My dear friend Rappard,
Was writing a letter to you when the post brought your most welcome letter just a moment ago. I’m pleased you’ve made progress with your drawing, I didn’t doubt that you would, by the way, for you’d made a manly start.
Well, let me begin by saying that I think what you say about the English draughtsmen is entirely correct and entirely right. I saw it in your work, exactly what you say. Well, I take the same view.
On the bold outlines in particular.
Take the etching by Millet, The diggers,1 take an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, take above all the large woodcut by Millet himself, The shepherdess,2 and then one sees fully what can be expressed by such an outline.
And as you say, one then has the feeling ‘that’s how I’d always have wanted to do it if I’d always gone my own way’ &c. That’s well said, old chap, and spoken like a man.
Now, what I also find an example of singularly robust, forceful drawing is Leys’s paintings, particularly the series of decorations for his dining room. The walk in the snow, the skaters, the reception, the table, the servant.3 And Degroux has it as well and Daumier has it as well.
Israëls himself and sometimes, sometimes Mauve and Maris4 too, cannot resist forceful outline, but don’t do it like Leys or like Herkomer.
And when one hears them, they really don’t want to know, and talk most about tone and colour. Yet in some charcoal drawings Israëls used lines reminiscent of Millet. I for one declare to you frankly that, with all the love and respect I have for these masters, I find it a pity that they, especially Mauve and Maris, don’t point out what can be done with the outline more often when talking to others, and recommend drawing carefully and softly.
And so it is that these days watercolour is the order of the day and considered to be the most expressive medium, and in my view too little effort goes into Black and White, to the point even that there’s a certain antipathy to it. In watercolour there’s no black, so to speak, and that’s the basis for people talking about ‘those black things’. All the same, there’s no need to spend the whole of this letter writing about that.
Wanted to inform you that at present I have 4 drawings on the easel. Peat diggers5 — Sand quarry6 — Dung-heap7 — Loading coal.8
I even did the dung-heap twice; the first became too worn to continue working on.
I didn’t dare work on them much with turpentine and printer’s ink, have used charcoal, lithographic crayon and autographic ink so far. Except in the sketch for the dung-heap that got too worn — I tackled that with them, with not unfavourable results. It became black, but still some of the freshness came back into it, and now I see possibilities for working in it again, whereas before the printer’s ink came on it I saw no possibility of that.
I’ve worked hard since I visited you, I hadn’t composed for so long and had done a great many studies, so once I began I went at it furiously.
1v:3 Several mornings I was already at work at 4 o’clock. I would like it immensely if you saw them sometime, for I can make no sense of what Van der Weele said about them, the only one to have seen them.
Van der Weele’s judgement was rather sympathetic, but he said of the Sand quarry that there were too many figures in it. The composition wasn’t simple. He said, look, draw that one little fellow with his wheelbarrow on a dyke in the evening set against the light sky, how beautiful that would be, for instance, and now it lacked cohesion.
Well, then I showed him the drawing by Caldecott, Brighton Highroad,9 and said, do you mean that it’s absolutely not permitted to put many figures in a composition and to make it highly complicated? Leaving aside my drawing, tell me what you think of this composition. Well, he said, I don’t find that beautiful either but, he added, I’m speaking personally and can only speak personally. And that’s not what I like or what I look at. Well, I thought that was rather well said, but you understand that I didn’t find in him that awareness of the question that I sought. But for the rest he’s a solid fellow, and I had some very pleasant excursions with him and he showed me some devilishly beautiful things.
It was also during a walk with him that I saw the sand quarry, but that time he hardly looked at it and I went back alone the next day. I drew the sand quarry with a lot of figures, because sometimes there really are a great many fellows toiling away in those sandpits, for example in the winter and the autumn they provide work there in the name of the city for those who have no work. And then it’s wonderfully pleasing there.
I’ve had several fine models of late. A superb grass-mower, a splendid country lad, exactly like one of Millet’s figures.
A fellow with a wheelbarrow — you may remember me drawing his head in Sunday clothes with a Sunday patch over his blind eye.10
Now I have him in his everyday suit, and it’s perhaps hard to believe that it’s the same man who posed for the two figures.
