My dear Theo,
Your letter and the enclosure were not a little welcome, and the message that you’ll write again at greater length no less welcome. I hope you’ll write to me in detail about the hundred masterpieces;1 it must be good to have seen something like that. And when one remembers — at the time there were some people who were rather suspect as regards their character, intentions and genius, according to public opinion, people of whom the most absurd things were said, Millet, Corot, Daubigny, etc., who were regarded more or less the way the village constable regards a stray shaggy dog or a tramp without a passport, and time passes and lo and behold ‘the hundred masterpieces’, and if a hundred isn’t enough, then innumerable. Let alone what becomes of the village constables. Little remains of them except some notes of the testimony as a curiosity. Yet it remains a drama, I believe, the history of the great men — given too that they not only had to deal with village constables during their lifetimes, since usually they’re no longer with us when their work is publicly recognized, and during their lifetimes they were under some pressure for a long time because of the opposition and the difficulty of struggling through life. And so whenever I hear of the public recognition of the merits of some people, I think all the more of the quiet, slightly sombre figures of those who had few personal friends, and in their simpliity I find them even greater and more poignant like that.
There’s an etching by Legros — Carlyle in his study2 — which often comes to mind when I want to imagine Millet or anyone else as he was.
What V. Hugo says about Aeschylus: ‘They killed the man and then they say: “let us put up a bronze statue of Aeschylus”’;3 something of that is always in my mind when I hear of an exhibition of someone’s work. So I don’t look much at ‘the bronze statue’. Not because I disapprove of something being publicly honoured, but because of the association, they killed the man. Aeschylus was simply banished, but here too banishment was a death sentence, as it often is.
Theo, when you come to the studio I’ll be able to show you some things that you’ll most certainly not be able to see all together anywhere else.
I could show you some things that one might call the hundred masterpieces of modern wood engraving. Work by people whose names, even, are totally unknown to most art lovers.
Who knows of Buckman, who knows of the two Greens,4 who knows of Régamey’s drawings? Only a few. Seeing them all together, one is astonished by that steadiness of the drawing, that personal character, that seriousness of approach, and that fathoming and presentation of the most everyday figures and subjects found on the street, on the market, in a hospital or orphanage.
I already had some last year, but what I’ve found since goes far beyond my expectations.
It’s agreed, isn’t it, that your visit to the studio when you come won’t be too brief?
I’ve worked on the potato grubbers since writing to you.5 And begun a second one of the same subject with a single figure of an old man.6
I’m also working on a sower on a large field with clods of earth, which I believe is better than the other sowers I tried before. I have at least 6 studies of the figure himself, but now I’ve placed him in the space more specifically as the drawing proper, and carefully studied the land and sky as well.7
And then I have studies for the burning of weeds and stalks,8 and of a chap with a sack of potatoes on his back. And one with a wheelbarrow.9
If I now reflect with all possible good will (in order to see things differently, supposing I was wrong) on Tersteeg’s opinion that I should do watercolours,
1v:3 then I can’t understand how these figures of the chap with a sack, of the sower, of the old potato grubber, of the wheelbarrows, of the weed burner could keep their personal character if I attacked them with watercolour. The result would be something very mediocre, of the sort of mediocre which I don’t care to go into in depth. Now at least they have character, something that’s in harmony — though distantly — with what Lhermitte, for instance, is seeking. Watercolour isn’t the most sympathetic means for anyone who particularly wants to express the boldness, the robustness and the force of the figures.
If one is looking more exclusively for tone or colour, then it’s rather different, then watercolour lends itself excellently to that. Now I do admit that one could do different studies of those same figures in reality from a different point of view (namely tone and colour), done with a different intention — yet I ask, if my frame of mind and personal feeling makes me notice first of all the character, the structure, the action of the figures, will I be blamed if, following this emotion, I arrive not at a watercolour but at a drawing in black and brown only?
