Sunset: Wheat Fields Near Arles
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles: June, 1888
Our previous post contained an excerpt from Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Neunen where he had returned to his parent’s house to continue his drawing and painting. We follow now with a later excerpt where he has moved to Arles, in the south of France and rented a small house that he has turned into a studio. He is awaiting a visit from Paul Gauguin, who Vincent obviously considered a superior painter and from whom he hoped to learn much.
Our excerpt illustrates Vincent’s observant eye for colour and detail in nature, and in human nature, such as you might expect from an artist – very similar to the qualities of insight found in a writer who must reconstruct the world and its inhabitants from these insights in order to present them to an audience. His descriptions of the countryside can bring the scene to life for us as much by his words as by his impressions on canvas.
The excerpt ends, rather abruptly, with the incident where Vincent cuts off a piece of his ear and presents it to a prostitute in a local brothel, something that seemed to me to be very out of character for him from my impressions of him gathered throughout the rest of the book. There has also, lately, been some speculation that Vincent might have been murdered rather than having committed suicide – something we will likely never know – for us, now, all we can know for sure is that the world lost a monumentally talented artist and that we have been deprived of the artworks that would have issued from his brush. We can also lament that he never achieved a final success, or happiness, two things that eluded him throughout life.
Read on then for a glimpse of Vincent’s life in the south of France where he painted the canvases that have come to be regarded as his finest and as a testament to his long suffering artistic pursuit.
Pink Peach Tree in Blossom (Reminiscence of Mauve)
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles: March, 1888
Vincent at Arles
Excerpted from Dear Theo, The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh
Edited by Irving and Jean Stone
Grove press 1960 / Doubleday 1937, paperback 572 pp. 51/4 x 8″
Book IV: March 1886-July 1890
Since seven o’clock this morning I have been sitting in front of a clipped round bush of cedar growing amid grass. A row of bushes in the background are oleanders raving mad; the blasted things are flowering so riotously they may well get locomotor ataxia. They are loaded with fresh flowers, and heaps of faded flowers as well, and their green is continually renewing itself in fresh, strong jets, apparently inexhaustibly. A funereal cypress stands above them, and some small figures are sauntering along a rose-coloured path.
This garden has a fantastic character that makes you quite able to imagine the poets of the Renaissance, Dante, Petrarch, strolling over the flowery grass. It is the garden just in front of my house. And it shows perfectly that to get at the real character of things here you must look at them and paint them for a long time. Perhaps you will see nothing from the sketch except that the line is very simple.
What I am sure of is that to make a picture which will be really of the South, it is not enough to have a certain cleverness. It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper understanding. If we study Japanese art, we see an artist who is wise, philosophic, and intelligent, who spends his time how? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. In studying the policy of Bismarck? No. He studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw the plant, and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, the animals, then the human figures. So he passes his life.
Come, now, isn’t it almost an actual religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers? We must return to nature in spite of our education and our work in a world of convention. And you cannot study Japanese art without becoming gayer and happier.
I envy the Japanese the extreme clearness which everything has in their work. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few strokes, with ease. Oh! I must manage some day that in a few strokes the figure of a man, a youngster, a horse, shall have head, body, legs, all in keeping.
I have a letter from Gauguin, who seems very unhappy and says that as soon as he has sold something he will certainly come. He says that the people where he lodges have been wonderful to him, and that to leave them would be an outrage; but that I should be turning the knife in his heart if I were to think that he would not come straight off if he could. He says, too, that if you could sell his pictures at a low price he would be content.
I have just bought a dressing-table with everything necessary, and my own little room is complete. The other room needs still a dressing-table and a chest of drawers, and downstairs I shall need a big frying-pan and a cupboard. I am also thinking of planting two oleanders in tubs in front of the door.
I have arranged in the studio all the Japanese prints and the Daumiers, and the Delacroix and the Gericault; and lastly the little etching of Jacquemart after Meissonier, the ‘Man Reading’ – a Meissonier that I have always admired.
I shall need time, but I am obsessed with the idea of painting such decorations for the house as will be worth the money spent on me during the years in which I was unproductive. If you see Seurat tell him that I have in hand a scheme of decoration which has now got to fifteen canvases and which will take at least fifteen others to make a whole, and that in this more spacious work it is often the memory of his personality and of the visit we made to his studio to see his beautiful great canvases that encourages me.
