The thought of you is constantly with me; no wonder that I write rather often. Moreover things are sinking in a little, I’m turning things over in my mind more, things are falling into place, taking on more substance. So I can write to you about it quite calmly. First of all, I don’t see much likelihood of your remaining on good terms with G&Cie. It’s such a large firm that it will most certainly take a long time before one can’t put up with it any longer, and the decay has penetrated everywhere. But look, in my view there has already been a very long period of decay, so it wouldn’t surprise me now if it were already far advanced. Wisselingh waited — even before he left. And that was in vain — his heart was wholly in it — I believe he would much rather have stayed — but it wasn’t possible. I don’t count Arnold & Tripp,1 they were a very different sort with less inner life. I would, though, include Obach — he waited so long, put up with so much stress that for a time he was going out of his mind.2 Well, but after all, I didn’t really want to talk about the state of the firm — the negative aspect of things — because, all that aside, I wanted to talk about one positive thing.
A few things have already happened to you that I consider to be not immaterial. You’ve read Zola’s books in another and better way than most — and I consider them to be among the very best about the present day. You once said to me, ‘I’m something like that character in Pot-bouille’ — I said, no. If you were that you would do well to go into a new business, but you’re deeper than him and I don’t know whether at bottom you are a man of business3 — at the very deepest depths I see in you the artist, the true artist. You have been through a deep, singular experience in your meeting with that woman. That disturbs the very deepest depths. Perhaps this is why it had to be so, because this simply had to be ploughed through. So you have had emotional experiences, unsought, that have been harrowing for you — now things are running their course. Why? Where to? To a fresh start on a similar career? My decided opinion is — no — it’s something deeper than that. Change you must — but it’s a complete re-creation, not a repetition of the same thing. You weren’t mistaken in the past; no, given the past you had to be as you were. That past is right. Does it follow from that that it was not simply a general preparation, laying the foundations, only learning the ways of the world, and not yet the real thing? Why should that not follow? It seems to me that this is precisely what it’s about.
I think that things are so almighty obvious that I couldn’t possibly say anything to you that isn’t already evident — even in your own thoughts.
Moreover, it’s curious enough, to my mind, that there’s a change in me too at this very time. That at this very time I come into surroundings that so mightily engross me, order, regulate, fix, renew, enlarge my thoughts, that I’m wholly absorbed in them.
And can write to you full of what these silent, gloomy heaths engender in me. At this very moment I feel in me the start of something better. Something that isn’t there yet, but nevertheless I see in my work things that only recently I didn’t have.
Painting is coming more easily to me; I feel an urge to tackle all sorts of things that I left undone until today. I know that this coincides with such undecided circumstances that it’s far from certain that I’ll be able to stay here. Perhaps it could turn out differently precisely because of your circumstances. But I’d find that a pity, although I’d take it very calmly. But I can’t help envisaging the future as consisting not of me alone but of you and me as painters, and working together as comrades here in this peat country. The idea presents itself to me with the greatest possible coolness. The thing would have to be accomplished without the slightest fuss, without a lot of scurrying back and forth, as ‘a revolution that is because it has to be’.4 That’s all — and so I just say that it wouldn’t surprise me in the very least if we were together in due course, and together here. I see that it may happen without making any more stir than when a turf rolls from one spot to another. Just for a moment, and then it lies quite still again and no one takes any notice of it.
Meanwhile, a person has his roots, transplanting is a painful thing, even if the soil into which he’s transplanted is better for him.
And is it better??? What the Puritans were in the past,5 so the painters are in today’s society, in a way. It’s not a crazy, not a bombastic piety or fanaticism, it’s something simple and solid. I’m speaking here specifically of the Barbizon people, and that tendency to search for things in peasant life. I see in you, as a human being, something that’s in contradiction with Paris — so many years in Paris have washed over you — indeed a part of your heart is there — I don’t mind that at all — but something — a je ne sais quoi — is still pure.
1v:3 That is the artistic element. It’s now weak, seemingly — but that new shoot is emerging and will soon sprout. I fear that the old trunk has been hacked through too far, and so I say, sprout in an entirely new direction, otherwise I’m afraid that the old trunk will after all prove not to have the necessary viability any more.
