My dear friend Rappard,
Thank you for your letter — which made me happy. I was pleased that you saw something in my drawings.1
I won’t go into generalities about technique, but I do foresee that, precisely when I become stronger in what I’ll call power of expression than I am at this moment, people will say, not less but in fact even more than now, that I have no technique. Consequently — I’m in complete agreement with you that I must say even more forcibly what I’m saying in my present work — and I’m toiling away to strengthen myself in this respect — but — that the general public will understand it better then — no.
All the same, in my view that doesn’t alter the fact that the reasoning of the good man who asked about your work, ‘does he paint for money?’, is the reasoning of a moaner — since this intelligent creature counts it among the axioms that originality prevents one from earning money with one’s work.
Passing this off as an axiom, because it can decidedly not be proved as a proposition is, as I said — the usual trick of moaners — and lazy little Jesuits.
Do you think that I don’t care about technique or am not searching for it? I do — but only to the extent that — I want to say what I have to say — and where I can’t do it yet, or not well enough, I work on it to improve myself. But I don’t give a damn whether my language squares with that of these orators — (you know you made the comparison — if someone had something useful, true — necessary to say, and said it in terms that were difficult to understand, what good would it be to either speaker or audience?).
I want to stay with this point for a moment — precisely because I’ve often come across a rather curious historical phenomenon.
Let it be clearly understood: that one must speak in the audience’s mother tongue if that audience only speaks one language — that goes without saying, and it would be absurd not to take it as read.
But now the second part of the question. Given a man who has something to say and speaks in the language that his audience is also naturally familiar with.
Then — the phenomenon that the speaker of truth has little oratorical chic will manifest itself time and time again — and does not appeal to the majority of his audience — indeed is branded a man ‘slow of speech’2 and despised as such.
He may consider himself lucky if there is one, or a very few at most, who are edified by him, because these listeners weren’t concerned with oratorical tirades but precisely, effectively with — the truth, usefulness, necessity of the words, which enlightened, broadened them, made them freer or more intelligent.
And now the painters — is the purpose and non plus ultra of art those singular spots of colour — that waywardness in the drawing, that which is called distinction of technique? Certainly not. If one takes a Corot, a Daubigny, a Dupré, a Millet or an Israëls — fellows who are certainly the great forerunners — their work is beyond the paint,3 it stands apart from the chic fellows, just as an oratorical tirade (by, say, a Numa Roumestan)4 is something very different from a prayer or — a good poem.
One must therefore work on technique in so far as one must say what one feels better, more accurately, more profoundly, but — with the less verbiage the better. But the rest — one needn’t occupy oneself with it.
Why I say this is because I believe I’ve observed that you sometimes think things in your own work aren’t good, which to my mind are good. In my view, your technique is better than, say, Haverman’s — because already your brushstroke often has something singular, distinctive, reasoned and deliberate about it, which in Haverman is endless convention, always redolent of the studio, not of nature.
Those sketches of yours that I saw, for instance, the little weaver5 and the old women of Terschelling,6 appeal to me — they get to the heart of things. I get little but malaise and boredom from Haverman.
I’m afraid that in the future, too — and I congratulate you on it — you will ALSO hear the same comments about technique, as well as about subject and..... everything, in fact, even when that brushstroke of yours, which already has so much character, gets even more.
There are however art lovers who do, after all, appreciate precisely those things that have been painted with emotion.
Although we’re no longer in the days of Thoré and of Théophile Gautier — alas. Just think about whether it’s wise, particularly nowadays, to talk a lot about technique — you’ll say I’m doing that here myself — actually I do regret it.
But for my part, I intend to tell people consistently that I can’t paint, even when I’ve mastered my brush much better than now. You understand? — especially then, when I really will have an individual manner, more finished and even more concise than now.