I now have a canvas representing the house and its surroundings in sulphur-coloured sunshine. The subject is frightfully difficult, but that is just why I want to conquer it. The house on the left is pink with violet shutters; that is the restaurant where I go for dinner. My friend the postman lives at the end of the road between the two railway bridges.
Milliet thinks this horrible, but when he says he cannot understand anyone amusing himself doing such a dull grocer’s shop and stark stiff houses, I think to myself that Zola did a certain boulevard at the beginning of ‘L’Assommoir,’ and Flaubert a corner of the Quai de la Villette, and neither of them is junk yet. And it does me good to do difficult things.
That does not prevent my having a terrible need of – shall I say the word? – religion. That Benedictine father you tell of must have been very interesting. I only wish that they would manage to prove us something that would tranquillize and console us, so that we might stop feeling guilty and wretched, and could go on just as we are without losing ourselves in solitude and nothingness.
There is a book of Tolstoi’s called ‘My Religion.’ He does not seem to believe in a resurrection either of the body or the soul. Above all he seems not to believe in heaven – he reasons just as a nihilist reasons, but he attaches great importance to doing whatever you are doing, since probably it is all there is in you. And if he does not believe in the resurrection, he seems to believe in the equivalent – the continuance of life, the progress of humanity – the man and his work almost infallibly continued by humanity in the next generation. Himself a nobleman, he turned labourer, could make boots and frying-pans, guide the plough. I can do nothing of that, but I can respect a human soul vigorous enough to mould itself anew.
Good God I we must not complain of living in an age of nothing but slackers when we are side by side with such specimens of mortality as this, and with no great faith in heaven at that. Tolstoi believes in a peaceful revolution caused by the need of love and religion, which must appear among men as a reaction to scepticism, and to that desperate suffering that makes one despair.
I go out at night to paint the stars, and I dream always of a picture like this of the house with a group of living figures of our own crowd.
Today again, from seven o’clock in the morning till six in the evening, I worked without stirring except to eat a bite a step or two away. That is why the work is getting on fast. But what will you say to it? And what shall I think of it myself a little while from now? I have a lover’s clear sight or a lover’s blindness.
These colours give me extraordinary exaltation. I have no thought of fatigue; I shall do another picture this very night, and I shall bring it off. I have a terrible lucidity at moments when nature is so beautiful; I am not conscious of myself any more, and the pictures come to me as in a dream. I can only let myself go these days that are free from wind, especially as I think the work is getting rather better than the last sent you.
I want as far as possible to make sure of enough pictures to keep my end up when the others make a great show for the year ’89. I am rather afraid that this will mean a reaction and depression when the bad weather comes, but I shall try to avoid it by studying this business of drawing figures from memory. The one thing I do hope is that by working hard at it I shall have enough pictures to have a show if you wish it at the time of the exhibition. I need not exhibit, but we should have work of mine in the house that would prove one isn’t either a slacker or a rotter, and I should be content.
Milliet was pleased with what I had done today – the ‘Ploughed Field’; generally he does not like what I do, but because the lumps of earth are as soft in colour as a pair of sabots, it did not offend him.
I shall not be surprised if you like the ‘Starry Night’ and the ‘Ploughed Field’; there is more quiet about them than in the other canvases. If the work always went on like that, if the technique kept on growing more harmonious, I should be less worried about money, for it would be easier for people to take to my paintings.
I have ten new canvases in hand now. If you can’t see these lovely days here, you shall see the pictures of them. And I am trying to express more than the others. They are done with a single coat of pâte. The touch is not much divided and the tones are often blended; altogether I am obliged to lay the colours on thick in Monticelli’s way. Sometimes I think I really am a continuation of that man, only I have not yet done the figures of lovers as he did. Madame de Lareby Laroquette said to me once: ‘But Monticelli, Monticelli, why, he was a man who ought to have been at the head of a great studio in the South.’
