By chance I have at last seen something of Lhermitte's - a
very careless reproduction in wood engraving. It represented a
little old woman in a church pew. A girl was kneeling beside
her. However imperfect the reproduction may be, it gave me some
idea of his work. It immediately reminded me of De Groux and
Legros - there certainly must be many things in common between
his work and Millet's and Breton's.
Careless though the little wood engraving was, it stayed in
my mind for days, and I still think of it because some things I
had heard about Lhermitte made me eager to see something of his
work, and I was looking for it. You remember I wrote you about
him apropos of a review of the “Black and White”
I made a large drawing with it combined with lithographic
crayon. It is a drawing of a digger - my model was the little
old almshouse man you know already - his bald head, bent over
the black earth, seemed to me full of a certain significance,
reminiscent, for instance, of “thou shalt eat thy bread
in the sweat of thy brow.” Now these drawings of the
woman with the spade [JH 337] and this digger have such an
aspect that people won't think they are made in some intricate
way, but rather won't think about how they are made at all.
But I believe that if I had made them with ordinary
conté pencil, they would have got a dull and ironlike
aspect, which would have made people say a once, “That's
not life, that's not nature.”
By certain grey tints, through a certain richness and pith
in the black, one avoids that dull and ironlike aspect.
And these little things are, in my opinion, worth the
trouble of looking for such material as that crayon and
I am very glad you sent it.
This morning a painter saw these two drawings, namely
Nakken; he didn't intend to come to me, but knocked at my door,
thinking that Van Deventer lived here - but he lives in another
street. I straightened him out, but asked if he wouldn't come
in and look at my studio, which he did. As I was drawing that
digger mentioned above, it was the first thing he saw on the
easel, and he said, “That is vigorously drawn and
Take those words at their face value, without delving too
deeply, yet they pleased me because I don't suppose Van Nakken
would say that a figure was vigorously drawn if it weren't. But
that's all I think of it - I am writing about it because it
happened to be the drawing made with that crayon I mentioned,
and you can tell that since you took the trouble to procure it
for me, I for my part like nothing better than to work with
Just how near such drawings would come to certain fusains -
Lhermitte is an ideal - and to reach that point is still far
distant - but to aim at it is the order of the day. Well, when
you come sooner or later, we can talk about it better.
Recently I spoke to Smulders about lithographs; I met him on
the street, and he asked me if I didn't intend to make some
more. Which is just what I should like to do. But I must talk
it over with Rappard, and he must see my studies first.
It always seems to me that one might make of workmen's
figures something that has a raison d'être.
The lithographs by Émile Vernier after Millet and
Corot and Daubigny possess qualities which I appreciate highly.
How one would like to talk with somebody who is a master of his
trade to such a degree. Not with the intention of making
reproductions of pictures, but to understand better what may be
done in lithography.
Just imagine original drawings with those characteristic
greys and that peculiar expression of material. Bodmer has
found that, as an artist, he is original, and at the same time,
he has what one might call the lithographic tones, or rather
the grey colour scale. Which is in some respects quite
different from Gavarni's lithography. Bodmer's lithographs are
prints finished like paintings. I refer here, not only to
Bodmer's real lithographs like “Au bas Breau” and
“Combats de Cerfs” [stags fighting], but also to
the prints from Illustration, or Monde Illustré. But in
my opinion the respect for the need and longing for advice and
correction by others may be no excuse for one's idleness. To
say, “I don't need other people,” however, is rash,
if one should systematically use it as a reason to stick one's
nose up at other people.
The act of printing has always seemed like a miracle to me,
just such a miracle as a tiny seed's growth to an ear of corn.
An everyday miracle, even greater for happening every day: one
drawing is sown on the stone or the etching plate, and a
harvest is reaped from it.
Can you understand that it is something which I think about
a great deal while I work, and that I feel a great love for it?
Well, the main thing for me to do now is to see to it that the
quality of the seed (namely the drawings themselves) improves;
it may take more time, but if the harvest is better for it, I
am satisfied - I always have my eye on that harvest.
Well, write soon again, and believe me, with a
Yours sincerely, Vincent
I kept this letter back a few days, as today, Sunday, I have
more time for writing. I am reading Les Misérables by
Victor Hugo. A book which I remember of old, but I had a great
longing to read it again. It is very beautiful, that figure of
Monseigneur Myriel or Bienvenu I think sublime.
You spoke in your last letter of “exerting
influence” in connection with your patient. That Mgr.
