My dear Theo,
Your letter and the enclosure gave me very great pleasure, I don’t need to tell you that. It’s just what was needed and is a mighty help to me.
It’s still autumnal weather here — rainy and chilly, but full of atmosphere — especially good for figures, which show a range of tones on the wet streets and roads in which the sky is reflected. It’s what Mauve, above all, does so beautifully time and again.
As a result I’ve been able to do some more to the large watercolour of the crowd of people in front of the lottery office,1 and I’ve also just started another of the beach, of which this is the composition.2
I can agree entirely with what you say about times one occasionally has when one seems to be deadened to the things of nature, or when nature no longer seems to speak to us.
I, too, often have that, and sometimes it helps if I turn to something very different. If I’m dead to landscape or effects of light, I tackle figures, and vice versa. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done except wait for it to pass, but on many occasions I manage to get rid of the unresponsiveness by changing the subjects I’m concentrating on. I’m becoming more and more fascinated by figures though. I remember having had a time in the past when the feeling for landscape was very strong within me, and I was much more struck by a painting or drawing in which a light effect or the mood of a landscape was well expressed than by figures. In general, the figure painters even inspired in me a kind of fairly cool respect rather than warm sympathy. However, I well remember being particularly struck at the time by a drawing by Daumier, an old man under the chestnut trees in the Champs Elysées (an illustration for Balzac),3 although the drawing wasn’t that important. But I remember that it struck me so forcefully that there was something so firm and manly in Daumier’s approach that I thought: it must be good to feel and think like that and overlook or ignore a mass of things so as to concentrate on something that’s thought-provoking and appeals to a human being as a human being more directly than meadows or clouds.
And similarly the figures of either the English draughtsmen or the English writers, on account of their Monday morning-like sobriety and deliberate austerity and prose and analysis, continue to attract me as something solid and firm which gives one something to hold onto on days when one is feeling weak.4 And those of Balzac and Zola among the French writers just as much. As yet I don’t know the books by Murger you write about, but I hope to become acquainted with them.5
Did I write to you before that I read Daudet’s Les rois en exil?6 I thought it rather beautiful.
The titles of those books sound very attractive, La bohème among others.7 How far we have strayed in our age from la bohème of Gavarni’s day!8 It seems to me that things were a little warmer then, and more good-humoured and livelier than now. But I don’t know, and there’s also much that’s good in the present, or would be more than is actually the case if there were rather more joining together.
At the moment a wonderful effect can be seen from the window of my studio. The city with its towers and roofs and smoking chimneys stands out as a dark, sombre silhouette against a horizon of light. The light, though, is only a broad strip; above it hangs a heavy shower, more concentrated below, above torn by the autumn wind into great tufts and clumps that float off. But that strip of light makes the wet roofs glisten here and there in the sombre mass of the city (in a drawing you would lift it with a stroke of body-colour), and ensures that, although the mass all has the same tone, you can still distinguish between red tiles and slates.
Schenkweg runs through the foreground as a glistening line through the wet, the poplars have yellow leaves, the banks of the ditch and the meadow are deep green, figures are black.
I would draw it, or rather try to draw it, if I hadn’t spent the whole afternoon toiling at figures of peat carriers9 which are still too much in my mind for there to be room for something new, and must remain there.
I do so often long for you and think of you so much. What you write about some characters in Paris, about artists who live with women, are less petty-minded than others perhaps, try desperately to stay young, seems well observed to me. Such people exist there and here. It’s perhaps even more difficult there than here for a person to keep some freshness in domestic life, because that’s almost more of an uphill struggle there. How many have become desperate in Paris — calmly, rationally, logically and rightly desperate? I read something along these lines about Tassaert, among others, whom I like very much, and was pained by what happened to him.10
All the more, all the more, I think every attempt in this direction is worthy of respect. I also believe that it may happen that one succeeds and one mustn’t begin by despairing; even if one loses here and there, and even if one sometimes feels a sort of decline, the point is nevertheless to revive and have courage, even though things don’t turn out as one first thought. Moreover, don’t think that I look with contempt on people such as you describe because their life isn’t founded on serious and well-considered principles. My view on this is as follows: the result must be an action, not an abstract idea.11 I think principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds, and I think it’s good to reflect and to try to be conscientious, because that makes a person’s will to work more resolute and turns the various actions into a whole. I think that people such as you describe would get more steadiness if they went about what they do more rationally, but otherwise I much prefer them to people who make a great show of their principles without making the slightest effort to put them into practice or even giving that a thought. For the latter have no use for the finest of principles, and the former are precisely the people who, if they ever get round to living with willpower and reflection, will do something great. For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.
What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently. And behold, how can one remain dedicated to such a task without allowing oneself to be lured from it or distracted, unless one reflects and organizes one’s life according to principles? And it’s the same with other things as it is with artistic matters. And the great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed. Whether originally deeds lead to principles in a person or principles lead to deeds is something that seems to me as unanswerable and as little worth answering as the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
But I believe it’s a positive thing and of great importance that one should try to develop one’s powers of thought and will.
I’m very curious about what you’ll think of the figures I’m doing at present, when you see them sooner or later. It’s the same with them as with the question of the chicken and the egg: should one make figures for a composition one has done first, or combine the figures made separately so that the composition flows from them? I believe it comes down to the same thing. Just as long as one works. I end with that with which you close your letter — that we have in common a liking for seeing behind the scenes or, in other words, are inclined to analyze things. Now this, I believe, is exactly the quality one must have in order to paint — one must exercise this power when painting or drawing. It may be that there has to be something innate in us, to some extent (but that too you have, and so do I — for that we may have to thank our childhood in Brabant and a background that helped, much more than is usually the case, to teach us to think), but above all, above all, it’s only later that the artistic sense develops and ripens through working. How you might become a very good painter I don’t know, but I certainly believe that it is in you and will come out.12
Adieu, old chap, thanks for what you sent, and a hearty handshake.
I have the stove in place already13 — old chap, how I wish we could look at drawings and sketches for an evening sometime — and woodcuts. I have some more splendid ones.
This week I hope to have orphan boys to pose, then I may be able to rescue the drawing of orphan children14 after all.