Today I received your letter with enclosure. I was very
pleased with your letter, because I noticed a few things in it
which I want to talk over. To begin at the beginning; what you
write about a certain study of a basket with apples is very
well observed, but does this observation come from yourself???
because I fancy, I should almost say I am sure, that you
used not to see that kind of thing: However this may be, here
we are on our way to agreeing more about the colours.
Go more deeply into those questions, for that will be
useful to you, and those are the things that Burger and Mantz
and Silvestre knew.
That pink is the broken colour, got by mixing the
above-mentioned red and the above-mentioned green. That's why
there is harmony between the colours.
Added to this is a second contrast, the background forms a
contrast to the foreground, the one is a neutral colour, got by
mixing blue with orange; the other, the same neutral colour
simply changed by adding some yellow.
But I am awfully glad that you notice a combination of
colour, be it through direct or indirect personal perception.
Further, that one of the studies seemed to you a variation on
the brown-grey theme, well, that certainly is the case, but all
three potato studies are like that, with this difference, that
one is a study in terre de Sienne, the second in terre de
Sienne brûlée, the third in yellow ochre and red
The latter - that is the largest one - is in my opinion the
best - notwithstanding the dull black background which I
purposely left dull because the ochres are also naturally
non-transparent colours. As to that study, the largest one of
the potatoes, it is made by changing, by breaking, those
untransparent ochres with a transparent blue. As red ochre with
yellow ochre gives orange, their combination with blue is more
neutral, and against that neutralized colour, they become
either more red or more yellow.
The highest light in that whole picture is simply some pure
yellow ochre. The reason why this dull yellow stands out so is
because it is put in a wide field of, be it neutral, violet;
because... red ochre with blue gives violet tones.
Well, the birds' nests were also purposely painted against a
black background, because I want it to be obvious in these
studies that the objects do not appear in their natural
surroundings, but against a conventional background.
A living nest in nature is quite different - one hardly sees the nest itself,
one sees the birds.
But when one wants to paint nests from one's collection
of nests, one cannot express strongly enough the fact that
the background and the surroundings in nature are quite
different, therefore I simply painted the background black. But
it is a fact that in a still life a coloured background can be
beautiful - in Amsterdam I saw still lifes by Miss Vos that
were excellent, much more beautiful than those by
Blaisse Desgoffe [a French still-life painter of the
mid-nineteenth century] - really like Van Beyeren. I couldn't
help thinking that those simple still lifes of hers had far
more artistic value than many pretentious pictures by other
They struck me as very well done. Especially one with a
golden vase, a few empty oyster shells, a broken coconut shell
and a crust of bread. I will send you the book by Blanc; I hope
soon to get L'art auXVIIIme Siècle; I am especially
longing to hear something from de Goncourt about Chardin.
Lacaze's Rembrandt is really also in the sentiment of
Rembrandt's last period; it is about twelve years since I saw
it, but I still remember it because it struck me, just like
that head by Fabritius in Rotterdam. If I remember correctly,
that nude woman in the Lacaze Collection is also very
beautiful, also of a later period. The fragment, Rembrandt's
“Lesson in Anatomy,” yes, I was absolutely
staggered by that too. Do you remember those flesh colours - it
is - de la terre - especially the feet.
You know, Frans Hals's flesh colours are also earthy, used
here in the sense that you know. Often at least. Sometimes, I
almost dare say always, there is also a relation of contrast
between the tone of the costume and the tone of the face. Red
and green are opposites; “The Singer” (Dupper
Collection), who has tones of carmine in the flesh colour, has
tones of green in his black sleeves, and ribbons on those
sleeves of a red other than that carmine. The
orange-white-blue fellow I wrote about has a relatively neutral
complexion, earthy-pink, violetish, in contrast with his
Frans-Hals-yellow leather suit.
The yellow fellow, citron amorti, decidedly has dull violet
in his mug. Well - the darker the costume, the lighter the face
is sometimes - not accidentally - at least his portrait and
that of his wife in the garden contain two blackish
violets (blue-violet and reddish-violet) and a plain black
(yellow-black?). I repeat, reddish-violet and blue-violet,
black and black, the three gloomiest things, as it were; well,
the faces are very fair, extremely fair, even for
Well. Frans Hals is a colourist among colourists, a
colourist like Veronese, like Rubens, like Delacroix, like
Of Millet, Rembrandt and, for instance, Israëls, it has
truly been said that they are more harmonists than colourists.
