I was just writing you a letter when the postman brought me
your very welcome letter; I am glad to hear that you have made
progress with your drawing. I never doubted you would, for that
matter, for you attacked it in a virile way.
Now, to begin with I want to tell you that I think what you
say about the English black-and-white artists perfectly right
and proper. I saw in your work exactly what you say. Well, I
quite agree with you - particularly about the bold contour.
Take Millet's etching “The Diggers,” take an
engraving by Albrecht Dürer, above all take the large
woodcut by Millet himself, “The Shepherdess” - then
you see with full clarity what may be expressed by such a
contour. And, as you say, you feel “that is how I have
always wanted to do it, if I had always gone my own way,
etc.” That's well said, old fellow, and spoken like a
Now I think another example of characteristic, bold and
vigorous drawing is Leys's pictures, and more especially that
series of decorations for his dining room - “La Promenade
dans la Neige,” “Les Patineurs,” “La
Réception,” “La Table,” “La
Servante.” And De Groux has it too, and so has
Even Israëls, and at times Mauve and Mans too, cannot
refrain from drawing a vigorous contour, but they don't
do it in the manner of Leys, or of Herkomer.
But when you hear them talk, they will have none of it, and
more often they are talking about “tone” and
“colour.” And yet, in certain charcoal drawings
Israëls has also used lines that remind one of Millet. I
want to state flatly that personally, however much I admire and
respect these masters, I regret that, when they speak to
others, they - and particularly Mauve and Maris - do not point
out more emphatically what can be done with the contour, and
advise them to draw cautiously and softly. And so it happens
that watercolours are the order of the day nowadays, and are
considered the most expressive medium, whereas in my opinion
too little attention is being paid to black and white, so much
so that there is even a certain antipathy against it. There is
no black, so to speak, in a watercolour, and that is what they
base themselves on in order to say, “Those black
things.” It is not necessary, however, to devote my whole
letter to this.
I wanted to tell you that I have four drawings on my easel
at the moment - peat cutters - sand pit - dunghill - loading
coal. I even did the dunghill twice; the first one was too
overworked to be continued.
the case of the dunghill that became too overworked; I attacked
this one with it and not unsuccessfully; it became rather
black, it's true, but for all that the freshness returned
somewhat, and now I see my way again to working on it some
more, although I thought it hopeless before I put on the
I have been working very hard since I visited you; I had not
done any compositions for such a long time - only a lot of
studies - that when I once started I went quite wild about it.
I was pegging away at it many mornings as early as four
o'clock. I am extremely eager for you to see them, for I can
make neither head nor tail of what Van der Weele, the only one
who has seen them, said.
Van der Weele's opinion was rather sympathetic, but he said
about the sandpit that there were too many figures in
it; the composition was not simple. He said, “Look here,
just draw that one little fellow with his wheelbarrow on a
little dike against the bright sky at sundown; how beautiful
such a thing would be - now it is too turbulent.”
Then I showed him Caldecott's drawing “Brighton
Highroad,” and said, “Do you mean to say that it is
not permitted per se to introduce many figures into a
composition? Never mind my drawing, just tell me what you think
of this composition.”
“Well,” he said, “I don't like that one
either. But,” he added, “I am speaking personally,
and I can't speak any other way than personally, and this is
not the kind of thing I like and want to look at.” Well,
I thought this well said in a certain way, but you will
understand that I did not find in him exactly that sound
knowledge of things which I was looking for. But he is quite a
sound fellow on the whole, and we took a very pleasant walk
together, and he pointed out some damned fine things to me.
It was while taking a walk with him that I saw that sandpit
too, but he hardly looked at it on that occasion, and next day
I went back to it alone. I have drawn that sandpit with many
figures because at times there really are very many fellows
toiling there, because in winter and in autumn the town gives
employment in this way to persons who are out of work. And then
the scene is extremely busy [F 1029, JH 366].
I have had some beautiful models of late. A superb grass
mower, a magnificent peasant boy, exactly like figures by
Millet. A fellow with a wheelbarrow, the same whose head you
may remember I drew, but then in his Sunday clothes and with a
Sunday-clean bandage around his blind eye. Now I have him in
his everyday clothes, and - as I see it - it is difficult to
believe that this is the same man who posed for both
The size of these four large drawings is 40 x 20 inches.
I am much pleased with using a brown passe-partout with a
very deep black inner rim. Then many blacks seem to be grey,
whereas they would show up too black in a white passe-partout,
and the whole retains a clear effect.
Lord, how I wish you could see them, not because I think
them good myself, but I should like to know what you think of
them, although I am not yet satisfied with them. In my opinion
they are not yet sufficiently pure figure drawings, though they
are figure drawings all right, but I should like to accentuate
the drawing of the actions and the structure more cleanly and
What you write about feeling that you are now on a
road, and not on little by-paths and crossroads,
is very true, in my opinion. I have a similar feeling myself,
because during the past year I have been concentrating on
figures even more than I used to.
If you believe that I have eyes to see with, then you may be
sure that there most certainly is sentiment in your figures;
what you are doing is healthy and virile - never doubt yourself
in this respect, and for the very reason that you do not doubt,
dash it on without hesitation.
