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"Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries," Vincent van Gogh
"Zouave (Half Length)," Vincent van Gogh
My dear Theo,
Many thanks for your kind letter. If you remember, mine
ended with “we are getting old, that is what it
is, the rest is imagination and doesn't exist.”
Well, I said that more for myself than for you. And I said it
because I felt the absolute necessity of behaving accordingly,
of working, perhaps not more, but with a deeper
Now you talk of the emptiness you feel everywhere, it is
just the very thing I feel myself.
Considering, if you like, the time in which we live a great
and true renaissance of art, the worm-eaten official tradition
still alive but really impotent and inactive, the new painters
isolated, poor, treated like madmen, and because of this
treatment actually becoming so, at least as far as their social
life is concerned.
Then remember that you are doing exactly the same work as
these primitive painters, since you provide them with money and
sell their canvases for them, which enables them to produce
others. If a painter ruins his character by working hard at
painting, a thing which leaves him useless for many other
things, for family life, etc., etc., if therefore he paints not
only with colours, but with self-denial and self-renunciation
and with a broken heart - as far as you are concerned, your own
work is not only no better paid than his, but it costs you
exactly what the painter's cost him, this sacrifice of the
individuality, half voluntary, half accidental.
That is to say that if you paint indirectly, you are
more productive than I am, for instance. The more irrevocably
you become a dealer, the more you become an artist.
And in the same way I hope the same thing for myself. The
more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more am I an
artist - a creative artist - in this great renaissance of art
of which we speak.
These things are surely so, but this eternally living art,
and this renaissance, this green shoot springing up from the
roots of the old felled trunk, these are such abstract things
that a kind of melancholy remains within us when we think that
one could have created life at less cost than creating art.
If possible, you ought to make me feel that art is alive,
you who love art perhaps more than I do. I tell myself that it
depends not on art but on myself, that the only way to get back
my confidence and peace of mind is to improve my
And there we are again, back at the end of my last letter -
I am getting old, it's sheer imagination if I should think that
art is old lumber too.
Now if you know what a “mousmé” is (you
will find out when you read Loti's Madame Chrysanthème),
I have just painted one. It took me a whole week, and I haven't
been able to do anything else, because I still haven't been too
well. This is what annoys me - but I felt well, I would have
been able to run off some more landscapes in the meantime, but
to do justice to my mousmé I had to conserve my mental
energies. A mousmé is a Japanese girl - Provençal
in this case - 12 to 14 years old. That makes
two portraits now, the Zouave and her.
I have had a letter from Russell. He says that he would have
written me before if he hadn't been busy moving to Belle Ile.
He is there now, and says that he would be pleased if sooner or
later I would go and spend some time there. He still wants to
repaint my portrait. He says too - “I should have gone to
Boussod's to see Gauguin's `Negresses Talking' if the same
thing had not prevented me from that too.”
In short, he does not refuse to buy one, but makes it clear
he does not want anything inferior to the one we have. You see
that at all events that is better than nothing.
I will write this to Gauguin and ask him for sketches of
pictures. We must hurry things and give up R. for the moment,
but regard it as a matter that will come off, but is in
And the same goes for Guillaumin.
I wish he [Russell] would buy a figure from G. He says that
he has had a very beautiful bust of his wife done by Rodin, and
that on this occasion he lunched with Claude Monet and saw the
10 pictures of Antibes. I am sending him Geffroy's article. He
criticizes the Monets very ably, begins by liking them very
much, the attack on the problem, the enfolding tinted air, the
colour. After that he shows what there is to find fault with -
the total lack of construction, for instance one of his trees
will have far too much foliage for the thickness of the trunk,
and so always and everywhere from the standpoint of the reality
of things, from the standpoint of lots of natural laws,
he is exasperating enough. He ends by saying that this quality
of attacking the difficulties is what everyone ought to
Bernard has sent me 10 sketches like his brothel; three of
them were à la Redon; I do not altogether share the
enthusiasm he has for that. But there is a woman washing
herself, very Rembrandtesque, an effect like Goya, and a
landscape with figures, very strange. He expressly forbade me
to send them to you, but all the same you will get them by the
I think that Russell will buy something more from
Meanwhile I have seen this Bock's work; it is strictly
impressionistic, but not powerful, it is the stage where this
new technique still preoccupies him so much that he cannot be
himself. He will gain in force and then his individuality will
break free, I think. But McKnight does water colours of the
quality of those by Destrée, you remember that Dutchman
we used to know. However, he has washed some small still lifes;
a yellow pot on a violet foreground, a red pot on a green, an
orange pot on blue, better, but very poor.
The village where they are staying is real Millet,
poor peasants and nothing else, absolutely rustic and
homely. This quality completely escapes them. I think that
McKnight has civilized and converted to civilized Christianity
his brute of a landlord. Anyway the swine and his worthy
spouse, when you go there, shake hands with you - it is in a
café, of course - when you ask for drinks, they have a
way of refusing money - Oh! I could not take money from an
artiss” - with two esses. Anyway, it is their own
fault that it is so abominable, and this Bock must get pretty
well stultified in McKnight's company.
I think that McKnight has some money but not much. So they
contaminate the village; but for that, I'd go there to work
often. What one ought to do there is not to talk to the
civilized people; now they know the station master and a score
of bores, and that is partly why they get nowhere. Naturally
these simple and artless country folk laugh at them and despise
them. But if they did their work without taking up with these
village loungers with their starched collars, then they could
go into the peasants' homes and let them earn a few pence. And
then this blessed Fontvieilles would be a gold mine for them;
but the natives are like Zola's poor peasants, innocent and
gentle beings, as we know.
Probably McKnight will soon be making little landscapes with
sheep for chocolate boxes.
Not only my pictures but I myself have become haggard of
late, almost like Hugo van der Goes in the picture by Emil
Only, having got my whole beard carefully shaved off I think
that I am as much like the very placid priest in the same
picture as like the mad painter so intelligently portrayed
And I do not mind being rather between the two, for one must
live, especially because it is no use ignoring the fact that
there may be a crisis some day or other if you were to change
your relations with the Boussods. Another reason for keeping up
this connection with artists, on my part as much as on
Besides, I think I have spoken the truth, but if I should
succeed in replacing in goods the money spent, I should only be
doing my duty. And then, something practical I can do is
As for drinking too much ... if it is bad, I can't tell. But
look at Bismarck, who is in any case very practical and very
intelligent, his good doctor told him that he was drinking too
much, and that all his life he had overtaxed his stomach and
his brain. Bismarck immediately stopped drinking. After that he
got run down and couldn't pick up. Secretly he must be laughing
heartily at his doctor, because fortunately for him he did not
consult him sooner.
So much for that, a good handshake.
Ever yours, Vincent
Mind, as to Gauguin we must not give up the idea of coming
to his aid if the suggestion is acceptable as it stands, but
we do not need him. So do not think that working alone
bothers me, and do not push the affair on my account, be
very sure of that.
The portrait of the girl is against a background of white
strongly tinged with malachite green, her bodice is striped
blood red and violet, the skirt is royal blue, with large
yellow-orange dots. The mat flesh tones are yellowish-grey; the
hair tinged with violet; the eyebrows and the eyelashes are
black; the eyes, orange with Prussian blue. A branch of
oleander in her fingers, for the two hands are showing.
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written c. 25 July 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 514.
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