My dear Theo,
I have to thank you very much for a consignment of colours, which was also accompanied by an excellent woollen waistcoat.1 How kind you are to me, and how I’d like to be able to do something good in order to prove to you that I’d like to be less ungrateful. Your colours reached me at the right moment, for what I brought back from Arles2 is almost exhausted. The thing is, I’ve been working this month in the olive groves, for they’d driven me mad with their Christs in the garden, in which nothing is observed.3 Of course there’s no question of me doing anything from the Bible – and I’ve written to Bernard, and also to Gauguin, that I believed that thinking and not dreaming was our duty, that I was therefore astonished when looking at their work by the fact that they give way to that. For Bernard has sent me photos of his canvases.4 The thing about them is that they’re sorts of dreams and nightmares, that there’s some erudition there – one can see that it’s someone who’s mad about the primitives – but frankly the English Pre-Raphaelites5 did this much better, and then Puvis and Delacroix are much healthier than those Pre-Raphaelites. So this doesn’t leave me cold, but it gives me an uncomfortable feeling of a tumble rather than progress. Well, to shake this off, I’ve been messing about in the groves morning and evening on these bright and cold days, but in very beautiful, clear sunshine, and the result is 5 no. 30 canvases6 which, with the 3 studies of olive trees that you have,7 at least constitute an attack on the problem. The olive tree is variable like our willow or pollard in the north. You know that willows are very picturesque, despite the fact that it appears monotonous, it’s the tree typical of the country. Now what the willow is in our native country, the olive tree and the cypress have exactly the same importance here. What I’ve done is a rather harsh and coarse realism beside their abstractions, but it will nevertheless impart the rustic note, and will smell of the soil. How I’d like to see the studies from nature by Gauguin and Bernard, the latter tells me of portraits which doubtless would please me more.
I hope I’ll get used to working in the cold – in the morning there are very interesting effects of white frost and fog, and I still have the great desire to do for the mountains and for the cypresses what I’ve just done for the olive trees, have a really good go at them.
The thing is, the olive tree and the cypress have rarely been painted, and from the point of view of placing the paintings this ought to go to England, I know well enough what they’re looking for over there. Whatever the case, I’m almost sure that in this way I’ll do something passable from time to time. As I said to Isaäcson,8 it’s really more and more my opinion that by working assiduously from nature, without saying to oneself in advance, I want to do this or that, by working as if one were making shoes, without artistic preoccupations, one won’t always do well, but on the days when one thinks about it the least one finds a subject that holds its own with the work of those who came before us. One learns to know a country that’s basically quite different from what it appears at first sight. On the contrary, one will say to oneself, I want to finish my paintings better, I want to do them with care; in the face of the difficulties of the weather, of changing effects, a heap of ideas like this finds itself reduced to being impracticable, and I end up resigning myself by saying, it’s experience and each day’s little bit of work alone that in the long run matures and enables one to do things that are more complete or more right. So slow, long work is the only road, and all ambition to be set on doing well, false. For one must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with when one mounts the breach each morning. To paint, the tranquil, regulated life would therefore be absolutely necessary, and at present what can one do when one sees that Bernard, for example, is always put under pressure, pressure, pressure by his parents. He can’t do as he wants, and many others with him. One says to oneself, I shan’t paint any more, but what will one do then? Ah – a more expeditious painting process should be invented, less expensive than oil and yet durable. A painting... it will end up becoming as commonplace as a sermon, a painter like someone who’s a century behind the times. It’s a shame, though, that it should be so. Now if the painters had better understood Millet as a man – now some like Lhermitte and Roll have grasped him – things wouldn’t be so. One must work as hard and with as few pretensions as a peasant if one wants to last.
And instead of putting on grandiose exhibitions, it would have been better to address oneself to the common people, and work so that everyone may have paintings or reproductions at home, which are lessons like the work of Millet.
I’m completely at the end of my canvas, and when you can please send me 10 metres. Then I’m going to attack the cypresses and the mountains. I think that this must be the centre of the work I’ve done here and there in Provence, and then we can conclude the stay here when it’s convenient. Which isn’t urgent, for Paris only distracts, after all. I don’t know, though, not always being a pessimist – I keep telling myself that I still have it in my heart to paint a bookshop one day with the shop window yellow-pink, in the evening, and the passers-by black – it’s such an essentially modern subject. Because it also appears such a figurative source of light. I say, that would be a subject that would look good between an olive grove and a wheatfield, the sowing of books, of prints. I have that very much in my heart to do, like a light in the darkness. Yes, there’s a way of seeing Paris as beautiful. But anyway, bookshops aren’t hares, and there’s no hurry, and I have a good will to work here for another year, which will probably be wiser.
Mother must have been in Leiden for a good fortnight by now.
I’ve delayed sending you the canvases for them9 because I’ll include them with the canvas of the wheatfield for the Vingtistes.10
Warm regards to Jo, she’s very good, continuing to be well.11 Thank you once again for the colours and for the woollen waistcoat, and good handshake in thought.