My dear friend Rappard,
I still wanted to write again while you’re travelling. Thanks for the consignment of books. I would like to apply to Zola’s Mes haines Zola’s own words about Hugo, ‘I should like to demonstrate that, given such a man on such a subject, the result could not be another book than the one it is’, also Zola’s own words on the same occasion: ‘I shall not cease to repeat, the criticism of this book, as it has been made, seems to me a monstrous injustice’.1
I would truly like to begin by saying that I’m not one of those who blame Zola for this book.2 Through it I’m getting to know Zola, I’m getting to know Zola’s weak side — insufficient understanding of painting — prejudices instead of correct judgement in this special case. But, my dear friend, should I get irritated with a friend on account of a fault in him? — far from it. On the contrary, he is all the dearer to me because of his fault. So I read the articles about the Salon with a most curious feeling. I think it utterly wrong, entirely mistaken, except in part the appreciation of Manet — I too think Manet is clever — but very interesting, Zola on art, interesting in the same way as, for instance, a landscape by a figure painter: it isn’t his genre, it’s superficial, incorrect, but what an approach — not carried through — so be it — not quite clear — so be it — but at any rate it makes one think and is original and tingling with life. But it’s mistaken and most incorrect, and rests on shifting sands.
Most interesting to hear him on Erckmann-Chatrian.3 Here he doesn’t lash out so wildly as when he talks about paintings, and his criticism is sometimes deuced telling. I permit him with pleasure to accuse Erckm.-C. of mixing a measure of egotism into his morality.4 Furthermore, he’s right to say that Erckm. becomes a simpleton when he starts describing Parisian life and that he isn’t familiar with it. A question, however, inevitably raised by this criticism: is Zola familiar with the Alsace, and if he were, wouldn’t he take more interest in Erckmann’s characters, who are as fine as Knaus and Vautier?
As for the grain of egotism in most of the characters whose side Erckm. appears to choose, in the old Rabbi David and in Wagner and in Thérèse, I believe the somewhat egotistical Erckmann-Chatrian becomes sublime5, and so for me he is extraordinary.
What Zola has in common with Balzac is that he knows little about painting. I think two artist types in Zola’s works, Claude Lantier in Le ventre de Paris and one in Thérèse Raquin, are just like pale ghosts of Manet, Impressionists of a sort.6 Anyway. Well, Balzac’s painters are awfully heavy going, very tiresome.7
Now I’d like to carry on talking about this but I’m no critic. But I’m glad, I just wanted to add, that he scores a hit on Taine,8 who deserves it because he’s sometimes irritating with his mathematical analysis. Still, through that he (Taine) arrives at curiously deep pronouncements. For example, I read a remark of his — about Dickens and Carlyle: ‘the essence of the English character is the absence of happiness.’9 Now I don’t want to insist on the greater or lesser accuracy, but just say that such words are evidence of very deep reflection, looking into the darkness with one’s eyes until one sees something more in it where others no longer see anything. I find that remark beautiful, extraordinarily beautiful, and it says more to me than a thousand other remarks on the subject, and in this case Taine deserves our respect.
Well, am glad to be able to look at the Boughtons – Abbeys at my leisure for once. I think In the potato field is the finest of all,10 and the Bellringers by Abbey.11
Text a little dry, a little too full of stories about hotels and antique dealers12 — read it with pleasure. Why? For the same reason as the book by Zola. Because of the personality of the man who wrote it.
Have you noticed that Zola doesn’t even mention Millet?13 Yet I read a description by Zola of a country graveyard and a deathbed and funeral of an old peasant, which was as beautiful as if they were Millets.14 So this omission is probably a question of not being familiar with M.’s work.
I can tell you that I’ve found an uncommonly beautiful print by T. Green, the brother or something of C.G.15 It’s a party at the Foundling Hospital in London, a sort of orphan girls at the table.16 Oh, you’ll be in raptures over it.
Also by him a smaller ‘A city congregation’,17 so delicately drawn, as exquisitely done as Braemar by our friend J. McL.R.18
I found two more prints, The ascent of Mount Vesuvius19 and A game of football20 by this sphinx J. McL.R., whose name we’ve so far been unable to decipher but whom I assume to be a brother or at least a relative of W. M. Ridley. Both good, but not as beautiful as the Braemar coach. I also know a salmon fishers,21 by him and I have a ‘volunteers in the camp’ — the latter print enlightened me about the name.22
Furthermore, a procession of monks in the snow by A. Hunt,23 as fine as a Legros. London Bridge and emigrants by W.M. Ridley,24 two markets by Buckman, drawn particularly broadly and boldly effective.25
By Barnard, Hampstead Heath26 — First to come — Last to go.27 How the poor live.28
By Hopkins, Children at the beach, very fine in tone;29 a beautiful sheet by Millais himself, Xmas stories.30
By Birket Foster, Winter landscapes, Christmas time,31 very cosy, two important Gavarnis of the highest quality, Porters of the market,32 Women of the market33 and The New Year’s presents.34
Then Régameys — beautiful Japanese subjects35 and a very large print by him, a masterpiece, The diamond field,36 and another large composition too, The fatted ox.37
And by M.F. a sheet of about medium size showing the treadmill in a prison,38 as beautiful as a Régamey.
By I don’t know whom, a splendid thing about the steel mills in Sheffield called ‘The Fork-grinders’.39 It’s in the manner of Edmond Morin, namely his most compact and concise manner.
As you see, this isn’t all that many, but they’re all beautiful things which I consider valuable additions.
By Howard Pyle, a very beautiful female figure.40 By S. Read, fine landscapes too.41
Yet more perhaps, but these are about the most important.
How are you getting on with drawing on your travels, if you’ve already left?
I’m working on the potato grubbers,42 also have a single figure of an old man and several rough studies of figures from the time of the potato harvest.43 A weed burner and a chap with a sack and one with a wheelbarrow &c.44 When you return from your travels I hope you go ahead with your visit quickly.
Then I also have another sower, perhaps the seventh or eighth figure I’ve done for it.
This time I’ve placed him in the space for once, in a large field with clods of earth and a sky.45
I’d like to put to Zola the question that I’d like to put to some other people. Tell me, is it true that there’s no distinction between, say, a red ochre dish with a cod on it and, say, the figure of a digger or a sower? Is there or is there not a distinction between Rembrandt and Van Beijeren (just as gifted technically), between Vollon and Millet?
Have you already noticed that new magazine Pictorial News?46 Sometimes there are good things in it, but most aren’t very special.
My dear friend, I wish we could spend a little more time together. But what can one do?47 Write again when you have the time and the inclination. The summer issues of The Graphic and London News aren’t particularly special in my view. The Graphic does, though, have a fine Caldecott,48 that’s the best thing.49 And several Reinharts, not the best. London News, Caton Woodvilles again.50
You’ll find the sheets I’m writing to you about more interesting. Diamond field by Régamey isn’t at all gripping at first sight, but one finds it more and more beautiful with time. The T. Greens are masterpieces.
My brother writes to me about a particularly beautiful exhibition in Paris, called ‘The hundred masterpieces’.51 Adieu, my dear friend, have a good journey, remember to write if there’s time.
With a handshake.