My dear Vincent,
I should have replied to your long letter1 ages ago; I know how isolated you are in Provence and that you like to receive news from the pals who interest you, and yet many circumstances have prevented me from doing so. Among others, a rather large job which De Haan and I have undertaken together: a decoration for the inn where we eat2. You begin with one wall, then you end up doing all four, even the stained-glass window.3 It’s something that teaches you a lot, and so it’s useful. De Haan has done a large panel on the actual plaster, 2 metres by 1.50 high. Enclosed I’m sending you a swift croquis of the thing. Peasant women from around here working with hemp against a background of ricks of straw.4
I consider it very good and very complete, done as seriously as a painting.
After that I did a peasant woman spinning at the sea’s edge, her dog and her cow.5 Our two portraits on each door.6 In the fever of work, and the haste to see it all finished, bedtime arrived all of a sudden and I postponed my letter until later – now let’s chat.
I’ve only done one religious painting this year,7 and it’s good sometimes to make attempts of every sort, so as to sustain one’s imaginative powers, and afterwards one looks at nature with pleasure again. Anyway, that’s all a matter of temperament. What I myself have done most of all this year are simple peasant children,
1v:2 walking indifferently beside the sea with their cows.8 But because I don’t like the trompe l’oeil of the outdoors and of whatever else, I try to put into these desolate figures the savagery that I see in them, and that’s in me too. Here in Brittany the peasants have a medieval look about them and don’t appear to think for a moment that Paris exists and that we’re in the year 1889 – quite the opposite of the south. Here everything is rough like the Breton language, very closed-in (for evermore, it seems). The costumes are also almost symbolic, influenced by the superstitions of Catholicism. Look at the back, bodice a cross,
the head wrapped in a black kerchief like nuns – in addition the figures are almost Asiatic, yellow and triangular, severe.
What the devil, I want to consult nature too, but I don’t want to take from it what I see there and what comes into my mind. The rocks, the costumes are black and yellow; I can’t put them down as blond and coquettish, can I? Still fearful of Our Lord and the priest, the Breton men hold their hats and all their utensils as if they were in a church; I also paint them in that state and not with a southern verve.
At the moment I’m doing a no. 50 canvas, of women gathering wrack at the sea’s edge.9 They’re like boxes stacked up here and there, blue clothing and black coifs
2r:3 and this despite the bitterness of the cold. Manure which they gather to fertilize their land, red-brown ochre with ruddy highlights. Pink sands, not yellow, because of the damp probably – dark sea. Seeing this every day I get a kind of gust of wind for life, of sadness and obedience to unfortunate laws. I try to put this gust of wind on canvas, not haphazardly but rationally, perhaps exaggerating a certain rigidity of pose, certain sombre colours etc... All of this is mannered perhaps, but where’s the natural in a painting? Everything in paintings since the most distant ages has been completely conventional, deliberate throughout and very far from the natural, consequently very mannered. You’ll say that they, the ancient masters, have genius. That’s true, and we don’t have it, but that’s no reason not to proceed like them. To a Japanese person what we do is mannered and vice versa; this comes from the fact that there’s a notable distance between the two in vision, customs and types. So if a man sees, feels, thinks differently from the mass because of race, temperament or other cause, he is unnatural and consequently mannered.
You’ve seen the doorway to St Trophime in Arles, perceived and executed very differently from the manner of the northerners, with proportions far removed from nature, and you admired that, without any nightmare10 – no, in art (the truth is what one feels, in the state of mind one’s in). Let him who wishes or who can, dream. Let him who wants to or who can, drift along. And the dream always comes from the reality in nature. In a dream, an Indian savage will never see a man dressed the way they are in Paris – etc...
De Haan is still working at Le Pouldu, thanks you for your kind regards and sends his best wishes.
He (alone) is the creator of Uriel, the painting you spoke of in a letter to Isaäcson.11
I know nothing about your drawing after Rembrandt which you were proposing to exchange with me (which I’ll do with pleasure).12
I shake your hand cordially.