To Theo van Gogh
My dear Theo,
I often get around to writing to you on Sundays, and likewise today. I’ve been reading Le Nabab by Daudet these past few days, and find it masterly – among other things that walk taken by the Nabab and Hemerlingue the banker at Père Lachaise in the twilight while the bust of Balzac, a dark silhouette against the sky, looks down on them ironically. It’s just like a drawing by Daumier. You wrote to me about Daumier saying that he’d made The Revolution – Denis Dussoubs. When you wrote that, I didn’t know who Denis Dussoubs was; now I’ve read it in Histoire d’un crime by Victor Hugo. He’s a noble character – I wish I knew the drawing by D.
Of course I can’t read a book about Paris without instantly thinking of you. I also can’t read a book about Paris without to some extent also finding The Hague in it, which is admittedly smaller than Paris but still a court city with corresponding morals.
When you say in your last letter ‘what a riddle there is in nature’, I echo your words. Life in the abstract is already a riddle, reality turns it into a riddle within a riddle.
And who are we to solve it? All the same, we ourselves form a particle of it, of the society of which we ask, Where is it going, to the devil or to God?
Yet the sun rises, says V. Hugo.
Long, long ago, in L’ami Fritz by Erckmann-Chatrian, I read a remark by the old rabbi that has often come to mind since: ‘We are not alive in order to be happy, but we must try to deserve happiness.’ Taken in isolation, this thought seems a little pedantic, at least one could interpret it as a little pedantic, but in the context in which the remark occurred, namely on the lips of the sympathetic figure of old Rabbi David Sechel, it struck me deeply and I often think of it. Also when drawing – one shouldn’t count on selling one’s drawings, but one has a duty to make them such that they have value and are serious. For one may not become nonchalant or indifferent, even if one is disappointed by one’s circumstances.
As for my plan with the lithographs, I’ve thought about it a lot; if that had been all, I fear I wouldn’t have made any progress, for what is there to think about?
Thus in addition I’ve again made a few drawings for them, a woman with a sack of coal on her head with a yard in the background, a silhouette of roofs and chimneys, and a woman at the wash-tub.
You needn’t worry that I’ll undertake anything else for the time being apart from the drawings themselves – I must wait a little before doing trials with lithography until I have some money to get on with them. But I believe it could come to something.
From time to time I have a great longing to be in London again. I’d so very much like to know more about printing and drawing on wood.
I feel a power in me that I must develop, a fire that I may not put out but must fan, although I don’t know to what outcome it will lead me, and wouldn’t be surprised if it was a sombre one.
In times like these, what should one wish for? What is the happiest lot in these circumstances?
In some situations it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor, for example, better Prometheus than Jupiter. Anyway, it’s an old saying, ‘what will be will be’.
To change the subject, do you know whose work has made a deep impression on me? I saw reproductions of Julien Dupré (is this a son of Jules Dupré???). One was of two reapers, the other, a splendid large woodcut from Monde illustré, of a peasant woman taking a cow into the meadow. It seemed to me outstanding, very energetic and very true to life. It perhaps resembles Pierre Billet, say, or Butin.
Then I also saw various figures by Dagnan-Bouveret, a beggar, a wedding party, The accident, The Garden of the Tuileries. Those two seem to me to be fellows who wrestle physically with nature, fellows who don’t weaken and aren’t afraid of dirtying their hands. You wrote to me about ‘The accident’ at the time, now I know it and find it very beautiful.
They perhaps don’t have the lofty quality, the almost religious emotion of Millet, at least not to the same degree as Millet himself; they perhaps don’t have his full, warm love, but even so how outstandingly good it is. Now admittedly I only know reproductions, but it seems to me that they can’t contain anything that wasn’t put into the original work itself.
By the way, it took a long time before I found Thomas Faed’s work beautiful, but these days I don’t hesitate about it any more, for instance, the Sunday in the backwoods of Canada – Home and the homeless – Worn out – The poor, the poor man’s friend, anyway, you know the series of aquatints published by Graves.
Today I worked on old drawings from Etten, because I saw the pollard willows again in a similar leafless state here in the field, and what I had seen last year came to mind again.
Sometimes I long so much to do landscape, just as one would for a long walk to refresh oneself, and in all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul, as it were. A row of pollard willows sometimes resembles a procession of orphan men.
Young corn can have something ineffably pure and gentle about it that evokes an emotion like that aroused by the expression of a sleeping child, for example.
The grass trodden down at the side of a road looks tired and dusty like the inhabitants of a poor quarter. After it had snowed recently I saw a group of Savoy cabbages that were freezing, and that reminded me of a group of women I had seen early in the morning at a water and fire cellar in their thin skirts and old shawls.
As for those figures that I wanted to lithograph, I think the most difficult thing is to find thirty or so that together will form some sort of whole – for that one has to draw considerably more than 30. If I first have them, reproduction will be a second step which may then be easier than if one had started reproducing before one had the whole. Perhaps, or rather certainly, you’ll have been here again before I’ve got as far as having them done, and then we can discuss this further.
Something similar for primary schools has already been made here, namely 24 lithographs by Schmidt Crans which I saw recently. A few of them are good, but you’ll understand, given the person who made them, that as a whole they’re rather faint-hearted. All the same, it seems that schools are keen to use them – but how deplorable it is that people are satisfied with something like that, especially for schools. Well, it’s the same with this as with everything else.
Still, old chap, read Le Nabab above all. It’s splendid. One could call that character the good scoundrel. Are there such people? I’m sure there are. There’s a lot of heart in those books by Daudet. For example, in Les rois en exil the character of the queen ‘with eyes of aquamarine’. Write again soon.
How much good it does a person if one is in a gloomy mood to walk on the empty beach and look into the grey-green sea with the long white lines of the waves. Yet if one has a need for something great, something infinite, something in which one can see God, one needn’t look far. I thought I saw something – deeper, more infinite, more eternal than an ocean – in the expression in the eyes of a baby – when it wakes in the morning and crows – or laughs because it sees the sun shine into its cradle. If there is a ‘ray from on high’, it might be found there.
Adieu, old chap, with a handshake in thought.