Well, don’t you see, we are founding it. What Gauguin does, what I do, will be in line with that fine work of Monticelli’s, and we shall try to prove to the good folk that Monticelli did not wholly die sprawled over the cafe tables of the Cannebiere, but that the good old chap is still alive. The thing won’t end even with us; we shall set it going on a pretty solid basis. I believe that a new school of colourists will take root in the South, as I see more and more that those in the North rely on ability with the brush, and the so-called ‘picturesque,’ rather than on the desire to express something by colour itself. Here, under a stronger sun, I have found true what Pissarro said, and what Gauguin wrote to me as well: ‘The simplicity, the gravity of great sunlight effect. Never in the North do you come near suspecting it.’
When I left you at the station to come South, very miserable, almost an invalid, and almost a drunkard, I felt that that winter we had put our very heart into our discussions with so many interesting people and artists, but I did not dare to hope. After continued effort on your part and mine, something now begins to show on the horizon: Hope.
More and more I come to think that the true and right way in the picture trade is to follow one’s taste, what one has learnt from the masters – one’s faith. It is no more easy, I am convinced, to make a good picture than it is to find a diamond or a pearl. It means trouble, and you risk your life for it as dealer or as artist. But, once you have some good stones, you must never doubt yourself again. This thought encourages me to work, even while I naturally suffer at having to spend money.
I want two things: I want to earn as much as I have already spent, so as to give it to you, and I want Gauguin to have peace and quiet in which to produce, and be able to breathe freely as an artist. The more Gauguin realizes that when he joins with us he will have the standing of headship of a studio, the sooner he will get better, and the more eager he will be to work.
It does not matter if you stay with the Goupils or not; you are in it head and shoulders. You will be the first dealer-apostle. I am overjoyed to hear what you tell of your two new friends, the painter Meyer de Haan and his friend Isaacson. The Dutch artists have spoken of you as the dealer in impressionist pictures. We must not lose sight of that. And what did they tell you about Dutch art, Breitner, and Rappard, and others? And lastly, what do they say about Tersteeg?
Yes, I can see my own painting coming along, and I shall urge every man who comes in reach of me to produce; I will set them an example myself. All this, if we stick to it, will help to make something more lasting than ourselves.
For the second time I have scraped off a study of Christ with the angel in the Garden of Olives; because here I can see real olives. But I cannot, or rather I will not, paint any more without models. But I have the thing in my head, a starry night, the figure of Christ in blue, and the angel blended lemon-yellow.
I have had a very thin time of it these days. My money ran out on Thursday and I have lived for four days on twenty-three cups of coffee, with bread for which I still owe. And I have left today for the week, and after four days of strict fasting at that, just six francs. I ate at noon, but this evening I shall sup on a crust of bread. It makes me sick to have to ask you again for money, but I cannot help it, for I am knocked up again.
It is not your fault; it is mine if anyone’s, because I was wild to see my pictures in frames, and ordered too many for my budget. I have had two walnut frames made for the two of the ‘Poet’s Garden,’ which do very well, and I am looking for a frame in yellowish chestnut. Pine also goes well with the ‘Furrows’ and the ‘Vineyard.’
Oh! my study of vineyards! I have worked like a slave over it, but I have got it, both as a canvas and as a subject for the decoration of the house. If you could see the vines! There are bunches that actually weigh a kilo. The grapes are magnificent this year because of the fine autumn days. The vines I have just painted are green, purple, and yellow, with violet bunches and branches of black and orange. On the horizon are some grey willows, the winepress a long, long way off, and the lilac silhouette of the distant town. In the vineyard there are little figures of women with red parasols, and other little figures of men working at the vintage with their cart.
I venture to think that if you saw the studies you would say I was right in working at white heat as long as the weather is fine. The work grips me, and I am sure I shall not lose by it if I can go on like this; the big canvases are all good. But they are exhausting too. But do not worry, the bad weather will pull me up only too soon, as it did today, yesterday, and the day before yesterday too. We had mud and rain. Between now and the short winter there will be another spell of magnificent weather and magnificent effects; then the thing will be to make another headlong spurt.
This winter I intend to draw a great deal. If only I could manage to draw figures from memory, I should always have something to do. Weavers and basket-makers often spend whole seasons alone with their trade as their only distraction. But what makes these people stay in one place is the feeling of the house, the reassuring familiar look of things.
I think I shall end by not feeling lonesome, and that during the bad days and the long evenings I shall find some occupation that will take all my attention. And then, too, the time will come when I shall have someone. I have little doubt of that.
