Letter to Theo - No. 228

Etten; 1881

Dear Theo,

I just received your very welcome letter, and as I want to take some rest today, I'm answering it at once. Many thanks for it and for the enclosure, and for the things you tell me. And many thanks for your description of that scene with the workmen in Montmartre, which I found very interesting, as you describe the colors too, so that I can see it. I am glad you are reading the book about Gavarni. I thought it very interesting, and it made me love him twice as much.

Paris and its surroundings may be beautiful, but we have nothing to complain of here either. This week I painted something which I think would give you the impression of Scheveningen as we saw it when we walked there together: a large study of sand, sea and sky - a big sky of delicate gray and warm white, with a single little spot of soft blue gleaming through - the sand and the sea, light - so that the whole becomes blond, but animated by the characteristically and strikingly colorful figures and fishing smacks, which are full of tone. The subject of the sketch is a fishing smack with its anchor being weighed. The horses are ready to be hitched to the boat and then to draw it into the water. Enclosed is a little sketch of it.

It was a hard job. I wish I had painted it on a panel or on canvas. I tried to get more color into it, namely depth and firmness of color. How curious it is that you and I often seem to have the same thoughts. Last night, for instance, I came home from the wood with a study, and I had been deeply absorbed in that question of depth of color for the whole week, and especially then. And I should have liked to have talked it over with you, especially with reference to the study I made; and look here, in this morning's letter you accidentally speak of having been struck in Montmartre by the strong, vivid colors, which were nevertheless harmonious.

I do not know if it was exactly the same thing that struck us both, but I know well that you would certainly have felt what struck me so particularly, and probably you would have seen it in the same way too. I begin by sending you a little sketch of the subject and will tell you what it was about. The wood is becoming quite autumnal - there are effects of color which I very rarely find painted in Dutch pictures. In the woods, yesterday toward evening, I was busy painting a rather sloping ground covered with dry, moldered beech leaves. This ground was light and dark reddish-brown, made more so by the shadows of trees casting more or less dark streaks over it, sometimes half blotted out. The problem was - and I found it very difficult - to get the depth of color, the enormous force and solidity of that ground - and while painting it I perceived for the very first time how much light there still was in that dusk - to keep that light and at the same time the glow and depth of that rich color.

For you cannot imagine any carpet as splendid as that deep brownish-red in the glow of an autumn evening sun, tempered by the trees. From that ground young beech trees spring up which catch light on one side and are brilliant green there; the shadowy sides of those stems are a warm, deep black-green. Behind those saplings, behind that brownish-red soil, is a sky very delicate, bluish-gray, warm, hardly blue, all aglow - and against it all is a hazy border of green and a network of little stems and yellowish leaves. A few figures of wood gatherers are wandering around like dark masses of mysterious shadows. The white cap of a woman bending to reach a dry branch stands out suddenly against the deep red-brown of the ground. A skirt catches the light - a shadow is cast a dark silhouette of a man appears above the underbrush. A white bonnet, a cap, a shoulder, the bust of a woman molds itself against the sky. Those figures are large and full of poetry - in the twilight of that deep shadowy tone they appear as enormous terracottas being modeled in a studio.

I describe nature to you; how far I rendered the effect in my sketch, I do not know myself; but I do know that I was struck by the harmony of green, red, black, yellow, blue, brown, gray. It was very like De Groux, an effect like that sketch of "Le depart du conscrit," for instance, formerly in the Ducal Palace. It was hard to paint. I used for the ground one and a half large tubes of white - yet that ground is very dark - more red, yellow, brown ocher, black, sienria, bister, and the result is a reddish-brown, but one that varies from bister to deep wine-red, and even a pale blond ruddiness. Then there is still the moss on the ground, and a border of fresh grass, which catches light and sparkles brightly, and is very difficult to get. There you have at last a sketch which I maintain has some significance, and which expresses something, no matter what may be said about it.

While painting it, I said to myself, I must not go away before there is something of an auturrm evening in it, something mysterious, something serious. But as this effect does not last, I had to paint quickly. The figures were put in at once with a few strong strokes of a firm brush. It struck me how sturdily those little stems were rooted in the ground. I began painting them with a brush, but because the surface was already so heavily covered, a brush stroke was lost in it - then I squeezed the roots and trunks in from the tube, and modeled it a little with the brush. Yes - now they stand there rising from the ground, strongly rooted in it In a certain way I am glad I have not learned painting, because then I might have learned to pass by such effects as this. Now I say, No, this is just what I want - if it is impossible, it is impossible; I will try it, though I do not know how it ought to be done. I do not know myself how I paint it. I sit down with a white board before the spot that strikes me, I look at what is before my eyes, I say to myself, That white board must become something; I come back dissatisfied - I put it away, and when I have rested a little, I go and look at it with a kind of fear. Then I am still dissatisfied, because I still have that splendid scene too clearly in my mind to be satisfied with what I made of it. But I find in my work an echo of what struck me, after all, I see that nature has told me something, has spoken to me, and that I have put it down in shorthand. In my shorthand there may be words that cannot be deciphered, there may be mistakes or gaps; but there is something of what wood or beach or figure has told me in it, and it is not the tame or conventional language derived from a studied manner or a system rather than from nature itself.

Enclosed another little sketch made in the dunes. small bushes are standing there, the leaves of which are white on one side and dark green on the other, and are constantly rustling and glittering. In the background, dark trees. You see I am absorbed in painting with all my strength; I am absorbed in color - until now I have restrained myself, and - I am not sorry for it. If I had not drawn so much, I should not be able to catch the feeling of and get hold of a figure that looks like an unfinished terracotta. But now I feel myself on the open sea - the painting must be continued with all the strength I can give it.

When I paint on panel or canvas, the expenses increase again. Everything is so expensive, the colors are also expensive and are so soon gone. well, all painters have those difficulties. We must see what can be done. I know for sure that I have an instinct for color, and that it will come to me more and more, that painting is in the very marrow of my bones. Doubly and twice doubly I appreciate your helping me so faithfully and substantially. I think of you so often. I want my work to become firm, serious, manly, and for you also to get satisfaction from it as soon as possible. One thing I want to call your attention to, as being of importance. Would it be possible to get colors, panels, brushes, etc., wholesale? Now I have to pay the retail price. Have you any connection with Paillard or some such person? If so, I think it would be very much cheaper to buy white, ocher, sienna, for instance, wholesale, and then we could arrange about the money. It would of course be much cheaper. Think it over. Good painting does not depend on using much color, but in order to paint a ground forcefully, or to keep a sky clear, one must sometimes not spare the tube.

Sometimes the subject requires delicate painting, sometimes the material, the nature of the things themselves requires thick painting. Mauve, who paints very soberly in comparison to J. Maris, and even more so in comparison to Millet or Jules Dupre, has cigar boxes full of empty tubes in the corners of his studio; they are as numerous as the empty bottles in the comers of rooms after a dinner or soiree, as Zola describes it for instance.
Well, if there can be a little extra this month, it will be delightful. If not, that will be all right, too. I shall work as hard as I can. You inquire about my health, but how is yours ? I am inclined to believe that my remedy would be yours also - to be in the open air, to paint. I am well, but I still feel it when I am tired. However, it is getting better instead of worse. I think it a good thing that I live as frugally as possible, but painting is my special remedy. I sincerely hope that you are having good luck and that you will find even more. A warm handshake in thought and believe me,

                                                                     Yours sincerely,