Typos p. vi: Gaugin's [= Gauguin's]; p. xxii: Austellung [= Ausstellung]; p. xxvi: Gaugin [= Gauguin]; p. xxxiv: ursurped [= usurped]; p. xxxix, n. 2: gure [= figure]; p. xl: reconnaitre [= reconnaître]; p. xlv: Gaugin [= Gauguin]; p. xlvii: risk wearying [= risk of wearying]
Introductory essay on Van Gogh and his art
Anthony M. Ludovici
In The Letters of a Post-Impressionist
Being the Familiar Correspondence of Vincent Van Gogh
translated by Anthony M. Ludovici
Constable and Company Ltd.
second impression, 1912
- p. v -
For reasons into which it is unnecessary for me to enter here, it was found convenient to adopt the form of Cassirer's publication arranged by Margarete Mauthner, and my translation has therefore been made from the German (Fourth Edition, 1911). Still, with the view of avoiding the errors which were bound to creep into a double translation of this sort, I took care, when my version was complete, to compare it with as many of the original French letters as I was able to find, and I am glad to say that by this means I succeeded in satisfying myself as to the accuracy of every line from page 39 to the end.
The letters printed up to page 38, some of which I fancy must have been written in Dutch a language which in any case I could not have read have not been compared with the originals. But, seeing that the general quality of the German translation of the letters after page 39 was
I say that "I fancy" some of the letters which occur between pages 1 and 38 were written in Dutch; for I am not by any means certain of this. In any case I can vouch for the fact that the originals of all the letters after page 38 were in French, as I have seen them. But in this respect Paul Gaugin's remark about his friend Van Gogh is not without interest: "Il oubliait même," wrote the famous painter of négresses, "d'écrire le hollandais, et comme on a pu voir par la publication de ses lettres à son frère, il n'écrivait jamais qu'en français, et cela admirablement, avec des 'Tant qu'à, Quant à,' à n'en plus finir." 1
Rather than disfigure my pages with a quantity of notes, I preferred to put my remarks relative to the divergencies between the original French and the German in the form of an appendix (to which the Numbers 1 to 35 in the text refer), and have thus kept only those notes in the text which were indispensable for the proper understanding of the book. Be this as it may, the inaccuracies and doubts discussed in the appendix are, on the whole, of such slight import, that those readers who do not wish to be interrupted by pedantic quibbles will be well advised if they simply read straight on, without heeding the figures in the text. To protect myself against fault-finders, however, such readers will understand that it was necessary for me to prepare some sort of a list referring to those passages which, in the German, differed even slightly from the French original.
1 See "Mercure de France," vol. 48, p. 127 (Oct. 1903), Article, "Paul Gauguin," by Charles Morice.
I would like, however, to seize this opportunity to defend Margarete Mauthner against the charge of having made a "fantastic arrangement" of these letters; for, if the person who made this charge had only been acquainted with the facts of the case, he would have known that she had done no more (at least from page 39 onwards) than faithfully to follow Emile Bernard's original arrangement of his friend's correspondence in the "Mercure de France"; and surely we must assume that Emile Bernard, Van Gogh's devoted admirer, was the best judge as to what should, or should not, appear of all that his friend had written.
With regard to dates, however, Emile Bernard does give a little more information than Margarete Mauthner; but it is very little, and it is as follows: the letters to E. Bernard from page 39 to page 73 were written during 1887; those from page 73 to page 86 were written during 1888; those from page 108 to page 112 were written during 1889, and the remainder, as Margarete Mauthner also tells us, were written during 1890. Of the letters to Van Gogh's brother, I am afraid I can say nothing more definite than that all those which occur after page 87 were written in Arles, and probably San Remy, between 1887 and 1890.
Now, postponing for a moment, the discussion of Van
In Van Gogh's case, however, we are particularly fortunate; for we possess these letters which are proof enough of the sincerity with which he pursued his calling. And, as I say, he did not write them for the press, nor did he compose them as a conscious teacher. They simply took shape quite naturally in his moments of respite, when he felt the need of unburdening his heart to some sympathetic listener; and in writing them he was as ingenuous and as unembarrassed as a child. He wrote to his brother and to a bosom friend, Emile Bernard. As I have mentioned, a
For everyone who is acquainted with the literature of Aesthetic, must know how poor we are in human documents of this nature, and how comparatively valueless the greater part even of our poor treasure is, when it is compared with the profound works which men who were not themselves painters or sculptors, have contributed to our literature on the subject.
Who has not been disappointed on reading Ghiberti's commentaries, Leonardo's note books, Vasari's discourses on "Technique," Antoine Raphael Mengs's treatises, Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty, Reynolds' Discourses, Alfred Stevens' Aphorisms, etc.? But who has not felt that he was foredoomed to disappointment in each case? For an artist who could express the "why" and the "how" of his productions in words would scarcely require to wield the chisel or the brush with any special power. The way in which one chooses to express oneself is no accident; it is determined by the very source of one's artistic passion. A true painter expresses himself best in paint.
With Van Gogh's letters, however, we are not concerned with a painter who is writing a text-book for posterity, or undertaking to teach anybody his art, or to reveal the
He touches upon these questions lightly, as is only fitting in letters that bear other tidings of a more prosaic nature, but he never can conceal the earnestness with which he faced the problems that were present in his mind, and as a stenographic report of these problems these letters make the strongest claim upon our attention.
