight. Each study costs a day’s work. The difficulty also lies very much in finding models for this purpose, and if I could avoid it I’d like to avoid having a nude model in the studio, so as not to make other models timid.
2v:7 The fear ‘that they have to strip naked’ is usually the first scruple to be overcome when approaching someone about posing. At least I’ve had this experience here more than once. I even had it with a very old man, who, incidentally, would probably have been very Ribera-like5 as a nude model.
But after all I’m not looking for Ribera, and still less Salvator Rosa,6 I don’t see things that way. I’m not even enthusiastic about Decamps, I’m not at ease in front of their paintings, and can’t dwell on them without feeling that I’m missing or losing sight of something. I’d sooner Goya or Gavarni, then, even though they both say ‘Nada’. As the last word?? ‘Nada’, it seems to me, means exactly the same as those words of Solomon, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, but I can’t sleep on that without having nightmares.7 Oh well.
It’s too late for philosophizing, though, considering I have to get up tomorrow at half past five, because the carpenter is coming to do a little job for me before he goes to work.
So good-night and believe me, I mean it very seriously when I speak to you about your becoming a painter, adieu.
I’ve made two more small drawings for C.M., a bit of Scheveningseweg and sand workers in the dunes.8
Now that I’ve given Tersteeg his money back I’m afraid that when the landlord9 comes round at the end of March I won’t have much for him. That’s why I’d like you to send whatever you can towards the end of March, if you could.
Theo, Sunday I went to see De Bock10 again – I don’t know why, but each time I go to see him I feel the same: that chap’s too weak, he won’t succeed – unless he changes, unless – unless – I find something worn out, something blasé, something insincere about him that oppresses me, there’s something consumptive about the atmosphere in his house.11
And yet – it’s not really obvious – and perhaps there are few among his acquaintances who think of him as I do.
Oh well. Still, he sometimes makes lovely things, not without charm and grace at any rate, but is that enough?
So much is demanded that nowadays painting is almost an offensive, a military campaign, a battle or war.