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Dear friend Rappard,
Many thanks for your letter, which I was pleased to get. I
was very glad to hear that you saw something in my
I shan't enter into generalities concerning technique, but I
certainly foresee that as I gain more of what I shall call
expressive force, people will say not less but
even more than they do now that I have no
Hence I absolutely agree with you that what I am saying in
my present work will have to be said more forcefully,
and I am working hard to strengthen that aspect, but - that the
general public will understand me better when I do -
Do you really think I don't care about technique or that I
don't try for it? Oh, but I do, although only inasmuch as it
allows me to say what I want to say (and if I cannot do that
yet, or not yet perfectly, I am working hard to improve), but I
don't give a damn whether my language matches that of the
rhetoricians (you remember making the comparison: if someone
had something useful, true and necessary to say but said it in
terms that were hard to understand, what good would that be to
the speaker or to his audience?).
Let me just hold on to this point - the more so as I have
often come across a rather peculiar historical phenomenon.
Don't misunderstand me: it goes without saying that one must
speak in the mother tongue of one's audience, if that audience
knows one language only, and it would be absurd not to take
that for granted.
But now for the second part of the question. Suppose a man
has something to say and says it in a language in which his
audience, too, is at home. Time and again we shall find that
the speaker of truth lacks oratorical
style and does not appeal to the greater part
of his audience, indeed, is scorned as a man “slow of
tongue” and despised as such. He can count himself
lucky if he can edify just one, or at best a very few, with
what he says, because those few are not interested in
oratorical tirades, but positively listen out for the true,
useful, necessary content of the words, which enlighten them,
broaden their minds, make them freer or more intelligent.
And now for the painters - is it the object and the
“non plus ultra” of art to produce those peculiar
smudges of colour, that waywardness in the drawing - that are
known as the refinement of technique? Certainly not. Take a
Corot, a Daubigny, a Dupré, a Millet or an Israëls
- men who are certainly the great forerunners - well, their
work goes beyond the paint, standing out from that of
the fashionable crowd as much as an oratorical tirade by, say,
a Numa Roumestan differs from a prayer or a good poem.
So the reason why one must work on one's technique is
simply to express better, more accurately, more profoundly what
one feels, and the less verbiage the better. As for the rest,
one need not bother with it.
Why I say this is because I think I have noticed that you
sometimes disapprove of things in your own work which in my
opinion are rather good. In my view, your technique is
better than, say, Haverman's, because your brushstroke often
has an individual, distinctive, reasoned and deliberate touch,
while what one invariably gets with Haverman is convention,
redolent at all times of the studio, and never of
For instance, those sketches of yours I saw, the little
weaver and the Terschelling women, appeal to me, they are a
stab at the core of things. All I get with Haverman is a
feeling of malaise and boredom, little else.
I am afraid that you - and I congratulate you on it -
are going to hear the same remarks about your technique in the
future as well, and about your subjects and . . . about
everything, in fact, even when that brushstroke of yours, which
has so much character already, acquires still more of it.
Yet there are art lovers who, aprés tout,
appreciate most what has been painted with emotion. Although we
no longer live in the days of Thoré and Théophile
Just consider whether it is sensible to talk a great deal
about technique nowadays. You will say that I myself am doing
just that - as a matter of fact, I regret it. But as far as I
am concerned, I am determined, even when I shall be much
more master of my brush than I am now - to go on telling people
methodically that I cannot paint. Do you understand?
Even when I have achieved a solid manner of my own, more
complete and concise than the present one.
I liked what Herkomer said when he opened up his own art
school to a number of people who already knew how to
paint - he urged his students to be kind enough not
to paint the way he did but in their own way. “My
aim,” he said, “is to set original forms free, not
to recruit disciples for Herkomer's doctrine.”
Entre lions on ne singe pas. [Lions do not ape one
Anyway, I've been painting quite a bit lately, a seated girl
winding shuttles for the weavers and a weaver on his own. I'm
rather anxious that you should see my painted studies one of
these days - not because I'm satisfied with them but because I
think they'll convince you that I really am keeping my hand in,
and that when I say that I set relatively little store by
technique, it's not because I'm trying to save myself trouble
or to avoid problems, for that is not my way.
Apart from that, I am looking forward to your getting to
know this corner of Brabant some day - in my opinion it is much
more beautiful than the Breda side.
These last few days it has been delightful. There is a
village here, Son en Breughel, which bears an amazing
resemblance to Courrières, where the Bretons live -
though the figures are even more beautiful over there. As one's
love for the form grows, one may well come to dislike the
“Dutch national costume,” as it's called in the
photograph albums they sell to foreigners.
I detest writing or talking about technique in
general, Rappard - though I may occasionally get the urge none
the less to discuss how to execute some idea or other of mine,
be it with you or with someone else, and I never make light if
the practical value of such discussions. But that doesn't
gainsay my first thought - which I may not have expressed
That thought, I can't find the right words, is based not on
something negative but on something positive. On the positive
awareness that art is something greater and higher than our own
skill or knowledge or learning. That art is something which,
though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone,
but wells up from a deeper source, from man's soul, while much
of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art
reminds me of what would be called self-righteousness in
My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the
artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at
work most strongly - Israëls, for example, is clever as a
technician, but so is Vollon - but I like Israëls more
than Vollon because I see something more in Israëls,
something quite different from the masterly reproduction of the
materials, something quite different from light and brown,
something quite different from the colour - yet that something
quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the
light effect, the material, the colour.
