My dear Theo,
Sincere wishes for your good health and serenity on your birthday.1 I would like to have sent you the painting of the potato eaters2 for this day, but although it’s coming along well, it’s not quite finished yet.
Although I’ll have painted the actual painting in a relatively short time, and largely from memory, it’s taken a whole winter of painting studies of heads and hands. And as for the few days in which I’ve painted it now — it’s consequently been a formidable fight, but one for which I have great enthusiasm. Although at times I feared that it wouldn’t come off. But painting is also ‘act and create’.3
When the weavers weave those fabrics that I believe they call cheviots, and also the singular Scottish multicoloured tartan fabrics — then they try, as you know, to get singular broken colours and greys in the cheviots — or to get the very brightest colours in balance against one another in the multicoloured tartans so that, rather than the fabric clashing, the overall effect of the pattern is harmonious from a distance. A grey that’s woven from red, blue, yellow, off-white and black threads, a blue that — is broken by a green and an orange, red or yellow thread — are very different from plain colours — that is, they vibrate more and make whole colours look harsh, whole, and lifeless.4
However, it’s not always exactly easy for the weaver, or rather the designer of the pattern or the colour combination, to work out his calculation of the number of threads and their direction — nor is it easy to weave brushstrokes together into a harmonious whole. If you saw the first painted studies that I made when I came here to Nuenen — and the present canvas — side by side — I think you’d see that as far as colour is concerned — things have livened up.
I think that the question of the breaking of colours in the relationships of the colours will occupy you too one day. For as an art expert and critic, one must also, it seems to me — be sure of one’s ground and have certain convictions. At least for one’s own pleasure and to be able to give reasons, and at the same time one must be able to explain it in a few words to others, who sometimes turn to someone like you for enlightenment when they want to know something more about art.
Now, though, I have something to say about Portier — of course his private opinion isn’t at all a matter of indifference to me, and I also appreciate to the utmost that he said that he took back nothing of what he’d said.
Nor does it concern me that it appeared that he hadn’t hung these first studies.5
But — if he also wants me to send a painting destined for him, then he can only have it on condition that he exhibits it.
As regards the potato eaters — it’s a painting that looks well in gold, I’m sure of that.6 Still — it would do equally well on a wall hung with a paper that had a deep tone of ripe wheat. It simply mustn’t be seen, though, without this enclosure to it.
It does not appear to advantage against a dark background, and particularly not against a dull background. And this is because it’s a glimpse into a very grey interior.
In reality, it’s also in a gilt frame as it were — since the hearth and the light from the fire on the white walls —
1v:3 which now lie outside the painting but in real life throw the whole thing backwards — would be closer to the viewer.
Once more, one must enclose it by placing something in a deep gold or copper colour around it.
Please bear that in mind if you want to see it as it should be seen. This association with a gold tone at the same time brings brightness to areas where you wouldn’t expect it and takes away the marbled look that it gets if one unfortunately places it against a dull or black background. The shadows are painted with blue, and the gold colour works with that.
Yesterday I took it to an acquaintance of mine in Eindhoven, who is painting.7 In 3 days or so, I’ll go over there and lift it with a little white of egg8 and finish off a few details. This man, who is himself doing his very best to learn to paint and is himself also trying to find a good colour palette, was extremely taken with it. He’d already seen the study from which I made the lithograph,9 and said that he hadn’t thought that I could have raised the level of both the colour and the drawing so much higher. Since he also paints from models, he also knows very well what a peasant’s head or fist entails, and as to the hands, he said that he now had a very different concept of how to do them himself.
You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and — that they have thus honestly earned their food.10 I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours — civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.
I’ve had the threads of this fabric in my hands the whole winter long, and searched for the definitive pattern — and if it’s now a fabric that has a rough and coarse look, nevertheless the threads were chosen with care and in accordance with certain rules. And it might well prove to be a real peasant painting. I know that it is. But anyone who would rather see insipidly pretty peasants can go ahead. For my part, I’m convinced that in the long run it produces better results to paint them in their coarseness than to introduce conventional sweetness.
A peasant girl is more beautiful than a lady — to my mind — in her dusty and patched blue skirt and jacket, which have acquired the most delicate nuances from weather, wind and sun. But — if she puts — a lady’s costume on, then the genuineness is lost. A peasant in his suit of fustian in the fields is finer than when he goes to church on Sundays in a sort of gentleman’s coat.
And likewise, one would be wrong, to my mind, to give a peasant painting a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam — fine — that’s not unhealthy — if a stable smells of manure — very well, that’s what a stable’s for — if the field has an odour of ripe wheat or potatoes or — of guano and manure — that’s really healthy — particularly for city folk. They get something useful out of paintings like this. But a peasant painting mustn’t become perfumed. I’m curious as to whether you’ll find anything in it that you like — I hope so. I’m glad that now, just as Mr Portier has said he wants to handle my work, I for my part have something more important than the studies alone. As to Durand-Ruel — although he didn’t think the drawings worthwhile, show him this painting.11 He may think it ugly — very well — but let him see it anyway — so that they may see that we’re putting energy into our endeavours. However, you’ll hear — ‘what a daub!’;12 be prepared for that as I’m prepared myself. But nonetheless go on giving something genuine and honest.
Painting peasant life is a serious thing, and I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make paintings such that they give people who think seriously about art and about life serious things to think about. Millet, Degroux, so many others, have set examples of character, of taking no notice of the reproaches of — nasty, crude, muddy, stinking &c. &c., that it would be a disgrace if one were even to have misgivings.
No — one must paint the peasants as if one were one of them, as feeling, thinking as they do themselves.
As not being able to be other than one is.
I so often think that the peasants are a world in themselves, so much better in many respects than the civilized world.
Not in all respects, because what do they know of art and many other things?
I do still have a few smaller studies — you can imagine, though, that I’ve been kept so busy with the larger one that I’ve been able to do little else besides that.
As soon as the whole thing is finished and dry, I’ll just send the canvas to you in a small crate, and then put a few smaller ones in with it. I think it’s best not to delay sending it for too long, which is why I’ll send it. Then the second lithograph of it will probably have to be abandoned. But still — I understand that Mr Portier, for instance, must be confirmed in what he said, so that we can count on him as a friend for ever. I sincerely hope this will succeed.
I’ve been so absorbed in the painting that I’ve literally almost forgotten my move, which nonetheless also has to be done. It won’t reduce my concerns, but the lives of all painters in that genre are so full of them that I wouldn’t want to have things any easier than they had them. And since, despite everything, they still got their paintings done, the material difficulties will also hinder but not destroy or weaken me. Anyway.
I believe that the potato eaters will come off — the last days are always hazardous for a painting, as you know, because one can’t touch it with a large brush when it isn’t completely dry without a great risk of spoiling it. And the changes have to be made very coolly and calmly with a small brush. This is why I simply took it away and said to my friend that he just had to make sure that I didn’t spoil it in that way, and that I’d come do those small things at his place. You’ll see that it has originality. Regards — I’m sorry it wasn’t ready for today — again wishing you health and serenity, believe me, with a handshake
Today I’ll work on a few smaller studies, which will then go at the same time. Did you ever send that Salon issue?13