With regard to his ultimate dementia, I have little doubt myself as to how it was brought about. As in the case of Nietzsche and many another foreign or English poet or thinker, I cannot help suspecting it was the outcome of that protracted concentration of thought upon one or two themes (the chief characteristic of all mania, by-the-bye),
Imagine a man trying to study the laws governing a spinning top in the midst of the traffic of the city, and you have a fair image of the kind of task a sincere artist or thinker undertakes at the present day, if he resolve, in the midst of the rush and flurry of our age, to probe the deep mystery of that particular part of life to which he may happen to feel himself drawn by his individual tastes and abilities. Not only is he foredoomed to dementia by the circumstance of his occupation, but the very position he assumes bent over his task amid the racket and thunder of the crowded thoroughfare of modern life gives him at least the aspect of a madman from the start.
And Van Gogh himself was perfectly aware of this. For he realized that the claims which nowadays are put upon the energy of one individual concentrated seeker, are so enormous that even the complication of marriage may prove one strain too many for him. He admits that the Dutch artists married and begat children; but, he adds: "The Dutchmen led a peaceful, quiet, and well-ordered life" (page 61). "The trouble is, my dear old Bernard," he says, "that Giotto and Cimabue, like Holbein and Van Eyck, lived in an atmosphere of obelisks if I may use such an expression in which everything was arranged with architectural method, in which every individual was a stone or a brick in the general edifice, and all things were interdependent and constituted a monumental social structure. . . . But we, you know, live in the midst of complete laisser aller and anarchy; we artists who love order and symmetry isolate ourselves and work at introducing a
And this is no empty lament; it is a plain statement of the fact that in the disorder and chaos of the present day, not only has the artist no place allotted to him, but also that the very position he tries to conquer for himself, is hedged round with so many petty obstacles and minor personalities, that his best and most valuable forces are often squandered in a mere unproductive attempt at "attaining his own." That he should need, therefore, to practise the most scrupulous economy with his strength a precaution which in a well-ordered age, and in a healthier age, would not be necessary follows as a matter of course.
"I should consider myself lucky," sighed Van Gogh, "to be able to work even for an annuity which would only just cover bare necessaries, and to be at peace in my own studio for the rest of my life" (page 88).
Without his brother Theodor's devotion and material help it is impossible to think without alarm of what might have become of this undoubted genius. For it must be remembered that his brother practically kept him from his Hague days in 1881 until the very end in 1890, at Auvers-sur-Oise. It is only when we think of the irretrievable loss which we owe to the fact that Monet himself had to remain idle for six months for want of money, that we can possibly form any conception of what the result would have been if Theodor Van Gogh had ever lost faith in his elder brother, and had stopped or considerably reduced his supplies, or had ever accepted his offer to change his calling (see page 129).
On the other hand, we have evidence enough in these letters to show that Vincent took this self-sacrifice on his
"I am not so very much attached to my pictures," he says "and will drop them without a murmur; for, luckily, I do not belong to those who, in the matter of works of art, can appreciate only pictures. As I believe, on the contrary, that a work of art may be produced at much less expense, I have begun a series of drawings" (see also page 50).
Again and again he complains of the cost of paint and canvas, and to have allowed him carte blanche in the purchase of these materials, the brother must, considering his circumstances, have been capable not only of very exceptional generous feeling, but of very high artistic emotion as well. For it must have been no easy matter for this employee of Messrs. Boussod and Valadon to have worked year in and year out and, without any certain prospect of recovering his outlay, to have paid these monthly bills for Vincent's keep and Vincent's work. It is true that occasionally a picture of Vincent's would sell; but in those days prices were low, and even Vincent himself was often willing to accept a five-franc piece for a study. Besides, the expenses must have been made all the heavier thanks to Vincent's inveterate carelessness and lack of order in little things, and there can be no doubt that a fair portion of the
Gauguin, speaking of his meeting with Van Gogh in Arles, writes as follows:
"Tout d'abord je trouvai en tout et pour tout un désordre qui me choquait. La boîte de couleurs suffisait à peine à contenir tous ces tubes pressés, jamais refermés, et malgré tout ce désordre, tout ce gâchis, un tout rutilait sur la toile." 1
Still both Van Gogh and his brother had an indomitable faith in the former's work a faith which touches upon the sublime though neither of them lived to see their highest hopes realized.
"As to the market value of my pictures," Vincent wrote (pages 8 and 9), "I should be very much surprised if, in time, they did not sell as well as other people's. Whether this happens directly or later on does not matter to me" 2 (see also page 17, line 20).
The finest words concerning this ideal brotherly relationship, however, have been written by Vincent's great friend, Emile Bernard.
"Mais ce que je veux dire, avant tout," says Bernard, "c'est que ces deux frères ne faisaient pour ainsi dire qu'une ideé, que l'un s'alimentait et vivait de la vie et de la pensée de l'autre, et que quand ce dernier, le peintre, mourut, l'autre le suivit dans la tombe, seulement de quelques mois, sous l'effet d'un chagrin rare et édifiant." 3
1 "Mercure de France," vol. 48 (Oct. 1903), p. 127.
2 That Vincent also often felt depressed about his work may be gathered from the following: passage, taken from a letter to his brother, not included in this volume: "C'est une perspective assez triste de devoir se dire que jamais la peinture que je fais n'aura une valeur quelconque."
