Copy Works - Vincent van Gogh

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Copies of Eugène Delacroix

Van Gogh states in his letters to Theo and Willemien van Gogh on copies of Eugène Delacroix:


Pietà; Delacroix, 1850 - Van Gogh, 1889


"Work is going very well, I’m finding things that I’ve sought in vain for years, and feeling that I always think of those words of Delacroix that you know, that he found painting when he had neither breath nor teeth left. Ah well, I myself with the mental illness I have, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and I tell myself that this doesn’t prevent one from practising the role of painter as if nothing had gone wrong.


When I see that crises here tend to take an absurd religious turn, I would almost dare believe that this even necessitates a return to the north. Don’t speak too much about this to the doctor when you see him – but I don’t know if this comes from living for so many months both at the hospital in Arles and here in these old cloisters. Anyway I ought not to live in surroundings like that, the street would be better then. I am not indifferent, and in the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great deal. Thus this time during my illness a misfortune happened to me – that lithograph of Delacroix, the Pietà, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled.


I was sad about it – then in the meantime I occupied myself painting it, and you’ll see it one day, on a no. 5 or 6 canvas I’ve made a copy of it which I think has feeling.”


“My thoughts clear and my fingers so sure that I drew that Delacroix Pietà without taking a single measurement, though there are those four outstretched hands and arms – gestures and bodily postures that aren’t exactly easy or simple.”

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 10 September 1889.


“As I write to Mother I’ll send her a painting in let’s say around a month, and there’ll be one for you too.


I’ve painted a few for myself, too, these past few weeks – I don’t much like seeing my own paintings in my bedroom, so I’ve copied one by Delacroix and a few by Millet. The Delacroix is a Pietà, i.e. a dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies bent forward on its left side at the entrance to a cave, its hands outstretched, and the woman stands behind. It’s an evening after the storm, and this desolate, blue-clad figure stands out – its flowing clothes blown about by the wind – against a sky in which violet clouds fringed with gold are floating. In a great gesture of despair she too is stretching out her empty arms, and one can see her hands, a working woman’s good, solid hands. With its flowing clothes this figure is almost as wide in extent as it’s tall. And as the dead man’s face is in shadow, the woman’s pale head stands out brightly against a cloud – an opposition which makes these two heads appear to be a dark flower with a pale flower, arranged expressly to bring them out better. I didn’t know what had become of this painting, but while I was in the very process of working on it I came across an article by Pierre Loti, the author of Mon frère Yves and Pêcheur d’Islande and Madame Chrysanthème.


An article by him on Carmen Sylva.


If I remember rightly, you’ve read her poems. She’s a queen – she’s queen of Hungary or another country (I don’t know which), and in describing her boudoir, or rather her studio where she writes and where she makes paintings, Loti says that he saw this Delacroix canvas there, which struck him greatly.”


“However, it does one good to think that a canvas like that is in such hands, and it consoles painters a little to be able to imagine that really there are souls who have a feeling for paintings.


But there are relatively few of them.


I thought of sending you yourself a sketch of it to give you an idea of what Delacroix is. This little copy of course has no value from any point of view. However, you’ll be able to see in it that Delacroix doesn’t draw the features of a Mater Dolorosa in the manner of Roman statues –


And that the pallid aspect, the lost, vague gaze of a person tired of being in anguish and in tears and keeping vigil is present in it rather in the manner of Germinie Lacerteux.”

To Willemien van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 19 September 1889.


The Good Samaritan; Delacroix, 1849 - Van Gogh, 1890


“(In my room I have the famous portrait of a man (the wood engraving) that you know, a mandarin woman by Monorou (the large print from the Bing album), the blade of grass (from the same album), the Pietà and the good Samaritan by Delacroix, and Meissonier’s reader, then two large reed pen drawings.)”

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Friday, 3 May 1889.


“Although copying may be the old system, that absolutely doesn’t bother me at all. I’m going to copy Delacroix’s Good Samaritan too.”

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Friday, 20 September 1889.


Copies of Rembrandt van Rijn

Van Gogh expresses his thoughts about Rembrandt's copies in his letter to Theo:


The Raising of Lazarus; Rembrandt, 1630/1632 - Van Gogh, 1890


“My dear brother, Today, as Mr Peyron had come back, I read your kind letters, then the letters from home as well, and that did me an enormous amount of good in giving me back a little energy, or rather the desire to climb back up again from the dejected state I’m in. I thank you very much for the etchings – you’ve chosen some of the very ones that I’ve already liked for a long time, the David, the Lazarus, the Samaritan, and the large etching of the wounded man, and you’ve added the blind man and the other very small etching, the last one so mysterious that I’m afraid of it and dare not wish to know what it is. I didn’t know it, the little goldsmith. But the Lazarus! Early this morning I looked at it and I remembered not only what Charles Blanc says of it, but indeed even that he doesn’t say everything about it.”