I think the studies of the heads of those blind fellows are
It must not surprise you that some of my figures are so
entirely different from the ones that I sometimes make after
the model. I very seldom work from memory - I hardly practice
that method. But I am getting so used to being confronted
immediately with nature that I am keeping my personal feelings
unfettered to a far greater extent than in the beginning - and
I get less dizzy - and I am more myself just because I am
confronted with nature. If I have the good fortune to find
a model who is quiet and collected, then I draw it repeatedly,
and then at last a study turns up which is different from an
ordinary study - I mean more characteristic, more
And yet it was made under the same circumstances as the more
wooden, less deeply felt studies that preceded it. This manner
of working is as good as any other - just a little more easily
understood - like these “Little Winter Gardens.”
You said it yourself - they are felt; all right, but
that was not accidental; I drew them over and over again
before, and that feeling was not in them then. After
that - after the iron-like ones - came these, and also that
clumsiness and awkwardness. How does it happen that I
express something with that? - because the thing has
shaped itself in my mind before I start on it.
The first ones are absolutely repulsive to others. I say
this to make you under stand that, when there is
something in it, this is not accidental but most certainly
reasoned out and willed.
I am delighted to hear that you've noticed that I'm doing my
best at present and that I attach importance to it - to express
the relation of the values of the masses against each other,
and to show how in the dizzying tangle of every corner in
nature things will show up separate.
Formerly the light and brown in my studies was rather
fortuitous, at least not logically carried through, and that is
why they were colder and flatter.
When once I feel - I know - a subject,
I usually draw three or more variations of it
whether it is figure or landscape - but every time and for each
one I consult nature. And I even do my best not to give
details - for then the dreaminess goes out of it And when
Tersteeg and my brother, and others, say, “What is this,
is it grass or cabbage?” - then I answer,
“Delighted that you can't make it out.”
And yet they are sufficiently true to nature for the honest
natives of these parts to recognize certain details which I
have hardly paid any attention to; they will say, for instance,
“Yes, that's Mrs. Renesse's hedge,” or,
“Look, there are Van de Louw's beanpoles.”
Before I forget, I should like to borrow from you the issues
of Harper's magazine you have, for I want to read the articles
on Holland that are illustrated by Boughton and Abbey. I shall
send you a package with the old loose numbers I have containing
illustrations by Howard Pyle and others, so that you can look
through them at your leisure, and I shall add
Erckmann-Chatrian's Histoire d'un Paysan, illustrated by
Schüler, as well as a few illustrations by Green, which
you'll remember I promised you. If you have some more
duplicates, please send them along with the Harper's (at least
if you can spare the latter for some four days, so that I can
read them), and also Zola's little book about Manet, at least
if you have finished it.
I am distressed to hear that your health is not yet what it
should be; all the same I think that making progress with your
drawings will reanimate you more than those baths or whatever
other tricks they may perform at Soden. I think you will long
to be back in your studio as soon as you have left it. I
clearly remember how terribly melancholy Mauve was on his
pilgrimage to a similar kind of works - speaking with all due
As you know, I am rather an infidel about such things, and I
sympathize with what Bräsig, in Fritz Reuter's Dried
Herbs, had to say about what this authority called
“die Wasserkunst,”I think.[The literal translation
is “water art,” but what is meant is
How beautiful Fritz Reuter's work is! I think you will
admire that book by Erckmann-Chatrian.
Another thing I must tell you is that the other day I got
hold of a marvelous old Scheveningen woman's cape as well as a
cap, but the cap is not so beautiful. And I shall also get a
fisherman's jacket with a high turned-up collar and short
sleeves. I am immensely eager to see your charcoal drawing;
perhaps when my brother comes here - I don't know exactly when
- I shall go with him to Bra-bant, and then, as we are passing
through Utrecht, and if I can manage it, I shall look in on
you; but at any rate I shall try to come to you without that,
for I am very curious to see it.
As for you, try to keep your promise to come to The Hague,
for you will have to come here anyway for that wedding party,
you know. If my recent luck with finding models holds out, I
shall certainly make some more large drawings this summer.
I should like to go on working on those I have in hand, so
as to raise them to a high standard against the time my brother
In Harper's Weekly I came across a very characteristic thing
after Smedley, the black figure of a man on a white sandy road.
He calls it “A Generation Ago”; the figure is some
kind of clergyman, and perhaps I could describe my impression
of it thus - Yes, that's what my grandfather looked like. I
wish I had done it. In the same issues, after Abbey, two girls
standing fishing on the side of a ditch with pollard willows.
Both of these things in Harper's are only sketches in a review
of an exhibition.
I should like to send you sketches of my drawings, but I
don't have much time to spare.
I asked permission to make drawings in the old men's and old
women's almshouse here, but they refused again. Oh well, there
are more almshouses in the villages near by. But here I knew
some fellows that I have used as models. But I went there to
have a look, and among other things I saw a little old gardener
near an old twisted apple tree, very characteristic.
Well, here comes my model. Adieu, send the Harper's if you
can spare them, with a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
At this time, Vincent was 30 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Anthon van Rappard. Written c. 14-15 June 1883 in The Hague. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number R37.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.