Yet there are watercolours in which the outlines are very forcefully expressed, such as those by Régamey, those by Pinwell and Walker and Herkomer, which I certainly think about sometimes (those of the Belgian Meunier), but even if I sought that, Tersteeg would still not be content with it. Keep on saying, it isn’t saleable and the saleable must be your no. 1.10
For my part I see in that in plainer terms ‘you’re a mediocrity11 and you’re pretentious in not submitting yourself and not making small mediocre things; you make yourself ridiculous with your so-called seeking, and don’t work.’ This is implied in what Tersteeg said to me the year before last and last year, and I’m still faced with it.
1r:4 To me Tersteeg will I think remain ‘the everlasting no’.12
Not only I but almost all who seek their own way have something like this behind or beside them as a perpetual discourager. Sometimes one is burdened by it and feels wretched and, so to speak, overwhelmed.
But, as said, it’s the everlasting no. Against that, one finds an everlasting yes in the example of men of character, and sees collier’s faith in them.13
It is so, however, that life sometimes becomes sombre and the future dark when working costs money and one feels oneself going ever deeper into the ground the harder one works, instead of work helping one to stay above water and one being able to overcome the difficulties and costs by making a greater effort.
I’m making progress with my figures, but financially I’m losing ground and can’t keep up.
And of late I’ve sometimes thought of moving to the country, either on the seashore or somewhere where work on the land is real. Because I believe it would save some money. I could do what I want here as well if I could earn some more — go here and there now and again to get studies. And the advantage here is that my studio is good, and one isn’t completely outside the art world, after all. In any event, one can hardly do entirely without some measure of contact, seeing and hearing something now and again.
I sometimes think of going to England — in London a new magazine of importance has been established, The Pictorial News, of the same standing as L. News and The Graphic,14 perhaps there may be work and a salary there. But what can one say about it for sure? I hope you’ll come soon, a year is a long time not to have seen each other while thinking of each other all the time.
I haven’t asked you for details about the woman recently because I’m confident that you two love each other, and that’s the main thing, and if one knows that there’s no need to ask about details.
Our little man15 is now just one year old, since 1 July, and is the most cheerful, most agreeable child you can imagine, and I believe it’s an important point gained as regards the recovery and complete cure of the woman herself that this child is doing well and keeps her busy and draws her thoughts towards him. I sometimes think that otherwise it might be good for her to spend some time in the country and not see the city and be away from her family; this could help to bring about a radical improvement. For she is improved now, but still, the influence of her family obstructs a great deal at times, I wanting to have simplicity and she being urged to intrigue and be two-faced. Well, she’s what one might call a child of her time,16 and her character has been influenced by her circumstances, so that the remnants will always persist in the form of a certain dejection and indifference and lack of a firm belief in one thing and another. I’ve already thought of country life for her many, many times. But moving also means spending a large amount in one go. And I’d also like to be married before I moved, if it came to going to the country or to London.
Here I miss the necessary friction with others, and I don’t see how that will get any better. In the end, one place or another will do for me, and I prefer to move as little as possible.
Write to me above all as soon as you can decide anything about when you’re coming. Lately I’ve been in two minds about various things, and consequently
2v:6 under strain, and that will continue until we’ve seen each other again and talked about the future.
I recently read articles about Holland by Boughton. They were written to accompany illustrations by him and by Abbey in which there are splendid things.17
I made a note of something from it — a description of the island of Marken — it makes me want to go there.18 When one had once got round to settling somewhere where it was very beautiful, who knows how happy one would feel about it? But in that sort of situation one needs at least one point of contact with the art world, because of course the fishing folk know nothing about it, and one has to live.
Above all write the promised letter about the one hundred masterpieces &c., and should you do well in business and if a little extra is possible, it wouldn’t be untimely. As for living in the country — I find nature beautiful, and yet there are many things tying me to the city, the magazines especially, the opportunities for reproduction. I wouldn’t mind not seeing locomotives, but never seeing a printing press again would be harder to take. Adieu, old chap, with a handshake and thanks again for what you sent.
I read ‘Mes haines’ by Zola — there are strong things in it, although in my view he is greatly mistaken, not even mentioning Millet in his general reflections.19 I do think this is true: note that what pleases the public is always what’s most banal, what we’re accustomed to seeing every year; we’re used to insipidities of that kind, to such pretty lies, that we reject powerful truths with all our might.20