My dear Theo,
Please accept my sincere thanks for your letter and the enclosure. As soon as I received your letter I bought seven guilders’ worth of paint in one go in order to have a supply in reserve and fill up the gaps. All this week we’ve had gales, storms and rain here, and I’ve been to Scheveningen many times to see it. And came back with two small seascapes. There’s already a lot of sand in the one, but with the second, when there really was a storm and the sea came very close to the dunes, I had to scrape everything off twice because of the thick layer of sand completely covering it. The wind was so strong that I could barely stay on my feet and barely see through the clouds of sand. I tried to get it down anyway by immediately painting it again in a small inn behind the dunes, after first scraping it all off, and then going out to take another look from there. So I have a couple of souvenirs after all.1 But another souvenir is that I’ve caught a cold again, with the results you know about, which now force me to stay at home for a few days. In the meantime I’ve painted some figure studies — I’m sending you two scratches.2
Figure painting attracts me enormously, but it still has to ripen. I need to become better acquainted with the method — what is sometimes called ‘the cookery of art’. In the beginning I’ll have to scrape off a great deal — and often make a new start – but I feel that I’m learning as a result, and that it gives me a new, fresh view of things.
When you next send, I’ll get some good sable brushes. They’re the proper drawing brushes, I find — for drawing a hand or profile in colour.3 For delicate tree branches, &c. they’re really essential, I find. The Lyon brushes, though fine, make lines and strokes that are too broad.4 My painting paper5 is almost finished too — by 1 Sept. I’ll also need to get some other items quite urgently, but I’ll manage with the usual.
Now I wanted to tell you that I entirely agree with various things in your letter. Above all, that I absolutely concur that Pa and Ma, with all their pros and cons, are people who are very rare in this day and age — and all the more so as time passes — and perhaps the new is by no means better — and whom one therefore ought to appreciate all the more. For my part I do indeed appreciate them, only I fear that what you have now reassured them about for the time being would come back, especially if they saw me again. They’ll never be able to grasp what painting is, never understand that a figure of a digger — a few furrows of ploughed land — a bit of sand, sea and sky, are serious subjects and so difficult, but so beautiful too that it’s well worth the trouble of devoting one’s life to depicting the poetry that’s in them. Also, whenever in the future, even more than now, they should see me slogging and toiling away at my work — scratching out and altering — now making a close comparison with nature, and then introducing a change so that they can no longer exactly recognize the spot or the figure, that will always be a disappointment to them. They’ll be unable to understand that painting isn’t done at a stroke, and they’ll always fall back on the idea ‘that I can’t really do it’, and that real painters work in a totally different way.
In short, I dare not cherish any illusions and do fear that Pa and Ma will never take any real pleasure in it. This is hardly surprising and it’s not their fault — they haven’t learned to see as you and I have learned. They look at different things from us, and we don’t see the same things with the same eyes; they don’t evoke the same thoughts.
To wish that it could be different is permissible, to expect it is in my view unwise.
They’ll find it difficult to understand my state of mind, and not know what drives me when they see me do things that seem strange and peculiar to them — will blame them on dissatisfaction, indifference or nonchalance, while the cause lies elsewhere, namely the desire, at all costs, to pursue what I must have for my work. Now they may be waiting expectantly for ‘painting in oils’. Now it will come at last, and oh how disappointed they’ll be should they see it, I fear, seeing nothing but globs of paint in it. Besides, they regard drawing as a ‘preparatory study’, a term I’ve detested for years and believe is as incorrect as possible. As you well know. And if they see me doing that just as much as in the past, they’ll think I’m still engaged in preparatory study. Well. But we’ll hope for the best and do our best to reassure them.
What you say about their new surroundings is most interesting. I certainly would like to try doing that kind of old church and churchyard with sandy graves and old wooden crosses.
I hope it will happen one day.6 You also write about a stretch of heath and a pine-wood nearby. Well, I have an everlasting nostalgia for heath and pine-woods with the curious figures. A woman gathering wood, a peasant fetching sand — in short, that simplicity that has something grand like the sea.
I always have in mind the idea of moving to the country if an opportunity arises, if circumstances suggest it.
Although I have an abundance of material here — the woods, the beach, the Rijswijk meadows close by, and thus literally a subject at every footstep. It would also be for the sake of living more cheaply. But at the moment there’s no particular reason, as far as I can see, so there’s no urgency.
I only mention it so that you’ll understand how attracted I am by a country district like the one you describe that’s Pa and Ma’s new home.
I’ve been made deeply happy by painting these last few days. I’ve really restrained myself and stuck to drawing, precisely because I know so many sad stories
1r:4 of people who threw themselves into it unprepared — they concentrated on method and woke up disillusioned, without having made any progress, and got deep into debt because of the expensive things they botched. From the start I felt a fear and horror of that — I regarded and still regard drawing as the only way of avoiding the same fate. And drawing has become dear to my heart, rather than being a burden. Now, though, almost unexpectedly, painting has given me lots of room, enables me to tackle effects that used to be out of reach, especially those I find, after all, most appealing, and it gives me so much more insight into many issues and new means of expressing effects, so that all this makes me deeply happy.
It’s been so beautiful at Scheveningen the last few days. The sea was almost more imposing before the storm than when the storm actually arrived. During the storm the waves were less visible and there was less the effect of furrows of ploughed land. The waves followed each other so quickly that each pushed the other aside, and the collision between these bodies of water produced a sort of foam like drifting sand that shrouded the foreground of the sea in a haze. But it was a nasty little storm — all the nastier — and all the more impressive the longer you looked, because it made so little noise. The sea was the colour of dirty dishwater. At that spot there was a fishing-boat, the last in the row, and several dark figures.7 There’s something infinite about painting — I can’t quite explain — but especially for expressing a mood, it’s a joy. In the colours there are hidden harmonies or contrasts which contribute of their own accord, and which if left unused are of no benefit. Tomorrow I hope to be able to go outdoors again.
I’ve also read Zola’s La faute de l’abbé Mouret8 and Son Excellence Eugène Rougon,9 also beautiful. I find Pascal Rougon, the doctor, a noble figure — he appears in various works, but always in the background. He is proof that, however corrupt a lineage may be, it’s always possible to overcome fate through willpower and principles. In his profession he found a strength that was greater than that of the nature he inherited from his family, and instead of giving in to his natural tendencies he followed a straight, clear path, and didn’t slip into the murky waters in which all the other Rougons drowned.10 He and Mme François11 in Le ventre de Paris are the most sympathetic figures to me. Well, adieu, I think of you often and would love to see you from time to time. Accept a handshake in thought, and believe me
While writing this I’ve done another study of a boy, grisaille: charcoal, oil and very little colour, just for the tone.12