My dear sister,
More than once already I’ve tried – in the interval since my last letter1 – to write to you and to Mother. So I thank you for having again written me such a kind letter.2 How right I think both of you were, Mother and you, to have left Breda for a while3 after Cor’s departure. Certainly grief mustn’t build up in our hearts like the water of a turbid pool. From time to time I feel like that inside, as if I have a very turbid soul, but that’s an illness, and for people who are well and active, certainly they must do as you have done.
As I write to Mother4 I’ll send her a painting in let’s say around a month, and there’ll be one for you too.
I’ve painted a few for myself, too, these past few weeks – I don’t much like seeing my own paintings in my bedroom, so I’ve copied one by Delacroix5 and a few by Millet.6
The Delacroix is a Pietà, i.e. a dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies bent forward on its left side at the entrance to a cave, its hands outstretched, and the woman stands behind. It’s an evening after the storm, and this desolate, blue-clad figure stands out – its flowing clothes blown about by the wind – against a sky in which violet clouds fringed with gold are floating. In a great gesture of despair she too is stretching out her empty arms, and one can see her hands, a working woman’s good, solid hands. With its flowing clothes this figure is almost as wide in extent as it’s tall. And as the dead man’s face is in shadow, the woman’s pale head stands out brightly against a cloud – an opposition which makes these two heads appear to be a dark flower with a pale flower, arranged expressly to bring them out better. I didn’t know what had become of this painting, but while I was in the very process of working on it I came across an article by Pierre Loti, the author of Mon frère Yves and Pêcheur d’Islande and Madame Chrysanthème.7
An article by him on Carmen Sylva.8
If I remember rightly, you’ve read her poems. She’s a queen – she’s queen of Hungary or another country (I don’t know which), and in describing her boudoir, or rather her studio where she writes and where she makes paintings, Loti says that he saw this Delacroix canvas there, which struck him greatly.9
He speaks of Carmen Sylva, making one feel that she’s personally even more interesting than her words, although she says things like this: A woman without a child is a bell without a clapper – the sound of the bronze would perhaps be very beautiful – but — ...10
However, it does one good to think that a canvas like that is in such hands, and it consoles painters a little to be able to imagine that really there are souls who have a feeling for paintings.
But there are relatively few of them.
I thought of sending you yourself a sketch of it to give you an idea of what Delacroix is. This little copy of course has no value from any point of view.11 However, you’ll be able to see in it that Delacroix doesn’t draw the features of a Mater Dolorosa in the manner of Roman statues –
And that the pallid aspect, the lost, vague gaze of a person tired of being in anguish and in tears and keeping vigil is present in it rather in the manner of Germinie Lacerteux.12
I consider it very good and very fortunate that you’re not absolutely enthusiastic about De Goncourt’s masterly book. So much the better that you prefer Tolstoy, you who read books above all to derive energies from them in order to act. I think you’re right a thousand times over.
But I, who read books to seek in them the artist who made them,13 could I be wrong to like French novelists so much?
I’ve just finished the portrait of a woman of forty or more, insignificant. The face faded and tired, pockmarked, an olive-tinged, suntanned complexion, black hair.
A faded black dress adorned with a soft pink geranium, and the background in a neutral tone between pink and green.14
Because I sometimes paint things like that – with as little and as much drama as a dusty blade of grass by the side of the road – it’s right, as it seems to me, that I should have an unbounded admiration for De Goncourt, Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, Huysmans. But as regards yourself, don’t hurry, and continue boldly with the Russians. Have you read Ma religion by Tolstoy15 yet – it must be very practical and really useful. So go right to the very depths of that, since you like it.
Lately I’ve done two portraits of myself, one of which is quite in character, I think,16 but in Holland they’d probably scoff at the ideas about portraits that are germinating here. Did you see at Theo’s the portrait of the painter Guillaumin and the portrait of a young woman by the same?17 That really gives an idea of what one is searching for. When Guillaumin exhibited his portrait, public and artists laughed at it a great deal,18 and yet it’s one of the rare things that would hold up alongside even the old Dutchmen Rembrandt and Hals.
I myself still find photographs frightful and don’t like to have any, especially not of people whom I know and love.
These portraits, first, are faded more quickly than we ourselves, while the painted portrait remains for many generations. Besides, a painted portrait is a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being represented. What remains to us of the old Dutchmen? The portraits.
Thus in Mauve’s family the children will always continue to see him in the portrait that Mesker did so very well of him.19
At this very moment I’ve just received a letter from Theo in which he answers me on the subject of what I’d said of my desire to return to the north for a while.20 It’s quite likely that this will happen, to say exactly when, that still depends
1r:4 on the opportunities there may be to go and live with some artist or another.
But as we know several of them and it’s often advantageous to live in pairs, it won’t take long.
Finally, I say ‘à bientôt’ to you, thanking you again very much for your letters.
I don’t know yet which canvases I’ll send to you and Mother, probably a wheatfield and an olive grove with that copy after Delacroix.21
The weather outside has been splendid for a very long time, but I haven’t left my room for two months, I don’t know why.22
I would need courage, and I often lack it.
And it’s also that since my illness the feeling of loneliness takes hold of me in the fields in such a fearsome way that I hesitate to go out. With time, though, that will change again. It’s only in front of the easel while painting that I feel a little of life.
Anyway, that will change again, for my health is so good that the physique will win the day again.
I kiss you affectionately in thought, and more soon.