My dear Theo,
Many thanks for your registered letter of yesterday and the enclosure. Pursuant to that, I’m writing again right away and enclose herewith a scratch, more precise than the one before, after my latest study.1
I haven’t been able to work it up as far as had been my intention. I painted 3 days continuously from early till late, and by Saturday evening the paint started to get into a state that didn’t allow further work. Unless it’s completely dry first.
I’ve been to Eindhoven today to order a small stone,2 since this is to be the first in a series of lithographs, which I’m planning to start again. When you were here, I asked you about the cost of reproduction by the G&Cie process. You said then, I believe, 100 francs.
Well — the old — ordinary lithographic process, thought so poorly of nowadays, is nevertheless a good deal cheaper — particularly in Eindhoven perhaps.
I’m now getting use of the stone — graining,3 paper and printing of 50 copies for 3 guilders. I’m thinking of making a series of subjects from peasant life, in short — the peasants at home.
Today I went for a splendid walk for hours with an acquaintance of mine,4 whose first watercolour of a figure I showed you.
I don’t say that there isn’t even more stirring and more dramatic nature in Brittany, say, in Katwijk, say, in the Borinage, say — yes — but even so — the heaths and the villages here are still very beautiful, and just being here I see in it an inexhaustible resource for subjects from peasant life — and the question is just — to seize it — to work. I have a great desire to start making watercolours and drawings again, too — and when I’m living in my studio I’ll make time for it in the evenings.
I was really immensely pleased that you sent that 100 francs. As I said, it was absolutely essential that I paid a few things — and that was preoccupying me. It’s not that people were pestering me, though, but because I knew that they were in need of it. And that’s why I wrote that I could be obliged to reserve a small part when the affairs were to be settled.5
But that’s not necessary, now — although I can tell you I know for sure the year will be very grim.
But I just think about what Millet said: ‘I would never do away with suffering, for it is often that which makes artists express themselves most vigorously’.6
I’m thinking of moving about 1 May — although, of course, things are all right with Ma and the sisters — nevertheless I see and feel it’s so much for the better — for living together would become insupportable in the long run. Which I don’t so much ascribe to them personally nor to me personally either, but rather to the irreconcilability of the ideas of people who keep up a position and — a peasant painter — who doesn’t think about it.
When I say that I’m a peasant painter, that is really so, and will become clearer to you in future; I feel at home there. And it’s not for nothing that I’ve spent so many evenings sitting pondering by the fire with the miners and the peat-cutters and the weavers and peasants here — unless I had no time to think — because of the work. I’ve become so absorbed in peasant life by continually seeing it at all hours of the day that I really hardly ever think of anything else.
You write that the public mood — that is, indifference — to Millet’s work — as you just had the opportunity to see at that exhibition7 — isn’t encouraging, either for the artists or for those who have to sell paintings. I agree — but Millet himself felt and knew that — and, on reading Sensier, what he said about the start of his career struck me so much that although I don’t remember it literally, I remember the sense of it, that is, ‘that (i.e. that indifference) would be bad enough for me if I needed fine shoes and the life of a gentleman — but — because I go around in clogs, I shall manage’.8 And that’s how it turned out.
So what I hope not to forget is that — ‘it’s a question of going around in clogs’, that is of being content as regards food, drink, clothes, sleep, with what the peasants are content with.
That’s what Millet did — and — didn’t want anything else anyway — and in my view this means that as a human being he has shown painters a way that Israëls and Mauve, say, who live quite luxuriously, do not show, and I say again — Millet is — PÈRE Millet, that is, counsellor and guide in everything, for the younger painters. Most of them I know, though (but I don’t know all that many) would decline this. As to me — I think the same, and entirely believe what he says. I’m speaking about what Millet says at some length, precisely because you write about the question that when city-dwellers paint peasants, their figures, splendidly painted though they may be, nonetheless can’t help reminding one of the Parisian suburbs.
I’ve also had that impression sometimes (although, to my mind, the woman digging potatoes by B. Lepage is certainly an exception),9 but isn’t it precisely because the painters are so often not deeply enough involved personally in peasant life? Millet said on another occasion — in art one must give heart and soul.10
Degroux — this is one of his qualities — painted real peasants. (And they — the State — demanded history pieces of him!11 — which he also did well, but how much better he was when he could be himself.)
It’s an abiding shame and loss for the Belgians that Degroux still isn’t appreciated as fully as he deserves — Degroux is one of the good Milletesque masters. But even if the general public didn’t and don’t acknowledge him — and although he remains in obscurity, like Daumier, like Tassaert — there are still people, Mellery, for example, to mention just one, who are again making work today that has his sentiment.
I recently saw something by Mellery in an illustrated magazine; a bargee’s family in the little deckhouse on their barge — husband, wife, children — round a table.12 As far as general sympathy is concerned — years ago I read something about it in Renan that has always stayed with me and that I’ll always go on believing — that anyone who really wants to accomplish something good or useful should neither count on nor wish for general approbation or appreciation, but on the contrary should expect nothing other than that only a very few hearts — and even then only maybe — will sympathize and join in.13
If you run into someone from Le Chat Noir, you can show them this little scratch for now, but I can make a better one if they like, because this is very much in haste and serves only to give you a clearer idea of effect and composition than the first.14 Regards and thanks, with a handshake.
You needn’t tell Le Chat Noir that I’m also planning to make a lithograph of this thing myself. That lithograph won’t be published anyway, but is entirely private. By the way, I don’t really mind if they don’t want it — because I’ll certainly lithograph myself what I want to lithograph.