I have received a letter from Gauguin paying me heaps of undeserved compliments, and adding that he has been ill and dreads the journey. What can I do about it? – is it such an annihilating journey when the worst lung cases undertake it?
That is great about Bague! Tell him that I am very pleased he has bought that Gauguin study, and that I have told you I have a ‘Starry Night,’ the ‘Furrows,’ the ‘Poet’s Garden,’ the ‘Vineyard’ – in short, romantic landscapes – and that I do want him to come and see them.
Yesterday I painted a sunset.
I have no more canvas at all; and I need two hundred francs for paints. But you will say, ‘These paints?’ Well, yes, I am ashamed of it, but I am vain enough to want to make a certain impression on Gauguin by my work, so I cannot help wanting to do as much work as possible before he comes. His coming will alter my way of painting and I shall gain by it, I believe, but it is my great desire not to undergo his influence before I can show him indubitably my own individuality. And I am rather keen on my decorations, which are almost like pottery.
I should like him to feel it all in keeping, and I wish we could manage, you by your money and I with the general effect and arrangement of things, to have the studio complete, a setting worthy of the artist Gauguin who is to be at its head.
Thinking and thinking these days how all these expenses of painting weigh on you, you can imagine how disquieted I am; and that you have not the place in the sun that you might have because the Paris work at Goupil’s is too exhausting. When I think of all this, I get into a mercenary frenzy. I feel that we are getting hot for selling or finding help so as to give us a chance to breathe.
I have better and more salable stuff than the paintings I have sent you, and I feel that I can go on producing it. I have confidence at last; I know that it will do some people’s hearts good to find poetic subjects again – the ‘Starry Sky,’ the ‘Vines in Leaf.’
There I go, thinking that it is quite near, and it may still be far off. So cry halt if I am going too fast. Do not think that I care more for my work than for our well-being, or at least than for our peace of mind, above all.
I have done another canvas, ‘An Autumn Garden,’ with two cypresses, bottle-green, shaped like bottles, and three little chestnut trees, a little yew with pale-lemon foliage, two bushes blood-red with scarlet purple leaves; some sand, some grass, and some blue sky. I had sworn to myself that I would not work, but it is like that every day: just going along I come sometimes on things so lovely that I have to try to do them after all. The falling of leaves is beginning; you can see the trees turning yellow, and the yellow increasing every day. It is at least as beautiful as the orchards in bloom.
I am determined to do ten thousand francs’ worth of painting for the house. Have you ever read ‘Les Frères Zemganno,’ by the de Goncourts? If I come to grief in the attempt, it will do me no harm. In that case I still have a resource, for either I should go into trade or should write – but so long as I am painting —
Do you remember that wonderful page in ‘Tartarin,’ the complaint of the old Tarascon diligence? Well, I have just painted that red and green vehicle in the courtyard of the inn. You shall see it; a simple foreground of grey gravel, a background very, very simple too; the two carriages brightly coloured, green and red, the wheels – yellow, black, blue, and orange. You used to have a very fine Claude Monet showing four coloured boats on a beach. Well, here they are carriages, but the composition is in the same manner. There will be a thousand things in it to criticize, but that’s all right, provided I manage to get some verve in it.
The Trinquetaille Bridge
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles: October, 1888
Then I have two more canvases, the Trinquetaille bridge and another bridge along where the railway line is. This canvas is a little like a Bosboom in colour. The Trinquetaille bridge, with all the steps, is a canvas done on a grey morning; the stones, the asphalt, the pavements are grey, the figures coloured.
I am nearly dead with painting that Tarascon diligence, and I see that I have not the brains to draw. I am going to have dinner.
My dear lad, look here – if you complain of having nothing in your noddle in the way of producing good stuff – I could not do even one scrap without you, and we must not go and hang ourselves over what the two of us manage to produce, but just smoke our pipes in peace and not torment ourselves into melancholia because we are not productive separately and less painfully.
Let us accept, since for the moment we can do nothing to change it, this fate, that you on your side are condemned always to trade without rest or change, and that I on my side have likewise a job without rest; in such moments, after hard work, I feel my own noddle empty too. So now.
