Vincent van Gogh - Path Through a Field with Willows 1888

Path Through a Field with Willows 1888
Path Through a Field with Willows
Oil on canvas 31.5 x 38.5 cm. Arles: April, 1888
Switzerland: private collection

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 14 July 1885.
My dear Theo,
I wish that the 4 canvases I wrote to you about were gone. I may work on them again if I keep them here too long, and I think it’s better for you to get them as they come from the heath.
The reason why I don’t send them off is that I don’t want to send them to you with the carriage unpaid at a moment when you say that you might be short yourself, and I can’t pay the carriage myself either.
I’ve never seen the little house where Millet lived — but I imagine that these 4 little human nests are of the same kind.
One of them is the residence of a gentleman who’s popularly known here as ‘the peasant of Rauwveld’ — the other is occupied by a worthy soul who, when I went there, was engaged in nothing more mysterious than turning over her potato patch, but must also be able to work magic, though — at any rate she goes by the name of ‘the witch’s head’.
You remember that it says in the book by Gigoux how it came about that Delacroix had 17 paintings rejected at the same time. This shows — at least so it seems to me — that he and others from that period — were faced with connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs, none of whom either understood it or wanted to buy — this shows that those who are rightly described in the book as ‘the valiant ones’ didn’t talk about fighting a losing battle, but carried on painting.

Something else I wanted to say to you is that we’ll have to paint a lot more if we take that about Delacroix as our starting-point. I must necessarily be the most disagreeable of all people, that’s to say having to ask for money. And since I don’t think that things will take a turn for the better as regards sales in the next few days, this is bad enough. But I ask you, isn’t it better, after all, for both of us to work hard even though there are difficulties attached to it, than to sit about philosophizing at a time like this? I don’t know the future, Theo — but — I do know the eternal law that everything changes — think back 10 years and things were different, the conditions, the mood of the people, everything in short. And 10 years on, a great deal is bound to have changed again. But doing something endures — and one doesn’t easily regret having done something. The more active the better, and I’d rather fail than sit idle.
Whether Portier is or isn’t the man to do something with my work — we need him now all the same. And here’s what I think – after working for a year, say, we’ll have got more together than now, and I know for sure that my work will do better as I complete one thing with another. The people who have some feeling for it now, who, like him, talk about showing it sometime — they’re consequently useful, because after another year’s work, say, they’ll have a few more things together that will speak for themselves, even if they say nothing at all. Should you happen to see Portier, feel free to tell him that, far from giving up, I’m planning to send him much more. You must also go on showing when you meet people. It won’t be so very long before what we can show will be more important. You can see for yourself — and it’s a phenomenon that gives me surprisingly great pleasure — that people are increasingly starting to stage exhibitions of 1 person or a very few who belong together. This is a phenomenon in the art trade which I dare think has more future than other enterprises. It’s good that people are beginning to understand that a Bouguereau can’t do well beside a Jacque — nor a figure by Beyle or Lhermitte beside a Schelfhout or Koekkoek.
Scatter Raffaëlli’s drawings about — and judge for yourself whether it would be possible to form a good idea of this singular artist. He — Raffaëlli — isn’t like Régamey — but I find him just as much of a personality. If my work stayed with me — I think I’d be constantly working over it. By sending it to you and to Portier as it comes from the countryside or from the cottages, the odd thing that isn’t right will sometimes get through — but things that wouldn’t be improved by frequently working over them will be preserved.
If you had these 4 canvases and a few more, smaller studies of cottages, and someone saw nothing by me other than those, they’d be bound to think that I did nothing other than paint cottages. And likewise with that series of heads. But peasant life involves such diverse things that when Millet speaks of ‘working like a bunch of negroes’, this really does have to happen if one wants to achieve a whole. One may laugh at Courbet’s saying, ‘painting angels! who has ever seen angels!’ But I’d just like to add, for instance, ‘justices in the harem, who has ever seen justices in the Harem?’ (the painting by Benjamin-Constant). ‘Bull fights, who has ever seen those?’ and so many other Moorish, Spanish things, Cardinals, and then all those history paintings, which are still always there, metres high by metres wide! What’s the point of it all, and what do people want with it? After a few years most of it becomes stale and dull, and more and more boring. But still. Perhaps they’re well painted — maybe. Nowadays, when connoisseurs stand in front of a painting like the one by Benjamin-Constant, or like a reception at a cardinal’s by some Spaniard or other — it’s the custom to say, with a knowing air, something about ‘clever technique’. But — as soon as those same connoisseurs found themselves in front of a scene from peasant life or a drawing by Raffaëlli, say, they would criticize the technique with the same air — à la C.M.
Perhaps you think that I’m wrong to comment on this — but — I’m so gripped by the thought that all these exotic paintings are painted in THE STUDIO. But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen — I must have picked a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand &c. — not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them &c. Not to mention that when one arrives on the heath after a couple of hours’ walk in this weather, one is tired and hot. Not to mention that the figures don’t stand still like professional models, and the effects that one wants to capture change as the day wears on.
