van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
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Letter from Anton Kerssemakers to De Groene
Eindhoven, 14 April 1912
Relevant paintings:

"The Jewish Bride," Rembrandt van Rijn 1665

Nuenen [by Anton Kerssemakers]

It was some years after his stay in the Borinage - when, after having worked in The Hague and in Drenthe, he had come to stay in Nuenen, about the year 1884 that I made the painter's acquaintance.

At the time I was engaged in painting a number of landscapes on the walls of my office, instead of having them covered with wallpaper, and in his peculiar way my house painter, who furnished me with colours, thought this so nice that one day he brought Van Gogh along to show him my work.

Van Gogh was of the opinion that I could draw, and kind-heartedly, as was his way, he at once showed himself willing to help me on with my painting. The consequence was our more intimate acquaintanceship and, on his friendly invitation, my visit to his studio at Nuenen, to which 1 shall revert later on.

My house painter had quite a lot of confidence in Van Gogh, and prepared for him the colours he most needed, such as the whites and the ochres and some others.

Seeing that the house painter was no expert at this job, these colours often left much to be desired in the matter of consistency, but Van Gogh had to content himself with them because of a lack of money.

I still have a little study as a souvenir of this unmanageable paint.

He painted it in a great hurry at my house, to instruct me; it was a view from my window in winter with melting snow, and the thin white colour ran all over the landscape.

On the occasion of my first visit to his studio at Nuenen it was impossible for me to get the right insight into his work; it was so totally different from what I had imagined it would be up to then, so rough and unkempt, so harsh and unfinished, that with the best will in the world I was unable to think it good or beautiful; and, badly disappointed, I decided not to go and see him again, and go my own way.

However, shortly afterward I discovered that his work had made a certain impression on me after all, which it was impossible for me to dismiss from my mind; every now and then his studies rose up before my mind's eye again, so that I resolved to pay him another visit; it was as if I were drawn to it.

At my second visit the impression I got was considerably better, although in my ignorance I still thought that either he could not draw or that he carelessly neglected to draw his figures, and so on, and I took the liberty of telling him so straight out.

He was not at all cross at this, he only laughed a little and said quietly, Later on you will think differently. When I went away, he gave me some engravings from The Graphic and some by Adolf Menzel and others to take with me, saying that he advised me to look them over carefully and unhurriedly at home, and study them and draw copies of them. “You will learn a thing or two from this.”

On another occasion I took along a number of small studies that I had painted in the meantime, so as to hear what he would have to say about them.

Probably in order not to discourage me he said:

“Well, after all there is some good in it. But now I advise you to try and make a few still lifes first instead of landscapes; you will learn a lot from that. After you have painted some fifty of them, you will see how much progress you have made. And I am willing to help you and to paint the same subjects along with you, for I myself still have a good deal to learn, and there is nothing to equal this for learning to put things in their right positions, and for learning to get them properly separated in space.”

In this way, for days and even weeks on end, he tried to help me on with the utmost patience, in the meantime working on hard himself, doing innumerable drawings and watercolour sketches and studies in oil, indoors and out.

Once, when I had pretty well lost courage, and said to him, “Oh, I don't think anything can be done with me I am too old to turn myself into a painter,” he mentioned a number of painters who had started late in life, and had become great masters for all that, including H. W. Mesdag.

Once, when we sat together in my studio painting the same still life, nothing more than a pair of wooden shoes and some pots taken at random, and I sat daubing away at it in my own manner, laying on the colour and scratching it off again without being able to get any relief into it, he suddenly walked over to me: “Look here, now you put - no, you needn't be afraid I'll spoil your drawing - a vigorous dark transparent touch there and there” - and at the same time he was already assailing my tiny canvas with his big broad brush. “Do you see? Like that. Look, now the other part comes to the front. It is wrong to go brushing away on the same spot, you must set it all down at once and then leave it alone; don't be afraid, and don't try to make it pretty.

“We'll say we've done enough here for today, and now we must go and paint in the open air for a change; I'll come here, if you like, or else you might come to Nuenen again; I know enough nice interesting spots there.”

So it came about that we made various painting excursions in the Nuenen district, as for instance to that little old medieval chapel that stood in the middle of a cornfield, and to the beautiful old windmill in the vicinity of Lieshout, of which I later saw in his house such a dashing, vigorous study with those small square sheep low down along the mill.

No sooner said than done, for he invariably consented to whatever you proposed.

The table was well furnished with various kinds of bread, cheese, sliced ham and so on.

When I looked, I saw he was eating dry bread and cheese, and I said, “Come on, Vincent, do take some ham, and butter your bread, and put some sugar in your coffee; after all, it has to be paid for whether you eat it or not.”

“No,” he said, “that would be coddling myself too much: bread and cheese is what I am used to,” and he calmly went on eating.

His studio too - he had rented a couple of rooms in the sexton's house - had quite a Bohemian look.