If I let myself go, nothing could be easier than to hate what I have just done, and put my foot through it a few times as old Cezanne did. After all, why put my foot through it? Let’s leave the studies in peace. In a year I hope you will feel that between us we have produced a work of art. After all, don’t let’s meditate too deeply on good and bad, they’re always relative. That is exactly the effect of the Dutch, to call one thing absolutely good and another absolutely bad. There’s nothing in existence as hard and fast as that.
Just now I am not ill, but I should get ill without the slightest doubt if I did not take plenty of food, and if I did not stop painting for days at a time. As a matter of fact, I am pretty nearly reduced again to the madness of Hugo van der Goes. And if it were not that I have almost a double nature, as it were that of a monk and of a painter, I should have been reduced, and that long ago, completely and utterly to the condition aforesaid. Yet even then I do not think that my madness could take the form of persecution, since my feelings when in a state of excitement lead me rather to the consideration of eternity, and eternal life. But in any case I must beware of my nerves. I have a fixed intention not to paint for at least three days. Perhaps I shall rest myself by writing.
My last canvas is a row of green cypresses against a rose-coloured sky, with a crescent moon in pale lemon. An indefinite foreground, earth and gravel and some thistles; two lovers, the man in pale blue with a yellow hat, the woman with a pink bodice and a black skirt. That makes the fourth canvas of ‘The Poet’s Garden,’ which is the scheme of decoration for Gauguin’s room.
I think that the town of Arles was once infinitely more glorious as regards its women and the beauty of its costumes; now everything has a worn and sickly look about it. But when you look long at it, the old charm revives; again and again I think of Monticelli – colour plays such a tremendous part in the beauty of the women here. The special charm lies in the grand lines of the costume, vivid in colour and admirably carried; the tone of the flesh rather than the shape. But I shall have some trouble before I can do them as I begin to see them.
Milliet has luck; he has as many Arlesiennes as he wants, but then he cannot paint them, and if he were a painter he would not get them. I must bide my time. If Milliet posed better he would give me great pleasure, and he would have a more distinctive portrait than I can manage now, though the subject is good – the flat pale tints of his face, the red soldier’s cap against an emerald background.
Mother’s portrait gave me very great pleasure because you can see that she is well and because she has such a lively expression. But I cannot look at the black, colourless photographs. I am trying to do a portrait of her in a harmony of colour as I see her in my memory, and I am writing home for Father’s portrait also.
I am nearly dead with the work of the past week. There is a very violent mistral sweeping along the dead leaves in a rage, so I am forced to keep quiet. I have just slept sixteen hours at a stretch, and it has restored me considerably. Tomorrow I shall have recovered from this queer turn. But I did a good week, truly, with five canvases. If that rather takes its revenge on this week, well, it’s natural. If I had worked more quietly you can easily see that the mistral would have caught me again. If it is fine here, you must make use of it; if not, you would never do anything.
I have just received the portrait of Gauguin by himself and the portrait of Bernard by Bernard, and in the background of the portrait by Gauguin there is Bernard’s on the wall, and vice versa. The Gauguin is of course remarkable, but I like Bernard’s very much. It is no more than the suggestion of a painter – a few abrupt tones, a few dark lines – but it has the distinction of a real true Manet. The Gauguin is more studied, carried farther.
So now at last I have a chance to compare my painting with what the crowd are doing. My portrait which I sent to Gauguin in exchange holds its own with it, I am sure of that. It is ashen grey against a pale malachite (no yellow). The clothes are the brown coat with a blue border, but I have exaggerated the brown into purple. The head is modelled in light colours painted in thick pâte against the light background, with hardly any shadows. But I have made the eyes slightly slanting like the Japanese eyes.
I have written to Gauguin that if I might be allowed to exaggerate my own personality in a portrait, I had done so in trying to convey in my portrait not only myself but an impressionist in general. And when I put Gauguin’s conception and my own side by side, mine is as grave, but less despairing. Bernard says that he would like to have one like it, though he already has one of me. I am pleased that they did not dislike what I have done in figure painting.
What Gauguin’s portrait says to me above everything is that he must not go on like this, he must become again the richer Gauguin of the ‘Negresses.’ The portrait gave me absolutely the impression of its representing a prisoner. Not a shadow of gaiety. Not the slightest relief of flesh, though one can confidently put that down to his determination to make a melancholy effect. The flesh in the shadows is gone a dismal blue. One must not do flesh with Prussian blue because then it ceases to be flesh; it becomes wood. I venture to think that with regard to colouring the other Breton pictures will be better.
