Yesterday evening I received de Goncourt's book. I began to
read it at once, and though of course I shall read it over
again quietly, this morning I already had a general view of the
whole - I had been longing for it so much. I do not think he
praises Boucher too much.
If I knew nothing of Boucher but the contrast of those three
things, a rich blue (sky), a bronze (man's figure), and a
mother-of-pearl white (woman's figure) especially together with
that anecdote of “La Duchesse d'Orleans,” I would
admit that he is a personality in the world of painters.
Besides, he doesn't praise him too much, because he certainly
also calls him canaille, in the way in which one may call the
pictures by Bouguereau, Perrault, etc., canaille without doing
an injustice to the honest fellows. Because they miss something
touching and intimate, don't they? In my opinion he does not
praise Boucher too much, because I do not fear for a single
moment that de Goncourt would deny the superiority of, for
instance, Rubens. Rubens who was even more productive than
Boucher, not less than he, but even more so, as a painter of
Which very often in Rubens does not prevent the poignant
pathos and intimacy I mean, especially in those portraits of
his wives, in which he is then himself, or surpasses
I have often longed to know something about the man
(Watteau was just as I expected).
Tiers élat, Corot-like as to bonhomie - with
more sorrow and adversity in his life.
It is a splendid book. Latour-witty and Voltaire-like.
I enjoyed immensely what he says about Chardin's technique.
I am more convinced than ever that the true painters did not
finish their things in the way which is used only too often,
namely correct when one scrutinizes it closely.
The best pictures, and, from a technical point of view the
most complete, seen from near by, are but patches of colour
side by side, and only make an effect at a certain
That is what Rembrandt stuck to, notwithstanding all the
trouble it caused him (the honest citizens greatly preferred
Van der Helst, because his work can also be looked at up
But to work like that one must be something of a magician,
to learn which costs a great deal, and the sad sarcastic saying
of Michelangelo's: “Ma manière est destinée
a faire de grands sots” - is also true of the colourists
who dare dash on their colours, this too cannot be imitated by
cowards and weaklings.
I think that I am making progress with my work. Last night
something happened to me which I will tell you as minutely as I
can. You know those three pollard oaks at the bottom of the
garden at home; I have plodded on them for the fourth time.
I had been at them for three days with a canvas
the size of, let's say, that cottage, and the country
churchyard which you have.
The difficulty was the tufts of havana leaves, to model them
and give them form, colour, tone. Then in the evening I took it
to that acquaintance of mine in Eindhoven, who has a rather
stylish drawing room, where we put it on the wall (grey paper,
furniture black with gold). Well, never before was I so
convinced that I shall make things that do well, that I shall
succeed in calculating my colours, so that I have it in my
power to make the right effect. This was havana, soft green and
white (grey), even pure white, direct from the tube (you
see that I, for my part, though I speak about black, have no
prejudice against the other extreme, even the utmost
Now, though that man has money, though he took a fancy to
it, I felt such a glow of courage when I saw that it was good
that, as it hung there, it created an atmosphere by the soft
melancholy harmony of that combination of colours that I
could not sell it.
But as he had a fancy for it, I gave it to him, and he
accepted it just as I had intended, without many words, namely
little more than, “The thing is damned good.”
I don't think so yet myself. First I must see a little more
of Chardin, Rembrandt, old Dutch and French painters, and think
it over well - because I want to make it more elaborate with
less paint than I used, for instance, in this thing.
Now as to that acquaintance of mine and his opinion of
pictures; when someone with a clear intelligent head paints
still life and works out-of-doors every day, if only for a
year, he need not therefore be an art critic, neither does he
feel he is a painter yet, but for all that he will observe more
originally than many others.
Besides, his character is not just like everybody's, for
instance, he was originally intended to become a priest, at a
certain moment he flatly refused this, and carried his
point, in which not exactly every one in Brabant succeeds.
And there is something broad-minded and loyal about him.
Zola once referred to this something in a conversation
between Mouret and his school-fellow, when he let Mouret get
serious and say that it had cost him a great deal to free
himself from that time and its influence, but that he had
wanted to live and that he had lived. Many who
undertake to change fall back, don't come any further than a
certain insipid methodism because they don't take their
measures energetically enough. But this is not the case with
him, he is a man of importance in his little world.
Do you know that the de Goncourts have made etchings and
drawings? You must not think me unpractical when I persist in
encouraging you either to draw or to paint. You wouldn't be a
failure either. If you just set yourself to it, the result
would not be unsatisfactory either. And especially as an art
dealer, especially as an art expert, it would
give you an edge over many others. An edge which one really
I refer once more to that acquaintance of mine; it is
exactly a year ago that I saw him for the first time, when I
made that large sketch of a water mill which
you perhaps know (its colour is ripening well). Herewith a
description of a study by that acquaintance of mine - some
roofs, backs of houses, factory chimneys, dark against an
evening sky. That evening sky blue, changing at the horizon
into a glow between clouds of smoky colour, with orange or
rather ruddy reflections. The masses of houses, dark yet of a
warm stone colour, a silhouette that has something gloomy and
threatening. The foreground, a vague plot in the dusk, black
sand, faded grass, a bit of garden with a few dark melancholy
apple trunks, with here and there a tuft of yellow autumn
It was all his idea alone, but isn't it a good conception, a
real impression, well felt? But one doesn't become a
painter in one year, nor is it necessary.
But there is already one good thing among the lot, and one
feels hopeful, instead of feeling helpless before a stone
I do not know how I shall fare in the future. At present
when I read of that splendid devil, that famous Latour, by
God, how real it is, and how well that fellow, except
for his enormous passion for money, has attacked life and
At present - I like nothing better than working with the
brush, drawing with it too - instead of making a sketch in
When I ask myself how the old Dutch masters worked, I find
so relatively few real drawings. And how wonderfully they draw.
But - I think in most cases they began, continued and finished
with their brush.
They did not fill in.
A Van Goyen, for instance - I just saw that one of his in
the Dupper Collection, an oak tree on a dune in the storm; and
the Cuyp, view of Dordrecht.
An astonishing technique, but done with nothing and quite
naturally - clear of paint, and - apparently - quite
But either in figure or in landscape, how the painters
always did try to convince people that a picture is something
different from nature in a mirror, different from imitation,
I should like to tell you a great deal more, especially
about what Chardin made me think about colour and that not
painting the local colour. I think it splendid.
“Comment surprendre - comment dire de quoi est faite
cette bouche démeu-blée, qui a d'infinies
délicatesses. Cela n'est fait que de quelques
traineés de jaune et de quelques balayures de
bleu!!!” [How to surprise - how to tell what that
toothless mouth is done with, which is so infinitely delicate.
It is done only with some streaks of yellow, and some
broad strokes of blue!!!]
When I read this I thought of Van der Meer of Delft; if one
sees his city view at The Hague close up, it is incredible, and
painted with entirely different colours than one would suspect
at a few steps' distance.
Goodbye, I had to tell you at once how I admire de
Ever yours, Vincent
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 8-12 November 1885 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 431.
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