Vincent van Gogh
A selection from
VAN GOGH'S LETTERS
Narrated by Patrick Lawlor
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To Emile Bernard - April 1888
The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must develop, one which alone can lead us to the creation of a more exalting and consoling nature than the single brief glance at reality - which in our sight is ever changing, passing like a flash of lightning - can let us perceive. A starry sky, for example. See, that's a thing I'd like to try to do, just as by day I want to try to paint a green meadow spangled with starry dandelions. Yet how can I do it, unless I work it out at home, and from my imagination? Of course, this faults my idea while yours gets praised. ... reality - which in our sight is ever changing, passing like a flash of lightning - can let us perceive. A starry sky, for example. See, that's a thing I'd like to try to do, just as by day I want to try to paint a green meadow spangled with starry dandelions. Yet how can I do it, unless I work it out at home, and from my imagination? Of course, this faults my idea while yours gets praised. At the moment I am absorbed in the blooming fruit trees, pink peach trees, yellow-white pear trees.
To Theo van Gogh - June 1888
As for landscapes, I begin to find that some done more rapidly than ever are the best of what I do. For instance, the one I sent you the cartoon of, the harvest, and the stacks too. It is true that I have to retouch the whole to adjust the brushwork a bit, and to make the touch harmonious, but all the essential work was done in a single long sitting, and I change them as little as possible when I'm retouching. But when I come home after a spell like that, I assure you my head is so tired that if that kind of work keeps recurring, as it has done since this harvest began, I become hopelessly absent-minded and incapable of heaps of ordinary things. It is at times like these that the prospect of not being alone is not disagreeable. And very often indeed I think of that excellent painter Monticelli - who they said was such a drinker, and off his head - when I come back myself from the mental labour of balancing the six essential colours, red - blue - yellow - orange - lilac - green. Sheer work and calculation, with one's mind strained to the utmost,
To Theo van Gogh - August 1888
I write in great haste to tell you that I have had a note from Gauguin, saying that he has not written much, but that he is quite ready to come South as soon as the opportunity arises.
They are enjoying themselves very much painting, arguing and fighting with the worthy Englishmen; he speaks well of Bernard's work, and B. speaks well of Gauguin's.
I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when you know that what I'm at is the painting of some big sunflowers.
I have three canvases going - 1st, three huge flowers in a green vase, with a light background, a size 15 canvas; 2nd, three flowers, one gone to seed, having lost its petals, and one a bud against a royal-blue background, size 25 canvas; 3rd, twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (size 30 canvas). The last one is therefore light on light, and I hope it will be the best. Probably I shall not stop at that. Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, you know there is a lovely decoration of flowers; I always remember the big sunflowers in the window there. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.
To Theo van Gogh - September 1888
I wrote to you already, early this morning, then I went away to go on with a picture of a garden in the sunshine. Then I brought it back and went out again with a blank canvas, and that also is finished. And now I want to write you again.
Because I have never had such a chance, nature here being so extraordinarily beautiful. Everywhere and all over the vault of heaven is a marvellous blue, and the sun sheds a radiance of pale sulphur, and it is soft and as lovely as the combination of heavenly blues and yellows in a Van der Meer of Delft. I cannot paint it as beautifully as that, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go, never thinking of a single rule.
That makes three pictures of the gardens opposite the house. Then the two cafés, and then the sunflowers. Then the portrait of Bock and of myself. Then the red sun over the factory, and the men unloading sand, and the old mill. Not to mention the other studies, you see that I have got some work behind me. But my paints, my canvas and my purse are all completely exhausted today. The last picture done with the last tubes of paint on the last canvas, of a garden, green of course, is painted without green, nothing but Prussian blue and chrome yellow.
I am beginning to feel that I am quite a different creature from what I was when I came here. I have no doubts, no hesitation in attacking things, and this may increase.
To Paul Gauguin - October 1888
I've a portrait of myself, all ash grey . The ashen colour - which has been obtained by mixing malachite green with orange lead - on pale malachite background, all in harmony with the reddish-brown clothes. Not wishing to exaggerate my own personality, however, I aimed rather for the character of a bonze, a simple worshipper of the eternal Buddha. Though I have taken rather a lot of trouble with it, I shall have to go over it again if I want to express the idea properly, and I shall have to recover even further from the stultifying effect of our so-called state of civilization if I am to have a better model for a better picture.
To Theo van Gogh - January 1889
If Gauguin stayed in Paris for a while to examine himself thoroughly, or have himself examined by a specialist, I don't honestly know what the result might be.
On various occasions I have seen him do things which you and I would not let ourselves do, because we have consciences that feel differently about things. I have heard one or two things said of him, but having seen him at very, very close quarters, I think that he is carried away by his imagination, perhaps by pride, but…practically irresponsible.
This conclusion does not imply that I advise you to pay very much attention to what he says on any occasion. But I see that you have acted with higher ideals in the matter of settling his bill, and so I think that we need not fear that he will involve us in the errors of the “Bank of Paris.”
But as for him…Lord, let him do anything he wants, let him have his independence?? (whatever he means by that) and his opinions, and let him go his own way as soon as he thinks he knows it better than we do. I think it is rather strange that he claims a picture of sunflowers from me, offering me in exchange, I suppose, or as a gift, some studies he left here. I will send him back his studies which will probably be useful to him, which they certainly won't be to me. For the moment I am keeping my canvases here and I am definitely keeping my sunflowers in question. He has two of them already, let that hold him. And if he is not satisfied with the exchange he has made with me, he can take back his little Martinique canvas , and his self-portrait sent me from Brittany , at the same time giving me back both my portrait and the two sunflower canvases which he has taken to Paris. So if he ever broaches this subject again, I've told you just how matters stand. How can Gauguin pretend that he was afraid of upsetting me by his presence, when he can hardly deny that he knew I kept asking for him continually, and that he was told over and over again that I insisted on seeing him at once. Just to tell him that we should keep it between him and me, without upsetting you. He would not listen. It worries me to go over all this
To Theo van Gogh - May 1889
What I hope is that at the end of a year I shall know what I can do and what I want to do better than now. Then little by little the idea of a fresh start will come to me. Going back to Paris or anywhere at all in no way attracts me. I think my place is here. Extreme enervation is, in my opinion, what most of those who have been here for years suffer from. Now my work will preserve me from that to a certain extent.
