My dear Theo,
Accept my cordial thanks for your registered letter and for the roll. In it I found the paper from Buhot. But I’d like to have some information to go with it, for example, With what does one draw on this paper? Perhaps I’ll be told that later.
Renouard’s Children in care1 are wonderful, also his new drawing, The dock2 — although the latter is less important than his large prints of the Mazas prison, for example.3 I’m very pleased with them and thank you for them.
You’ll have received an impression of a lithograph.4 Actually it went wrong — but I sent it anyway because there are some bits in it that have turned out as I had intended the whole thing to be.
This time the autographic ink ran badly and that had to be corrected later, but there were still black passages everywhere. But look, for example, at the left leg with the muddy boot. There one can see that fabrics can be rendered with this process and curious effects obtained.
Hands and head are poor, yet in the other old man5 they’re the best part. Again I watched the transfer to stone and the printing carefully, and I must say that I believe a great deal can be done with this process.
Today I was at Van der Weele’s — he took considerable pleasure in the old man with his head in his hands and intends to try it himself.
He’s someone who makes truly splendid things sometimes. He gave me 4 etchings, a sheepfold, calves in a copse — two sand-carts and an ox-plough, and I hope to get more later when he has impressions made again.6
He doesn’t seem to like Tersteeg very much. At least, without my saying anything about him, and while we were talking about Van der W.’s own studies, he said, all right, but if I do this or do that and I go to Tersteeg he makes such and such a remark. I believe he was speaking the truth and, honestly, I’m very sorry that things are like this. I would rather that I was mistaken in my
1v:2 opinion of Tersteeg, but I fear he rather discourages many who truly deserve something better. How tiresome these matters are.
Yesterday I received a letter, not from Rappard but from his father,7 telling me that R. is ill. I don’t know what’s wrong with him — perhaps, perhaps what you and I are also familiar with.8 The thought occurred to me because of several expressions in his last letter, when he wrote that I should carry on doing experiments and that he felt so feeble that he could do nothing. What a pity for him, isn’t it? It’s so hard if one has to stop one’s work right in the middle for such a feeble reason as illness. I’ll very much want to look him up sometime, if I hear that he isn’t getting better quickly. I’ve corresponded with him quite a lot about work recently. He has taken very great pleasure in collecting woodcuts, for example, and I think it highly likely that with time we’ll be more and more help to each other.
At Van der Weele’s I saw an outstanding sketch by Breitner, a drawing that was unfinished, and perhaps couldn’t be finished. It was of officers deliberating over a map or battle-plan before an open window.9 Breitner does indeed have a position at the secondary school in Rotterdam.
A solution for him. Can one keep that up? Not doing anything else and devoting all one’s time to the work, that’s still preferable in my view. It’s as if there’s something fatal in holding other positions — perhaps it’s precisely the worries, precisely the dark side of the artistic life, that’s the best part of it. It’s risky to say this, and there are moments when one talks differently — many go under because of the worry — but those who struggle through benefit later.
You write about the question of making drawings in a smaller format. I think it good of you that you speak about this question in a calmer manner than others, who have sometimes said the same thing to me in a very different way and told me, if you don’t work smaller then this will happen and that will happen. Talking about it like that seems to me premature and superficial, and I can’t believe that what they say is true. Do you know what I think — all formats have their pros and cons. In general, for my own study, I definitely need to have the figure in fairly large proportions, so that head, hands, feet aren’t too small and one can draw them robustly.
So for my own study I took as my example the format of Bargue’s Exercices au fusain,10 because that size is easy to take in at a glance and yet the details don’t become too small. But most take a smaller format. For my part, from the beginning I’ve done it like this for myself, sometimes a little smaller, sometimes a little larger, and for my own study I would be going against my convictions if I deviated from that.
Yet, so although this is for me the focus of my attention — to have the human figure in my power in a good, substantial size — an enormously difficult thing, I do assure you — it’s still the case that I’m by no means absolutely tied to it. And so in
1r:4 reply to what you write I put to you a question in return: do you have a particular work in mind; has someone said something to you like, for instance, if those figures were half the size, sheets of this kind could be used for this or that? And if you know of anything like that, I, for my part, will take the trouble either to reduce figures I already have to half the size, or to draw completely new ones in a smaller format.
Without a specific reason I would think it less important than with a specific reason.
If it’s so that, were I to send you some figures, say half the size of the last ones, you’d be willing to make new attempts without being able to say at this stage specifically where or what for, that would be reason enough for me to make them.
What I just said is only to point out to you how I’ve tried from the outset to maintain a certain order in my work, set a sort of rule for myself, not to be a slave to that rule but because it helps one to think more clearly.
