To Theo van Gogh
My dear Theo,
You’ll shortly make the acquaintance of Mr Patience Escalier – a sort of man with a hoe, an old Camargue oxherd, who’s now a gardener at a farmstead in the Crau.
Today without fail I’ll send you the drawing I made after this painting, as well as the drawing of the portrait of Roulin the postman.
The colour of this portrait of a peasant isn’t as dark as the Nuenen potato eaters – but the very civilized Parisian, Portier, probably so-called because he kicks paintings out of the door – will find himself up against the same question again. You’ve now changed since then, but you’ll see that he hasn’t changed, and really it’s a pity that there aren’t more paintings in clogs in Paris. I don’t believe that my peasant will do any harm, for example, to the Lautrec that you have, and I dare even believe that the Lautrec will, by simultaneous contrast, become even more distinguished, and mine will gain from the strange juxtaposition, because the sunlit and burnt, weather-beaten quality of the strong sun and strong air will show up more clearly beside the face powder and stylish outfit. What a mistake that Parisians haven’t acquired sufficient taste for rough things, for Monticellis, for barbotine. Well, I know that one shouldn’t be discouraged because utopia isn’t coming about. It’s just that I find that what I learned in Paris is fading, and that I’m returning to my ideas that came to me in the country before I knew the Impressionists. And I wouldn’t be very surprised if the Impressionists were soon to find fault with my way of doing things, which was fertilized more by the ideas of Delacroix than by theirs.
Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully. Well, let’s let that lie as far as theory goes, but I’m going to give you an example of what I mean.
I’d like to do the portrait of an artist friend who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because that’s his nature.
This man will be blond. I’d like to put in the painting my appreciation, my love that I have for him.
I’ll paint him, then, just as he is, as faithfully as I can – to begin with.
But the painting isn’t finished like that. To finish it, I’m now going to be an arbitrary colourist.
I exaggerate the blond of the hair, I come to orange tones, chromes, pale lemon. Behind the head – instead of painting the dull wall of the mean room, I paint the infinite.
I make a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can prepare, and with this simple combination, the brightly lit blond head, against this rich blue background achieves a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep azure.
Similarly, I’ve proceeded in this way in the peasant’s portrait.
However, without wishing to evoke the mysterious brilliance of a pale star in the infinite blue in this case.
But imagining the terrific man I had to do, in the very furnace of harvest time, deep in the south. Hence the oranges, blazing like red-hot iron, hence the old gold tones, glowing in the darkness. Ah, my dear brother – – and the good folk will see only caricature in this exaggeration. But what does that do to us, we’ve read La terre and Germinal, and if we paint a peasant we’d like to show that this reading has in some way become part of us.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to paint the postman as I feel him; as a revolutionary this man is like père Tanguy, he’s probably considered a good republican because he heartily detests the republic we currently enjoy, and because, in short, he’s a little dubious and a little disillusioned with the republican idea itself. But one day I saw him singing the Marseillaise – and I thought I was seeing ’89, not next year, but the one 99 years ago. It was something out of Delacroix, out of Daumier, out of the old Dutch painting entirely.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get that in a pose, and yet you need an intelligent model to be able to do the painting.
I must tell you now that materially speaking, these days are extremely hard.
Whatever I do, living is pretty expensive here, more or less like Paris, where, while spending 5 or 6 francs a day, you don’t have much.
If I have models, then I suffer considerably as a result. Doesn’t matter. And so I’ll go on.
So I assure you that if by chance you sometimes sent me a little more money, that would benefit the paintings, but not me. Myself, I only have the choice between being a good painter or a bad one. I choose the former. But the things needed for painting are like those of a ruinous mistress; you can do nothing without money, and you never have enough of it.
And so painting should be done at society’s expense, and the artist shouldn’t be overburdened by it.
But there you are, we should keep quiet once again, because nobody is forcing us to work, indifference towards painting being, inevitably, fairly general, fairly eternal.
Fortunately my stomach has recovered to such an extent that I lived for 3 weeks of the month on ship’s biscuits with milk, eggs.
It’s the good heat that gives me strength, and I definitely wasn’t wrong to go to the south now instead of waiting until the damage was irreparable. Yes, I’m as well now as other men, which I have only been briefly – in Nuenen, for example – and that’s not disagreeable. By ‘other men’ I mean a bit like the road-menders on strike, père Tanguy, père Millet, the peasants. If you’re well, you should be able to live on a piece of bread, while working the whole day long, and still having the strength to smoke and to drink your glass; you need that in these conditions. And still to feel the stars and the infinite, clearly, up there. Then life is almost magical, after all. Ah, those who don’t believe in the sun down here are truly blasphemous.
Unfortunately, along with the sun, dear God, for 3 quarters of the time there’s the devil of a mistral.
Saturday’s post has gone by, damn it, and I didn’t doubt but that I would receive your letter, but you can see that I’m not getting upset about it. Handshake.