3 See Emile Bernard's preface to his publication of Van Gogh's letters in the "Mercure de France," vol. 7, p. 324.
It is an empty illusion to suppose that history necessarily "places" a man, or even a whole age, and gives to both their proper level. What history has shown and probably will continue to show is, that whereas time very often elevates true geniuses to the dignity which is their due, and confers upon them the rank that they deserve, it also certainly raises vast numbers to the position of classics, who never had a tittle of a right to that honour, and frequently passes over others in silence who ought to have had a lasting claim upon the respect and appreciation of their fellows. Such things have happened so often, and sometimes with such a disastrous effect, that one can but feel surprised at the almost universal support that the doctrine of the infallibility of posterity enjoys.
All posthumous fame, however, should be weighed in relation to the quality of the period that concedes it, and before we concur too heartily with the verdict of an age subsequent to the man it lionises, we ought, at least, to
The fact that Van Gogh's pictures are now selling for twice as many sovereigns as he, in his most hopeful and sanguine moments thought that they would realize in francs, is the most deceptive and the most misleading feature about his work. In any case it should neither prepossess us in in his favour, nor prejudice us against him. In a world governed largely by the commercial principle which places quantity before quality, at a period in history when journalism with all its insidious power can, like the famous Earl of Warwick, make and unmake kings at will finally, on a continent in which all canons in respect of right living, religion, art, morality, and politics, have been blasted to the four winds, what does it signify that a work of art which thirty years ago was not thought to be worth 25 francs, now sells for £200 sterling? It signifies simply nothing whatsoever. Would anybody venture to assert that everything which to-day is selling at 200 times the price at which it was selling thirty years ago, is on that account worthy of particular admiration and respect I mean, of course, from people of taste, not from hawkers, pedlars, and chapmen?
A vast and unprecedented revolution has been convulsing the art-world for almost a century now, a revolution in which men like Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Rodin, and others, have fought like Titans. Who has ever heard of a revolution enduring for almost a century? Even the Grand Rebellion lasted only for six years. And this revolution of art has seen its heroes and its traitors, its kings, and its usurpers, its romance and its squalor all beneath the very nose of the layman, all beneath the very walls of his fool's paradise, without his ever
For art is always the expression of the most sensitive men of an age. They, the artists, are the first, by their movements and by the manner in which they garner their treasure, to prophesy meteorological changes of a nature vast enough to shake even the layman into a state of gasping wonder. But, as a rule, it is only when these highly sensitive men have manifested their signs, and have more or less depicted the first lightning flash of the tempest that is imminent, that the sky really does become dark and overcast patently overcast even to the layman's eyes and that the storm which they felt was coming actually begins to rage in the concrete world of politics and of national life. And then the pictures, poems, and parables already stored away, classified and catalogued in public museums, are but the crystallized harbingers of a fact that has become patent to all.
The general truth that nearly all the principal figures in this Grand-Rebellion Drama were themselves innovators, renovators, and subverters, does not in itself justify us in summarily disposing of them as noisy revolutionaries and nothing more. One can revolt against sickness in an age of sickness, and assume the title of a revolutionary or a rebel with both pride and dignity. On the other hand, a resentful valetudinarian, who feels rebellious at the sight of sleek, fragrant and rosy healthiness, may also claim the title "revolutionary"; but woe then to the age that allows itself to be lured over to his side by his intellect and his art.
It is important, therefore, that we should know with whom we are dealing.
We are aware that in the majority of cases all the noise of this art-revolution has been concentrated around
The degeneration of the subject picture, then, into a mere illustration of some passing event or ephemeral sentiment, had a deeper significance than even its bitterest enemies recognized. For while they, as new technicians seeking light and complementaries and values, deplored the spiritless and uninspired "oliographs" of their academical contemporaries, they completely overlooked the deeper truth; their artistic instincts were not strong enough to make them see that the spiritless and uninspired subject picture was the most poignant proof that could be found of the fact that mankind no longer possessed, to any passionate or intense degree, that which made the subject picture possible that is to say, a profound faith in something greater and more vital either than the artists themselves or their art, something which gave not only art but also life a meaning and a purpose.
Where does Van Gogh stand in this revolutionary drama which I have attempted briefly to sketch in the above lines?
Without esteeming him nearly so highly as many of his most enthusiastic admirers do, and without sharing in the least in that hysterical exaggeration of the value and beauty of his works which has characterized the attitude of large numbers of his followers on the Continent an exaggeration which, as I shall show, he would have been the first to deprecate and to condemn I must still confess that, as an impressionist, i.e., as a revolutionary of the 'eighties who, to my mind, strove to surpass impressionism, as also so-
Before proceeding with my argument, let me lay stress on the point that I feel very little sympathy whatever with any of these impressionists, art-form maniacs, and their followers inasmuch as they obscured the issues at the very moment half way through the last century when the issues were growing so plain that they must have found a solution sooner or later. But, if we are going to speak of preferences, if in a gingerly manner we are going to put on gloves and draw out from among this crowd the men whom we feel we can tolerate most readily, then, from the sculptor Rodin to his friend Renoir, of all the names that are now household words in the impressionistic and post-impressionistic movement of the late nineteenth century, I for my part, certainly select Van Gogh and, perhaps a little way before him, his friend Gauguin, as the only two whom I can contemplate with equanimity not to speak of approval.