I don’t know how it is with you — but for my part, the more I work on it the more peasant life absorbs me. And the less and less I care about either the Cabanelesque things, among which I would also count Jacquet, also Benjamin-Constant’s present work — or the highly praised but so unspeakably, hopelessly dry technique of the Italians and Spaniards. Image makers! — what Jacque said, I often think about it. But I’m not biased; I like Raffaëlli who, after all, paints something very different from peasants — I like Alfred Stevens, Tissot, to mention something that’s entirely unlike peasants — I like a fine portrait. Zola who otherwise, to my mind, often makes colossal mistakes in his judgement of paintings — says something beautiful about art in general in ‘Mes haines’. ‘In the painting (the work of art) I look for, I love the man — the artist.’
There you are, I think that’s perfectly true — I ask you, what sort of a man, what sort of a visionary/observer or thinker, what sort of a human character is there behind some of these canvases praised for their technique — often, after all, nothing. But a Raffaëlli — is someone, a Lhermitte is someone, and in many paintings by virtually unknown people one feels that they were made with a will, with emotion, with passion, with love.
The TECHNIQUE of a painting from peasant life or — like Raffaëlli — from the heart of urban workers — entails difficulties quite different from those of the slick painting and the rendering of action of a Jacquet or Benjamin-Constant.
That’s to say, living in those cottages day in and day out, being out in the fields just like the peasants — enduring the heat of the sun in the summer, the snow and frost in the winter, not indoors but outside, and not for a walk, but day in and day out like the peasants themselves.
And I ask you, when you think about it, am I so wrong to criticize the criticism of the connoisseurs, who are presently fencing more busily than ever with the often so meaningless word technique (they’re increasingly giving it a conventional meaning)?
When one counts all the trudging and lugging one has to do to paint ‘the peasant of Rauwveld’ and his cottage, I dare swear that this is a longer and more tiring expedition than many painters of exotic subjects, be it the justice in the harem or the reception at the cardinal’s, make for their choicest eccentric subjects. For in Paris one can get Arab or Spanish or Moorish models simply by ordering and paying for them. But it’s harder for someone like Raffaëlli, who paints the rag-pickers of Paris in their own small quarter, and his work is more serious.
Seemingly there’s nothing simpler than painting peasants or rag-pickers and other labourers but — no subjects in painting are as difficult as those everyday figures! There isn’t — as far as I know — a single academy where one learns to draw and paint a digger, a sower, a woman hanging a pot over the fire, or a seamstress. But in every town of any consequence at all there’s an academy with a choice of models for historical, Arab, Louis XV and, in a word, all figures, provided they don’t exist in reality.
If I send you and Serret a few studies of diggers or peasant women who are weeding, gleaning corn &c. as the start of a whole series about all kinds of work in the fields — then it may be that either Serret or you will discover faults in them which will be useful for me to know about, and which I’ll naturally concede myself.
But I want to point out something that’s perhaps worth noting. All academic figures are constructed in the same way and, let’s admit, one couldn’t do better. Impeccable — without faults — you’ll already have seen what I’m driving at — also without giving us anything new to discover.
Not so the figures of a Millet, a Lhermitte, a Régamey, a Lhermitte, a Daumier. They’re also well constructed — but not the way the academy teaches, after all. I think that no matter how academically correct a figure may be, it’s REDUNDANT in this day and age, even if it were by Ingres himself (apart from his Source of course, because that indeed was and is and will remain something new) if it lacks that essential modernism — the intimate character, the actual DOING SOMETHING.
When will the figure not be redundant then, even though there were necessarily faults and grave faults in it to my mind, you’ll probably ask.
When the digger digs, when the peasant is a peasant, and the peasant woman a peasant woman. Is this something new? Yes. Even the little figures by Ostade, Ter Borch don’t work the way they do nowadays. I’d like to say a lot more about this and I’d like to say how much I myself want to do what I’ve begun even better — and how much higher than my own I value the work of some others. I ask you — do you know of a single digger, a single sower in the old Dutch school??? Did they ever try to make ‘a labourer’? Did Velázquez try it in his water-carrier? Or his folk types? No.
Work, that’s what the figures in the old paintings don’t do. These days I’m slogging away at a woman whom I saw last winter, lifting carrots in the snow. There it is — Millet did it, Lhermitte, and in general the peasant painters of this century — an Israëls — they find that more beautiful than anything else. But even in this century, how relatively few there are among the legion of painters who want the figure — yes — above all — for the sake of the figure (i.e. for the sake of form and modelling) but can’t conceive of it other than working, and also have the need — which the old masters avoided, as did the old Dutch masters who depicted so many conventional actions — and — I say — have the need to paint the action for the action’s sake.
