My dear Theo,
I think I already told you in my last letter that I also wanted to start a large male figure as well as that woman spinning.1 I now send you a little scratch of it herewith. Perhaps you remember two studies of the same corner, which I already had in the studio when you were here.2
I read Les maîtres d’autrefois by Fromentin3 with great pleasure. And in different places in that book I again found the same questions dealt with that have preoccupied me very much recently, and about which I actually think continually, specifically since, at the end of my time in The Hague, I indirectly heard things that Israëls had said about starting in a low register and making colours that are still relatively dark appear light. In short, expressing light through opposition with dark. I already know what you say about ‘too black’, but at the same time I’m still not completely persuaded that, to mention just one thing, a grey sky always HAS to be painted in the local tone. Which Mauve does; but Ruisdael doesn’t do it, Dupré doesn’t do it. Corot and Daubigny???
Well, as it is with the landscape, so it is with the figure too — I mean, Israëls paints a white wall quite differently from Regnault or Fortuny.4
1v:2 And consequently the figure looks quite different against it.
When I hear you talk about a lot of new names, it’s not always possible for me to understand when I’ve seen absolutely nothing by them. And from what you said about ‘Impressionism’, I’ve grasped that it’s something different from what I thought it was, but it’s still not entirely clear to me what one should understand by it.5
But for my part, I find so tremendously much in Israëls, for instance, that I’m not particularly curious about or eager for something different or newer.
Fromentin says of Ruisdael that people nowadays are much more advanced in technique than he was.6 They’re also more advanced than Cabat — who’s sometimes very like R. because of his dignified simplicity, for instance in the painting in the Luxembourg.7 But does this mean that what R., what Cabat said has become untrue or superfluous? No. The same with Israëls, too — with Degroux, too (Degroux was very simple).
If one says what one says clearly, though, this isn’t enough, strictly speaking.
And saying it with more charm might make it more pleasant to hear (which I don’t disparage, however), but it doesn’t make what is true very much more beautiful, since the truth is beautiful in itself.8
[Paint sample 1, framed]
This is the very highest note9 in the study of the little old man, which expresses the snowy white of his skein of yarn in the light. That same white is much darker still in the shadow.10
[Paint sample 2, preceded by an arrow]
The measurement of the subject overleaf is about 105 x 95 cm, and that of the woman spinning 100 x 75. They’re painted in a tone of bistre and bitumen which, it seems to me, lends itself to expressing the WARM11 chiaroscuro of an airless, dusty interior. Artz would certainly think it too dirty.
It has bothered me FOR A LONG TIME, Theo, that some of the painters nowadays are taking from us the bistre and the bitumen with which, after all, so many magnificent things were painted, which — properly used, make the coloration lush and tender and generous, and at the same time so dignified. And have such highly remarkable and individual qualities.
At the same time, though, they require that one take the trouble to learn to use them, for one has to deal with them differently from the ordinary types of paint, and I consider it perfectly possible that many people are frightened off by the experiments that one has to do first, and that naturally don’t succeed on the first day that one starts to use them. It’s now something like a year ago since I started using them, specifically for interiors, but at first they really disappointed me, and yet I always remembered the beautiful things I’d seen in them.
You have a better opportunity than I do to hear about books on art. If you come across good works by people like, say, the book by Fromentin on the Dutch painters, or if you remember any from the past, be aware that I’d very much like you to buy a few sometime, provided they deal with technique — and deduct it from what you usually send. I do intend to learn the theory — I don’t regard it as useless at all, and believe that often what one feels or suspects instinctively leads to certainty and clarity if, in one’s search, one has some guide in truly practical words. Even if there’s just one or a very few things of that nature in a book, it’s sometimes worthwhile not just to read it but actually to buy it, particularly nowadays.
And in the days of Thoré and Blanc there were people who wrote things that are now, unfortunately, already beginning to pass into oblivion.
To mention just one thing. Do you know what an unbroken tone and what a broken tone is?12 You can certainly see it in a painting, but do you also know how to explain what you see? What they mean by broken?
One should know this sort of thing, theoretically too, be it as a practitioner when painting or as an expert talking about colour.
Most people understand what they want to by it, and yet these words, for instance, have a VERY SPECIFIC meaning.
The laws of colour13 are inexpressibly splendid precisely because they are not coincidences. Just as people nowadays no longer believe in random miracles, in a God who jumps capriciously and despotically from one thing to another, but are beginning to gain more respect and admiration for and belief in nature, just so and for the same reasons I believe that people should — I don’t say ignore — but thoroughly scrutinize, verify and — — very substantially alter the old-fashioned ideas of innate genius, inspiration &c. in art.
I don’t deny the existence of genius, though, nor even its innate nature.14 But I do deny the inferences of it, that theory and training are always useless by the very nature of the thing.
I hope, or rather, I’ll try to do the same thing that I’ve now done in the little woman spinning and the old man winding yarn much better later on. Yet in these two studies from life I’ve been a bit more myself than I’ve succeeded in being in most other studies till now (barring a few of my drawings).
As to black — as it happened I didn’t use it in these studies, since I needed a few stronger effects than black, among other things — — and indigo with terra sienna, Prussian blue with burnt sienna actually produce much deeper tones even than pure black. What I sometimes think when I hear people saying ‘there is no black in nature’ is — there doesn’t have to be any black in paint either.
Don’t, whatever you do, get the mistaken idea that the colourists don’t use black, because it goes without saying that as soon as an element of blue, red or yellow is added to black, it becomes a grey, that is a dark red, yellow or blue grey.
Among other things I thought what C. Blanc says in Les artistes de mon temps about Velázquez’s technique was very interesting — that his shadows and half-tones usually consist of colourless cool greys of which black and a bit of white are the chief components15 — in which neutral, colourless parts the least little dash or hint of red, say, is immediately apparent.
Well — regards, do write soon when you have something to write. It does surprise me rather that you don’t feel as much for Jules Dupré as I wish you did.
I believe so firmly that if I were again to see what I’ve seen by him before, far from finding it less beautiful I would find it even more beautiful than I already did instinctively. Dupré is perhaps even more of a colourist than Corot and Daubigny, although they both are too, and Daubigny really is very daring in colours. But with Dupré there’s something of a magnificent symphony in the colour, carried through, intended, manly. I imagine Beethoven must be something like that. This symphony is surprisingly CALCULATED and yet simple and infinitely deep, like nature itself. That’s what I think about it — about Dupré.
Well — adieu, with a handshake.