Myriel reminds me of Corot or Millet, though he was a priest
and the other two, painters. Because in the painters' world
Corot, and Millet too, or Breton, besides doing their own work,
have roused so much energy in others, who wouldn't have
developed fully without them. You surely know Les
Misérables, and certainly the illustrations which Brion
made for it too, very good and very appropriate.
It is good to read such a book again, I think, just to keep
some feelings alive. Especially love for humanity, and the
faith in, and consciousness of, something higher, in short,
quelque chose là-haut.
I was absorbed in it for a few hours this afternoon, and
then came into the studio about the time the sun was setting.
From the window I looked down on a wide dark foreground -
dug-up gardens and fields of warm black earth of a very deep
tone. Diagonally across it runs a little path of yellowish
sand, bordered with green grass and slender, spare young
poplars. The background was formed by a grey silhouette of the
city, with the round roof of the railway station, and spires,
and chimneys. And moreover, backs of houses everywhere; but at
that time of evening, everything is blended by the tone. So
viewed in a large way, the whole thing is simply a foreground
of black dug-up earth, a path across it, behind it a grey
silhouette of the city, with spires, and over it all, almost at
the horizon, the red sun. it was exactly like a page from Hugo,
and I am sure that you would have been struck by it, and that
you would describe it better than I. And on seeing it, I
thought of you.
I already wrote you that I made a drawing with that crayon -
yesterday I began a second one with it, of a seamstress,
especially for the chiaroscuro.
When you come to the studio again, I think you will see pretty
soon that, though I don't mention that plan of making workmen
types for lithography so much any more, I still have it in
mind. However, the fact is that I find it more and more
difficult, in that I want to have my figures much better.
I have a sower - a mower - a woman at the washtub - a woman
miner - a seamstress - a digger - a woman with a spade - the
almshouse man - a grace before meat - a fellow with a
wheelbarrow full of manure. There are even more, I suppose, but
I think you will understand that just making them, looking at
the models, and thinking it over do not make one satisfied with
one's work; on the contrary - I mean, one says, Yes, that same
thing, but even better and more serious.
And I shouldn't think so much about it if I considered it
impractical, but the fact that I have already done these
drawings proves my longing to make them better is not just an
abstract idea, but an actual struggle to achieve it.
And I didn't make any further definite plan because I think
the execution of the drawings much more interesting.
It seems to me that these drawings all go straight in the
direction which you meant when you wrote about it recently -
though they are far from equalling those by Lhermitte.
You will understand that, too.
Lhermitte's secret must be no other, I think, than that he
knows the figure in general thoroughly - that is, the sturdy,
stern workman's figure - and that he takes his subjects from
the very heart of the people. To attain his level - one must
not talk about that - one must work, and try to get as near as
possible. Because talking about it would only be a presumption
on my part, but working for it would be, on the contrary, a
proof of respect and trust and faith in such artists as he.
Have you ever seen anything by an American named Abbey? At
present there is a draughtsmen's club in New York called the
“Tile Club” or the “Tile Painters”; I
saw a number of their illustrations, for instance, in a
Christmas issue of Harper's. I ask you because all those
gentlemen seem to have been in Paris at the same time - judging
from a page of cartoons by one of them.
In my opinion Abbey is by far the cleverest of them all. His
figures often remind me somewhat of Boughton. Boughton is also
a member, or an honorary member, of that club, but I think he
himself is more serious than all the rest of the club put
together, and doesn't make such a splash.
Abbey, however, is very beautiful.
I have a little figure of a woman in the snow by him, which
simultaneously reminds me of Boughton and of Heilbuth.
A large pen-and-ink drawing representing a Christmas scene
in Washington's time, or a little earlier, recalls, for
instance, Henri Pille. He has style, and that's a good thing,
but Boughton has the same - he used to have it even more.
I write about it because I believe you will agree with me
that not all Americans are bad. That, on the contrary, there
are extremes there like everywhere else, and besides a lot of
braggarts and daubers of the most detestable and impossible
kind, there are characters who give the effect of a lily or a
snowdrop between the thorns.
Now I will go and read a little in Les Misérables,
though it is already late; such a book warms one the way
pictures by Dupré and old Millet's or some of Descamps'
do - it is written with what we call fougue, vehemence.
I saw that a new book is out by Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames,
if I remember correctly.
At this time, Vincent was 30 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 30 and 1 March-April 1883 in The Hague. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 277.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.