I read your letter about black with great pleasure, and it
convinces me that you have no prejudice against black.
Your description of Manet's study, “The Dead
Toreador,” was well analyzed. And the whole letter proves
the same as your sketch of Paris suggested to me at the time,
that if you put yourself to it, you can paint a thing in
It is a fact that by studying the laws of the colours, one
can move from instinctive belief in the great masters to the
analysis of why one admires - what one admires - and that
indeed is necessary nowadays, when one realizes how terribly
arbitrary and superficially people criticize.
Just now my palette is thawing and the frigidness of the
first beginning has disappeared.
It is true, I often blunder still when I undertake a thing,
but the colours follow of their own accord, and taking one
colour as a starting-point, I have clearly before my mind what
must follow, and how to get life into it.
Jules Dupré is in landscape rather like Delacroix,
for what enormous variety of mood did he express in symphonies
Now a marine, with the most delicate blue-greens and broken
blue and all kinds of pearly tones, then again an autumn
landscape, with a foliage from deep wine-red to vivid green,
from bright orange to dark havana, with other colours again in
the sky, in greys, lilacs, blues, whites, forming a further
contrast with the yellow leaves.
Then again a sunset in black, in violet, in fiery red.
Then again, more fantastic, what I once saw, a corner of a
garden by him, which I have never forgotten: black in the
shadow, white in the sun, vivid green, a fiery red and then
again a dark blue, a bituminous greenish brown, and a light
brown-yellow. Colours that indeed have something to say for
I have always been very fond of Jules Dupré, and he
will become still more appreciated than he is. For he is a real
colourist, always interesting, and so powerful and
Yes, he is indeed a brother to Delacroix.
As I told you, I think your letter about black very good,
and what you say about not painting local colour is also quite
correct. But it doesn't satisfy me. In my opinion there is much
more behind that not painting local colour.
“Les vrais peintres sont ceux qui ne font pas la
couleur locale” [The true painters are those who do not
render local colour] - that was what Blanc and Delacroix
May I not boldly take it to mean that a painter does better
to start from the colours on his palette than from the colours
in nature? I mean, when one wants to paint, for instance, a
head, and sharply observes the reality one has before one, then
one may think: that head is a harmony of red-brown, violet,
yellow, all of them broken - I will put a violet and a yellow
and a red-brown on my palette and these will break each
I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain
correctness in placing the tones, I study nature, so as not to
do foolish things, to remain reasonable - however, I don't mind
so much whether my colour corresponds exactly, as long as it
looks beautiful on my canvas, as beautiful as it looks in
Far more true is a portrait by Courbet, manly, free, painted
in all kinds of beautiful deep tones of red-brown, of gold, of
colder violet in the shadow with black as repoussoir, with a
little bit of tinted white linen as a repose to the eye - finer
than a portrait by whomever you like, who has imitated the
colour of the face with horribly close precision.
A man's head or a woman's head, well contemplated and at
leisure, is divinely beautiful, isn't it? Well, that general
har-mony of tones in nature, one loses it by painfully
exact imitation, one keeps it by recreating in an equivalent
colour range, that may be not exactly or far from exactly like
Always and intelligently to make use of the beautiful tones
which the colours form of their own accord, when one breaks
them on the palette, I repeat - to start from one's palette,
from one's knowledge of colour-harmony, is quite different from
following nature mechanically and obsequiously.
Here is another example: suppose I have to paint an autumn
landscape, trees with yellow leaves. All right - when I
conceive it as a symphony in yellow, what does it matter
whether the fundamental colour of yellow is the same as that of
the leaves or not? It matters very little.