In judging Van Gogh, one of the critic's greatest difficulties is, in the first place, to see a sufficient number of his pictures; for he passed through so many phases that
Van Gogh died when he was only thirty-seven years of age, and Emile Bernard reminds us that though he always used to draw, he really did not give his attention wholly to painting until the year 1882 that is to say, when he was fully twenty-nine years old. About this time he writes to his brother: "In a sense I am glad that I never learned to paint . . . I really do not know how to paint. Armed with a white panel I take up a position in front of the spot that interests me, contemplate what lies before me, and say to myself, 'that white panel must be turned into something!'" And concerning two studies finished at this period, he says: "I feel quite certain that on looking at these two pictures, no one will ever believe that they are the first studies I have ever painted" (pages 15 and 4).
It is true that in the early 'eighties he studied a little with Mauve, who was a distant relative, and later on spent some time at the Academy at Antwerp; but, on the whole, like Gauguin, he was self-taught, and when we reckon the number of years during which this self-tuition lasted, we
A still more remarkable fact about Van Gogh is, however, that during the last eight years of his life the only years, that is to say, in which he may really be said to have devoted himself entirely to painting, whether at the Hague, Drenthe, Nuenen, Antwerp, Paris, Arles, San Remy, or Auvers-sur-Oise he practically epitomised in his own work the whole of the development of modern painting, from the academical manner of his own day, to a style which I maintain was on the point of bearing him far beyond the impressionists and so-called post-impressionists. And when I say "far beyond the impressionists and so-called post-impressionists," I do not mean it in the accepted sense of this phrase, I do not mean that with Gauguin he promised to land in any of the futile absurdities with which those artists that were hung beside them provoked the mirth of London at the famous exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in 19101911. I mean it in this case as something peculiar to Van Gogh and Gauguin alone something which I shall explain in due course and which I regard as valuable and worthy of a more sound artistic instinct than that possessed by all their contemporaries.
I have myself seen pictures which I could not help thinking must have been painted in Van Gogh's academic period; Meier Graefe even thinks that Van Gogh's work of this period is likely to rise in public esteem; I have little doubt, therefore, that Van Gogh did go through an academic stage, however short or however undistinguished it may have been. 1
1 As to how he overcame his academic period, see Meier Graefe's work, "Impressionisten" (p. 122) where the author has some interesting things to say.
At this stage he had the same contempt as all modernists had for academicians, and we find him endorsing Jacques' words that they are "mere illustrators!" It is now that he feels that light, and truth, and transcripts of nature matter tremendously. He says he has done with "grays" and with Mauve and Israels as well (page 48).
He enters heart and soul into a study of nature no pains are too great, no sacrifices too heavy, provided only that he may become "absorbed in nature," and thoroughly at ease as her interpreter. Possessed as he was of a remarkable gift of observation, nature fortunately did not take long to tell him all that she has to tell the truly instinctive artist; for a man who could paint that still-life, "Apples in a Basket," dedicated to Pissaro, and the still-life "A Statuette, a Rose and Books," belonging, I believe, to Van Gogh's family not to speak of dozens of other marvels of observation, such as the "Chestnut in Bloom," belonging to Frau Kröller, in which the essential character of the tree is beautifully seized by the happiest of conventions would necessarily be a rapid and courageous learner of all that nature can teach, and would soon become conscious of having reached that decisive Rubicon, the imperative crossing of which means one of two alterna-
Van Gogh writes: "I do not wish to argue studying from nature, or struggling with reality, out of existence. For years I myself worked in this way with almost fruitless and in any case wretched results. I should not like to have avoided this error, however.
"In any case I am quite convinced that it would have been sheer foolery on my part to have continued to pursue these methods although I am not by any means so sure that all my trouble has been in vain" (p. 30).
So far, then, Van Gogh's sole excuse and it is an adequate one for having concerned himself wholly with such subordinate things as art-forms and nature transcripts, is that he was a learner. A time comes, however, when in the case of the mature artist, we must take technical competency for granted, and graybeards, as many of the impressionist sculptors and painters grew to be, who continue to concentrate upon technical questions and to regard them as ends in themselves, merely reveal the fact that they never were artists at all. In this respect I cannot help quoting some fine words of Gauguin's. Writing to Charles Morice in April 1903, he said:
"Nous venons de subir, en art, une très grande période d'égarement causée par la physique, la chimie, la mécanique et l'étude de la nature. Les artistes, ayant perdu tout de leur sauvagerie, n'ayant plus d'instinct, on pourrait dire d'imagination, se sont égarés dans tous les sentiers pour trouver des éléments producteurs qu'ils n'avaient pas la force de créer." 1
1 "Mercure de France," vol. 48 (1903), p. 105.
The fact, however, that a painter or a sculptor has not lost his instincts is not sufficient to reform the civilization or the culture in which he lives. A still greater and more powerful artist must set to work first, and he is the legislator. The most a painter or a sculptor of sound instinct can do, is to recognize the lack of the great legislator, and reveal by his work and by the things upon which he concentrates his mind, that he realizes where the fault lies.
Now I maintain that Van Gogh and Gauguin took up this position. But I am anticipating. Van Gogh passed through another stage before he reached this final one. It suddenly flashed across his mind that he had something to bestow, something to bequeath, and that an artist's life was not all taking, robbing, or copying. He felt a richness in him which bade him dispense and no longer receive.
