van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
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Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh
Saint-Rémy, 19 September 1889
Relevant paintings:

"Marcalle Roulin," Van Gogh 1888

"Portrait of Madame Trabuc," Vincent van Gogh

"Self-Portrait," Vincent van Gogh

"Marcalle Roulin," Van Gogh 1888

"Sheep-Shearers (after Millet)," Vincent van Gogh

"Evening Landscape with Rising Moon," Vincent van Gogh

"Field with Poppies," Vincent van Gogh

"Olive Grove," Vincent van Gogh

"Starry Night," Vincent van Gogh

"Mountains at Saint-Rmy with Dark hut," Vincent van Gogh

"Mountainous Landscape behind Saint-Paul Hospital," Vincent van Gogh

"Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background," Vincent van Gogh

"Entrance to a Quarry," Vincent van Gogh

St-Rémy, 19th Sept 1889

My dear Theo, Many thanks for your letter. It gives me very great pleasure that you on your side had already also thought of old Pissarro.

You will see that there are better odds there other than elsewhere. Meanwhile business is business, and you ask me to answer you categorically - and you are right - if I would consent to go into a home in Paris in case of an immediate departure for this winter.

I answer Yes to that, with the same calm and for the same reasons I had when I came to this place - even if this home in Paris should be a makeshift arrangement, which might easily be the case, for the opportunities to work are not bad here, and work is my only distraction.

Then - even as a last resort - it might be necessary for the moment to go into a private asylum instead.
Nevertheless, to avoid doing, or having the appearance of doing, anything rash I declare, after having thus warned you of what I might wish at a given moment - that is, to go away - I assure you that I feel calm and confident enough to wait here another length of time to see if a new attack materializes this winter.
But then if I write you I want to get out of here you should not hesitate and arrange things beforehand, for you would know then that I had a serious reason or even several for going into a home not run, as this one is, by nuns, however excellent they may be.

Now if by some arrangement or other, sooner or later, I should make a move, then let's begin as if practically nothing was wrong, being very cautious all the same and ready to listen to Rivet in the smallest matters, but don't let's begin by taking too formal measures straight off, as if it were a lost cause.

I don't see any advantage for myself in enormous physical strength, because I am absorbed in the idea of doing good work and wishing to be an artist and nothing but that would be more logical.
Both Mother and Wil, after Cor's departure, have moved- they were absolutely right. It is not necessary that grief gathers in our heart like water in a swamp - but it is sometimes both expensive and impossible to change.

Wil wrote beautifully that it is a great grief to them, Cor's departure.
It is odd, just when I was making that copy of the “Pieta” by Delacroix, I found where that canvas has gone. It belongs to a queen of Hungary, or of some other country thereabouts, who has written poems under the name of Carmen Sylva. The article mentioning her and the picture was by Pierre Loti, and he made you feel that this Carmen Sylva as a person was even more touching than what she wrote - and she wrote things like this: a childless woman is like a bell without a clapper - the sound of the bronze would perhaps be very beautiful, but no one will ever hear it.

I have now seven copies out of the ten of Millet's “Travaux des Champs.”
I can assure you that making copies interests me enormously, and it means that I shall not lose sight of the figure, even though I have no models at the moment.
Besides, this will make a studio decoration for me or someone else.

I should also like to copy the sower and the diggers.

There is a photograph of the diggers after the drawing.

And of the sower at Durand Ruel's the etching by Larat

Among these same etchings is found the snow-covered field with a harrow.

Then the four hours of the day; in the collection of wood engravings there are some copies.
I should like to have all these, at least the etchings and the wood engravings.

It is a kind of study that I need, for I want to learn. Although copying may be the old system, that makes absolutely no difference to me. I am going to copy the Good Samaritan by Delacroix too.
I have done a woman's portrait - the attendant's wife - which I think you would like.

I have done a duplicate of it which is less good than the one from life. And I am afraid they will take the latter; I should have liked you to have it. It is pink and black.
I am sending you today my portrait of me, you must look at it for some time - you will see, I hope, that my features are much calmer, although my look is vaguer than before, it seems to me.

I have another one which is an attempt when I was ill, but I think this will please you more, and I have tried to make it simple; show it to old Pissarro when you see him.
You will be surprised at the effect les travaux des champs takes on in colour, it is a very profound series of his.

What I am seeking in it and why it seems good to me to copy them I will tell you - they are always asking we painters to compose ourselves and be nothing but composers.
So be it - but it isn't like that in music - and if some person plays Beethoven, he adds his personal interpretation - in music and more especially in singing - the interpretation of a composer is something, and it is not a hard and fast rule that only the composer should play his own composition.
Very good - and I, mostly because I am ill at present, I am trying to do something to console myself, for my own pleasure.
I put the black and white by Delacroix or Millet or something made after them in front of me as a subject - and then I improvise colour on it, not, you understand, altogether by myself, but searching for memories

of their pictures - but the memory, the vague consonance of colours which are at least right in feeling - that is my own interpretation.
Many people do not copy, many others do - I started on it accidentally, and I find that it teaches me, and above all it sometimes consoles me.

