Paul Gauguin writes to impressionist painter Camille Pissarro about becoming a “full time” painter.
Gauguin laments that he is now working in finance and is just an “amateur” painter.
Gauguin writes in part: The Masters or the Great, as you call them, painted pictures; in that statement there are two things to be examined: the first depends on what one understands by pictures – exactly like beauty it is relative, the second, which is what I want to discuss, is how did the Masters paint pictures. They began their education young for the most part – I mean by that that they learned all the ways of varying a formula (a formula which at certain periods tends to transform itself) - so they reach a certain age with a sure hand, a precise memory, ready to paint pictures. Some, like Delacroix, carried out a lot of research for them selves, but you should be aware nonetheless that, apart from methods, colour, etc., Delacroix at the end of the day remained the painter as before (i.e. in the grand tradition) in his compositions. He undoubtedly has a certain style of his own (he is a man of genius) which makes itself felt, but there remains always the same manner of composing. Certain things, like the decorations for the Chambre de Députés, can be found in some of Rubens’ pictures. In sum the picture belongs to painting in the grand manner, which is literary in form. Our own times are becoming very difficult for us: painting in the grand manner is no longer justified, or else it becomes episodic, as in battle-pieces. There remains for us genre or landscape; and indeed it is in this latter direction that all the paintings of the most recent masters has been moving – look at Courbet, Corot, Millet.
As for what concerns you, I think the time has come (always provided that it accords with your temperament) to do more in the studio – but with ideas matured in advance from the point of view of the composition and of the subject. According to this way of thinking, you have only to devote all you have learned before to what you are going to do now and not to look for a new vision of nature – and you will improve at once If not, continue to look for other things; but in that case you will need a dose of youth and determination which might weary you, particularly through dissatisfaction. Do not concern yourself with what Renoir & Co. may say. I know why they talk like that (we will chat about it next time)…
In closing, Gauguin reveals to Pissarro his burning desire to become a full time painter: I cannot resign myself to remain all my life in finance and as an amateur painter. I have got it into my head that I shall become a painter as soon as I can discern a less obscured horizon and that I shall be able to earn my living by it . . . .
An extraordinary letter from one painter to another with highly important content.