He writes: "One begins by plaguing oneself to no purpose in order to be true to nature, and one concludes by working quietly from one's own palette alone, and then nature is the result" (page 30).
And again: "I often feel sorry that I cannot induce myself to work more at home from imagination. Imagination is surely a faculty one should develop" (page 44).
And listen to this! "How glad I should be, one day to try to paint the starry heavens, as also a vast meadow studded with dandelions in the sunlight. But how can one ever hope to succeed in doing these things unless one resolves to stay at home and to work from imagination?"
And again: "Tell him (Seurat) it is my most fervent desire to know how to achieve such deviations from reality, such inaccuracies and such transfigurations, that come about by chance. Well yes, if you like, they are lies; but they are more valuable than real values" (page 23).
These are the thoughts of his most prolific period the period during which he produced perhaps all his most striking pictures the last three years of his life. Such pages of beauty as the "Orchard in Provence," belonging to Madame Cohen Gosschalk-Bonger, "A Street in Arles," in the possession of the Municipal Museum at Stettin, "A Street in Auvers," belonging to A. von Jawlensky, Munich, hail from this period, as also "The Lawn," probably in the possession of the family a finished masterpiece of beauty; "The Sunset" belonging to Frau Tilla Durieux-Cassirer excellent; and a number of other landscapes belonging to Frau Kröller, Frau Mauthner, Frau Cohen Gosschalk-Bonger, etc. all of great splendour and mastery.
The fact that he was never able to work successfully from imagination alone, proves nothing against the art of working from imagination. I have heard some artists argue as if their individual incapacity to produce great work
All his imagination could do, therefore, was to introduce something into his landscapes and studies that made them more than mere transcripts, that constituted them new gifts rather than repetitions, placed in the hand of the grateful public. And this "something" which he introduced, was the step to higher things, which I believe to be the chief characteristic of his final period the period at the very threshold of which he unfortunately met with his tragic end.
But before I proceed let me explain why I use the adjectives "beautiful, excellent, splendid, masterful" in regard to these pictures. I am not in the habit of lavishing epithets of this vague description indiscriminately upon works of art. A vague adjective is a wonderful thing to help lame arguments over stiles. It is an indispensable helpmeet when one is not quite clear concerning any particular thing: but in regard to Van Gogh, this is not precisely my position. Not so much for my own sake, then, as for the sake of clarity in these questions, in which difficulties are so often smoothed over with empty phrases, it would seem desirable to explain why I speak of "beauty,"
In the first place, then, let me pronounce this fundamental principle, as far as I personally am concerned that there is no beauty, no mastery, and no excellence, which cannot in the end be interpreted in the terms of humanity. There is no such thing as beauty per se, mastery per se, and excellence per se. All these qualities can ultimately be traced to man and to man's emotion; and without man I maintain that such qualities would cease to exist on earth.
A beautiful poem is one that can be linked up rapidly or by degrees, consciously or unconsciously, with things which are desirable in humanity, or in a certain kind or part of humanity. The poem that praises Pity in rhythmic cadence, for instance, will charm the Christian of the twentieth century; for him, Pity is a desirable attribute of the modern human creature, and rhythm is a convincing and commanding art-form in which to cast a desirable thought. On the other hand, it would either revolt the pagan or leave him indifferent, while he might regard it as a sacrilegious act to squander such a precious art-form as rhyming verses upon so futile a subject.
All beauty, then, in the end, is human beauty, all ugliness is human ugliness. No healthy people of the world have ever considered youth (I do not mean infancy) in any manifestation of nature, as ugly; because youth is the sure promise of human life and of a multiplication of human life. On the other hand, no healthy people have ever considered ulcers, gangrenous limbs, or decay in any
But all this by the way. The beauty, mastery, and excellence of Van Gogh's penultimate period, then, in my opinion, is twofold; Its content is beautiful and its form is beautiful. Its content is only just beginning to be beautiful, because we must remember that this is the work of a man who started in a school that scorned content. But is it not written that "there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety-nine just persons which need no repentance"? And the beauty of his content is, that it is turning ever more and more definitely towards humanity. It is true that the importance of the content in general is only creeping into his works; but the little of it that there is, is human. No longer negative to man, he begins to introduce human moods into his landscapes, and with human virtues he anthropomorphizes the ground, the trees, the sky, and the distance. There is as much difference between his work now and the work of his impressionistic days as there is between these two descriptions of the rising sun: (1) "The yellow sun ascends into a pink and pale yellow sky which fades away into watery
He himself writes concerning a certain study: "My desire was to paint it in such a way that the spectator must read and sympathize with the thoughts of the signalman . . . who seems to say: 'Oh, what a gloomy day it is!'" (page 8).
And again, in regard to the other study, he writes: "While working upon it, I said to myself: 'Do not put down your palette before your picture seems to partake of the mood of an autumn evening, before it is instinct with mystery and with a certain deep earnestness'" (page 14). See also the passage about Provence on page 109.
It is now, too, that he writes to his friend Bernard: "I have painted seven studies of corn; unfortunately quite against my will, 1 they are only landscapes" (page 75), and that he feels sympathy with a soldier who prefers a landscape to the sea, because the former is inhabited (page 85). This alone is already a sign that he is turning his back on the sentimental and negative love of landscape as landscape, peculiar to the modern English, French, and Germans, inspired by Rousseau and Schiller that love of landscape in which man or the hand of man is entirely absent.
