Throughout the month of March, we’re featuring excerpts from our recently-published collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a beautiful volume (deemed a best art book of 2014 by the Huffington Post) of van Gogh’s letters entitled Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker. The letters we feature will be posted on the same day of the month on which they were originally penned.
My dear Theo.
Herewith a scratch of the selling of soup that I did in the public soup kitchen. It takes place in a large hall where the light enters from above through a door on the right.
I re-created this scene in the studio. I put a white screen in the background and on it I drew the hatch in the proportions and dimensions it has in reality, with the furthest window covered and the lower part of the middle window covered. So that the light falls from P. Just as in the place itself.
As you see, when I have the figures pose there, I get them exactly as they were in the actual soup kitchen.
Above you see the positioning in the studio. I’ve framed the area to be drawn.
Of course now I can search for the poses of the figures for as long and as much and as minutely as I like, while still remaining broadly true to what I saw.
I’d like to try this again, as a watercolour, for example. And really work to get somewhere with it. I feel that there’s now more opportunity for figure painting in the studio. When I sometimes tried this summer, before the changes, the figures took on such a neutral, cold colour that one didn’t feel a strong desire to paint. The picturesque quality went, so to speak, as soon as they came into that strong light.
Do you know what I’ll need very badly for that? —some different pieces of fabric, brown, grey &c., to get the right background colour. In the case overleaf the wall is white with panelling painted grey, the floor darker. One can re-create the locality much more accurately by paying attention to things like that. I already have several things for it, and also have various REAL clothes. Yesterday, for example, bought a remarkably picturesque patched smock of coarse linen. I always keep an eye open for that kind of thing; if one gives it some thought one gets much more satisfaction from one’s models than if one leaves it entirely to chance.
I have a love for the studio such as a bargee would have for his boat. I believe I’ll get it right. But my purse doesn’t always permit what I would like. Yet they are lasting things that one buys in this way, and now I have an opportunity that I may not have later, perhaps.
The changes to the studio present me with more indirect costs than direct ones. For I won’t consider it finished before I have various things that I need to make it practical.
You will have many expenses because of your patient —for my part I needn’t sit still if you can’t send anything extra at the moment. For that matter, you sent something extra not long ago. So I’d like to emphasize that I can manage if need be.
But I have a fire inside me to press on and make good progress. There’s also another stimulus, namely that Rappard is making an effort too, more than in the past, and I want to keep up with him so that we can get on better and probably be of more help to each other. He has painted far more than I and drawn for longer, but there’s still a similarity in the level we’re at. I concede to him as to painting, but I don’t want to lag behind him in drawing. What I would like to see happen is that he and I go on in the same direction, namely the figures from the people, scenes in a soup kitchen, Hospital &c. He’s coming to visit me soon, he’s promised, and I’d like to reach some sort of agreement with him as regards making a series of drawings from the people that we could lithograph, for example, if it was good enough —not otherwise. That and in fact a pile of other things make me long to press on vigorously.
In any case, I dare to promise you better drawings soon, whether you can send something or whether it’s inconvenient. The changes to the studio in themselves, to the extent that they’re now finished, already enable me to tackle certain things.
But the road would have fewer obstacles if you could send me something extra soon. Otherwise I foresee that I’ll come up against various things, whether drawing materials or taking a model or making some more changes.
I say ‘better drawings’; that is relatively. There are some among the studies of heads —orphan men &c. that I still have here —that I won’t immediately do better, since nature is definitely in them, and something I’m not yet satisfied with, of course, but of which equally I don’t yet dare say that I’ll do it so much better tomorrow or the day after.
But by better drawings I mean something else, namely that I’ll approach them differently and try to put more chiaroscuro in them, which is something rarely if at all found in my studies of this winter.
And I now dare promise you that in any event.
Tomorrow I’ll have a house full of people, namely the woman’s mother and the woman’s youngest sister and a lad from the neighbourhood, and these people will pose with the rest of my household for the drawing for which this is the first scratch.
Rappard is also working hard with models, and in my view there’s no better way. Especially if one stays loyal to one model, one comes to see more and more in the person. So this letter supplements my letter of yesterday in the sense that you can see from it that today I’ve made a plan for a new watercolour in the same genre as the one I sent you, and tomorrow I’ll get the models for it. I hope to reach a higher standard with this one than in the one I sent. Shall I succeed??? I can’t tell in advance.
I’m starting on it even though there are still things I lack. But I have one thing I didn’t have in the past, and that’s the better light. And that’s worth more to me than any amount of paint. If you can run to paint as well, please do so, but I’ve already had so much from you and am so dissatisfied with the result up to now in many respects that I hardly dare ask. Anyway, I still have hope that, just as in algebra the product of two negatives will be positive, so the result of failures may be successes.
Adieu, and best wishes for your patient, or rather your convalescent.