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Thursday, 1 May 1890.


Melek Figürü; Rembrandt, 1655/1660 - Van Gogh, 1889


“All the same it gives me pleasure that you’ve received that consignment from here, the landscapes. Thank you above all for that etching after Rembrandt. It’s surprising, and yet it makes me think again of the man with the staff in the La Caze gallery. If you want to do me a very, very great pleasure, then send a copy of it to Gauguin. Then the Rodin and Claude Monet brochure is really interesting.”

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 22 August 1889.


“My dear Theo, Since I wrote to you I’m feeling better, and whilst I don’t know if it’ll last I don’t want to wait any longer to write to you again.


Thanks once again for that beautiful etching after Rembrandt. I’d very much like to get to know the painting and know in which period of his life he painted it. All this goes with the Rotterdam portrait of Fabritius, the traveller in the La Caze gallery, into a special category in which the portrait of a human being is transformed into something luminous and consoling.


And how very different this is from Michelangelo or Giotto, although the latter however comes close to it, and Giotto thus forms a sort of possible hyphen between the school of Rembrandt and the Italians.”

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Monday, 2 September 1889.


Copy of Honoré Daumier

In his letter to Theo, Van Gogh evaluates the copy of Honoré Daumier:



The Drinkers; Daumier, 1862 - Van Gogh, 1890


“I’ve found a Daumier print, Those who have seen a tragedy and those who have seen a vaudeville. I begin to long for Daumier more and more as time passes. There’s something pithy and ‘considered’ in him. He’s amusing and yet full of emotion and passion. Sometimes, it seems to me I find a passion that might be likened to white-hot iron, in the drunkards, for instance, and probably in the Barricade too (which I don’t know).”

To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Thursday, 8 February 1883.


“Speaking of expression in a figure, I’m becoming more and more persuaded that it lies not so much in the features as in the whole manner. I find few things as horrible as most academic facial expressions. I would rather look at ‘Night’ by Michelangelo, or a drunk by Daumier, or The diggers by Millet, and that large woodcut by him, The shepherdess. Or at an old horse by Mauve &c.”

To Theo van Gogh, The Hague, on or about Wednesday, 11 July 1883.


“So what I’m pondering doing in painting is Daumier’s Drinkers and Régamey’s Penitentiary. You’ll find them in among the wood engravings. I’m busy with the Millets for the moment, but this is to say that I’ll find no lack of things to work on. Thus even half locked up I’ll be able to occupy myself for a long time.”

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Monday, 13 January 1890.


“And the studio — the red floor-tiles, the white walls and ceiling, the rustic chairs, the deal table, with, I hope, decoration of portraits. That will have character à la Daumier — and it won’t, I dare predict, be commonplace. Now I’m going to ask you to look for some Daumier lithographs for the studio, and some Japanese prints, but it’s not at all urgent, and only when you find duplicates of them.”

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 9 September 1888.


Copy of Gustave Doré

Van Gogh as writes his thoughts about Gustave Doré's copy in his letters to Anthon van Rappard and Theo:


The Prison Courtyard; Doré, 1872 - Van Gogh 1890


“You can be decisive, you know what you want. There’s a saying of Gustave Doré’s that I’ve always found exceedingly beautiful — I have the patience of an ox — right away I see something good in it, a certain resolute honesty; in short there’s a lot in that saying, it’s a real artist’s saying. When one thinks about people from whose mind something like this springs, it seems to me that the sort of arguments one all too often hears in the art trade about ‘gift’ is such a hideous croaking of ravens. ‘I have the patience’, how calm that is, how dignified that is.”

To Theo van Gogh. Nieuw-Amsterdam, Sunday, 28 October 1883.


“When I had finished my letter, I went out and came back with another pile of illustrations, namely old Hollandsche Illustraties, so I can add some duplicates to this batch.


First 3 very beautiful Daumiers.


1 Jacque.


If you have them already, please return them when you get the chance.


The four ages of the drinker by Daumier has always seemed to me one of his most beautiful things. There is soul in it as in a Degroux. I’m very glad to be able to send you this print. The Daumiers are becoming rare.


Even if you had nothing else by Daumier, the master would still be well represented in your collection. I saw splendid drawings by Frans Hals once. In this sheet I find something — in fact, everything — of Frans Hals or Rembrandt.