With regard to the beauty of his technique in the pictures of this period, the characteristic I chiefly admire in them is their gradual glorification of colour, and neglect of values. But why should one admire colour more than values? In the first place it should be remembered that technique is important only as a means of betraying how a man approaches and deals with reality; while all the virtues of a good technique will once more be traceable to
1 The italics are mine. A. M. L.
Compare Van Gogh's pictures of this period with any of those ridiculously funereal fiascos produced by the Glasgow school within the last twenty-five years, and you will be convinced of the difference between the bright, laughing, yea-saying attitude to life, and the dark, gloomy, negative, churlish, Puritanical, and, in many respects, essentially British attitude to life.
How sincere and how deep Van Gogh's love of colour was at this period may be judged from a note written in August 1887 to his brother. He says: "I am at work upon a portrait of our mother; as I could no longer endure the sight of the black photograph. I do not wish to possess black photographs, and yet I certainly wish to have a portrait of our mother." 1
The fact that, occasionally, his whole-hearted devotion to colour led him to produce what I cannot help regarding
1 Not included in this collection of letters.
And now I am going to express what will perhaps seem to many the most daring of all the views advanced in this essay, the view that Van Gogh, towards the end, became quite positive not only in his attitude towards life itself, but above all in his attitude towards man. After much tribulation, and the gravest and most depressing doubts, he at last realized this fundamental truth, that art, sound art, cannot be an end in itself, that art for art's sake is simply the maddest form of individualistic isolation not to use a less sonorous but more drastic term and that art can find its meaning only in life, and in its function as a life force. The highest art, then, must be the art that seeks its meaning in the highest form of life. What is the highest form of life? Van Gogh replies to this question as emphatically and uncompromisingly as every sane and healthy artist has done in all the sanest and healthiest periods of history. He says "Man."
1 I could not discover who the owner was; but the present number of the exhibit is 984F and the picture is marked "In Bruikleen" = lent.
In about as many years as it takes some painters to learn their palette, Van Gogh had learnt the great and depressing truth at the bottom of all the art of his age the truth that it was bankrupt, impoverished, democratized, and futile. Divorced from life, divorced from man, and degraded by the great majority of its votaries, art was rapidly becoming the least respected and least respectable of all human functions.
He realized that art was an expression of life itself, that pictorial art was an expression of life's satisfaction at her passions become incarnate. All expression is self-revelatory. Pictorial art, then, is the self-revelation of life herself look-
The sound, healthy artist, then, once he has attained to proficiency in his métier a result which, if he be really wise and proud, he will not attempt to accomplish before the public eye as every one is doing at present naturally looks about him for that higher thing in life to which he can consecrate his power. His passion is to speak of life itself, and life in its highest manifestation Man. But, alas, whither on earth must the poor artist turn to-day in order to find that type which would be worthy of his love and of his pictorial advocacy?
Is the hotch-potch, democratic, democratized, hard-working, woman-ridden European a subject to inspire such an artist? True, he can turn to the peasant, as many artists, and even Van Gogh himself, did. At least the peasant is a more fragrant and nobler type than the undersized, hunted-rat type of town-man, with his wild eyes that can see only the main chance, with his moist fingertips always feeling their way tremblingly into another's hoard, and with his womenfolk all trying to drown their dissatisfaction with him by an endless round of pleasure and repletion; but, surely there is something higher than
Gauguin and Van Gogh knew that there was someone nobler than the peasant. But the tragedy of their existence was that they did not know where to find him.
Fortunately for himself Van Gogh died on the very eve of this discovery. Gauguin suffered a more bitter fate than death; he went searching the globe for a nobler type than his fellow-continentals, at whose feet he might lay the wonderful powers that nature, study, and meditation had given him. But in doing this he was only doing what the whole of Europe will soon be doing. The parallel is an exact one. The prophecy of the artist will be seen to have been true. And Gauguin's search for a better type of humanity is only one proof the more, if such were needed, of the intimate relationship of art to life, and of the miraculous regularity with which art is always the first to indicate the direction life is taking.
I have shown how, from a negative and futile impressionist, Van Gogh became more and more positive and human in his content, and ever more positive, brave and masterly in his technique, and that this healthy development naturally led him to the only possible goal that lies at the end of the path he had trodden Man himself.
In 1886 he writes to Bernard: "I want to paint humanity, humanity and again humanity. I love nothing better than this series of bipeds, from the smallest baby in long clothes to Socrates, from the woman with black hair and a white skin to the one with golden hair and a brick-red sunburnt face" (page 85).
At about the same time he writes to his brother: "Oh, dear! It seems ever more and more clear to me that mankind is the root of all life" (page 89); and "Men are
But the finest words in all these letters, words which at one stroke place Van Gogh far above his contemporaries and his predecessors, at least in aim, are the following; "I should like to prepare myself for ten years, by means of studies, for the task of painting one or two figure pictures . . ." (page 152).
In his heart of hearts, however, Van Gogh was desperate. There can be little doubt about that. Not only did he feel that his was not, perhaps, the hand to paint the man with the greatest promise of life; but he was also very doubtful about the very existence of that man. Not only did he ask: "But who is going to paint men as Claude Monet painted landscape?" (page 103); he also shared Gauguin's profound contempt of the white man of modern times.