I am very glad to have these two portraits, for they faithfully represent our lot at this state; they will not remain like that, they will come back to a serener life. And I see clearly that the duty laid upon me is to do everything I can to lessen our poverty. Gauguin looks ill and tormented! You wait; that will not last, and it will be very interesting to compare this portrait with the one he will do of himself in six months’ time. He must eat and go for walks with me in lovely surroundings; pick up a nice girl now and then; see the house as it is, and as we shall make it; and altogether enjoy himself.
Today I am all right again. My eyes are still tired, but I have a new idea in my head. Another canvas – this time it’s just simply my bedroom, but colour is to do everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep. In a word, to look at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.
The walls are pale violet. The ground is of red tiles. The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows greenish-lemon, the coverlet scarlet, the window green, the toilet table orange, the basin blue, the doors lilac. The broad lines of the furniture again must express inviolable rest. Portraits on the walls, and a mirror and a towel and some clothes. The frame – as there is no white in the picture – will be white.
I shall work at it again all day, but you see how simple the conception is. It is painted in free flat washes like the Japanese prints. No stippling, no hatching, nothing – only flat colours in harmony. It is going to be a contrast with the ‘Tarascon Diligence’ and the’ Night Cafe.’ Tomorrow very early I am going to begin in the cool morning light, so as to finish my canvas.
My handwriting isn’t making much headway. I am really falling asleep and I cannot see any more, my eyes are so tired. But here’s to the country of good old Tartarin; I enjoy myself in it more and more, and it is going to be our second Fatherland. Not that I forget Holland – the very contrasts make one think of it many a time.
Gauguin writes that he has already sent off his trunk and promises to come about the twentieth of this month; that is within a few days. My whole mind, as yours, is set on Gauguin now. It is high time that he came. I must try to get to know him better.
Gauguin has arrived in good health. He seems to me even better than I am.
He is naturally very pleased with the sale you have effected, and I no less, since in this way certain expenses absolutely necessary for the installation have no need to wait, and will not weigh wholly on your shoulders. He is very interesting as a man, and I have every confidence that with him we shall do heaps of things. He will probably produce a great deal here, and perhaps I shall too.
I hope that the burden will be a little less heavy for you, and I dare to hope much less heavy. I realize, even to the pitch of being mentally crushed and physically drained by it, the necessity of producing, because I have, after all, no other means of ever getting back what we have spent. I cannot help it that my pictures do not sell.
The time will come when people will see that they are worth more than the price of the paint and my own living – very meagre, after all – that are put into them. But, my dear lad, my debt is so great that when I have paid it, the pains of producing pictures will have taken my whole life from me, and it will seem to me then that I have not lived. The only thing is that perhaps then the production of pictures will become a little harder for me, and as to numbers there will not always be so many.
I had for a while rather a feeling that I was going to be ill, but Gauguin’s arrival has so much taken my mind off it that I am sure it will pass; I should have got ill if my expenses had had to go on. For I was in agony lest I should be forcing you to make an effort beyond your strength, but I thought I could not do better than carry through the thing we had begun in persuading Gauguin to join us.
Now I hope to breathe at last, since we have all had a tremendous bit of luck in your being able to sell for Gauguin. One way and another all three of us, he and you and I, can pull ourselves together a bit so as to reckon up quietly what we have done. I must not neglect my food for a time, that is all; have no fear for me.
We shall not spend together more than two hundred and fifty francs a month. And we shall spend much less on paint, since we are going to pound it ourselves. So do not have any anxiety for us, and have a breathing space as well; you need it badly. I venture to hope that in six months Gauguin and you and I will all see that we have founded a little studio that will last, and that will remain an outpost necessary, or at least useful, for all who want to see the South. You will have my work and a picture from Gauguin as well each month.
If only you were not too much pinched by my bringing nothing in, I should so much rather be able to say squarely that you prefer to keep my work for ourselves and not sell it. If what I am doing should be good, then we shall lose nothing, for it will mature quietly like wine in the cellar.