Much, everything depends on my perception of the
infinite variety of tones of one and the same
Do you call this a dangerous inclination towards
romanticism, an infidelity to “realism,” a
“peindre de chic,” [painting without copying
reality] a caring more for the palette of the colourist than
for nature? Well, que soit. Delacroix, Millet, Corot,
Dupré, Daubigny, Breton, thirty names more, are they not
the heart and soul of the art of painting of this century, and
are they not all rooted in romanticism, though they
Romance and romanticism are of our time, and painters must
have imagination and sentiment. Luckily realism and naturalism
are not free from it. Zola creates, but does not hold up a
mirror to things, he creates wonderfully, but
creates, poetises, that is why it is so beautiful. So
much for naturalism and realism, which nonetheless stand in
connection to romanticism.
And I repeat that I am touched when I see a picture of about
the years '30-'48, a Paul Huet, an old Israëls, like the
“Fisherman of Zandvoort,” a Cabat, an Isabey.
But I find so much truth in that saying: “ne pas
peindre le ton local,” [do not paint local tone] that I
far prefer a picture in a lower tonal scale than nature to one
which is exactly like nature.
Rather a watercolour that is somewhat vague and unfinished
than one which is worked up to simulate reality.
That saying: “ne pas peindre le ton local,” has
a broad meaning, and it leaves the painter free to seek for
colours which form a whole and harmonize, which stand out the
more in contrast to another combination.
What do I care whether the portrait of an honourable citizen
tells me exactly the milk-and-watery bluish, insipid colour of
that pious man's face - which I would never have noticed. But
the citizens of the small town, where the above-mentioned
individual has rendered himself so meritorious that he thought
himself obliged to impress his physiognomy on posterity, are
highly edified by the correct exactness.
Colour expresses something by itself one cannot do
without this, one must use it; that which is beautiful, really
beautiful - is also correct; when Veronese had painted the
portraits of his beau-monde in the “Marriage at
Cana,” he had spent on it all the richness of his palette
in sombre violets, in splendid golden tones. Then - he thought
still of a faint azure and a pearly-white - which does not
appear in the foreground. He detonated it on in the background
- and it was right, spontaneously it changes into the ambience
of marble palaces and sky, which characteristically consummates
the ordering of the figures.
So beautiful is that background that it arose spontaneously
from a calculation of colours. Am I wrong in this?
Is it not painted differently than somebody would do
it who had thought at the same time of the palace and of the
figures as one whole?
All that architecture and sky is conventional and
subordinate to the figures, it is calculated to make the
figures stand out beautifully.
Surely that is real painting, and the result is more
beautiful than the exact imitation of the things themselves. To
think of one thing and to let the surroundings belong to it and
proceed from it.
To study from nature, to wrestle with reality - I don't want
to do away with it, for years and years I myself have been so
engaged, almost fruitlessly and with all kinds of sad
I should not like to have missed that error.
I mean that it would be foolish and stupid always to go on
in that same way, but not that all the pains I took
should be absolutely dismissed.
“On commence par tuer, on finit par guerir,”
[One begins by killing, one ends by healing] is a doctor's
saying. One starts with a hopeless struggle to follow nature,
and everything goes wrong; one ends by calmly creating from
one's palette, and nature agrees with it, and follows. But
these two contrasts are not separable from one another. The
drudging, though it may seem in vain, gives an intimacy with
nature, a sounder knowledge of things. And a beautiful saying
by Doré (who sometimes is so clever) is: je me
souviens. [I remember.] Though I believe that the best
pictures are more or less freely painted by heart, still I
cannot divorce the principle that one can never study
and toil too much from nature. The greatest, most powerful
imaginations have at the same time made things directly from
nature which strike one dumb.
In answer to your description of the study by Manet, I send
you a still-life of an open - so a broken white - Bible bound
in leather, against a black background, with a yellow-brown
foreground, with a touch of citron yellow.
I painted that in one rush, during a single day.
This to show you that when I say that I have perhaps not
plodded completely in vain, I dare say this, because at present
it comes quite easily to me to paint a given subject
unhesitatingly, whatever its form or colour may be. Recently I
painted a few studies out of doors, of the autumn landscape. I
shall write again soon, and send this letter in haste to tell
you that I was quite pleased with what you say about black.
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written late October 1885 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 429.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.