Indeed, what is his splendid tribute to Christ as a marvellous artist, a modeller and creator of men, who scorned to immortalize himself in statues, books, or pictures (pages 65 et seq.) if it is not the half-realized longing that all true artists must feel nowadays for that sublime figure, the artist-legislator who is able to throw the scum and dross of decadent civilizations back into the crucible of life, in order to mould men afresh according to a more healthy and more vigorous measure? The actual merits of Christianity as a religion do not come into consideration here; for Van Gogh was not a philosopher. All he felt was simply that craving which all the world will soon be feeling the craving for the artist-legislator, which is the direst need of modern times. For, in order that fresh life and a fresh type can be given to art, fresh vigour and a fresh type must first be given to life itself.
Only fanatical disciples could praise and value his figure pictures to the extent to which they have been praised and valued; for in all but one or two cases, they are, in my opinion, the most incompetent and the most uninviting examples of his art.
Of thirty-eight figure-pictures of his which I myself have seen, two only pleased me a little ("Old Man Weeping," probably in the possession of the family; and "An Asylum Warder," belonging to Frl. Gertrud Müller of Solothurn), and one ("Fair Girl's Head and Shoulders," probably in the possession of the family) 1 pleased me so exceedingly that I would willingly give all the rest for it. It is a most genial piece of work, mature and rich in conception, and full of a love which will come to expression. Nothing obtrudes in the technique. Indeed, the means seem to be so well mastered that one feels not the slightest inclination to consider them; while the content is so eloquent of the sleek, smooth bloom of youth, and of the half-frightened eager spirit of the young girl who is just beginning to see and to realize who she is and where she is, that this picture alone would make me hesitate to say definitely that Van Gogh could not have achieved his ideal if only he had
1 I have reasons to believe that this wonderful picture was sold by the Sonderbund people at the very time of my visit to Cologne for the sum of £450. But I was unable to discover the name of the new owner.
Here in this picture, all the dramatic effect of budding womanhood, of which Schopenhauer spoke so scornfully, is concentrated into a head and a pair of shoulders. All the mystery and charm of mere potentialities, undefined and still untried, is told in a thrilling and fairy-like combination of lemon yellow, black, Prussian blue, and the most delicate of pinks. The freshness is that of an old Dutch master like Johannes Hannot, for instance, who could paint fruit to look cold and raw on a pitch-black ground. 1 This virgin, too, like all virgins, is cold and raw and the effect is due to the masterly and almost devilish skill with which her qualities have been marshalled in her portrait, against a pitch-black ground.
It is a wonderful work. 2 Maybe it stands as the only justification of all Van Gogh's otherwise overweening aspirations. In any case it makes me feel that if he had lived, he would have learnt to regret even more than he already did, that no artist-legislator existed to inspire his brush and give his art some deeper meaning.
With regard to the rest of his figure work, I can only say I am unsympathetic. And to all those who may accuse me of Philistinism and the like for my refusal to agree with the extravagant encomiums they lavish upon his figure pictures, I can only reply by pointing to Van Gogh's own modest and very sensible words: "Any figure that I paint is generally dreadful, even in my own eyes. How much
1 See particularly his picture No. 1105 at the Ryksmuseum, Amsterdam.
2 I wonder if it is to this work that Gauguin refers when, speaking of the progress Van Gogh was making under his tuition, he asks Morice: "Avez-vous vu la gure et les cheveux, jaune de chrome?"
And now what did the admirable Gauguin have to do with all this? What part did he play in this final development of his friend's genius and in directing his brother artist's last thoughts and hopes?
We do not need to be told, we feel sure from our knowledge of the two men's work, that Gauguin played a great part in Van Gogh's life at this time. We also know that Gauguin was an older, more able, and more experienced painter than the Dutchman, with a personality whose influence is said to have been irresistible.
It was in vain that Van Gogh tried to hold him at arm's length. It was in vain that he pointed to the narrowness of Gauguin's forehead, which he held to be a proof of imbecility; in the end he had to yield, and was, as Gauguin declares: "forcé de me reconnaitre une grande intelligence." 1
"Quand je suis arrivé à Arles," says Gauguin, "Vincent se cherchait, tandis que moi, beaucoup plus vieux, j'étais un homme fait . . . Van Gogh sans perdre un pouce de son originalité, a trouvé de moi un enseignement fécond." 2
And Van Gogh was as ready to admit this as we are compelled to recognize its truth. Writing to Albert Aurier, he once said: "Je dois beaucoup à Paul Gauguin." But his latest and best work, as also the ideals and aims of his last years constitute the most convincing evidence we have of the great influence Gauguin exercised over him, and although the older man was ready to acknowledge that the
1 "Mercure de France," vol. 48 (1903), p. 127.
2 Ibid., p. 129.
For, who was this magician, the painter of those sublimely beautiful canvases "L'esprit veille," "Portrait de M. X." 1 and "Enfants." 2
He was a man who had felt more keenly than any other European painter of his day the impossibility of consecrating his powers to the exaltation and glory of the modern white man with whom he was "fatally contemporaneous." He was a deep and earnest thinker who was both clear and brave enough to confront even a tragic fact. And there can be no doubt that comparatively early in life he came face to face with the truth that the modern European and his like all over the globe, could not and must not, be the type of the future. Anything rather than that! Even black men and women were better than that cannibals, idolaters, savages, anything! And this parched thirst for a nobler and more positive type drove him like a haunted explorer all over the world, until at last he thought he had found what he wanted. It was an illusion, of course, and he would probably have admitted this; but it was the love and not the hatred of man that drove him even to that error.