But tell me, black and white, may they be used or
may they not, are they forbidden fruit?
I don't think so; Frans Hals has no less than twenty-seven
blacks. White - but you know yourself what striking pictures
some modern colourists make of white on white. What is the
meaning of that phrase: one must not? Delacroix called
them rests, used them as such. You must not have a
prejudice against them, for if used only in their places, and
in harmony with the rest, one may of course use all tones.
I can tell you that I often think the things by Apol, for
instance, white on white, very well done. His sunset in The
Hague Wood, for instance, which is in Amsterdam. That thing is
damn good indeed.
No - black and white have their reason and significance, and
when one tries to suppress them, it turns out wrong; to
consider both neutral is certainly the most logical
thing to do, white - the highest combination of the lightest
red, blue, yellow; black - the highest combination of the
darkest red, blue, yellow. I have nothing to say against that
theory, I find it perfectly true. Well, light and
brown, the tone in its value stands in
direct relation to that 4th color scale from white to
black. For one finds there:
a fourth scale
(that of the neutral tones, that of red +blue +
(red +blue + yellow, extreme light)
(red +blue + yellow, deepest black)
That is how I understand the blacks and the whites.
When I mix red with green to a red-green or green-red, by
mixing it with white, I then get pink-green or green-pink. And
if you like, by adding black, I get brown-green or green-brown.
Isn't that clear? When I mix yellow with violet to a
violet-yellow or yellow-violet, in other terms a neutralized
yellow or a neutralized violet, by adding white and black, I
Well, greys and browns, there is especially
question of them when one makes colours lighter or
darker, whatever their nature and their gradation of
red, yellow or blue may be.
It is quite correct to speak of light and dark grays and
browns, I think. But how beautiful what Silvestre says about
Delacroix is - that he put a fortuitous tone on his palette,
une nuance innommable violacée, that he put that
one tone down somewhere, either for highest light or for
deepest shadow, but that of this mud he made
something which either sparkled like light or was gloomily
silent like a deep shadow.
So I have heard of an experiment with a sheet of neutral
coloured paper - which became greenish against a red
background, reddish on a green one, bluish on orange, orange on
blue, yellowish on violet, and violetish on yellow.
Just listen, suppose one wants such a muddy tone or
drab colour to become light in the picture, like
Delacroix said of Veronese, that he could paint a blonde nude
woman with a colour like mud in such a way that she comes out
fair and blonde in the picture - then the question arises - how
is this possible, unless by contrast of great forces in
bluish-blacks or violets, or reddish-browns?
You - who are looking for dark shadows somewhere, and think
that when the shadows are dark, aye, black, that it is all
wrong then, is this right? I don't think so. For then, for
instance, the “Dante” by Delacroix, the
“Fisherman of Zandvoort,” for instance, would be
wrong. For indeed, they contain the most vigorous blue-black or
violet-black values. Rembrandt and Hals, didn't they use black?
Not only one, but twenty-seven blacks, I assure you. So as
to “one must not use black,” are you yourself quite
sure that you know what you mean by it? and do you know what
you want with it? Really, think it over carefully, for
you might come to the conclusion - I think this very probable -
that you have learned and understood that question of tones
quite wrongly, or rather have learned it vaguely and
understood it vaguely. Many people do, most of them do.
But in the long run Delacroix and others of his time will teach
Tell me - have you noticed that those studies of mine that
have black backgrounds have their highest light put in
a low colour scale??? And when in this way I put my
study in a lower colour scale than nature, I yet keep
the harmony of tones because I become darker, not only in my
shadows, but also in the same degree in my lights.
I painted my studies just as a kind of gymnastics, to rise
and fall in tone, so - don't forget that I painted my white and
gray moss literally with a mud colour and yet it looks light in
Ever yours, Vincent
These things concerning complementary colours, simultaneous
contrast, and the neutralizing of complementals, this question
is the first and principal one; the second is the mutual
influence of two kindred colours, for instance, carmine
on vermilion, a pink-violet on a blue-violet. The third
question is a light blue against the same dark blue, a pink
against a brown-red, a citron yellow against a chamois yellow,
etc. But the first question is the most important.
If you come across some good book on colour theories, mind
you send it to me, for I too am far from knowing everything
about it, and am searching for more every day.
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 2nd half October 1885 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 428.
URL: http://webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/15/428.htm .
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