As to having framed a little canvas of mine of a pink peach tree, I imagine to send to Boussod Valladon and Company; I don’t want to leave any doubt as to what I think of that. If it is your wish to let them have something of mine, good or bad, upon my honour, if it can give you pleasure now or later, you have absolute carte blanche. But if it is to please me, then, on the contrary, I’m of the opinion that it is absolutely unnecessary. And I think it is incompatible with my previous conduct to come back to them with a canvas as innocent as this little peach tree. I do not want Boussod ever to have the chance of saying, ‘That little canvas isn’t too bad for a young beginner.’
No. If in a year or two I have enough for an exhibition of my own, say thirty canvases, and if I say to them, ‘Will you do it for me?’ Boussod certainly would send me about my business. I know them, alas, rather too well. So I should rather never sell than go to them otherwise than as a pure matter of business. Understand that the more clear-cut we have this, the more they will come to you to see the canvases.
As you yourself do not sell, by showing my work you are not doing business outside the firm, so you will be acting quite correctly. Don’t make any deal for me outside your own company. And as far as I am concerned, I shall either never go inside the Goupils’ door again, or else I shall go in boldly, which is hardly likely.
If you asked me what would please me, it’s this: that you keep for yourself in the flat whatever you like of my work and sell none of it now. Send the others back here, since the flat is small.
Gauguin and I are going to have our dinner at home today, and we feel as certain that it will turn out well as that it will be cheaper. He knows how to cook perfectly. I think I shall learn it from him; it is very convenient.
On Sunday if you had been with us you would have seen a red vineyard, all red like red wine. In the distance it turned to yellow, and then a green sky with the sun, the earth after the rain violet, sparkling yellow here and there where it caught the reflection of the setting sun.
Gauguin has already nearly found his Arlesienne, and I could wish I had got to that length, but for my part it is the landscape that comes to me. I regret as always the scarcity of models and the thousand contrarinesses in overcoming that difficulty. We intend to tour the brothels pretty often so as to study them.
Our days pass in working, working all the time. In the evening we are dead beat, and go off to the cafe, and after that, early to bed! That is the life. Of course it’s winter here with us, too, though it still keeps on being very fine from time to time.
I have made portraits of a whole family, that of the postman – the man, his wife, the baby, the little boy and the son of sixteen, all characters and very French, though the first has the look of a Russian. I feel in my element. I hope to press this and to be able to get more careful posing paid for by portraits. If I manage to do this whole family better still, at least I shall have done something to my liking and something individual.
Just now I am in a perfect mess of studies, studies, studies – such a disorder that it breaks my heart, and yet it will provide me with some property when I’m forty. You always told me to work more for quality than for quantity. Now nothing hinders us from having a good many studies reckoned as such.
I think I shall not be able to refrain from sending you some canvases soon. There are some which Gauguin really likes – the sower, the sunflowers, and bedroom. Gauguin has brought a magnificent canvas which he has exchanged with Bernard – Breton women in a green field.
Gauguin, in spite of himself and in spite of myself, has rather brought me to see that it is time I was varying my work.
I am very anxious some day to know de Haan and Isaacson. If they ever came here, he would certainly say to them: Go to Java for impressionist work. For Gauguin, though he works hard here, is still homesick for hot countries.
He has in hand a portrait of me which I do not reckon among his fruitless undertakings; just now he is doing some landscapes, and lastly he has a good canvas of washerwomen, very good, I think. You will see that some people will soon be reproaching him with being no longer an impressionist.
He is invited to exhibit at the Vingtistes. His imagination already leads him to think of settling at Brussels, and that would certainly be a means to his being able to see his Danish wife again. I fear that there is entire incompatibility between his wife and himself, but he cares more for his children, who are very pretty, according to the portraits.
We aren’t so gifted in that quarter.
In the meantime Gauguin is having plenty of luck with the Arlesiennes. He is married, but has very little look of it. I have received a letter from Monsieur C. Dujardin on the subject of the exhibition of my pictures in his black hole. I am so disgusted at the idea of handing over a canvas in payment for the proposed exhibition that there is really only one possible answer to our gentleman’s letter: that I have changed my mind. So no exhibition at the Revue Independante.
