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Your letter has done me good and I thank you for having
written to me in the way you have.
The roll with a new selection of etchings and various prints
has just arrived. First and foremost the masterly etching,
“Le Buisson” by Daubigny and Ruysdael. Well! I
propose to make two drawings, in sepia or something else, one
after that etching, the other after “Le Four dans les
Landes” by Th. Rousseau. Indeed, I have already done a
sepia of the latter, but if you compare it with Daubigny's
etching you will see that it contrasts feebly, although
considered on its own the sepia may betray some tone and
sentiment. I shall have to return to it and tackle it
I am still working on Bargue's Cours de Dessin, and
intend to finish it before I go on to anything else, for both
my hand and my mind are growing daily more supple and strong as
a result, and I cannot thank Mr. Tersteeg enough for having
been so kind as to lend it to me. The models are outstanding.
Meanwhile I am reading one book on anatomy and another on
perspective, which Mr. Tersteeg also sent me. These studies are
demanding and sometimes the books are extremely tedious, but I
think all the same that it's doing me good to study them.
So you see that I am working away hard, though for the
moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But
I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in
due course and that these apparently fruitless struggles are
nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.
You mention Lessore. I think I remember some very elegant
watercolour landscapes by him in a blonde tone, worked with an
apparent ease and a light touch, yet with accuracy and
distinction, and a somewhat decorative effect (that is not
meant badly, but on the contrary, in a favourable sense). So I
know a little about his work and you mention someone not
entirely unknown to me.
I admire the portrait of Victor Hugo. It is done very
conscientiously with the evident intention of portraying the
truth without straining after effect. That is precisely what
makes it so effective.
Last winter I pored over some of Hugo's works, Le Dernier
Jour d'un Condamné and an excellent book on Shakespeare.
I first started studying this writer long ago. He is just as
splendid as Rembrandt. Shakespeare is to Charles Dickens or
Victor Hugo what Ruysdael is to Daubigny, and Rembrandt to
What you say in your letter about Barbizon is perfectly true
and I can tell you one or two things that will make it clear
how much I share your view. I haven't been to Barbizon, but
though I haven't been there, I did go to Courrières last
winter. I went on a walking tour in the Pas-de-Calais, not the
English Channel but the department, or province. I had gone on
this trip in the hope of perhaps finding some sort of work
there, if possible - I would have accepted anything - but in
fact I set out a bit reluctantly, though I can't exactly say
why. But I had told myself, You must see Courrières. I
had just 10 francs in my pocket and because I had started out
by taking the train, that was soon gone, and I was on the road
for a week, it was a rather gruelling trip. Anyway, I saw
Courrières and the outside of M. Jules Breton's studio.
The outside of the studio was a bit of a disappointment, seeing
that it is in a brand-new studio, recently built of brick, of a
Methodist regularity, with an inhospitable, stone-cold and
forbidding aspect, just like C. M.'s Jovinda, which, between
ourselves, I am none too keen on either, for the same reason.
If I could have seen the inside, I am quite certain that I
should have given no further thought to the outside, but there
you are, I could not see the inside because I dared not
introduce myself and go in. Elsewhere in Courrières I
looked for traces of Jules Breton or any other artist. All I
was able to find was a portrait of him at a photographer's and
a copy of Titian's Entombment in a corner of the old church
which looked very beautiful to me in the darkness and masterly
in tone. Was it by him? I don't know because I was unable to
make out any signature.
But of any living artist, no trace, just a cafe called Cafe
des Beaux Arts, also of new, inhospitable, stone-cold,
repulsive brick - the café was decorated with a kind of
fresco or mural depicting episodes from the life of that
illustrious knight, Don Quixote.
To tell the truth, those frescoes seemed to me rather poor
consolation, and fairly mediocre at the time. I don't know who
But anyway I did seen the country around Courrières
then, the haystacks, the brown farmland or the marled earth,
almost coffee-coloured (with whitish spots where the marl shows
through), which seems somewhat unusual to people like us who
are used to a blackish soil. And the French sky looked to me
much finer and brighter than the smoky, foggy sky of the
Borinage. What's more, there were farms and barns that, God be
praised, still retained their mossy thatched roofs. I also saw
the flocks of crows made famous by the pictures of Daubigny and
Millet. Not to mention, as I ought to have done in the first
place, the characteristic and picturesque figures of all manner
of workmen, diggers, woodcutters, a farmhand driving his wagon
and a silhouette of a woman in a white cap. Even in
Courrières there was still a coal mine or pit, I saw the
day shift come up at nightfall: but there were no women workers
in men's clothes as in the Borinage, just the miners looking
tired and careworn, black with coal dust, dressed in ragged
miners' clothes, one of them in an old army cape.
I earned a few crusts here and there en route in exchange
for a picture or a drawing or two I had in my bag. But when my
ten francs ran out I tried to bivouac in the open air the last
3 nights, once in an abandoned carriage which was completely
white with hoarfrost the next morning, not the best
accommodation, once in a pile of faggots; and once, and that
was a slight improvement, in a haystack, that had been opened
up, where I succeeded in making myself a slightly more
comfortable little hideaway, though the drizzle did not exactly
add to my enjoyment.
Well, and yet it was in these depths of misery that I felt
my energy revive and I said to myself, I shall get over it
somehow, I shall set to work again with my pencil, which I had
cast aside in my deep dejection, and I shall draw again, and
from that moment I have had the feeling that everything has
changed for me, and now I am in my stride and my pencil has
become slightly more willing and seems to be getting more so by
the day. My over-long and over-intense misery had discouraged
me so much that I was unable to do anything.
