I have been to Amsterdam this week. I hardly had time to see
anything but the museum. I was there three days, I went on
Tuesday and came back on Thursday. The result is that I am
very glad I went in spite of the cost, and I made up my
mind not to go so long without seeing pictures again.
On account of the expenses I had put this trip off and off,
like so many other things. But it is far better that I can no
longer think this the right way. It is too important for my
work, and when I look at the old masters, whose technique I
understand much better now than before, then for the rest I
need perhaps very little conversation.
I do not know whether you remember the one to the left of
the “Night Watch,” as pendant of “The
Syndics,” there is a picture (unknown to me till now) by
Frans Hals and P. Codde, about twenty officers full length.
1 Did you ever notice that??? that alone - that one
picture - is worth the trip to Amsterdam - especially for a
colourist. There is a figure in it, the figure of a
flag-bearer, in the extreme left corner, right against the
frame - that figure is in grey, from top to toe, I shall call
it pearl-grey - of a peculiar neutral tone, probably the result
of orange and blue mixed in such a way that they neutralize
each other - by varying that keynote, making it somewhat
lighter here, somewhat darker there, the whole figure is as if
it were painted with one same grey. But the leather boots are
of a different material than the leggings, which differ from
the folds of the trousers, which differ from the waistcoat -
expressing a different material, differing in relation to
colour - but all one family of grey. But just wait a
Now into that grey he brings blue and orange - and some
white; the waistcoat has satin bows of a divine soft blue, sash
and flag orange - a white collar.
Orange, “blanc,” bleu, as the national colours
were then - orange and blue, side by side, that most splendid
colour scale, against a background of a grey, cleverly mixed by
uniting just those two, let me call them poles of electricity
(speaking of colours though) so that they annihilate each other
against that grey and white. Further, we find in that picture -
other orange scales against other blue, further, the most
beautiful blacks against the most beautiful whites; the heads -
about twenty of them, sparkling with life and spirit, and a
technique! a colour! the figures of all those people superb and
But that orange blanc bleu fellow in the left
corner…I seldom saw a more divinely beautiful figure. It
You know the bust of the man in yellow, citron amorti, whose
face, by the opposition of tones, has become a dashing masterly
bronze, purplish (violet?).
“Il faut être mort plusiers fois pour peindre
ainsi” [One must have died several times to paint like
that], how true it is here. As to the pictures by Frans Hals -
he always remains on earth - one can speak about them.
Rembrandt is so deeply mysterious that he says things for which
there are no words in any language. Rembrandt is truly called a
magician…that's not an easy calling.
I have packed several still lifes, which you will receive
next week, together with two souvenirs from Amsterdam,
which I caught on the wing, and also a
few drawings. In a few days I shall also send you a book by de
Goncourt, Chérie. De Goncourt is always beautiful, and
his way of working is so honest and he drudged on it so
In Amsterdam I saw two pictures by Israëls, “The
Fishermen of Zandvoort,” and - one of his very latest -
an old woman huddled together like a bundle of rags near the
bedstead in which the corpse of her husband lies.
Both pictures are masterpieces, I think. Let them jabber
about technique as much as they like, in Pharisaical, hollow,
hypocritical terms - the true painters are guided by that
conscience which is called sentiment, their soul: their brains
aren't subject to the pencil, but the pencil to their brains.
Besides, the canvas is afraid of the real painter, and not the
painter afraid of the canvas.
In Amsterdam I also saw pictures of today, Witkamp and
others. Witkamp is one of the best, reminds one of Jules
Breton; others whom I have in mind but I shall not name, who
always talk about what they call technique, I found
weak in that very technique.
You know all those cold grey tones which they think
distinguished, but which are flat and uninteresting, childishly
mixed. Nowadays they bring on the market ordinary colours
purposely mixed with pure white, for the convenience of
painters who paint in what they call a distinguished light
Just listen, the technique, the colouring, the
modelling of “The Fishermen of Zandvoort,” for
instance, is in my opinion Delacroix-like and superb; today's
cold flat greys are technically not worth much, but remain
paint, and with Israëls one forgets the paint. But
remember, I do not mean Jaap Maris, Willem Maris, Mauve,
Neuhuys, who work in the right manner, each in his own colour
scale, Blommers too. But those painters' school, their
followers, Theo, I don't think are worth much.
I have also seen the Fodor museum. “The
Shepherd” by Decamps is really a masterpiece; do you
remember the Meissonier, a sketch of a deathbed? The Diaz?
Well, Bosboom, Waldorp, Nuyen, Rochussen, the
original painters of that period of forty years back - I
always like to see them.
Rochussen possesses an élan like Gavarni's.
The still lifes I am sending are colour studies, I intend to
make more of them; don't think this is useless. After a while
they will get darker, but in a year, for instance, they will be
better than now, when, being dry to the core, they will have
got a solid varnish. If you use some drawing pins and put a
great number of my studies, the old as well as the new ones,
pell-mell on a wall of your room, then I think you will see
that there is a connection between those studies, that the
various colours harmonize.
Speaking of black - the more I see of those pictures in a
cold, childish colour scheme, the more I am glad that my
studies are found too black.
Look at “The Fishermen of Zandvoort” and see
what colours it is painted with - it is painted with red, with
blue, with yellow, with black and some dirty white, with brown
(everything well mixed and broken), or isn't it? When
Israëls says that one must not paint black, he certainly
never means what they now make of it, he means that there must
be colour in the shadows, but that excludes neither a single
colour scheme, however dark it may be, nor of course that of
the blacks and browns and deep blues.
But what's the good of thinking about it; it is much better
to think of Rembrandt, of Frans Hals, of Israëls, than to
think of that fashionable impotency.
I am writing you rather a long letter - though perhaps you
may not believe what I say about the colours, and though you
may find me pessimistic when I say that much of what is called
delicate grey is a very ugly grey; though you may find me
pessimistic or worse when I also disapprove of the smooth
polishing of faces, hands and eyes, because the great masters
all worked in quite a different way, perhaps by and by your own
study of art, which I am glad you took up again thoroughly,
will change you too.
Now I have another favour to ask; that acquaintance of mine
in Eindhoven, who went with me to Amsterdam, bought at Uncle
Cor's: Bürger's Musées de la Hollande, Van der Hoop
Rotterdam, but they did not have the first volume,
Musées de la Haye et d'Amsterdam. However, we must have
it; it is out of print, but you will be able to pick one up
somewhere, and he will even pay 10 fr. for it, though
preferably less of course. I shall send you the money
immediately, as it is to be his and on that condition he has
given me the order. So will you try to get it, please?
If you find one, first read it through once more yourself,
it is so beautiful.
The small panels I painted in Amsterdam were done in a great
hurry. One even in the waiting room of the station, when I was
too early for the train, the other in the morning, before I
went to the museum at 10 o'clock. Yet I am sending them to you,
look upon them as “Dutch tiles,” on which something
is dashed off in a few strokes.
As to the end of the month, boy, I am literally cleaned out,
what's to be done? Can't you send 20 fr. more, or however
little it may be? Next month I also have to pay for colours,
the first of November, 25 guilders rent.
As to connections for my work, I spoke with somebody about
it, and whenever I go again, I shall take some work with me.
There is a general slackness which makes it easy enough to find
an occasion for exhibition. Let us paint much, this is
necessary if we want to have success; just because times are
slack we must work hard; then, instead of finding all harbours
closed to us, we will one day sweep the seas with a broomstick
in the mast.
Ever yours, Vincent
The so-called “Lean Company.”
Vincent means Vermeer van Delft
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 10 or 11 October 1885 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 426.
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