We have hardly exhibited, have we? There have been a few canvases first at Tanguy’s, another at Thomas’s, and then at Martin’s. I tell you I can see no use in it. Without hurrying ourselves I can go on down here getting ready the stuff for a more serious exhibition, and with a little more work behind me I shall have enough not to need to exhibit at all; that is what I aim at.
Guillaumin has written to Gauguin. He seems to be very hard up, but he must have done some fine things. He has a child now, but he was terrified by the confinement, and he says that he has the red vision of it always before his eyes.
We have wind and rain here now, and I am very glad not to be alone. I work from memory on bad days, and that would not do if I were alone. Gauguin gives me courage to imagine things, and certainly paintings from the imagination take on a more mysterious character. I have worked on a memory of our garden at Etten, with cabbages, cypresses, dahlias, and figures. I do not dislike trying to work from imagination, since that allows me to stay in.
Gauguin has finished his canvas of the ‘Women at the Vintage.’ It is as fine as the ‘Negresses.’ He has also almost finished his night cafe, and is working at a very original nude woman in the hay with some pigs. It promises to be very fine, and of great distinction. He is a very great artist, and very interesting as a friend.
I, too, have finished a canvas of a vineyard, all purple and yellow, with small blue and violet figures and yellow sunlight. I think that you will be able to put this canvas beside some of Monticelli’s landscapes.
And I have an Arlesienne at last, a figure slashed on in an hour, background pale lemon, the face grey, the clothes black, black, black, with perfectly raw Prussian blue. She is leaning on a green table and seated in an armchair of orangewood.
I have also done a rough sketch of a brothel; I quite intend to do a brothel picture. And the last two studies I have are odd enough: a wooden rush-bottomed chair all yellow and red tiles against a wall (daytime). Then Gauguin’s armchair, red and green night effect; on the seat two novels and a candle, on thick canvas with thick pâte.
We find it very easy to make frames with plain strips of wood nailed on the stretcher and painted, and I have begun doing this. I think that we shall end by passing our evenings drawing and writing; for there is more work to do than we can manage.
I know you will be pleased to hear that I have had a letter from Jet Mauve to thank us for the picture. A very nice letter, in which she speaks of old times. And what will also please you, we have an addition to the collection of portraits of artists – the portrait of Laval by himself, extremely good. It is very bold, very distinguished, and will be one of the pictures you speak of that one gets hold of before other people have recognized their quality.
I am rather sorry to have my room full of canvases and to have nothing to send when Gauguin sends his. It is because he has told me how to get rid of the grease in the things painted in pâte by washing from time to time. If I sent them to you now, the colours would be duller than they will be later. But you will lose nothing by waiting for my work a little; we will leave the dear old crowd in peace to despise the present ones. Fortunately for me, I know well enough what I want, and am at bottom utterly indifferent to the criticism of working too hurriedly.
Gauguin was telling me the other day that he has seen a picture by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a great Japanese vase, very fine, but – he likes mine better. I don’t agree; but if by the time I’m forty I have done a picture of figures such as the flowers he was speaking of, I shall have a position in art beside anyone, no matter who. So, perseverance!
We went yesterday to Montpellier to see the gallery there. There are pictures by Delacroix, Courbet, Giotto, Paul Potter, Botticelli, Th. Rousseau – very fine. We were in the midst of magic, for as Fromentin well says, Rembrandt is above all else a magician.
Gauguin and I talked a lot about Delacroix and Rembrandt. Our arguments are terribly electric; we come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it is discharged.
I think myself that Gauguin is a little out of sorts with the good town of Arles, the little yellow house where we work, and especially with me. As a matter of fact there are bound to be for him as for me grave difficulties to overcome here too. But these difficulties are rather within ourselves than outside. Gauguin is very powerful, strongly creative, but just because of that he must have peace, Will he find it anywhere?
[On the following day, December twenty-fourth, a telegram arrived from Gauguin that called Theo to Arles. Vincent, in a state of terrible excitement and high fever, had cut off a piece of his own ear. and had brought it as a gift to a woman in a brothel. There had been a violent scene; Roulin, the postman. managed to get him home, but the police intervened, found Vincent bleeding and unconscious in bed. and sent him to the hospital. Theo found him there and stayed over Christmas. Gauguin went back with Theo to Paris. By December thirty-first the news was better. JOHANNA VAN GOGH.]