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For the last few days I have been very much preoccupied by
something which may possibly interest you, and I think it quite
worth while to write you about it in detail. In a letter from
Rappard, I received the summary of a discourse by Herkomer on
modern wood engravings. I cannot tell you the whole in detail;
perhaps you have read the article yourself (it appeared in an
English art magazine, perhaps the Art Journal). It dealt
particularly with the drawings in the Graphic. Herkomer tells
how he himself worked on it with great zeal and enthusiasm, and
recalls especially the splendid pages of the first series. He
can hardly find words to express how strongly he feels the
importance of the work of those original artists. He surveys
the progress in technique and process and the difference
between the old and the modern wood engravings, etc., etc.
Then he talks about the present time, and comes to the real
point of his discourse. He says that the wood engravers are
more clever than ever, but I for my part see a decadence when I
think of the time when the Graphic started. And he continues:
“In my opinion, the fault lies in two things, against
which I protest. One concerns the managers and the other
concerns the artists.
“Both make mistakes, and these will spoil the thing if
they are not corrected.”
The managers, he says, ask for things that are done for
effect; correct and honest drawing is no longer wanted,
complete designs are no longer in demand: all that is requested
is a “bit” to cover an awkward corner of a
The managers declare that the public requires the
representation of a public event or two, and is satisfied if it
is correct and entertaining, caring nothing for the artistic
qualities of the work.
I do not believe what they say. The only excuse that can be
accepted is “a shortage of good
Then he comes to the artists, and says how he regrets that
nowadays it is all too often the wood engraver and not the
draughtsman who makes the pages beautiful. He urges the artists
not to permit this, to draw soberly and vigorously, so that the
engraver remains what he should be: the interpreter of the
draughtsman's work, not his master.
Then his conclusion follows, a strong admonition to all to
put their hearts into the job, and not to allow themselves to
weaken. There is a note of reproach in his voice, and he speaks
with a certain melancholy, as if fighting against what he
thinks unbearable indifference.
“To you - the public - art offers infinite pleasure
and edification. It is really done for you. Therefore insist on
good work, and you will be sure to get it,” he
The whole thing is thoroughly sound, strong, honest. His
manner of speaking impresses me the same way as some of
Millet's letters. To me it is an inspiration, and it does my
heart good to hear someone talk this way.
I say that it is a great pity there is little or no
enthusiasm here for the art which is most suitable for the
If the painters combined to see that their work (which in my
opinion is, after all, made for the people - at least I think
this is the highest, noblest calling for any artist to pursue)
could indeed come into the public's hands and was brought
within everybody's reach, it could produce the same results as
those achieved during the Graphic's first years.
This year Neuhuys, Van der Velden and a few others made
drawings for The Swallow, a monthly magazine which costs
7½ cents. There are some good ones among them, but one
can see that most of them are done sloppily (not the origional
drawings but the way of popularizing them) and I hear that this
magazine cannot keep going any more than its predecessors. Why
not? The booksellers say there is no profit in it, and instead
of trying to increase the circulation, they keep it down.
And I think that the painters, for their part, do not take
the matter strongly enough to heart.
The answer that many a painter here in Holland gives to the
question “What is a wood engraving?” is,
“They are those things you find in the South Holland
So they class them with the drinks. And those who make them,
perhaps with the drunkards.
And what do the dealers say? Suppose I took a hundred
sketches which I happen to have collected to any dealer here; I
fear that the only answer I should get would be, “Did you
really expect these things to have any market
My love and respect for the great draughtsmen, those of
Gavarni's time as well as those of the present, increases the
more I come to know their work, and especially since I myself
try to make something of what one sees on the street every
What I appreciate in Herkomer, Fildes, Holl and the other
founders of the Graphic, the reason why they still mean more to
me than Gavarni and Daumier, and will continue to, is that
while the latter seem to look on society with malice, the
former - as well as men like Millet, Breton, De Groux,
Israëls - chose subjects which are as true as Gavarni's or
Daumier's, but have something noble and a more serious
sentiment. That sentiment especially must remain, I think. An
artist needn't be a clergyman or a churchwarden, but he
certainly must have a warm heart for his fellow men. I think it
very noble, for instance, that no winter passed without the
Graphic doing something to arouse sympathy for the poor. For
example, I have a page by Woodville representing a distribution
of peat tickets in Ireland; another by Staniland called
“Help the Helpers,” representing various scenes in
a hospital which was short of money; “Christmas in the
Workhouse” by Herkomer; “Homeless and Hungry”
by Fildes, etc. I like them better than the drawings by
Bertall, or the like, for the Vie Elégante.
Perhaps you think this letter tedious - but it all came
fresh into my thoughts again.
Yours sincerely, Vincent
I hope to hear from you soon. I had a good letter from
At this time, Vincent was 29 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 1 November 1882 in The Hague. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 240.
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