I liked what Herkomer said when he opened his own art school — for a number of people who could already paint — he kindly asked his students if they would be so good as to not want to paint like him — but according to their own nature — I am concerned, he says, with setting originality free — not with winning disciples for Herkomer’s doctrine.7
Lions do not ape one another.8
Well, I’ve painted quite a lot these last few days, a seated girl winding shuttles for the weavers,9 and the figure of the weaver separately.10
I’m longing for you to see my painted studies sometime — not because I’m satisfied with them myself, but because I believe that you’ll be convinced by them that I really am exercising my hand and, when I say I care relatively little for technique, it’s not because I’m saving myself trouble or trying to avoid difficulties. Because that’s not my system.
I’m also longing for you to get to know this corner of Brabant sometime — much more beautiful than the Breda side in my view. It’s delightful here at the moment.
There’s a village here — Son en Breugel,11 which is amazingly like Courrières, where the Bretons live — yet the figures over there are at least as beautiful. As one starts to appreciate the form more, one sometimes takes a dislike to — ‘the Dutch traditional costumes’, as they’re called on the photograph albums that they sell to foreigners.12
I’m sending you herewith a little booklet about Corot — which I think you’ll enjoy reading if you don’t know it — there are several accurate biographical details in it. I saw the exhibition at the time, for which this is the catalogue.13
What’s remarkable in it is that that man ripened and matured for so long. Just look at what he did at different times in his life. I’ve seen examples of his first actual work — itself the result of years of study — honest as the day is long, thoroughly sound — but how people must have despised it! Corot’s studies were a lesson to me when I saw them, and was already struck at the time by the difference from studies by many other landscape painters.
If I didn’t see more technique in your little peasant cemetery14 than in Corot’s studies — I’d liken it to them. In sentiment it’s identical — an endeavour to express only the intimate and the essential.
What I’m saying in this letter amounts to this — let’s try to get the hang of the secrets of technique so well that people are taken in and swear by all that’s holy that we have no technique.
Let the work be so skilful that it seems naive and doesn’t stink of our cleverness.
I don’t believe that I have reached this desirable point yet, for I don’t even believe that you, who are further on than I am, are already there.
I believe you’ll see more in this letter than nitpicking about words.
I believe that the more one has to do with nature itself — the deeper one penetrates into it — the less attraction one sees in all these studio tricks, and yet, I do want to take them as they are and see them painting. I would really like to spend a lot of time in studios.
Not in the books have I found it
And from the ‘learned’ — oh, little learned
is in De Génestet, as you know.15
2v:7 One might say as a variant on this,
Not in the studio have I found it
|And from the painters
|| oh, little learned.
Perhaps my inserting painters or connoisseurs as equals shocks you.
But changing the subject — it’s devilishly difficult to feel nothing, not to be affected by what such moaners as ‘does he paint for money’ say. One hears that rot day in and day out, and later one gets angry with oneself for having taken any notice of it. That’s how it is with me — and I think that it must occasionally be the same with you. One doesn’t give a damn about it, but all the same it gets on one’s nerves — like when one hears someone singing off-key or is pursued by a barrel-organ with a grudge against you. Don’t you think that’s true about the barrel-organ, and also that it seems to pick on you specifically?
For wherever one goes, it’s the same old tune everywhere.
Oh, as to me — I’m going to do what I tell you — when people say this and that to me — I’m going to finish their sentences before they do — in the same way as, when I know someone is in the habit of offering me a finger instead of a hand (I pulled it off yesterday with a venerable colleague of my father’s), I for my part also have one finger ready and, keeping a straight face, carefully touch his with it when shaking hands — in a way that the man can’t say anything about it but realizes I’m bloody well getting my own back on him.
Well, I’ve recently made somebody very angry with something of the sort — does one lose anything by it? No, for in truth these people are a hindrance, and the fact that I write to you about some expressions you use is to ask you: are you sure that those who are praising technique to the skies are in good faith? I just ask it precisely because I know that your aim is to avoid studio chic.