My dear Theo,
Yesterday I spent the evening with that second lieutenant, and he plans to leave here on Friday, then he’ll stay one night in Clermont, and from Clermont he’ll send you a telegram to tell you by which train he’ll be arriving. Sunday morning, in all probability.
The roll that he’ll bring you contains 36 studies;1 among them there are many with which I’m desperately dissatisfied, and which I’m sending you anyway because it will still give you a vague idea of some really fine subjects in the countryside.
For example, there’s a quick sketch I made of myself laden with boxes, sticks, a canvas, on the sunny Tarascon road;2 there’s a view of the Rhône, in which the sky and the water are the colour of absinthe, with a blue bridge and black figures of ruffians;3 there’s the sower,4 a washing-place5 and still others, not at all successful and unfinished, especially a large landscape with brushwood.6
What’s happened to the Souvenir de Mauve?7 Having heard no more about it, I was inclined to believe that Tersteeg may have said something disagreeable to you, to let you know that it would be refused, or some other unpleasantness. Naturally, I wouldn’t get worked up about it in that case.
At the moment I’m working on a study like this:
boats seen from a quay, from above; the two boats are a purplish pink, the water is very green, no sky, a tricolour flag on the mast. A workman with a wheelbarrow is unloading sand.8 I have a drawing of it too.9 Did you receive the three drawings of the garden?10 They’ll end up by not taking them at the post office any more, because the format’s too big.
I fear that I won’t have a very fine female model. She had promised, then as it appears, she earned a few sous with
1v:3 some riotous living and has better things to do. She was extraordinary; her expression was like that of Delacroix. And a strange, primitive bearing. I take things with patience, for want of seeing other ways of enduring them, but it’s annoying, this constant aggravation with models. I hope to do a study of oleanders in the next few days.11 If we painted smoothly like Bouguereau people wouldn’t be ashamed to let themselves be painted, but I believe it’s made me lose models, that people found that it was ‘badly done’, it was only pictures full of painting that I was doing. So the good whores are afraid of being compromised, and that people will laugh at their portraits. But it’s enough to make you almost lose heart when you feel that you could do things if people had more good will. I can’t resign myself to saying, ‘grapes are sour’;12 I can’t get over the fact that I don’t have more models. Well, we must be patient and look for others.
Now our sister will come soon to spend some time with you; I have no doubt that she’ll enjoy herself.13
It’s a rather sad prospect to have to say to myself that the painting I do will perhaps never have any value. If it was worth what it costs I could say to myself, I’ve never concerned myself about money.
But in the present circumstances, on the contrary, one will soak it up. Ah well, and all the same, we must still continue and try to do better.
It very often seems wiser to me to go to Gauguin instead of recommending to him the life down here; I so much fear that in the end he’ll complain of having been inconvenienced. Will it be possible to live at home here, will we manage to make ends meet? Because that’s a new venture. In Brittany, now, we can calculate what it will cost, and here I have no idea. I continue to find life quite expensive, and you don’t get very far with the people. Here there would be beds and some pieces of furniture to buy, and the expenses of his journey and everything he owes. That seems to me to risk more than is proper, when he and Bernard spend so little in Brittany. Well, we’ll have to make up our minds soon, and for my part I have no preferences. It’s a simple question of deciding where we have the most chance of living cheaply.
I must write to Gauguin today to ask him what he pays models, and to find out if there are any. There you are, if you’re getting old, it’s important to rule out what is an illusion and to calculate before jumping into things. And if when you’re younger you’re able to believe that you can meet your needs through diligent work, it becomes more and more doubtful now. I also told Gauguin that in my last letter. That if we painted like Bouguereau, that we could then hope to earn — but that the public will never change and only likes soft and smooth things. With a more austere talent, you can’t depend on the product of your labours; most of the people intelligent enough to understand and love Impressionist paintings are and will remain too poor to buy. Will Gauguin or I work less for that — no — but we’ll be obliged to accept poverty and social isolation as a prior condition. And to start with, let’s set ourselves up where living costs the least. So much the better if success comes, so much the better if one day we found ourselves better off.
What touches me most deeply in Zola’s L’oeuvre is that character Bongrand-Jundt.
It’s so true what he says: You believe, unfortunate souls, that when the artist has mastered his talent and gained his reputation, that then he’s home and dry?
On the contrary, from that moment on he isn’t allowed to produce a thing that isn’t good in every way. His very reputation obliges him to take all the more care over his work as chances of sales diminish. At the least sign of weakness the whole jealous pack falls on him and destroys precisely that reputation and that faith that a fickle and treacherous public briefly had in him.14
Stronger than that is what Carlyle says. You know the fireflies in Brazil that are so luminous that in the evening ladies stick them into their hair with pins. It’s very fine, fame, but see, it is to the artist what the hairpin is to those insects.
You wish to succeed and shine; do you really know what you want?15
Now I have a horror of success; I’m afraid of the morning after following a success by the Impressionists; even the present difficult days will later seem like ‘the good times’ to us.
Well, Gauguin and I must look ahead, we must work at getting a roof over our heads, beds; the essentials, in short, to endure the siege by failure that will last the whole of our life.
And we must settle down in the least expensive place. Then we’ll have the peace of mind needed to produce a large amount, even if we sell little or nothing.
But if expenses exceeded income, we’d be wrong to hope too much that everything would work out through the sale of our paintings. On the contrary, we’d be obliged to part with them at any price at the wrong time.
I conclude. Living more or less like monks or hermits, with work as our ruling passion, giving up well-being. Nature, the fine weather down here, that’s the advantage of the south. But I believe that Gauguin will never give up the battle of Paris; he has that too much at heart, and believes in a lasting success more than I do. That won’t do me any harm; on the contrary, perhaps I despair too much. So let’s leave him this illusion, but let’s be aware that what he’ll always need is lodgings, and his daily bread, and paint. That’s where the chink in his armour is, and it’s because he’s getting into debt now that he’ll be done for beforehand. By coming to his aid, the two of us make his victory in Paris possible, in fact.
If I had the same ambitions as he has, we probably wouldn’t get on well together. But I don’t care about my success nor about my happiness, I care about the continuation of the energetic undertakings of the Impressionists, I care about this question of a refuge and of daily bread for them. And I feel it a crime that I have that, while two can live on the same amount.
If you’re a painter, you’re taken either for a madman or for a rich man. A cup of milk costs you one franc, a slice of bread and butter two, and paintings don’t sell. That’s why we have to join together as the old monks did, the Brethren of the Common Life of our Dutch heathlands.16 I realize already that Gauguin hopes for success — he couldn’t do without Paris, he doesn’t foresee the infinity of poverty. You understand how far in these circumstances it’s absolutely one and the same to me to stay here or to leave. We have to allow him to fight his battle. He’ll win it, what’s more. Too far from Paris, he would think himself idle. But for ourselves let’s keep a total indifference regarding success or failure. I’d begun to sign my canvases, but I soon stopped; it seemed too silly to me. On a seascape there’s a very outrageous red signature, because I wanted a red note in the green.17 You’ll see them soon, anyway. Weekend will be a bit tough, so I hope to have your letter a day early rather than a day late.