This something different of which I find so much more in
Israëls than in Vollon is pronounced in Eliot, and Dickens
has it as well. Does it lie in their choice of subjects?
No, for that, too, is only an effect.
What I am driving at, among other things, is that while
Eliot is masterly in her execution, above and beyond that she
also has a genius all of her own, about which I would say,
perhaps one improves through reading those books, or perhaps
these books have the power to make one sit up and take
In spite of myself I keep writing about exhibitions, though
actually I give them precious little thought. Now that by
chance I do happen to be thinking about them, I am examining my
thoughts with some surprise. I should not be expressing them
fully enough if I didn't add that in some pictures there is
something so thoroughly honest and good that no matter what is
done with them - whether they end up in good or in bad, in
honest or dishonest hands - something good emanates from them.
“Let your light shine before men,” is, I believe,
the duty of every painter, but in my view does not mean that
letting the light shine before men must be done through
exhibitions. Believe me, I just wish there were more and
better opportunities than exhibitions to bring art to
the people. Far from wanting to hide the light under a bushel,
I would sooner let it be seen. Well, enough of this.
I have recently been reading Eliot's Felix Holt, the
Radical. This book has been very well translated into Dutch. I
hope you know it. If you don't, see if you can get hold of it.
It somewhere contains certain views of life that I find
outstandingly good - profound things expressed in a droll way.
It is a book written with great verve, and various scenes are
described as Frank Holl or someone similar might have drawn
them. The way of thinking and the outlook are similar. There
are not many writers as utterly sincere and good as Eliot. This
book, The Radical, is not as well known in Holland as, say, her
Adam Bede, and her Scenes from Clerical Life are not all that
well known either - more's the pity, much as it's a great pity
that not everyone knows Israëls's work.
I am enclosing a little booklet on Corot, which I believe
you will read with pleasure if you don't know it already. It
contains a number of accurate biographical details. I saw the
exhibition at the time for which this is the catalogue.
It's remarkable, I think, that this man should have taken so
long to settle down and mature. Just look what he did at
different periods of his life. I saw things in the first of his
real contributions - the result of years of study - that
were as honest as the day is long, thoroughly sound - but how
people must have despised them! For me Corot's studies
were a lesson when I saw them, and I was even then struck by
the difference between them and the studies of many other
landscape painters. I would compare your little country
churchyard with them, if I didn't find more technique in
it than in Corot's studies. The sentiment is identical, an
endeavour to render only what is intimate and essential.
The gist of what I am saying in this letter is this. Let us
try to grasp the secrets of technique so well that people will
be taken in and swear by all that is holy that we have no
technique. Let our work be so savant [skillful] that it
seems naive and does not reek of our cleverness. I do
not believe that I have reached this desirable
point, and I do not believe that even you, who are more
advanced than I, have reached it yet.
I hope you'll see something more than verbal nitpicking in
I believe that the more contact one has with nature herself
the more deeply one delves into her, the less attracted one is
by all the trucs d'atelier [studio tricks] and yet I do want to
give them their due and watch them painting. I often
look forward to visiting studios myself.
Niet in boeken heb ik het gevonden
En van “geleerden” - och, weinig geleerd.
[Not in books have I found it
And from the “learned,” ah, but little have I
says De Genestet, as you know. By way of a variation one
Niet in `t atelier heb ik gevonden
En van de schilders/de kenners - och, weinig geleerd.
[Not in the studio have I found it,
and from painters/connoisseurs, ah, but little have I
Perhaps you are shocked to find me putting in painters or
But to change the subject, it is fiendishly difficult not to
feel anything, not to be affected when those bloody idiots say
“does he paint for money?” One hears that drivel
day in, day out, and one gets angry with oneself later for
having taken it to heart. That's how it is with me - and I
think it must be much the same with you. One doesn't really
care a rap, but it gets on one's nerves all the same, just like
listening to off-key singing or being pursued by a malicious
barrel organ. Don't you find that to be true of the barrel
organ, and that it always seems to have picked on you in
particular? For wherever one goes, it's the same old tune.
As for me, I'm going to do what I tell you: when people say
something or other to me, I shall finish their sentences even
before they are out - in the same way as I treat someone I know
to be in the habit of extending his finger to me instead of his
hand (I tried the trick on a venerable colleague of my father's
yesterday) - I too have a single finger ready and, with an
absolutely straight face, carefully touch his with it when we
shake hands, in such a way that the man cannot take
exception, yet realizes that I am giving as good as I damned
well got. The other day I put a fellow's back up with something
similar. Does one lose anything as a result? No, for to be
sure, such people are sent to try us, and when I write to you
about certain expressions of yours I do so only in order to ask
you: are you certain that those who are so loud in their
praises of technique are de bonne foi? [of good faith] I'm only
asking because I know that your aim is to avoid studio
At this time, Vincent was 30 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Anthon van Rappard. Written 2nd half March 1884 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number R43.
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