One was amazed at the way all the available hanging or standing room was filled with paintings, drawings in watercolour and in crayon, heads of men and women whose clownish turned-up noses, protruding cheekbones and large ears were strongly accentuated, the rough paws calloused and furrowed, weavers and weaving looms, women spooling yarn, potato planters, women weeding, innumerable still lifes, certainly as many as ten studies in oils of the little old chapel at Nuenen that I mentioned, which he was so enthusiastic about that he had painted it in all seasons and in all weathers. (Later this little chapel was pulled down by the Nuenen vandals, as he called them.)

A great heap of ashes around the stove, which had never known a brush or stove polish, a small number of chairs with frayed cane bottoms, a cupboard with at least thirty different bird's nests, all kinds of mosses and plants brought along from the moor, some stuffed birds, a spool, a spinning wheel, a complete set of farm tools, old caps and hats, coarse bonnets and hoods, wooden shoes, etc., etc.

Paintbox and palette he had had made in Nuenen according to his directions, as well as a perspective frame; this consisted of an iron bar with a long sharp point, on which he could mount, by means of screws, an empty frame like a small window. He said, The painters of old used a perspective frame at times, so why shouldn't we?

Some time later I visited a number of museums in his company, the National Museum at Amsterdam being the first.

As I was unable to spend the night away from home for domestic reasons, he went the day before and made an appointment to meet me the next day in the third-class waiting room of the Central Station at Amsterdam.

When I came into this waiting room I saw quite a crowd of people of all sorts, railway guards, workmen, travellers, and so on and so forth, gathered near the front windows of the waiting room, As soon as he caught sight of me, he packed up his things quite calmly, and we started for the museum. Seeing that the rain was coming down in torrents, and Van Gogh in his fur cap and shaggy ulster soon looked like a drowned tomcat, I took a cab, at which he grumbled considerably, saying, “What do I care about the opinion of all Amsterdam, I prefer walking; well, never mind, have it your own way.”

In the museum he knew where to find what interested him most; he took me chiefly to the Van Goyens, the Bols and the Rembrandts; he spent the longest time in front of the “Jewish Bride”; I could not tear him away from the spot; he went and sat down there at his ease, while I myself went on to look at some other things. “You will find me here when you come back,” he told me.

When I came back after a pretty long while and asked him whether we should not get a move on, he gave me a surprised look and said, “Would you believe it - and 1 honestly mean what I say - I should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food?” At last be got up. “Well, never mind,” he said, “we can't stay here forever, can we?”

After that we went to Van Gogh's Fine Art Establishment, where at his recommendation I bought two books, Musées de Hollande and Trésors d'art en Angleterre by W. Burger (Thoré); when I asked him if he would go inside with me, he replied, “No, I must not be seen on the premises of such a genteel, rich family.” He still seemed to be on bad terms with his family; he remained standing in the street, waiting for me.

Some time later we visited the museums at Antwerp, and I still remember one characteristic incident vividly. It was when he caught sight of the fisherboy carrying a basket on his back (I think it is by Velàsquez). Suddenly he disappeared from my side, and I saw him run to the picture; and of course I ran after him. When I reached him, he was standing in front of the picture with folded hands as if in devout prayer, and muttered, “God…damn it, do you see that?” After a while he said, “That is what I call painting, look” - and, following with his thumb the direction of the broad brush strokes - “he was one to leave what he had once put down alone,” and indicating the gallery with a wide, all-embracing gesture: “All the rest belongs to the periwig-and-pigtail period.”

He felt a deep veneration for Corot, Daubigny, Diaz, Millet, and further the whole Barbizon school, he was always full of it, and in his disquisitions on his beloved art he invariably reverted to them.

However, he never spoke about art with totally uninitiated persons, and he was terribly annoyed when a so-called picture lover from his entourage told him that he thought a thing of his was beautiful; then he knew for certain, he was in the habit of saying, that it was bad, and as a rule such studies were destroyed or repainted. Only with a few chosen friends, to whom I also had the good fortune of belonging - although in those days these friends were also unable fully to agree with his manner of painting - did he like to talk about painting, drawing, etching and so on, and many a time I have reproached myself for not having understood him better at the time, for if I had, how much more might I have learned from him.

He was always drawing comparisons between the art of painting and music, and in order to get an even better understanding of the values and the various nuances of the tones, he started taking piano lessons with an old music teacher who was at the same time an organist in Eindhoven. This, however, did not last long, for seeing that during the lessons Van Gogh was continually comparing the notes of the piano with Prussian blue and dark green and dark ochre, and so on, all the way to bright cadmium-yellow, the good man thought that he had to do with a madman, in consequence of which he became so afraid of him that he discontinued the lessons.

I was also present at the painting of the water mill at Gestel, which picture I later saw again at Oldenzeel's and in the Boymans Museum at Rotterdam.

At the time he thought he had found a means of preventing the, to him, so hateful, sinking in of the colours by using copaiba balsam, but seeing that he was rather lavish in the use of this ingredient, as he was of his colours too, he used too much of it, and the result was that the whole sky of the picture came floating down, so that he had to remove it with his palette knife, as may still be seen in the picture on close examination.