I’m also adding some very beautiful Morins and old Dorés — prints that are becoming rarer and rarer.


Like me, you’ve no doubt heard talk — on the subject of ‘the illustrative’ — against Doré above all, and of course against Morin.


I believe that notwithstanding this you’ve continued admiring the work of these artists all the same. But if one isn’t on one’s guard, things like that can still influence one more or less. That’s why I don’t think it superfluous, now that I’m sending you these prints, to say that for me there’s still the smell of the days of Gavarni and of Balzac and V. Hugo in these grubby woodcuts — something of the Bohème, now almost forgotten — which I respect, and that each time I see them again they encourage me to do my best and tackle things energetically.


Of course, I too see the difference between a drawing by Doré and one by Millet, but the one doesn’t rule out the other.


There may be a difference, but there’s also correspondence. Doré can model a torso and construct the joints better, infinitely better, than many a person who scoffs at him like a conceited know-all — witness, for example, that print of sea bathing, which for him is no more than a scratch.


I’m only saying that if someone like Millet made comments about Doré’s drawing — I doubt if he would, but suppose he did — well, he would have the right to do so. But when those who with their two hands can’t do a tenth of what Doré can do with one finger rail against his work, that’s nothing but arrogance, and they’d be well advised to be silent and to learn to draw better themselves.”

To Anthon van Rappard. The Hague, on or about Tuesday, 19 September 1882.


Copy of Émile Bernard

About copy of Émile Bernard, Van Gogh states the following in his letters to Emile Bernard and Theo:


Breton Women; Bernard, 1888 - Van Gogh, 1888


“For a time I had the slight feeling that I was going to be ill, but Gauguin’s arrival has so taken my mind off it that I’m sure it will pass. I mustn’t neglect my diet for a while, and that’s all.


And absolutely all. And after a time you’ll have some work.


Gauguin has brought a magnificent canvas that he exchanged with Bernard, Breton women in a green meadow. White, black, green and a red note, and the matt tones of the flesh. Anyway, let’s all be of good heart.


I believe that the day will come when I’ll sell too, but I’m so far behind with you, and while I spend I bring nothing in.”

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Thursday, 25 October 1888.


“An annunciation of what — — — I see figures of angels, elegant, my word, a terrace with two cypresses, which I like very much; there’s an enormous amount of air, of clarity in it.... but in the end, once this first impression is past, I wonder if it’s a mystification, and these secondary characters no longer tell me anything.


But this is enough for you to understand that I would long to see things of yours again, like the painting of yours that Gauguin has, those Breton women walking in a meadow, the arrangement of which is so beautiful, the colour so naively distinguished. Ah, you’re exchanging that for something — must one say the word — something artificial — something affected."

To Emile Bernard. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Tuesday, 26 November 1889.


Copy of Virginie Demont Breton

Van Gogh cites the following in his Theo letter about copy of Virginie Demont Breton:


The Man is at Sea; Demont Breton, 1889 - Van Gogh, 1889


“I’ve copied that woman with a child sitting beside a hearth by Mrs Demont-Breton, almost all violet, I’m certainly going to continue copying, it will give me a collection of my own, and when it’s sufficiently large and complete I’ll give the whole lot to a school.”

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Tuesday, 8 October 1889.


Copy of Jacob Jordaens

Van Gogh says in his letters to Theo about the copy of Jacob Jordaens:


Cows; Jordaens, 1624 - Van Gogh, 1890


“Among Bing’s reproductions I find the drawing of the blade of grass, and the carnations, and the Hokusai admirable.


But whatever one may say, for me the more ordinary Japanese prints, coloured in flat tones, are admirable for the same reason as Rubens and Veronese. I know perfectly well that this isn’t primitive art. But the fact that the primitives are admirable isn’t in the very least a reason for me to say, as is becoming a habit, ‘when I go to the Louvre I can’t go beyond the primitives’.


Supposing one were to say to a serious collector of Japanese art — to Lévy himself — sir, I cannot help finding these 5-sous Japanese prints admirable —


It’s more than likely that that person would be a bit shocked and would pity my ignorance and my bad taste.


Exactly as in the past it was in bad taste to like Rubens, Jordaens, Veronese.


I believe that eventually I’ll stop feeling lonely in the house, and that on days of bad winter weather, for example, and in the long evenings, I’ll find an occupation that will absorb me completely.


A weaver, a basket-maker, often spends entire seasons alone, or almost alone, with his work as his only pastime.