This is how it seems to me — does it appear differently to you? All the more so because if you were to become a painter, you would as it were, without having intended it, prove to have laid a foundation for it, and at the outset you would have company, friendship, a certain environment. Would also bring about an immediate change in my own work, I believe. For I lack contact and support in my work, a certain friction of ideas with someone who knows what a painting is. I’ve been without it so much for so long that I believe I really need that stimulus. I have such plans as I hardly dare tackle alone — you would very soon learn what they are, how they fit together. I’m mightily sensitive (although I wish it were otherwise) to what’s said about my work, how I myself am received. If I encounter disbelief, stand alone, I lack a certain something, and that blights me in many initiatives. Now you would be just the person to understand it — I don’t in the least seek flattery, or that people should say ‘I think it beautiful’ when they think it ugly; no, what I want is an intelligent honesty that isn’t vexed by failures. That would say to me if I had failed 6 times, just as my courage failed me, now you really must try again for the 7th time. You see, I can’t do without that push. And I think that you would understand it and I would benefit tremendously from you. And it’s something that you would particularly be able to do if you yourself were obliged to do the same. We would support each other, because for your part you’d also get that from me, and that’s something important. Two people must believe in each other and feel that it’s possible and that it’s essential, in that way they’re almighty strong. They must keep each other’s spirits up. Well I think that you and I would understand each other.
I don’t know whether you could do it if you weren’t a painter.
On the other hand there is doubt — which people usually try to awaken. Tersteeg, for example — who is himself a sceptic, DOES NOT KNOW what faith is. Millet, though, is the religious type. He often used the expression collier’s faith, and that expression is a mighty old one.6 One shouldn’t be a city person but a country person, even if one is civilized or whatever. I can’t quite explain it. There has to be a je ne sais quoi in a person that shuts his mouth and makes him active — holding something back even though he’s speaking — that spurs to action, I say, him who is inwardly silent. Thus one does something great — why? Because one has a certain feeling of ‘what will be, will be’. One works — and afterwards — I don’t know. I don’t want to hurry you, I just want to say, don’t go against nature. I don’t want anything outrageous, but I have a silent hope that one would be able to go ahead in a reasonable way, not going absolutely without, but with a relatively small part of what’s needed for food and shelter. And not if it would bring about an absolute calamity, but in the event that there’s even a very tiny possibility, I say now, you must follow that little point, that tiny little possibility — that little point is the way — follow it — utterly abandon all the rest. Don’t abandon things outwardly, hold on to such relationships as you can, but be resolute in saying I want to be a painter, so that what Tom, Dick and Harry say is like water off a duck’s back.
I don’t think that you’d be like a fish out of water then, but would feel something like a return to a native country — straightaway — a great serenity right now — you would be easier about becoming a painter than about a new post, or easier than at G&Cie even.
And now, old chap, there’s something else — you have a nervous system like other people — I must now warn you of something from my own experience. Take care that your nerves don’t play you a nasty trick. You’ve been through periods of dreadful strain, are right in the middle of it. Are not the man to break down — if you were, there would be no danger. If you have to undergo the shock of leaving G&Cie, calm yourself before you begin something new, old chap, because otherwise you might perhaps harm your own constitution and strength of mind for years, and secondly your affairs.
I’ve now been breathing heathland air for a month, I absolutely needed it too — I went and sat by a peasant’s peat fire with a cradle beside it.
I speak calmly, I think calmly now.
It’s very good that you wrote to me about it — keep trusting me — trust me a little bit more, or rather not me, but trust in the same thing in which I trust, that one must dare to step out of the world and to look to a quieter life with a craft. You must do it not because I tell you to, but because you believe in it yourself. Well, then I don’t have to tell you that you can trust me, because you yourself understand my seeking as being right.
I don’t know how things would go with me should you not decide to become a painter. If there was a way for me in Paris I would obviously have to take that, and otherwise I would have to work out a compromise with Pa so that I could stay there and work in Brabant for a while. But oh, I must tell you that I’m not even thinking about that now, I’m thinking about my present work, and also about the plan for you. You’re a fellow with a will and with a good, rational, clear head, with an honest heart; well, you can safely become a painter in the circumstances if you could hold out for a while. And again, it would definitely give my work a push.
Today I walked behind the ploughmen who were ploughing up a potato field, and women walking behind them picking up a few potatoes that were left.7
This was a very different field from the one I scribbled for you yesterday,8 but this is the singular thing about it here, always precisely the same and yet just that variation; the same subjects as in paintings by masters who work in the same genre and yet differ, oh it’s so singular here — and so quiet, so peaceful. I can find no other word for it but peace.
Say a lot about it, say little about it; it’s all the same, it makes no difference.
It’s a question of wanting something very new, undertaking a sort of re-creation of yourself, very coolly, with the firm idea — it’ll be fine.9 Not that you may not have concerns, of course, it won’t happen of its own accord, but it must be a feeling of ‘I’ll do what seems simplest to me — I’ll put aside everything that isn’t simple — I don’t want the city any more — I want to go to the country — I don’t want an office any more — I want to paint’. There you have it. Then handle it like a business matter, although it’s deeper, indeed infinitely deep, but concentrate your thoughts on it decisively.
