c. 20 November 1889
[Letter from Gauguin to Theo]
My dear M. Van Gogh,
I feel somewhat hesitant to respond to your letter. Should I
answer to Van Gogh the art dealer or to Van Gogh Vincent's
friend and brother? It's easy in words, more difficult by
letter - however, I have to talk. But frankly speaking, I have
to stop for a moment before I decide to answer the friend and
thus express all my thoughts. For a month, I have been going
over with de Haan the many facets of the tempest which arose
over my latest paintings.
Everything has a beginning for want of an end. Are you
listening directly to me, Van Gogh, with your mind and your
This summer we created a distinct trend which was badly
established but was given exposure, the art of Bernard and me
with some followers. Be assured, Degas and others understood it
well. There is a wolf in the fold! Impressionist, Synthetist,
symbolic, all in ist and ic, etc. Well then, is
art locked up in each period in the thoughts of a few, the
powerful, with their methods - or else is it a direct
personal emanation to come from the thoughts of those in
existence? Those who suffered because they didn't follow the
norm were enraged that the powerful ones at the Ecole did not
want to understand them. Today they are somewhat satisfied, and
they want to be the authority that is doing the injustice to
others that had been done to them and about which they
complain. Petty humanity.
Well then, we young people ourselves are seeking and will
always seek. So down with them. Those are my exact thoughts
from the point of departure. It has been said - they
will want to walk in a path that is not ours, well then, we are
waiting for them; we will see if they are strong enough.
Today you seem to feel that my latest works are stronger
than my previous ones. Be logical and draw the conclusion -
that the artist has not lowered himself and has worked more for
art than for his business. New quests are more
useful to the new generation than no searching at all; since
what has been done was done more forcefully than
anything modern. A Dutchman says that I resemble Bernard this
year. I don't resemble him more than he resembles me, but we
both are doing different research toward the same goal.
A goal about which I have been thinking for a long time but
which I have only recently formulated. I must sleep, this
Dutchman says, but in sleep there is dreaming and you don't
want dreaming. One does not yet know his God, adds the same
Dutchman. But I don't know him yet myself: being infinite, my
entire life isn't enough to arrive there to find him, to define
him. He is the complete opposite of Degas, continues this
friendly Dutchman. And why not! If one want to make art then
one must be of the same opinion as Degas, as strong as he
He also writes to his friend de Haan before leaving for the
Transvaal. Gauguin will do you wrong and you do the same for
him. My God, what does all that mean? Forget it.
Now to enlighten you, my dear M. Van Gogh, I am going to
give you an insight into my paintings. Examine them carefully,
the wood at the same time as the ceramics. You will see that
all this holds together. I am searching for and at the same
time expressing a general state of mind rather than a unique
thought, to have someone else's eye experience an indefinite,
infinite impression. To suggest a suffering does not indicate
what kind of suffering: purity in general and not what kind of
purity. Literature is one (painting also). Consequently,
suggested and not explained thought.
You ask me, or rather you tell me, that people do not at all
understand the work I do in wood. It is, however, simple. There
is a nude of a woman, a man, a fox, and an inscription. That is
all! [Gauguin is referring here to his `Be in Love and You will
be Happy', Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.]
Since you want literature, I am going to give you some (for
At the top the rotting city of Babylon. At the bottom, as
though through a window, a view of fields, nature, with its
flowers. Simple woman, whom a demon takes by the hand, who
struggles despite the good advice of the tempting inscription.
A fox (symbol of perversity among Indians). Several figures in
this entourage who express the opposite of the advice
(“you will be happy”), to show that it is
fallacious. For those who want literature, there it is. But it
is not for examination. The background of all this is
sculptural art of bas-relief forms and colours in the
expression of the material. Between the possible and the
impossible. The same for the painting of the three women
of stone holding Christ.
Brittany, simple superstition and desolation.
The hill is guarded by a line of cows arranged up the hill.
My intention in this painting is that everything should breathe
passive belief, suffering, primitive religious style, and great
nature with its cry. It's wrong of me not to be strong enough
to express it better - but I am not wrong to think
Moreover, the rest of us poor devils without lodgings,
without models, we resemble virtuosos who play in a
café on a tin-kettle piano. But Degas, he plays in
complete silence, surrounded by brilliant company on an Erard
It is good to meticulously touch up the model from nature,
but be careful lest you smell its odour.
I think I said (in telegraph style) what I wanted to say,
perhaps with bitterness - you have to admit that there is
reason - but from the depths of my heart and without any
misunderstanding with you. You know that I have an Indian -
Inca - background, and everything I do is affected by it. It is
the depth of my personality. To rotten civilization, I aim to
oppose something more natural, beginning with savageness. I
would need a lot of time and ink to explain my painting to you,
but I hope, however, that you will feel its uncertainty with
You would like to see the grey and lugubrious sea of Le
Poldu with us! Yes they evoke, in contrast, very nice visions.
I will also take you to the visions evoked. And for
these visions evoked, doesn't one feel an instinctive modesty
to show them only veiled?
De Haan the disciple meditates at the window with me, and he
who has not breathed any other air than those of the bedroom
finds this harsh aspect of the great, hardly Parisian sea to be
grandiose. What a powerful and sad voice. He sends you his
regards and will write soon.
Now let's talk business. Schuff [enecker] found a buyer for
a 30-franc pastel. The buyer is not rich; I gave it away, but
it doesn't matter - a more flattering than productive
The price of my work in wood. I'm scratching my head. I do
not evaluate its artistic value. But the work of a craftsman
and the costs of wood shipment, etc. If I ask 2,000 francs,
that's nothing for it, and de Haan agrees with me. And the
buyers will scream that it's expensive. On this, do what you
can. Poor devil - I have nothing to say and am obliged to be
content with a glance. Look, Van Gogh, you see it like I do (it
is impossible for me to continue the struggle as an artist) or
to smile at the public with professional paintings - (and that
I cannot do). The most dignified thing for a good-hearted man
to do is what I asked you to do. To leave for Tonkin and I ask
you to please speak about it especially to Manet.
Do you have any better news from Vincent? I am sorry that he
can't be there near you sometimes, in order to guide a bit in
painting. You hear too many different voices. A painter,
myself, and stubborn, I would be confused.
Follow your first impression; it will be better than
contradictory reasonings of people who have a calculated
Ever yours, Gauguin
At this time, Vincent was 36 year old
Paul Gauguin. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 20 November 1889 in Brittany. Translated by Robert Harrison, edited by Robert Harrison, number htm.
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