My dear Theo,
Thanks very much for your letter.1 First, it gives me very great pleasure that you, for your part, had also already thought of père Pissarro.
You’ll see that there are other possibilities, if not there then elsewhere. Now business is business, and you ask me to answer categorically – and you’re right to do so – if I would consent to go into an asylum in Paris in the event of moving immediately for this winter.
I answer yes to that, with the same calmness and for the same reasons as I entered this one – even though this asylum in Paris might not be ideal, which might easily be the case, for the opportunity to work isn’t bad here, and work my only distraction.
But that being said, I’ll point out to you that in my letter I gave a very serious motive as a reason for wishing to move.
And I insist on repeating it – I’m astonished that with the modern ideas I have, I being such an ardent admirer of Zola, of De Goncourt and of artistic things which I feel so much, I have crises like a superstitious person would have, and that mixed-up, atrocious religious ideas come to me such as I never had in my head in the north.
On the assumption that, very sensitive to surroundings, the already prolonged stay in these old cloisters which are the Arles hospital and the home here would be sufficient in itself to explain these crises – then – even as a stopgap – it might be necessary to go into a lay asylum at present.
Nevertheless, to avoid doing or appearing to do anything rash, I declare to you, after having thus warned you of what I might desire at a given moment – that is, a move – I declare to you that I feel sufficiently calm and confident to wait
1v:2 a while longer to see if there’ll be a new attack this winter.
But if then I was to write to you: I want to get out of here, you wouldn’t hesitate and it would be arranged in advance, for you would know then that I’d have a serious reason, or even several, to go into a home that wasn’t run like this one by the nuns, however excellent they might be.2
Now if by some arrangement or another we might move sooner or later, then let’s begin as if almost nothing was wrong, at the same time being very prudent and ready to listen to the least thing that Rivet has to say, but let’s not set ourselves immediately to taking overly official measures as if it were a lost cause.
As regards eating a lot, I’m doing so – but if I was my doctor I would forbid it.
Not seeing any good for myself in really enormous physical strength, for if I absorb myself in the idea of doing some good work and wanting to be an artist and nothing but that, that would be the most logical thing.
Mother and Wil, each for their part after Cor’s departure, have changed surroundings3 – they were darned right. Grief mustn’t build up in our souls like the water of a swamp. But it’s sometimes both costly and impossible to move.
Wil wrote very well, it’s a great grief for them, Cor’s departure.
It’s funny, just at the moment when I was making that copy of the Pietà by Delacroix4 I discovered where that canvas has gone. It belongs to a queen of Hungary or another country around there who has written poems under the name of Carmen Sylva. The article which talked of her and of the painting was by Pierre Loti, who made one feel that this Carmen Sylva was as a person yet more touching than what she writes – and yet she
1v:3 writes things like this: A woman without a child is like a bell without a clapper – the sound of the bronze would perhaps be very beautiful, but no one will hear it.5
At present I have 7 copies out of ten of Millet’s Travaux des champs.6
I can assure you that it interests me enormously to make copies, and that not having any models for the moment it will ensure, however, that I don’t lose sight of the figure.
What’s more, it will give me a studio decoration for myself or another.
I would like also to copy the Sower and the Diggers.
There’s a photo of the Diggers after the drawing.7
And Lerat’s etching of the Sower at Durand-Ruel’s.8
In these same etchings is the Field under the snow with a harrow.9 Then The four times of the day, there are examples of them in the collection of wood engravings.10
I would like to have all of this, at least the etchings and the wood engravings. It’s a study I need, for I want to learn. Although copying may be the old system, that absolutely doesn’t bother me at all. I’m going to copy Delacroix’s Good Samaritan too.11
I’ve done a portrait of a woman – the orderly’s wife – which I think you’d like. I’ve done a repetition of it which wasn’t as good as the one from life.
And I fear that they’ll take the latter, I would have liked you to have it. It’s pink and black.12
Today I’m sending you my portrait of myself, you must look at it for some time – you’ll see, I hope, that my physiognomy has grown much calmer, although the gaze may be vaguer than before, so it appears to me.13
I have another one which is an attempt from when I was ill.14 But I think this one will please you more, and I’ve tried to create something simple, show it to père Pissarro if you see him.
You’ll be surprised what effect the Travaux des champs take on in colour, it’s a very intimate series of his.
What I’m seeking in it, and why it seems good to me to copy them, I’m going to try to tell you. We painters are always asked to compose ourselves and to be nothing but composers.
Very well – but in music it isn’t so – and if such a person plays some Beethoven he’ll add his personal interpretation to it – in music, and then above all for singing – a composer’s interpretation is something, and it isn’t a hard and fast rule that only the composer plays his own compositions.
Good – since I’m above all ill at present, I’m trying to do something to console myself, for my own pleasure.
I place the black-and-white by Delacroix or Millet or after them in front of me as a subject. And then I improvise colour on it but, being me, not completely of course, but seeking memories of their paintings – but the memory, the vague consonance of colours that are in the same sentiment, if not right – that’s my own interpretation.
Heaps of people don’t copy. Heaps of others do copy – for me, I set myself to it by chance, and I find that it teaches and above all sometimes consoles.
So then my brush goes between my fingers as if it were a bow on the violin and absolutely for my pleasure. Today I attempted the Sheep shearer in a colour scale ranging from lilac to yellow.15 They are small canvases, around no. 5.
