Just wanted to tell you about a trip to Zweeloo, the village where Liebermann stayed for a long time and made studies for his painting of the washerwomen at the last Salon.1
Where Ter Meulen and Jules Bakhuyzen also spent some time.2
Imagine a trip across the heath at 3 o’clock in the morning in an open cart (I went with the man where I lodge, who had to go to the market in Assen).3 Along a road, or ‘diek’ as they say here, which they’d put mud on to raise it instead of sand. It was much nicer even than the barge.4 When it was only just starting to get a little lighter and the cocks were crowing everywhere by the huts scattered over the heath, the few cottages we passed — surrounded by slender poplars whose yellow leaves one could hear falling — an old squat tower5 in a little churchyard with earth bank and beech hedge, the flat landscapes of heath or wheatfields, everything, everything became just exactly like the most beautiful Corots. A silence, a mystery, a peace as only he has painted.
It was still very dark, though, when we got to Zweeloo at 6 o’clock in the morning — I saw the real Corots even earlier in the morning. The ride into the village was really so beautiful. Huge mossy roofs on houses, barns, sheepfolds, sheds. The dwellings here are very wide, among oak trees of a superb bronze. Tones of golden green in the moss, of reddish or bluish or yellowish dark lilac greys in the soil, tones of inexpressible purity in the green of the little wheatfields. Tones of black in the wet trunks, standing out against golden showers of whirling, swirling autumn leaves, which still hang in loose tufts, as if they were blown there, loosely and with the sky shining through them, on poplars, birches, limes, apple trees. The sky unbroken, clear, illuminating, not white but a lilac that cannot be deciphered, white in which one sees swirling red, blue, yellow, which reflects everything and one feels above one everywhere, which is vaporous and unites with the thin mist below. Brings everything together in a spectrum of delicate greys.
I didn’t find a single painter in Zweeloo, though, and the people said they never come there in the winter. It’s precisely in the winter that I hope to be there. Since there were no painters, I decided to walk back and do some drawing on the way instead of waiting for my landlord’s return.
So I started to make a sketch of the very apple orchard where Liebermann made his large painting.6 And then back along the road we had driven down early on. At the moment that area around Zweeloo is entirely given over to young wheat — vast, sometimes, that most tender of tender greens that I know. With above it a sky of a delicate lilac white that gives an effect — I don’t think it can be painted, but for me it’s the basic tone that one must know in order to know what the basis of other effects is.
A black earth, flat — infinite — a clear sky of delicate lilac white. That earth brings forth that young wheat — it’s as if that wheat is a growth of mould. That’s what the good, fertile fields of Drenthe are, au fond — everything in a vaporous atmosphere. Think of the Last day of creation by Brion7 — well, yesterday I felt that I understood the meaning of that painting.
The poor soil of Drenthe is the same, only the black earth is even blacker — like soot — not a lilac black like the furrows, and melancholically overgrown with eternally rotting heather and peat. I see that everywhere — the chance effects on that infinite background: in the peat bogs the sod huts, in the fertile areas, really primitive hulks of farmhouses and sheepfolds with low, very low walls, and huge mossy roofs. Oaks around them. When one travels for hours and hours through the region, one feels as if there’s actually nothing but that infinite earth, that mould of wheat or heather, that infinite sky. Horses, people seem as small as fleas then. One feels nothing any more, however big it may be in itself, one only knows that there is land and sky.
However, in one’s capacity as a tiny speck watching other tiny specks — leaving aside the infinite — one discovers that every tiny speck is a Millet. I passed a little old church,8 just exactly, just exactly the church at Gréville in Millet’s little painting in the Luxembourg;9 but here, instead of the little peasant with the spade in that painting, a shepherd with a flock of sheep came along the hedge.10 One didn’t see through to the sea in the background but only to the sea of young wheat, the sea of furrows instead of that of the waves. The effect produced: the same. I saw ploughmen, very busy now, a sand-cart, shepherds, road workers, dung-carts. In a little inn along the way drew a little old woman at the spinning wheel, little dark silhouette — like something out of a fairy tale — little dark silhouette against a bright window through which one saw the bright sky and a path through the delicate green and a few geese cropping the grass.11
And then, when dusk fell — imagine the silence, the peace of that moment! Imagine, right then, an avenue of tall poplars with the autumn leaves, imagine a broad muddy road, all black mud with the endless heath on the right, the endless heath on the left, a few black, triangular silhouettes of sod huts, with the red glow of the fire shining through the tiny windows, with a few pools of dirty, yellowish water that reflect the sky, where bogwood trunks lie rotting. Imagine this muddy mess in the evening twilight with a whitish sky above, so everything black on white. And in this muddy mess a rough figure — the shepherd — a throng of oval masses, half wool, half mud, that bump into one another, jostle one another — the flock. You see it coming — you stand in the midst of it — you turn round and follow them.
With difficulty and reluctantly they progress along the muddy road. Still, there’s the farm in the distance — a few mossy roofs and piles of straw and peat between the poplars. Again the sheepfold is like a triangle in silhouette. Dark.12
The door stands wide open like the entrance to a dark cave. The light from the sky behind shines through the cracks in the boards at the back. The whole caravan of masses of wool and mud disappears into this cave — the shepherd and a woman with a lantern shut the doors behind them.
That return of the flock in the dusk was the finale of the symphony that I heard yesterday. That day passed like a dream, I had been so immersed in that heart-rending music all day that I had literally forgotten even to eat and drink — I took a slice of coarse peasant bread and a cup of coffee at the little inn where I drew the spinning wheel. The day was over, and from dawn to dusk, or rather from one night to the other night, I had forgotten myself in that symphony. I came home and, sitting by the fire, it occurred to me that I was hungry, and I found I was terribly hungry. But that’s how it is here. One feels exactly as if one had been at an exhibition of one hundred masterpieces,13 for example. What does one get out of a day like that? Just a few scratches. And yet one gets something else out of it, too — a calm passion for work.
Above all, do write to me soon. It’s Friday today but your letter isn’t here yet; I’m looking forward to it eagerly. It takes time to get it changed, since it has to go back to Hoogeveen again and then back here again.14 We don’t know how it will work out, but apart from that I would now say — the simplest thing perhaps would be to send money once a month. In any event write again soon. With a handshake.