Charles Morice ascribes Gauguin's lust of travel to the nature of his origin. He argues that inasmuch as Gauguin's father was a Breton and his mother a Péruvienne, the great painter was born with the desires of two continents already in his soul a fact which somehow or other Morice links up with Gauguin's visit to the Marquesans and the Tahitans.
1 Both belonging to Galerie E. Druet in 1911.
2 Belonging to Bernheim Jeune in 1911.
Although we do not forget that Gauguin had been a sailor, if it were merely a sort of restless "Wanderlust" à l'Americaine that sent him to Oceania, why did he do all in his power to fight Occidental civilization in these parts? If in his heart of hearts he had not been utterly without hope and without trust where Europe was concerned, why did he start a paper at Papeete, in which he sought to convert the colonists and educated natives to his hostile attitude towards the European? Why, too, did he jeopardize his peace of mind as well as his safety, by taking the side of the Marquesans when they implored him to defend them against their white oppressors? For we know that he was not only arrested but heavily fined for this action.
It is obvious that Gauguin was much more than a mere itinerant painter out for "new material." He was above the modern senseless mania for rugged landscape as an end in itself, or for "tropical sunsets" and "dramatic dawns," in the South Pacific. And when we read Van Gogh's words on the natives of the Marquesas (page 42) we can no longer doubt, not only that Gauguin influenced him, but also that this influence was deep and lasting.
Personally, I feel not the slightest hesitation in accepting
If Van Gogh had had more opportunities for figure painting, and if his hand and eye had grown more cunning in the art of depicting his fellows, I am of opinion that he might have surpassed even his master and inspirer. For that isolated event, that "sport," the portrait of the "Fair Girl," which was, alas, the one swallow that did not make a summer, remains stamped upon my memory as a solid guarantee of his exceptional potentialities. Unfortunately, however, he came to figure-painting all too late, and his opportunities for practising his hand were rare and more or less isolated. In these letters he says: "I suffer very much from having absolutely no models" (page 116); while in a letter to his brother, not included in this volume, he writes rather amusingly as follows: "Si on peignait lisse comme du Bouguereau les gens n'auraient pas honte de se laisser peindre. Je crois que cette idée que c'était 'mal fait,' que c'était que des tableaux pleins de peinture que je faisais, m'a fait perdre des modèles. Les bonnes putains ont peur de se compromettre et qu'on se moque de leur portrait." 1
There is now only one more point to be discussed, and I shall draw this somewhat lengthy essay to a close. I feel, however, that it would be incomplete without some reference to Van Gogh's personal appearance. Whatever
1 "Mercure de France," vol. 13 (1895).
Now, I am in the unfortunate position of one who has only portraits to judge from. But although I have seen only portraits, perhaps the number of these is sufficiently great to justify my forming an opinion. In all I have seen seven portraits of Van Gogh painted by himself, and one painted by Gauguin. The best and by far the most beautiful of all these is Van Gogh's portrait of himself now in the possession of Leonhard Tietz of Cologne. If we take this as a trustworthy record of Van Gogh's features, he certainly must have been what I would call a good-looking man. His brow was thoughtful, his eyes were deep, large, and intelligent, his nose was not too prominent and it was shapely, while his lips, both full and red, gave his face that air of positiveness towards life and humanity, which we find both in ancient Egyptian and present Chinese countenances. The only faults I find with his features and general colouring are, first, that they are inclined to be a little too northern and too Teutonic in type a fact which
If, however, we are to judge from the other portraits, especially from the one in the possession of H. Tutein Nolthenius (of Delft), then we must certainly agree with Meier Graefe, that Van Gogh was "by no means engaging in appearance." 1 I mean by the expression "unengaging" that a face is negative, chaotic, misanthropic, resentful. And in two or three of the portraits by himself, Van Gogh certainly does give the impression of being all these things. I should only like to remind the reader that in each of the "ugly" portraits, the technique and general treatment is so inferior to the work in the picture belonging to Tietz of Cologne, that one is justified in suspecting that the likeness has also suffered from inadequate expression.
If we now turn to Gauguin's portrait of his friend, in the possession of Frau Gosschalk-Bonger, we do indeed find an interesting, if not a good-looking face, though the northern and barbarian features are perhaps a little marked. The question is, was Gaugin able to seize a likeness? I have every reason to believe that he could, and I am even prepared to accept his uncorroborated testimony on this point.
Speaking of his first arrival in Arles, on a visit to his friend Van Gogh, he says:
"J'arrivai à Arles fin de nuit et j'attendais le petit jour
1 "Impressionisten," p. 128. By-the-bye, Meier Graefe does not say why he thinks this, nor does he reveal the source of his judgment.
"Un portrait de moi que j'avais envoyé à Vincent est suffisant pour expliquer l'exclamation du patron. Lui faisant voir mon portrait, Vincent lui avait expliqué que c'était un copain qui devait venir prochainement." 1
* * * * *
All that there now remains for me to do is, in the first place, to offer an explanation as to the inordinate length of this introductory essay, by pointing to the fact that
1 "Mercure de France," vol. 48, p. 126.