The room where we stay on wet days is like a third-class waiting room in some stagnant village, the more so as there are some distinguished lunatics who always wear a hat, spectacles and a cane, and travelling cloak, almost like at a watering place, and they represent the passengers.
I am forced to ask you again for some paints and especially for canvas. When I sent you the four canvases of the garden I am working on, you will see that, considering my life is spent mostly in the garden, it is not so unhappy.
Yesterday I drew a very big, rather rare night moth, called a death's head, its colouring of amazing distinction, black, grey, cloudy white tinged with carmine or vaguely shading off into olive green; it is very big.
To paint it I had to kill it, and it was a pity, the beast was so beautiful. I will send you the drawing along with some other drawings of plants.
Again - speaking of my condition - I am so grateful for yet another thing. I've noticed that others, too, hear sounds and strange voices during their attacks, as I did, and that things seemed to change before their very eyes. And that lessened the horror with which I remembered my first attack, something that, when it comes upon you unexpectedly, cannot but frighten you terribly. Once you know it is part of the illness, you accept it like anything else. Had I had not seen other lunatics close to, I should not have been able to stop myself from thinking about it all the time. For the suffering and the anguish are not funny when you are having an attack.
Most epileptics bite their tongue and injure themselves. Rey told me that he had seen a case where someone had mutilated his own ear, just as I did, and I think I heard a doctor from here, who came to see me with the director, say that he too had seen it before. I like to think that once you know what it is, once you are conscious of your condition, and of being subject to attacks, then you can do something to prevent your being taken unawares by the anguish or the terror. Now that it has all been abating for five months, I have high hopes of getting over it, or at least of no longer having such violent attacks.
To Theo van Gogh - June 1889
I hope that you will destroy a lot of the things that are too bad in the batch I have sent you, or at least only show what is most passable. As for the exhibition of the Independents, it's all one to me, just act as if I weren't there. So as not to be indifferent, and not to exhibit anything too mad, perhaps the “Starry Night” and the landscape with yellow verdure, which was in the walnut frame. Since these are two with contrasting colours, it might give somebody else the idea of doing those night effects better than I have. But you must absolutely set your mind at rest about me now. When I have received the new canvas and the paints, I am going off to see a little of the country. Since it is just the season when there are plenty of flowers and consequently colour effects, it would perhaps be wise
To Theo van Gogh - June 1889
I think that unquestionably Gauguin and Bernard have great and real merit. And it remains very understandable that for beings like them - young and very vigorous, who must live and try to hack out their way - it would be impossible to turn all their canvases to the wall until it should please people to admit them into something, into the official stew. You cause a stir by exhibiting in cafes; I do not say it is not bad taste to do it, but I myself have this crime on my conscience twice over, as I exhibited at the Tambourin and at the Avenue de Clichy, without counting the upset caused to 81 worthy anthropophagi of the good town of Arles and their excellent mayor.
So in any case I am worse and more to blame than they, as far as that goes, in causing stir enough, my word, quite involuntarily. Young Bernard - I think - has already done some absolutely astonishing canvases in which there is a sweetness and something essentially French and sincere of rare quality.
After all, neither he nor Gauguin are artists who could ever look as if they were trying to get into a universal exhibition by the back stairs. Be reassured about this. That they could not hold their tongues is very understandable. That the impressionist movement has had no unity proves that they aren't as skilled fighters as other artists such as Delacroix and Courbet. At last I have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry sky. Though I have not seen either Gauguin's or Bernard's last canvases, I am pretty well convinced that these two studies I've spoken of are parallel in feeling. When you have looked at these two studies for some time, and that of the ivy as well, it will perhaps give you some idea, better than words could, of the things that Gauguin and Bernard and I sometimes used to talk about, and which we've thought about a good deal;
To Wilhelmina van Gogh - December 1889
While I was writing this letter I got up to order to put a few brush strokes on a canvas I'm working on - the very picture of those weather-beaten fir trees against a red, orange, yellow sky - it was very fresh yesterday - the tones pure and brilliant - well, I don't know what thoughts came into my head while I was writing, but when I looked at my canvas I told myself it was not right. Then I took a colour that was there on the palette, a dull dirty white, which you get by mixing white, green and a little carmine. I daubed this greenish tone all over the sky, and behold, at a distance it softens the tones, whereas one would think that one would spoil and besmirch the painting. Don't misfortune and disease do the same thing to us and to our health; and if fate ordains that we be unfortunate or sick, are we not in that case worth more than if we were serene and healthy according to our own vague ideas and desires with regard to possible happiness?
To Theo van Gogh - December 1889
Fundamentally I am not so violent as all that, and at last I myself feel calmer. Perhaps you will also see it in the canvas for the Vingtistes, which I sent off yesterday; the Field of wheat at sunrise . You will get the “Bedroom” at the same time. I put in two drawings as well. I am curious to know what you will say about the “Wheat Field”; perhaps it needs to be looked at for some time. However, I hope you will write me soon whether it has arrived in good condition, if you find half an hour to spare next week. I am quite resigned to staying here next year, because I think that my work is getting on a little.
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