And then my brush goes between my fingers as a bow would on the violin, and absolutely for my own pleasure. Today I tried the woman shearing sheep in a range going from lilac to yellow. They are little canvases of about size 5.
I thank you very much for the package of canvas and paints. In return I am sending you with the portrait the following canvases:

Moonrise (hayricks)
Study of Fields
Study of Olives
Study of the Night

The Mountain
Field of Green Wheat
Orchard in Bloom
Entrance to a Quarry

The first four canvases are studies without the effect of a whole that the others have. I like very much the entrance to a quarry which I was doing when I felt this attack coming on because to my taste the sombre greens go well with the ochre tones; there is something sad in it which is healthy, and that is why it does not bore me. Perhaps that is also true of the Mountain. They will tell me that mountains are not like that and that there are black outlines of a finger's width. But after all it seemed to me that it expressed the passage in Rod's book - one of the very rare passages of his which I found good - about a country of somber mountains, lost among which one perceives some dark goatherds' huts where sunflowers are blooming.

The olives with white clouds and background of mountains, also the moonrise and the night effect, these are exaggerations from the point of view of arrangement, their lines are warped as that of old wood. The olives are much more in character, as in the other study, and I tried to express the time of day when you see the green rose beetles and the cicadas flying about in the heat.

The other canvases, the reaper, etc., are not dry.
And now in the bad weather I am going to make a lot of copies, for really I must do more figures. It is the study of the figure that teaches you to seize the essential and to simplify.

When you say in your letter that I have done nothing but work, no - that is not right. I am myself very, very dissatisfied with my work, and the only thing that comforts me is that people with experience say you must paint for ten years for nothing. But what I have done is only those ten years of miserable and unwelcomed studies. Now a better period may come, but I shall have to get the figure stronger and I must refresh my memory by a very close study of Delacroix and Millet. Then I shall try to get my drawing clearer. Yes, misfortune is good for something, you gain time for study. I am adding to the roll of canvases a study of flowers - nothing much, but after all I do not want to tear it up.
In all this batch I think nothing at all good save the field of wheat, the mountain, the orchard, the olives with the blue hills and the portrait and the entrance to the Quarry, and the rest says nothing to me, because it lacks individual intention and feeling in the lines. Where these lines are close and deliberate it begins to be a picture, even if it is exaggerated. That is a little what Bernard and Gauguin feel, they do not ask the correct shape of a tree at all, but they insist absolutely that one can say if the shape is round or square - and my word, they are right, exasperated as they are by certain people's photographic and empty perfection. Certainly they will not ask the correct tone of the mountains, but they will say: In the Name of God, the mountains were blue, were they? Then chuck on some blue and don't go telling me that it was a blue rather like this or that, it was blue, wasn't it? Good - make them blue and it's enough!
Gauguin is sometimes like a genius when he explains this, but as for the genius Gauguin has, he is very timid about showing it, and it is touching the way he likes to say something really useful to the young. How strange he is all the same.

It gives me great pleasure that Jo is well, and I think that you will feel much more in your element thinking of her pregnancy, and of course having worries too, than alone without these family worries. For you will feel more as one with nature.
When you think of Millet and Delacroix, what a contrast. Delacroix without a wife, without children.

Millet surrounded by a big family, more than anybody.

And yet what similarities there are in their work.
So Jouve has still kept his big studio and is working on a decoration.

That man came very near to being an excellent painter. It is money trouble with him, he is forced to do a thousand things rather than painting, and it costs him more money than it brings in for living; when he does do something beautiful.

And he is quickly losing his knack of drawing with the brush. That is probably caused by the old way of education, which is the same as nowadays in the studios - they fill in the outlines. And Daumier was always painting his face in the mirror to learn to draw!
Do you know what I think of pretty often - what I already said to you some time ago - that even if I did not succeed, all the same I thought that what I have worked at will be carried on. Not directly, but one isn't alone in believing in things that are true. And what does it matter personally then! I feel so strongly that it is the same with people as it is with wheat, if you are not sown in the earth to germinate there, what does it matter, in the end you are milled to become bread.
The difference between happiness and unhappiness.

Both are necessary and useful, as well as death or disappearance ... it is so relative - and with life equally.

Even during an illness that breaks me up or frightens me, that belief is unshaken.
How I should have liked to see those Meuniers.
Well, let it be understood that if I were to write again expressly and briefly that I should like to go to Paris, I should have a reason for it, which I have explained above. That meanwhile there is no hurry, and that, having warned you, I have confidence enough to wait for the winter and the attack which will perhaps come back then. But if it is a fit of religious exaltation again, then no delay, I would like to leave without giving reasons at once. Only we are not permitted, at least it would be indiscreet, to meddle with the sisters' management or even to criticize them.

They have their beliefs and their own ways of doing good to others, sometimes they do very well. But I do not warn you lightly.
And it is not to recover more liberty or anything else that I don't have. So let's wait very calmly till an opportunity to settle things presents itself.
It is a great advantage that and then I do not think I am so sensitive to cold. And besides I know what to do when the weather is bad, having this project of copying lots of things that I like.
I should very much like to see Millet reproductions in the schools. I think there are children who would become painters if only they saw good things.
Say hello to Jo and a handshake.

Goodbye for now.

Ever yours, Vincent

At this time, Vincent was 36 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 19 September 1889 in Saint-Rémy. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 607.

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