Only a few pieces were signed by him. When I once asked him why he did not sign his name in full, he replied: “Van Gogh is such an impossible name for many foreigners to pronounce; if it should happen that my pictures found their way to France or England, then the name would certainly be murdered, whereas the whole world can pronounce the name Vincent correctly.”

He came to my house in Eindhoven very often. Once when I was sitting painting in my garden, I suddenly heard behind me: “Look here, yes, you are right to paint in the open air; you should do it often...Yes, do you see the slant of that roof? It must be an angle of at least forty-five degrees; it's far too steep like that. And then I don't know how you are going to handle your colours, but all this is of no importance, just go ahead. There is nothing from which one learns so much as from painting in the open air. In particular you should compare the objects with each other, especially for the tone. Painting is like algebra: something is to this as that is to the other. And above all, study your perspective carefully; if you start by making things green in the background, how can you expect to get them green in the foreground?”

Whenever he saw a beautiful evening sky, he went into ecstasies, if one may use the expression. Once, when we were tramping from Nuenen to Eindhoven toward evening, he suddenly stood stock-still before a glorious sunset, and using his two hands as if to screen it off a little, and with his eyes half closed, he exclaimed, “God bless me, how does that fellow - or God, or whatever name you give him - how does he do it? We ought to be able to do that too. My God, my God, how beautiful that is! What a pity we haven't got a prepared palette ready, for it will be gone in a moment.

“Do let us sit down here for a minute. Take care you never forget to half-shut your eyes when you are painting in the open air. Once in a while those clodhoppers in Nuenen say that I am mad when they see me shuffling about over the moor, and stop, and crouch down in a half-sitting position, every now and then screwing my eyes half-shut, holding up my hands by my eyes, now in this way, now in that, in order to screen things off. But I don't give a damn about that, I just go my own way.”

For weeks on end he would occupy himself exclusively with the drawing of hands, feet or wooden shoes. “That is something I must get a firm grip on,” he used to say.

One of the female models whom he used for painting studies of heads was his Dulcinea, according to village gossip. One repeatedly encounters her in his paintings of heads. It had even happened that this was objected to by one of the guardians of the villagers' salvation, and moreover, he blamed the same person for his having been given notice to quit his studio. As he himself recounted, he had taken singular vengeance after that, something that we shall cover with the cloak of charity, as being less suitable to record here.

When he had finished his picture called “The Potato Eaters,” a picture done in very dark colours, with a hanging lamp over the table, around which a peasant family is sitting and eating steaming potatoes out of a dish, he carried it with him to Eindhoven to show me.

Afterward he made a lithograph of this picture at a label factory; he made twenty prints of this lithograph, some of which may still be in existence. Mine, however, became hopelessly tattered later on, as it was printed on ordinary, inferior paper.

Another time he came to me with the study of a woman spooling yarn; he had painted no spokes in the spooling wheel, but one continuous, unicoloured smear of transparent grey. This was such an extraordinary sight that I did not under stand it at first, and I asked him why he had done it in this way.

“Don't you understand?” he asked me. “Once in a while the motion of the wheel is expressed this way.”

He always spoke of Anton Mauve with the highest respect, although in the past he had been unable to get along with him, and had worked in his studio for only a short time. According to what he told me, Mauve once made a disapproving remark because he touched his canvas too often with his fingers while painting; this caused him to lose his temper, and he snapped at Mauve, “What the hell does it matter, even if I did it with my heels, as long as it is good and has the right effect!”

For that matter this was a favorite expression of his; accordingly he used to say, Those little sheep have the right effect, or, That little birch tree might have a better effect, or, What a fine effect it has against that evening sky, and so on.

He had already mentioned more than once that he wanted to go away, but I had never paid much attention to it, as I did not think he meant what he said, but at last he came to me and announced his departure for Antwerp, and after that to France.

Before he set off he visited me once more to say good-by, and as a souvenir he brought me a beautiful autumn study, not yet entirely dry, finished completely in the open air, and measuring 3 ft. 4 in. by 2 ft. 8 in., and took away with him a little canvas as a souvenir in return.

This autumn picture is still in my possession; it is painted in a very light range of colours, and the subject is very simple; in the foreground three gnarled oaks, still full of leaves, and one poor bare beggar of a pollard birch, in the background a tangled wilderness of various trees and shrubs, partly bare, shutting off the horizon, and in the centre the little figure of a woman in a white cap, just dashed off in three strokes of the brush, but having a beautiful effect, as he would have said himself.

There is a striking atmosphere of autumn in this picture, it is painted in broad strokes, and the paint is richly laid on. When I remarked that he had not yet signed it, he said he might do so some time or other, “I suppose I shall come back someday, but actually it isn't necessary; they will surely recognize my work later on, and write about me when I'm dead and gone. I shall take care of that, if I can keep alive for some little time.”

[Reprinted from the Amsterdam weekly De Groene (The Green One) of April 14 and 21, 1912.]

At this time, Vincent was 59 year old
Anton Kerssemakers. Letter to De Groene. Written 14 April 1912 in Eindhoven. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number htm.

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