These four big drawings are 1 metre by 1/2 metre.
I feel happy using a brown passe-partout with a very deep black inside edge. Then many blacks that would appear too black in a white passe-partout look grey and the whole remains clear.
By Jove, I wish you could see them, not because I myself think they are good, but I would like to hear your thoughts about them, even though I’m not yet satisfied with them. To my taste they aren’t yet figure drawings in the true sense of the term, although they are still figure drawings, but I wanted to express the outlines of actions and structure even more squarely and boldly.
What you write about feeling that you’re now on a road and not on byways or side roads seems to me absolutely right. Have a similar feeling myself, because this last year I’ve concentrated more on the figure than in the past.
Be assured, if you believe I have eyes to see, that there is certainly sentiment in your figures; what you make is healthy and manly, do not doubt yourself in that respect and, precisely because you do not doubt, dash it on without hesitating.
The studies of heads for the blind fellows seem superb to me.11
Wanted to tell you about a type of pencil by Faber12 that I’ve found. Here you see the thickness of the cross-section.
They’re soft and better quality than the carpenter’s pencils, produce a marvellous black and are very agreeable to work with for large studies.
I used it to draw a woman sewing on grey papier sans fin and got an effect like lithographic crayon.13 These pencils are made of soft wood, dyed green on the outside, cost 20 cents apiece.
Before I forget — I wanted to borrow the issues of Harper’s Magazine you have to read the articles about Holland that Boughton and Abbey illustrated.14 I’ll send you a package with the old loose issues that I have with illustrations by Howard Pyle &c. so that you can look through them at your leisure. And shall add Erckmann-Chatrian, Histoire d’un paysan illustrated by Schuler,15 and enclose several illustrations by Green that you will remember I promised. If you still have duplicates, add them to the Harpers (at least if you can do without the latter for about a fortnight so that I can read them), and Zola’s book about Manet if you’ve finished it.16
I’m sorry that your health isn’t yet in order, but I think that what will cheer you up more than the baths or whatever it is they do there in Soden is to make solid progress with your drawings.17 I reckon you’ll be longing for your studio as soon as you’re out of it. I know that Mauve became terribly melancholy during a journey to a similar kind of factory, speaking with all due respect.18
As you know, I’m very unbelieving in matters of this kind, and can sympathize with Bräsig in Reuter’s Gedroogde kruiden as regards what I think that authority calls ‘the water art’.19
How beautiful Fritz Reuter’s work is.
I do think you’ll find the Erckmann-Chatrian beautiful.
Must also tell you that I recently got hold of a splendid old Scheveningen woman’s cape and a hat, but the hat isn’t beautiful.20 And I’m also to get a skipper’s jacket with a stand-up collar and short sleeves. I’d dearly like to see your charcoal drawing, perhaps when my brother comes — I don’t know exactly when yet — I could go with him to Brabant and then come for a look while passing Utrecht. Perhaps if I can manage it I’ll come anyway sometime, for I would like to see it.
For your part, make sure you come to The Hague again, for the wedding you spoke of then. If I carry on having such success as just recently in finding models, I’ll certainly do one or two things in large drawings this summer.
Now I want to continue with those I’m working on to get them to the same level, if possible, by the time my brother comes.
In Harper’s Weekly I see a very true thing after Smedley — a black figure of a man on a white sandy road. He calls it ‘a generation ago’. It’s the figure of a kind of minister perhaps; the impression it made on me was: yes, my grandfather was like that.21 I wish I had done it. In the same number after Abbey two girls fishing on the bank of a ditch with pollard willows. In Harper’s they’re both just croquis in a review of an exhibition.22
I would send you croquis of the drawings but I haven’t got much time.
I asked permission to draw in the old men’s and women’s home here but that has been refused me.23 Still, there are more homes in the villages around here. But here I knew a few people whom I could use as models. I was there, though, to have a look, and saw among others a gardener next to an old, crooked apple tree that was very real.
Well, there’s my model. Adieu, send the Harpers if you can do without them, with a handshake.