from Letters to his son Lucien
You must harness yourself to drawing. For the present draw just for the sake of drawing, later, when you are more skilled, if you have what it takes, you will find your own style. Remember that the primitives are our masters because they are naive and knowing.
As far as execution is concerned, we regard it as of little importance: art, as we see it, does not reside in the execution: originality depends only on the character of the drawing and the vision peculiar to each artist.
Each of us has several facets. The surface often appears more important than what is inside, hence the errors of those who judge carelessly. How many times has that not happened to me! The surface is often complete in some people from the very beginning, but not the possession of their own sensations. From this come errors. Some natures achieve the surface very slowly; this is the least danger an artist runs. So one should not think of the surface or the appearance, but concentrate on what is inner!
I had the nerve to begin a painting at the studio with very little information, and I'm quite amazed to discover that I'm going to be able to do it. It's really a revelation! I had imagined it would be so difficult, that by comparison, it seems rather easy! I'm obliged to do things this way because it is very difficult to paint from nature when you live in the city. There are distances and changes of effects in a country where there aren't two days in a row that are alike.
You can't imagine how much harm the young artists have done themselves by their desire to advertise themselves. Degas spoke of this to me recently with extraordinary vehemence, and he made no exceptions when he expressed his hatred for people advertising themselves.
When you feel the impulse to make something, do it no matter what the cost... you can be sure of reward. So rare a thing is it to have a desire that it is one's duty to act on it, and at once, for desire evaporates if one delays. Forward, go to it! Be advised, act! That is the most practical course one can take.
Thank you for your good wishes. But what I wish for both of you is first of all good health, courage, confidence in yourselves and love of what is beautiful, good and just!
You are a naive, a rough workmen, you have a style all your own, you have only to follow your bent, to perfect the material, make it beautiful. Useless to ask for adroitness, that will come some day, and besides beauty does not lie in that. Yes, you answer me, but how earn money? That's a matter of commercial talent, inherent in the individual.... To be ingratiating, stealthy, to hold the reins secretly all the time and direct all movements like an expert coachman — or to have a good fairy watching out for your success... luck! Hence you should not despair. — You have to get a grip on yourself and look at things more calmly, without too much anxieties.
Work, seek and don't give way too much to other concerns, and it will come. But persistence, will and free sensations are necessary, one must be undetermined by anything but one's own sensation.
It is my hope that now you will concentrate energetically on your studies and be able to give free play to your sensations. I am most anxious to see where you are going, the knowledge you have more than justifies your being self-confident. The superb work you did as an engraver proves this, your problem is to discover an execution appropriate to your spirit. Do not permit yourself to be discouraged. Do not overdevelop a critical sense, and trust your sensations blindly.
The studio is splendid, but I often say to myself: what is the good of studio? Once I painted no matter where; in all seasons, in the worst heat, on rainy days, in the most frightful cold, I found it possible to work with enthusiasm. Your mother reproached me for indifference, but it was not this feeling that prompted me, on the contrary, the more irked I was, the more I felt the need to paint.... Will I be able to work in these new surroundings? Surely my painting will be affected; my art is going to put on gloves, I will become official, deuce take it!...This is a serious moment, I shall have to watch myself and try not to fall!
The studio is marvelous to work in, but everything I began has the same motifs as my paintings of last year. I am trying to find new effects, and I have six or seven canvases representing this effort well advanced.
What is necessary is to prepare the ground with truly felt works, and one's reputation takes care of itself. There is no better method, everything else is superfluous. Long hair, dandyism, noise, count for nothing; work, observation and sensation are the only real forces.
You are right, all in all, to follow your feelings when you paint. The truth is that the various manifestations of art do not contradict one another, there is always the same pivot.... But from a practical point of view, it is necessary to produce a great many works in order to become skilled. What you tell me of your modest will is somewhat like what papa Corot used to say to us: I have only a little flute, but I try to strike the right note.
If I were you I would mix freely, I would not leave so many orange-colored commas. One feels that you are inhibited, but where there is inhibition there is no pleasure. Mix all elements. We must talk of that at greater length.
The problem is to go on, and despite these hardly encouraging prospects, make works of art full of sensation, wholly uncommercial, satisfactory to both artist and collector.
I have just about finished my large figure paintings. Finished? That is to say I am letting them lie around in the studio until I find, at some moment, the final sensation that will give life to the whole. Alas! while I have not found this last moment I can't do anything further with them!
What's the good of looking to the past and never at nature, so beautiful, so luminous, so full of novelty? Always in the path of the old masters, who surely should not go unheeded because we venerate them! It seems to me that the better course is to follow their example by seeking with our own senses elements in our own environment. I am talking nonsense, perhaps, in saying this, but I stick to my guns. I have seen some Courbet landscapes recently. They are far superior and really Courbet's. And take Cezanne, his expressiveness didn't come from his not being himself. What's the good of unwearyingly repeating everything that has been done so well? And Manet? And Degas, who constantly pushes ahead, finding expressiveness in everything around us? They don't show weakness! In fact it makes me sad to see a man as well endowed as his colleagues failing because of a theory! Such, my dear Lucien, are quite frankly the thoughts that came to me as I looked at the work of Legros. I did not feel the whiplash of originality.
The general rule that is followed nowadays is to look for a style in the works of one's predecessors without asking oneself what nature could provide. Thus inevitably, he turns about like those squirrels in their cage, without suspecting that there is spring, a summer, an autumn, a winter, air, the light, harmonies, admirable and infinite subtleties in nature, and that the problem is to pay close heed to these. It is true that he is not a painter, but a literary man who has a story to tell; that isn't very interesting, and the fact is that this has been very well done already — there is little value in playing the same note all the time.