But what makes those people stay where they are is precisely the feeling of the house, the reassuring, familiar look of things. Of course I’d like company, but if I don’t have it I won’t be unhappy on that account, and then, above all, the time will come when I’ll have someone. I have little doubt about that. Now in your home too, I believe that if one is willing to put people up one can find plenty among artists, for whom the matter of somewhere to stay is a very serious problem.


And for me, I believe that it’s my absolute duty to try to earn money with my work, and so I see my work quite clearly ahead of me.”

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 23 or Monday, 24 September 1888.


Copies of Utagawa Hiroshige

About the copies of Utagawa Hiroshige, Van Gogh expresses in his brother Theo's letter:


Bridge in the Rain; Hiroshige, 1857 - Van Gogh, 1887


“I don’t reckon it a bad thing, either, that I haven’t any money, as much as it would take to force things by paying. Perhaps the idea of painting portraits and getting the sitters to pay for them by posing is a safer way. Because in the city it’s not like it is with the peasants. Anyway. One thing’s certain, Antwerp’s a very singular and beautiful place for a painter.


My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.


I’ve reconciled myself to having left — and hope not to be idle this winter.”

To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, Saturday, 28 November 1885.


“But it’s a very good sign that the young ones are furious, perhaps it proves that there are some old ones who’ve spoken well of it.


About staying in the south, even if it’s more expensive — Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — and we wouldn’t go to Japan, in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.


But it’s bad policy to live there alone when two or three could help each other to live on little.


I’d like you to spend some time here, you’d feel it — after some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel colour differently. I’m also convinced that it’s precisely through a long stay here that I’ll bring out my personality. The Japanese draws quickly, very quickly, like a flash of lightning, because his nerves are finer, his feeling simpler.6 I’ve been here only a few months but — tell me, in Paris would I have drawn in an hour the drawing of the boats?”

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Tuesday, 5 June 1888.


Flowering Plum Orchard; Hiroshige, 1857 - Van Gogh, 1887


“My dear Theo,


You’ll already have received my letter of this morning, in which I’d included 50-franc note for Bing, and it’s about this Bing business again that I wanted to write to you. The fact is, we don’t know enough about Japanese art.


Fortunately, we know more about the French Japanese, the Impressionists. That’s definitely the essence and the main thing.


So Japanese art, properly speaking, already with its place in collections, already impossible to find in Japan itself, is becoming of secondary interest. But this doesn’t mean that if I had a single day in which I could see Paris again I wouldn’t call at Bing’s precisely to go and see the Hokusais and other drawings from the true period. What Bing himself, by the way, also said to me when I so much admired the run-of-the-mill Japanese prints, that later I’d see that there’s also something else. Loti’s book, Mme Chrysanthème, taught me this: the apartments are bare, without decorations or ornaments. And it was that that awakened my curiosity about the excessively synthetic drawings of another period. Which are probably to our Japanese prints what a sober Millet is to a Monticelli. You know well enough that I’m not averse to Monticellis, myself.


Nor coloured Japanese prints, either, even when people tell me ‘you should get out of that habit’. But it seems to me, at the point we’ve reached, fairly indispensable to know the sober quality that is the equivalent of the colourless Millets.”

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 15 July 1888.


Copy of Keisai Eisen

Van Gogh expresses in his letter to his brother Theo and Willemien about the copy of Keisai Eisen:


Oiran; Eisen, 1886 - Van Gogh, 1887


“If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.


But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.


Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?


And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention. Isn’t it saddening that up to now Monticellis have never been reproduced in fine lithographs or vibrant etchings? I’d like to see what artists would say if an engraver like the one who engraved the work of Velázquez were to do a fine etching of them. Be that as it may, I believe it’s still more our duty to try to admire and to know things for ourselves than to teach them to others. But the two things can go together. I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects. While I’ve been writing you this letter, I’ve drawn a good dozen of them. I’m on the track of finding it. But it’s very complicated, because what I’m after is that in a few strokes the figure of a man, a woman, a kid, a horse, a dog, will have a head, a body, legs, arms that will fit together. More soon, and good handshake.”

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 23 or Monday, 24 September 1888.


“Theo wrote telling me that he has given you some Japanese prints. It’s certainly the most practical way of getting to understand the direction that painting has taken at present. Colourful and bright.


For myself, I don’t need Japanese prints here, because I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here. That as a result I only have to open my eyes and paint right in front of me what makes an impression on me.”

To Willemien van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 9 and about Friday, 14 September 1888.


“My dear brother, you know that I came to the south and threw myself into work for a thousand reasons.


To want to see another light, to believe that looking at nature under a brighter sky can give us a more accurate idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing.”

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 10 September 1889.


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