My dear Theo,
Yesterday I at last got around to reading a book by Murger, namely Les buveurs d’eau.1 I find something of the same charm in it as in, say, the drawings of Nanteuil, Baron,2 Roqueplan, Tony Johannot, something witty, something lively. Yet it’s highly conventional, or at least so this book seems to me (I haven’t yet read any others by him), and in my view there’s the same difference between him and Alph. Karr and Souvestre, for example, as between an Henry Monnier and Compte-Calix and the above artists. I’m trying to take all the people I compare from the same era.
It breathes that age of la bohème (though the reality of that period is papered over in the book) and that’s why it interests me, but in my view it lacks originality and honesty of sentiment. It may be, though, that his books in which there are no painter characters are better than this one — it appears that writers are always unfortunate with painter characters, Balzac among them (his painters are fairly uninteresting).3 Even Zola might be right in his Claude Lantier — Claude Lantiers certainly exist — but still one would like to see Zola doing a kind of painter different from Lantier for once, who it seems to me is drawn from life by Zola after someone or other, and certainly not the worst, from the movement that was known as Impressionists, I believe.4 And they aren’t the ones who make up the core of the body of artists.
Conversely, I know of few good drawn or painted portraits of writers. On this point most painters also lapse into the conventional and make of a writer a man who simply sits at a table full of papers, or don’t even go that far and make him a gentleman with a collar and tie, and moreover a face without any particular expression.
There’s a painter by Meissonier that I find beautiful; it’s that figure seen from behind, bending forwards, with the feet on the cross-bar of the easel, I believe. All one sees is a pair of knees drawn up, a back, a neck and the back of a head, and just a glimpse of a fist with a pencil or something like that.5 But the fellow does it well, and the action of concentrated attention is caught, just like in a certain figure by Rembrandt where a little fellow sits reading, also huddled up, with his head resting on his fist,6 and one immediately feels that sense of being absolutely gripped by the book.
Take the Victor Hugo by Bonnat7 — beautiful, really beautiful — but even more beautiful in my view is the Victor Hugo described in words by Victor Hugo himself, nothing else than just this:
And I, I was silent —
As one sees a blackcock keep silent on the heath.8
Don’t you think that little figure on the heath is splendid? Isn’t it as vivid as a little general of 93 by Meissonier9 — about 1 centimetre or so in size?
There’s a portrait of Millet by Millet that I find beautiful, no more than a head with a kind of shepherd’s cap on top.10
But the looking — with half-closed eyes — the intense looking of a painter — how beautifully that’s caught, and that cockerel-like quality, if I may put it like that.
It’s Sunday again. This morning I was on Rijswijkseweg.11 The meadows are partly flooded so that there was an effect of tonal green and silver with the rough, black and grey and green trunks and branches of old trees twisted by the wind in the foreground, a silhouette of the village with its spire against the light sky in the background, here and there a fence, or a dung-heap with a flock of crows picking at it.
How you would feel something like that — how well you would paint it if you wanted to.
It was extraordinarily beautiful this morning, and it did me good to go for a long walk, for with all the drawing and the lithographs I’d hardly been out of doors this week.
As to the lithography, I hope to get a proof tomorrow of an old man. I hope it turns out well. I did it with a kind of crayon that’s specially intended for this process,12 but I fear that the ordinary lithographic crayon will turn out to be the best after all, and I’ll be sorry I didn’t use that. Well, we’ll see how it turns out.
Tomorrow I hope to learn various things about printing that the printer’s going to show me. I would love to learn how to print myself. I think it quite possible that this new method will revive lithography. I believe that a way could be found of uniting the advantages of the new with the old method. One can never predict anything for certain, but who knows whether it might not lead to new magazines being founded again.
That was as far as I got yesterday evening — this morning I had to go to the printer’s with my old man. Now I’ve followed everything: the transfer to the stone, the preparation of the stone, the actual printing. And I have a better understanding of what I can change by retouching. Herewith the first impression,13 not counting one that went wrong.
I hope to do it better in time. I myself am very far from satisfied with this but, well, getting better must come through doing it and through trying. It seems to me that a painter has a duty to try to put an idea into his work. I was trying to say this in this print — but I can’t say it as beautifully, as strikingly as reality, of which this is only a dim reflection seen in a dark mirror14 — that it seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of ‘something on high’15 in which Millet believed, namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the unutterably moving quality that there can be in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it perhaps, as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth. At the same time something precious, something noble, that can’t be meant for the worms.16
Israëls has done it so very beautifully.17 Perhaps the most wonderful passage in Uncle Tom’s cabin is the one where the poor slave, sitting by his fire for the last time and knowing that he must die, remembers the words
Let cares like a wild deluge come,
And storms of sorrow fall,
May I but safely reach my home,
My god, my Heaven, my All.18
This is far from all theology — simply the fact that the poorest woodcutter, heath farmer or miner can have moments of emotion and mood that give him a sense of an eternal home that he is close to.