I saw something else during the trip - the weaver's
The miners and the weavers still form a race somehow apart
from other workers and artisans and I have much fellow-feeling
for them and I should consider myself fortunate if I could draw
them one day, for then these as yet unknown, or virtually
unknown, types would be brought out into the light of day.
The man from the depths, from the abyss, de
profundis, that is the miner. The other, with the
faraway look, almost daydreaming, almost a sleepwalker, that is
the weaver. I have been living among them now for nearly 2
years and have learned a little of their special character, in
particular that of the miners. And increasingly I find
something touching and even pathetic in these poor, humble
workers, the lowest of the low in a manner of speaking, and the
most despised, who, owing to a possibly widely held but quite
baseless and inaccurate presumption, are usually considered a
race of knaves and scoundrels. Knaves, drunkards and scoundrels
may be found here, of course, just as elsewhere, but the real
type is nothing at all like that.
You refer vaguely in your letter to my coming sooner or
later to Paris or its environs, if it were possible and if I
wanted to. It is of course my eager and fervent wish to go
either to Paris or to Barbizon, or somewhere else, but how can
I, when I do not earn a cent and when, though I work hard, it
will be some time before I reach the point at which I can give
any thought to something like going to Paris. For honestly, to
be able to work properly I need at least a hundred francs a
month. You can certainly live on less, but then you really are
hard up, much too hard up in fact!
“Poverty stops the best minds in their tracks”
the old Palissy saying goes, which has some truth in it and is
entirely true if you understand its real meaning and import.
For the moment I do not see how it could be feasible, and the
best thing is for me to stay here and work as hard as I can,
and, after all, it is cheaper to live here.
At the same time I must tell you that I cannot remain very
much longer in the little room where I live now. It is very
small room indeed, and then there are the two beds as well, the
children's and my own. And now that I am working on Bargue's
fairly large sheets I cannot tell you how difficult it is. I
don't want to upset these people's domestic arrangements. They
have already told me that I couldn't have the other room in the
house under any circumstances, not even if I paid more, for the
woman needs it for her washing, which in a miner's house has to
be done almost every day. In short, I should like to rent a
small workman's cottage. It costs about 9 francs a month.
I cannot tell you (though fresh problems arise and will
continue to arise every day), I cannot tell you how happy I am
that I have taken up drawing again. I had been thinking about
it for a long time, but always considered it impossible and
beyond my abilities. But now, though I continue to be conscious
of my failings and of my depressing dependance on a great many
things, now I have recovered my peace of mind and my energy
increases by the day.
As far as coming to Paris is concerned, it would be of
particular advantage to me if we could manage to establish
contact with some good and able artist, but to be quite blunt
about it, it might only be a repetition on a large scale of my
trip to Courrières, where I hoped to come across a
living example of the species Artist and found none. For me the
object is to learn to draw well, to gain control of my pencil,
my charcoal or my brush. Once I have achieved that I shall be
able to do good work almost anywhere and the Borinage is as
picturesque as old Venice, as Arabia, as Brittany, Normandy,
Picardy or Brie.
Should my work be no good, it will be my own fault. But in
Barbizon, you most certainly have a better chance than
elsewhere of meeting a good artist who would be as an angel
sent by God, should such a happy meeting take place. I say this
in all seriousness and without exaggeration. So if, sometime or
other, you should see the means and the opportunity, please
think of me. Meanwhile I'll stay here quietly in some small
workman's cottage and work as hard as I can.
You mentioned Méryon again. What you say about him is
quite true. I know his etchings slightly. If you want to see
something curious, then place one of his meticulous and
powerful sketches next to a print by Viollet-le-Duc or anyone
else engaged in architecture. If you do, then you will see
Méryon in his true light, thanks to the other etching
which will serve, whether you like it or not, as a foil or
contrast. Right, so what do you see? This. Even when he draws
bricks, granite, iron bars, or the railing of a bridge,
Méryon puts into his etchings something of the human
soul, moved by I do not know what inner sorrow. I have seen
Victor Hugo's drawings of Gothic buildings. Well, though they
lacked Méryon's powerful and masterly technique, they
had some-thing of the same sentiment. What sort of sentiment is
that? It is akin to what Albrecht Dürer expressed in his
“Melancholia,” and James Tissot and M. Maris
(different though these two may be) in our own day. A
discerning critic once rightly said of James Tissot, “He
is a troubled soul.” However this may be, there is
something of the human soul in his work and that is why he is
great, immense, infinite. But place Viollet-le-Duc alongside
and he is stone, while the other, that is, Méryon is
Méryon is said to have had so much love that, just
like Dickens's Sydney Carton, he loved even the stones of
certain places. But in Millet, in Jules Breton, in Jozef
Israëls, the precious pearl, the human soul, is even more
in evidence and better expressed in a noble, worthier, and if
you will allow me, more evangelical tone.
But to return to Méryon, in my view he also has a
distant kinship with Jongkind and perhaps with Seymour Haden,
since at times these two artists have been extremely good.
Just wait, and perhaps you'll see that I too am a workman.
Though I cannot predict what I shall be able to do, I hope to
make a few sketches with perhaps something human in them, but
first I must do the Bargue drawings and other more or less
difficult things. Narrow is the way and straight the gate and
there are only a few who find it.
Thanking you for your kindness, especially for “Le
Buisson,” I shake your hand,
I have now taken your whole collection, but you will get it
back later and in addition I've got some very fine things for
your collection of wood engravings, which I hope you will
continue, in the two volumes of the Musee Universel,
which I am keeping for you.
At this time, Vincent was 27 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 24 September 1880 in Cuesmes. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 136.
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