I thank you very much for the consignment of canvases and colours.16 On the other hand, I’m sending you a few canvases with the portrait, the following
|of olive trees19
Field of green wheat22
Orchard in blossom24
Entrance to a quarry25
The first four canvases are studies that don’t have the effect of an ensemble like the others. Myself I quite like the Entrance to a quarry which I did when I felt this attack beginning, because to my taste the dark greens go well with the ochre tones, there’s something sad in them that’s healthy, and that’s why it doesn’t annoy me. That’s perhaps also the case with the Mountain. People will tell me that mountains aren’t like that, and that there are black contours as wide as a finger. But anyway it seemed to me that it expressed the passage in Rod’s book – one of the very rare passages of his in which I find something good – on a lost land of dark mountains in which one noticed the darkish huts of goatherds, where sunflowers bloomed.26
The olive trees with white cloud and background of mountains, as well as the Moonrise and the Night effect –
These are exaggerations from the point of view of the arrangement, their lines are contorted like those of the ancient woodcuts. The olive trees are more in character, just as in the other study27 and I’ve tried to express the time of day when one sees the green beetles and the cicadas flying in the heat.
The other canvases – the Reaper28 &c. aren’t dry.29 And now in the bad season I’m going to make a lot of copies, for really I must do more figure work. It’s the study of the figure that teaches one to grasp the essential and to simplify.
When you say in your letter that I’ve never done anything but work, no – that’s not right – I myself am very, very discontented with my work, and the only thing that consoles me is that experienced people say that one must paint for 10 years for nothing. But what I’ve done is only those 10 years of unfortunate studies that didn’t come off. Now a better period could come, but I’ll have to strengthen the figure work, and I must refresh my memory by very close study of Delacroix, Millet. Then I’ll try to sort out my drawing. Yes, every cloud has a silver lining, it gives one more time for study.
I’m also adding a study of flowers to the roll of canvases – not much, but anyway I don’t want to tear it up.30
All in all the only things I consider a little good in it are the Wheatfield, the Mountain, the Orchard, the Olive trees with the blue hills and the Portrait and the Entrance to the quarry, and the rest says nothing to me, because it lacks personal will, feeling in the lines. Where these lines are close together and deliberate the painting begins, even if it may be exaggerated. That’s what Bernard and Gauguin feel a little bit, they won’t ask for the correct shape of a tree at all, but they absolutely insist that one says if the shape is round or square – and my word, they’re right –
Exasperated by certain people’s photographic and inane perfection. They won’t ask for the correct tone of the mountains but they’ll say: for Christ’s sake, were the mountains blue, then chuck on some blue and don’t go telling me that it was a blue a bit like this or like that, it was blue wasn’t it? Good – make them blue and that’s enough! Gauguin is a genius sometimes when he explains that, but as for the genius Gauguin has, he’s very timid about showing it, and it’s touching how he likes to say something really useful to young folk.31 What an odd fellow all the same.
It gives me great pleasure that Jo is well, and I think you’ll feel much more in your element thinking of her pregnancy, and naturally having concerns about it too, than if you were alone without these family concerns. For you’ll feel more in nature.
When one thinks of Millet and Delacroix, what a contrast. Delacroix without a wife, without children, Millet completely in his family, more than anyone.
And yet what similarities there are in their work.
So Jouve has still kept his big studio and he’s working on decorations.32
That one came very close to being an excellent painter. It’s money troubles with him, in order to eat he’s forced to do a thousand things other than painting, which costs him more money than it brings in when he makes something beautiful.
And he quickly loses his touch for drawing with the brush. This probably comes from the old training method, which is the same as the current one – in the studios – they fill in outlines. And Daumier was always painting his face in the mirror to learn how to draw!33
Do you know what I think about quite often – what I used to say to you back in the old days, that if I didn’t succeed I still thought that what I had worked on would be continued. Not directly, but one isn’t alone in believing things that are true. And what does one matter as a person then? I feel so strongly that the story of people is like the story of wheat, if one isn’t sown in the earth to germinate there, what does it matter, one is milled in order to become bread.
The difference between happiness and unhappiness, both are necessary and useful, and death or passing away... it’s so relative – and so is life.
Even in the face of an illness that’s unsettling or worrying, this belief is absolutely unshaken.
I’d have liked to see those Meuniers.34
Well, let it be understood that if I were to write to you again expressly and briefly that I wanted to come to Paris, I would have a reason for that, which I’ve explained above, that in the meantime there’s no great hurry, and I’m quite confident, after warning you, to wait for the winter and the crisis which may recur then. But if I have another fit of religious exaltation, then no delay, I’d like to leave immediately without giving a reason. Only we have no right, at least it would be indiscreet, to meddle in the nuns’ management or even to criticize them. They have their own belief and ways of doing good to others, sometimes it works very well. But I don’t warn you lightly. And it isn’t to regain more freedom or something else that I don’t have. So let’s wait very calmly until an opportunity presents itself to find a place.
It’s a great advance that my stomach is working well, and so I don’t think that I’ll be as sensitive to the cold. Then I know what to do when the weather is bad, as I have this plan to copy several things that I like.
I’d very much like to see Millet reproductions in schools, I think there would be children who became painters if only they saw good things.
Give my warm regards to Jo, and handshake, more soon.