Well, in the future see yourself and me as painters.
If there’s trouble, if there are objections, see it all the same — see your own work already. Look at a bit of nature — think, I want to paint that. Surrender yourself to that firm idea of becoming a painter.
All at once people, even your best friends, become more or less like strangers. You’re involved with something else — precisely. All at once you think, blast, I’m dreaming, I’m on the wrong road. Where’s my studio, where’s my brush?
Thoughts like these, when one feels them, are very deep. Naturally one says little or nothing about them, it would be a mistake to ask for advice about it, wouldn’t throw any more light on it for you. It’s a matter of ensuring that one doesn’t work against it; on the contrary, that one has good will, courage for it. I’m not saying that one must expect the something on High to do absolutely everything, no, but the Something on high exists, nonetheless;10 at least if Millet believed in it you’ll obviously want to trust him in this — that he wasn’t sitting dozing when he knew that it existed. Well, one may give it some thought, that’s all I’m saying, that life is serious, and a correct decision doesn’t remove the difficulties attached to carrying it out, and after all life is serious and one should take it so seriously that one does one’s best to raise one’s life to something of the kind, and so in the case of an evident need to change one must allow doing right to weigh more heavily than what people say about it.
What was said about it at the time won’t be brought up later and will be less important. Now, the art trade brings with it certain prejudices that I believe you may perhaps still cling to, particularly ideas that painting is a gift — well yes, a gift, but not as they make it appear; one must reach out and take it (and that taking is a difficult thing), not wait until it manifests itself of its own accord. There’s something to it, but it’s absolutely not as they make it appear, one learns by doing. One becomes a painter by painting. If one wants to become a painter, if one has passion, if one feels what you feel, then one can do it, but this can go hand in hand with difficulty, worries, disappointments, times of melancholy, of powerlessness and all that. That’s how I see it.11 I find it so stultifying that I had to make a little scratch to take my mind off it; forgive me, I’ll say no more about it, it’s not worth the effort.
But I would just like to say again that, as things are, this is in many respects a moment when, if bread could be found, nature is so extraordinarily interesting that you could get down to work like a shot; it wouldn’t be a matter of pottering about but a direct, fresh grappling with things, as direct as possible.
We must treat the world with so much good heart, so much energy, so much coolness, not taking things too hard, you know — even if we had serious concerns — we must be cheerful like the Swedes you told me about, like the old Barbizon men. Take a large, strong, broad view. Not doubting, sitting dozing or letting ourselves be disconcerted. I’d feel at home with this plan, always much, much less at home with another plan.
So I don’t doubt for one moment that you also think that, if it’s done, it must be undertaken with the greatest possible coolness. And actually write this more to show you that I have the same thought. For my part, I believe in you as a painter, as an artist, and respect you as such.
Even though I was at least as incapable in the beginning, and now no longer doubt that I’ll improve with practice, only after having realized my own absolute ham-fistedness, I’m perhaps a good comrade if you have trouble at first. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if I could help you on the way with some things that, my being alone, held me up for a long time while I found them out.
Now I don’t know exactly how things stand, anyway it doesn’t matter; this would be something so new that relatively speaking it mattered less how things stood with this or that.
But what I say is, you’ll most probably have to make a change anyway, and I’d like to see you make a change through and through. Seize the bull by the horns. The bull called fatality, which would make us all miserable and melancholy if he were the boss. From whom we can’t be free without a struggle. What do you want – peace – order – craft – art? Very well – get out of that speculative art business12 — become a painter. It would perhaps be too reckless if G&Cie now was still what G&Cie has been. But it’s now too much of a bubble company — I’m not interested in what will happen or how it will end, and actually I don’t think you are either. But your heart can’t be in it as it is now, precisely because your heart would be in it if it were different.
And now, that other thing — yes that, if it has to be and it would be impossible to assure us of a period working here quietly — if you must embark on that other thing, go ahead; then I would submit, and resign myself to such circumstances as this would involve for me, either by coming to Paris or perhaps by having to stay at home for a time until circumstances improve. If it has to be so, I naturally hope I’ll be able to go along reasonably with one or the other.
But I’ve said this and that about a plan I feel at home with — I don’t feel at home with the other. It’s an almighty gamble, but neither you nor I are afraid to hazard something. So think about it and in any event write soon. Regards, old chap, with a handshake in thought.
What should you do?
But you, you will keep silent
As one sees a blackcock keep silent on the heath13
you can’t act more coolly than that.