Arles, c. 14 August 1888
My dear Theo,
I spent yesterday evening with the 2nd
lieutenant; he expects to leave here on Friday, then he will
stop a night at Clermont, and from Clermont he will send you a
wire to tell you by what train he will arrive Sunday morning.
The roll he is bringing contains 35 studies, among which there
are many I am desperately dissatisfied with, but which I am
sending anyway, since at all events they will give you a vague
idea of the very fine subjects there are in this country.
For instance, there is a rough sketch I made of myself laden
with boxes, props, and canvas on the sunny road to Tarascon. There is a view
of the Rhone in which the sky and the water are the colour of absinthe, with a blue bridge and
figures of little black urchins; there is the sower, and a
washing place, and others as well, which have not come off at all and are unfinished,
especially one big landscape with brushwood.
What has happened to the Souvenir de Mauve? Not having heard
any word about it, I have been inclined to think that Tersteeg
must have said something disagreeable to you about it, to the
effect that it would be refused, or some such unpleasantness.
Needless to say, I shan't fret over it if this is so.
Just now I am working on a study like this
[Here appears the sketch of "Men Loading Boats."]
of boats seen from the quay above, the two boats are pink
tinged with violet, the water is bright green, no sky, a
tricolour on the mast. A workman with a barrow
is unloading sand. I have a drawing of it as well.
Have you received the three drawings of the garden? In the
end they'll refuse to take any more of them at the post office,
because they are too big.
I am afraid that I shall not get a rather beautiful model;
she promised, but then - as it appears - picked up some change
by going on a long weekend, and now has something better to do.
She was extraordinary, the expression like that one by
Delacroix, the figure primitive and strange.
I endure these things with patience, failing any other way
of bearing them, but this continual difficulty with models is
maddening. One of these days I hope to make a study of
oleanders. If I painted prettily like Bouguereau, people would
not be ashamed to let themselves be painted, but I think that I
have lost models because they thought that they were
“badly done,” because “it was only pictures
full of painting” that I did. The poor little souls are
afraid of being compromised and that people will laugh at their
portraits. But it is almost enough to make you lose heart when
you think that you could do something if people had more good
will. I cannot resign myself to saying - “sour
grapes” -it does not console me for not having more
Well, I must have patience and look around again for
Our sister will soon be coming now to spend some time with
you. I am sure she will enjoy herself.
But as things are, on the contrary it absorbs me. But there
it is, and anyhow I must go on and try to do better.
Very often I think that it would be wiser to go to Gauguin,
instead of recommending the life here to him. I am so afraid
that after all he will complain of having been upset. Would it
really be possible for us to live at home here, and could we
make both ends meet, seeing that it is a new experiment? We can
figure what it would cost in Brittany, whereas I haven't the
slightest idea about here. I still find life pretty expensive,
and you don't get anywhere complaining to the people here. Beds
and some furniture would have to be bought here, and then there
would be the cost of his journey and everything he owes.
It seems to me to be risking more than we ought, when
Bernard and he spend so little in Brittany. Anyway, we must
decide soon, and I for my part have no preference. It is simply
a question of deciding where we have the best likelihood of
living cheaply. I must write Gauguin today to ask him what he
pays for models, and if he has any.
You see, when one is getting old, one must really rule out
illusions, and count the cost before embarking on things. And
if when one is younger one can believe that it's possible to
get a living by unremitting work, it becomes more and more
doubtful now. I already told Gauguin in my last letter that if
we painted like Bouguereau we could hope to make money by it,
but that the public will never change, and it likes only easy,
pretty things. With a more austere talent, you cannot count on
profit from your work; most of the people intelligent enough to
like and understand impressionist pictures are and will remain
too poor to buy them. Will Gauguin or I work the less for that?
- no - but we shall be forced to submit deliberately to poverty
and social isolation. And to begin with, let's settle down
where life costs the least. If success comes, so much the
better, so much the better if we find ourselves in easier
What touches me most deeply in Zola's L'Œuvre is the
figure of Bongrand-Jundt. What he says is so true. “You
think, you poor souls, that when an artist has established his
talent and his reputation, he is safe. On the contrary,
henceforth he is denied producing anything which is not
perfect. His reputation itself forces him to take more pains
over his work, as the chances of selling grow fewer. At the
least sign of weakness, the whole jealous pack will fall on him
and destroy that very reputation and the faith that the
changeable and treacherous public has temporarily had in
Even stronger than this is what Carlyle says “You know
the glowworms in Brazil that shine so that in the evening
ladies stick them into their hair with pins; well, fame is a
fine thing, but look you, to the artist it is what the hairpin
is to the insects.
“You want to succeed and shine, but do you know what
it is you desire?”
Well, Gauguin and I must look ahead, we must contrive to
have a roof over our heads, beds, in short, the absolute
necessities, to stand the siege of failure which will last
all our lives and we must settle down in the cheapest
place. Then we shall get the quiet which is necessary if we are
to produce much, even if we sell little or nothing.
But if our expenses exceed our income, we should be mistaken
if we hoped that all could be put right by selling our
pictures. On the contrary, we should be obliged to get rid of
them at any price and at the wrong moment.
To conclude, we must live almost like monks or hermits, with
work for our master passion, and surrendering our ease.
Nature and fine weather are the advantages of the
South; but I think that Gauguin will never give up the fight in
Paris, he has it too much at heart, and believes in a lasting
success more than I do. That will do me no harm; on the
contrary, perhaps I am too pessimistic. Let's leave him this
illusion then, but let's realize that what he will always need
is his daily bread and shelter and paints. That is the crack in
his armour, and it is because he is getting into debt now that
he will be knocked out in advance.
If we two come to his aid, we are in fact making his victory
in Paris possible.
If I had the same ambitions as he, we probably should not
agree. But I neither care about success for myself nor about
happiness; I do care about the permanence of this vigorous
attempt by the impressionists, I do care about this question of
shelter and daily bread for them. And I think it's a crime that
I should have it when two could live on the same money.
If you are a painter, they think you are either a fool or a
rich man; a cup of milk costs you a franc, a slice of bread
two, and meanwhile your pictures are not selling. That is what
makes it necessary to combine as the old monks did, and the
Moravian Brothers of our Dutch heaths.
I can already see that Gauguin is hoping for success, he
cannot do without Paris, he does not realize the
eternity of poverty. You understand that under the
circumstances it is all the same to me whether I stay or go. We
must let him fight his battle, he is sure to win. He would feel
that he was doing nothing if he were too far from Paris, but
for our own part let's keep our utter indifference to success
will see them soon. The end of the week will be a little
difficult, so I hope to get your letter a day earlier rather
than a day late.
With a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written c. 14 August 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 524.
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