Reducing a certain figure to half the size, for example, isn’t difficult at all — although sometimes one loses something of what makes it distinctive — but sometimes the figure gains by it.
At any rate, I’ll send you a few shortly, but if you have something particular in mind for them, tell me what they’re for — that will help me in the choice of my figures.
Thank you again for what you sent. What I wrote to you in my last letter about a plan for making prints for the people is something to which I hope you’ll give some thought one day. I don’t have a fixed plan about this myself as yet, only in order to have it clear in my mind I’ll have things to do relating both to the drawings themselves and to the process of reproduction.
But I don’t doubt the possibility of doing something like this, nor its usefulness. Nor can I doubt that people can be found whose heart would be in it. In short, I believe it could be done in such a way that no one would need regret having taken part. With a handshake.
I’m re-reading your last letter as I write to you. In particular what you say about format. I’d like to give you an example of a draughtsman you know: Théophile Schuler, who illustrated the works of Erckmann-Chatrian.11 One clearly sees from those small illustrations that he could work excellently on a small scale. One sees it even better in things he did at that time for L’Illustration and Magasin Pittoresque,12 for example, among them L’Album des Vosges, to which Brion and Jundt also contributed.13
I believe, though, that it would be a great mistake to imagine that such things as, for instance, the print The grace14 (a family of woodcutters or peasants at table) were created at a stroke in their final form. No, in most cases the solidity and pith of the small is only obtained through much more serious study than is imagined by those who think lightly of the task of illustrating. Oh, old chap, you’re one of the best-informed art dealers I know, and you speak about this much more accurately and sensitively than most, but if you knew how much hard graft some things have required — for instance, prints from Album des Vosges or those first things in The Graphic — I believe you would be struck by them. With me, at least, it’s often the case that as I learn more about the life and work of fellows like Schuler, Lançon, Renouard, and so many others, I sense that what one sees of them is only the tiny puff of smoke that comes out of their chimney, and that within their heart and studio there’s a great fire.
In the illustrated magazines they undergo something like the small tower in the distance that looks very small and insignificant, and when one gets up close proves to be an imposing mass (I mean, only a small part of their work is made public).
Anyway, some paintings in their huge frames look very substantial, and later one is surprised when they actually leave behind such an empty and dissatisfied feeling. On the other hand, one overlooks many an unpretentious woodcut or lithograph or etching now and then, but comes back to it and becomes more and more attached to it with time, and senses something great in it.
I know a drawing by Tenniel of ‘two clergymen’ (this isn’t the English title, of course, but it’s the subject). One is a city vicar, splendid and broad and imposing; the other is slightly ‘shabby’, evidently a humble village curate, the father of a large and poor family.15 I often think that one finds these two types among painters as well, and many ‘illustrators’ belong to the village curates among the painters, while perhaps people like Bouguereau or Makart and some others have something of the first type.
Now whether, for my part, I have to work in a smaller or larger format makes relatively little difference to me, but what the illustrated magazines ask is only part of what I demand of myself. Of myself I firmly demand that I can make the figure of a size such that head, hands and feet don’t become too small and the details remain clear.
This is still very far from being what I require of myself, but for that very reason I must stand firm on that point.
When I require this, I’m not making other demands of myself than very many others make of themselves. For example, with the series of drawings I’m working on now I don’t know what the final form or size will be. After a great deal of thought, I’ve made them about the size of the man with his head in his hands,16 but I can of course reduce the size of these designs if I wish when it comes to printing.
And that there are reasons for drawing the figures fairly large in practice is shown, for example, by Exercices au fusain, Modèles d’après les maîtres, published by G&Cie. I began with them, and so far I haven’t found a better guide to studies from the live model. The book was intended to introduce sound ideas about study, both in the schools and certainly above all in the studios. I’ve listened to what Bargue says in his examples (though my work is far from being as beautiful as his). I believe that they point to a correct way in accordance with what other men taught earlier, among them L. da Vinci — and in any event through it I’ve brought a certain order to my ideas on drawing which results in work proceeding in a better-regulated way than if one imposes no order on one’s actions. You see, that’s something I may not let go of, but, again, if desired, I can reduce the format of this or that figure in my studies. I’d very much like you to see everything I’ve done since this summer all together again. What’s happened to those drawings that you wrote you had sent through rue Chaptal? I haven’t yet received them, but I suspect they’re still with you, since you wrote shortly afterwards that Buhot had seen them. Of course I don’t need them in a hurry, and only mention them in case they may be lying around somewhere. And if you consider it advisable to keep them with you in case you want to talk to someone about them, I have nothing against that, except that I wish you could perhaps make a new selection from the whole lot for that purpose.