So that the painting or the drawing is a figure drawing for the sake of the figure and the inexpressibly harmonic form of the human body — yet at the same time — is lifting carrots in the snow. Am I expressing myself clearly? I hope so, and just say this to Serret — I can say it in fewer words — a nude figure by Cabanel, a lady by Jacquet and a peasant woman not by Bastien-Lepage himself, but a peasant woman by a Parisian who learnt to draw at the academy, will always show the limbs and the structure of the body in the same way — sometimes charmingly — correct — in proportion and anatomy. But when Israëls or when Daumier or Lhermitte, say, draw a figure, one will feel the form of the body much more and yet — this is why I particularly want to include Daumier — the proportions will sometimes be almost random, the anatomy and structure often completely wrong ‘in the eyes of the academicians’.
But it will live. And above all Delacroix, too.
It still isn’t expressed properly. Tell Serret that I would be desperate if my figures were good, tell him that I don’t want them academically correct. Tell him that I mean that if one photographs a digger, then he would certainly not be digging. Tell him that I think Michelangelo’s figures magnificent, even though the legs are definitely too long — the hips and buttocks too broad. Tell him that in my view Millet and Lhermitte are consequently the true painters, because they don’t paint things as they are, examined drily and analytically, but as they, Millet, Lhermitte, Michelangelo, feel them. Tell him that my great desire is to learn to make such inaccuracies, such variations, reworkings, alterations of the reality, that it might become, very well — lies if you will — but — truer than the literal truth.

And now I must close soon — I did need, though, just to talk about the fact that those who paint the life of the peasants or the common people, although they aren’t counted among the men of the world — will still, however, perhaps endure better in the long run than the makers of the exotic but painted in Paris harems and cardinals’ receptions.
I know that it’s being a disagreeable person when one’s in need of money at inconvenient times — but my excuse is just that painting the seemingly most everyday things is sometimes the most difficult and most expensive. The expenses that I must incur if I want to work are sometimes very heavy in relation to my means. I assure you that if my constitution weren’t becoming virtually like that of a peasant as a result of wind and weather, I wouldn’t stick it out, for there’s simply nothing left over for my own comfort. But I don’t desire that for myself either, any more than many peasants desire to live other than as they live. But what I do ask is both for paint and, above all, for models. You’ll perhaps realize from what I say about the figure drawings that I’m positively passionate about going on with them.
You recently wrote to me that Serret had spoken to you ‘with conviction’ about certain faults in the structure of the figures of the potato eaters. But you’ll have been able to see from my answer that my own criticism also condemns them, considered from that point of view, only I’ve pointed out how this was an impression I had after I’d seen the cottage in the dim lamplight on many evenings, after having painted 40 heads, from which it follows that I was starting from a different point of view. Now we’ve started talking about the figure, though, I have a great deal to say. I find in Raffaëlli’s words, his perception about ‘Character’, what he says about that is good — and in its place — and clarified by the drawings themselves.
People who move in artistic and literary circles, though, as Raffaëlli does in Paris, think differently after all from, say, the way I do out in the country among the peasants. I mean they search for one word that sums up all their ideas — he suggests the word ‘Character’ for the figures of the future. I agree with it, with the intention — I believe — but I believe as little in the accuracy of the word as in the accuracy of other words — as little as in the accuracy or appositeness of my own expressions.
Rather than saying there has to be character in a digger — I describe it by saying this peasant has to be a peasant, this digger has to dig, and then there’s something in it that is essentially modern. But I feel that people can draw conclusions I don’t mean even from these words — even were I to add a whole list.
Instead of reducing the expenses for models — which are already quite a burden on me — I think it would be desirable — very desirable — if I could increase them a little. Because I’m concerned with something very different from being able to do ‘a little figure’ drawing.
Showing the figure of the peasant in action, you see that’s what a figure is — I repeat — essentially modern — the heart of modern art itself — that which neither the Greeks, nor the Renaissance, nor the old Dutch school have done.
To me, this is a matter I think about every day. However, this difference between both the great and the lesser masters of the present (the great, for instance Millet, Lhermitte, Breton, Herkomer; the lesser, for instance Raffaëlli and Régamey) and the old schools isn’t something I’ve often found expressed truly forthrightly in articles on art.
Just think about whether you don’t find it’s true, though. The figure of the peasant and the workman started more as a ‘genre’ — but nowadays, with Millet in the van as the eternal master, it’s the very heart of modern art and will remain so.
People like Daumier — one has to respect them because they’re among the pioneers. The simple nude but modern figure ranks high — as revived by Henner and Lefebvre, Baudry and, above all, the sculptors like a Mercier, Dalou, they’re also among the very soundest. But peasants and labourers simply aren’t nude, and so one doesn’t have to think nude. The more people who start making figures of workmen and peasants the better I’ll like it. And I myself, I know of nothing else in which I take so much delight. This is a long letter and I still don’t know whether I’ve said what I mean clearly enough. I may perhaps drop Serret a line. If I do, I’ll send the letter to you to read, because I want to make it clear how much I attach to this question of the figure.