Just as I get back from the printer’s I receive your letter. I think your Montmartre19 is splendid, and I would certainly have shared the emotion that it evoked in you. I believe, by the way, that Jules Dupré or Daubigny also often tried to arouse those thoughts in their work. Sometimes there’s something indescribable in those effects — it’s as if the whole of nature is speaking — and when one goes home one has the same feeling as when one has just finished a book by Victor Hugo, for example. For my part I can’t understand that not everyone sees and feels it — after all, nature or God does it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to perceive.20 I think that a painter is happy because he’s in harmony with nature as soon as he can depict, to some extent, what he sees.
And that’s a great deal. One knows what one has to do; there’s an abundance of subjects and Carlyle rightly says, Blessed is he who has found his work.21 If that work — as in the case of Millet, Dupré, Israëls &c. — is something intended to bring peace, to say sursum corde 22 or ‘lift up your hearts’, then it’s doubly encouraging. One is also less alone then, because one thinks: I may be here on my own, but while I’m here holding my tongue my work may be speaking to my friend, and whoever sees it won’t suspect me of being cold-hearted.
2v:6 Understand, however, that the dissatisfaction about poor work, the failure of things, the technical difficulties can make one terribly melancholy.
I assure you that when I, for my part, think of Millet, of Israëls, Breton, Degroux23 — so many others, Herkomer among them — I can be terribly despondent. One only knows what those fellows are when one is at work. Now, to stomach that despondency and melancholy as one is, to be patient with oneself, not to take a rest but to toil despite a thousand shortcomings and faults and the precariousness of the victory — that’s why a painter is also not happy: the battle with himself, improving himself, renewing his energy. All this complicated by the material difficulties.
That painting by Daumier must have been beautiful.24 It’s puzzling that something that speaks as clearly as that, for example, isn’t understood, or at least that the position is that, as you say, it isn’t certain a buyer will be found, even at a low price.
For many a painter this is something intolerable, or almost intolerable, at least. One wants to be an honest man, and one is, one works just as hard as a porter, and yet one falls short, one has to give the work up, one sees no chance of carrying it out without spending more on it than one will get back for it. One has a feeling of guilt, of falling short, of not keeping promises, one isn’t honest as one would be
2v:7 if the work was paid for at its natural, fair price. One is afraid to make friends, one is afraid to stir, one would like to call out to people from a distance like one of the old lepers: Don’t come too close, for contact with me will bring you sorrow and harm. With this whole avalanche of cares in one’s heart, one must set to work with a calm, everyday face, without moving a muscle, carry on with daily life, try things out with the models, with the man who comes to collect the rent, in short, with all and sundry. One must cool-headedly keep one hand on the tiller to continue the work, and with the other hand try to ensure that one does no harm to others. And then come storms, things one hadn’t foreseen; one doesn’t know what to do, and one has a feeling that one may hit a rock at any moment.
One can’t present oneself as somebody who can be of benefit to others or who has an idea for a business that’s bound to be profitable — no, on the contrary, it’s to be expected that it will end with a deficit and yet, yet, one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must be done.
One would like to speak like the men of 93,25 we must do this and that, first those, then those, then the last will die, it’s a duty so it goes without saying, and nothing more need be added.
Yet this is the time to combine and to speak.
Or is it rather that, given that many have fallen asleep and don’t wish to be woken up, one must try to confine oneself to things that one can finish alone, which one faces alone and has sole responsibility for? So that those who sleep can go on sleeping and rest. Now you see that this time I too am expressing more intimate thoughts than normally; you’re to blame for this, because you did the same.
Concerning you, this is what I think: you are after all one of those on watch, not one of the sleepers.26 Would you not rather keep watch while painting than while selling paintings? I say this coolly, not even adding: this or that would be preferable in my view, and trusting to your own insight into things. That one runs a high risk of going under oneself, that being a painter is like being a forward sentry, this and other things — that goes without saying. You mustn’t think I’m so very afraid; painting the Borinage would be something, for instance. That would be so difficult, so dangerous even, as is needed for a life in which rest and pleasure are quite a long way off. All the same, I would undertake something like that if I could undertake it, that is if I couldn’t foresee for certain, as I do now, that the costs would exceed my means. If I found others interested in this or a similar enterprise, I would risk it. Precisely because at the moment it’s really only you who cares what I do, for the time being it’s in the dark and must remain there. So I’ll find things to do in the meantime. But I’m not leaving it in order to spare myself or anything like that. I hope it’ll be possible for you to send something again not later than 1 Dec. Well, old chap, I thank you right heartily for your letter, and a warm handshake in thought, believe me