Thanks for what you sent me. I appreciate your having done
so, because so much depends on my working hard during those
winter months when it is easier to get models.
In two or three days you will receive twelve little
pen-and-ink drawings after studies of heads.
After all I feel most in my element when I am working on the
figure, and there also seems to me to be more character in, for
instance, those heads I already did in The Hague, and in some
other figures, than in the other things I did. And perhaps it
will be wise to concentrate more exclusively on the figure.
But the figure always stands in some surroundings, and one
can't help doing those surroundings too, because one can't
dispense with them.
Mother wants to add something to this letter, so I will be
brief, as I shall send you those pen drawings one of these
I don't yet know what I shall do with those heads, but I
want to extract the motif from the characters themselves.
But I know quite well why I made them, and what in general I
have in mind. I am longing to see, sooner or later, that
picture which you received. [A painting by the Swedish painter
Josephson - a study for his later famous painting “The
I don't understand exactly what the legend itself means.
I don't understand it because you say the figure is
Dante-esque, but it is the symbol of an evil spirit luring
people into the abyss.
Surely these two things can hardly go together, for the
sober, severe figure of Dante, full of indignation and protest
against what he had seen happening, protesting against the
terrible medieval abuses and prejudices, is certainly one of
the most sincere, honest, noble ones imaginable. It was said of
Dante, “Voilà celui qui va à l'enfer et qui
en revient”; entering it and coming back again is
quite different from the devilish luring others into
Consequently, a Dante-esque figure cannot be made to act a
satanic part without the greatest misconstruction of
And the silhouette of a Mephisto is mighty different from
that of Dante.
Contemporaries wrote of Giotto, “Le premier il mit `la
bonté' dans l'expression des têtes humains.”
[Primarily he put `goodness' into the expression of human
heads.] Giotto painted Dante, and with much sentiment, as you
know, for you remember the old portrait. From which I conclude
that Dante's expression, however sad and melancholy it may be,
is essentially an expression of something infinitely good and
tender. So I cannot imagine Satan or Mephisto having anything
Dante-esque about them. All the more reason why I am curious to
see, someday what the picture is really like.
My best wishes for the New Year.
Ever yours, Vincent
At this time, Vincent was 31 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written late December 1884 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 391.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.