Nuenen, 2nd half August 1885
I just received your letter and the sketch of your picture.
1 It certainly is a beautiful subject, and I have
nothing to object to in the composition as far as the
equilibrium is concerned.
But will you allow me to say one thing? - which I
would not say if the picture were finished and therefore
difficult to alter, but which I do say because certain
alterations that won't affect the lines might be
carried out to advantage. Here you are then: the figure in the
middle of the picture - the woman with the rake [sic]
2 - is well placed. But the raking of that
spot is a matter of such minor importance, in my
opinion, that it ought not to be done by a main
figure. For this reason I for my part should prefer
the central figure - in the foreground - to be the one who
carries the bricks (this being an action that would be very
expressive here, and motivated by the whole), and
I should prefer to give the figure on the second plane
(who is now carrying bricks - and who now occupies a secondary
place in the composition) a rake to hold in her hands.
Is this possible with regard to the working process? If not,
please think about the problem - for it is not unimportant, it
seems to me, and might be criticized. It is right for
the figure to be standing erect in that place, but wouldn't it
be possible to invent a more interesting action -
without altering the lines? Don't take offense at this, please
- I don't believe it can do any harm to make such suggestions
when a picture is in the planning stage. I don't think this
means forcing my ideas upon you. Especially if the picture is
to be a large one, I consider it most important for the
actions to be expressive. I know this is making
high demands - I know that the lines and the equilibrium
of the lines are paramount factors here.
But these lines may remain beautiful and quiet. Well, it is
possible that I am not wrong about this - and your
principal figure is at stake - so I did not dare conceal my
impression. If it is not asking too much, I want to
offer the suggestion that you let one of the women carrying
bricks stoop and lay them out, so that the two of them are not
doing the same work. But it would come to the same thing, as
there would then be two stooping figures. And after
all it does not matter so much. But my first
observation is what I really mainly feel.
I want to tell you further that I have drawn quite a number
of heads since you were here, and quite a lot of peasants
besides: diggers, weeders, harvesters. The thing that occupied
my attention, either directly or indirectly, and was the great
problem in all this, was colour. I mean the breaking of
the colours - mixing red with green, blue with orange, yellow
with violet. Always the combination of the complementary
colours, their influence on each other - which nature is as
full of as of light and brown. Another problem - which
engrosses me every day anew - is precisely the one I think you
asserted I neglected: rendering the form and its modelling, its
great lines and masses - one considers the contours in the
last instead of the first place in doing
Herewith two sketches of smaller compositions - I painted
both of them. Lately I have been working mostly on things of a
As I go on concentrating my attention on the poor
peasants especially, I have to cope with the landscape
every blessed day. When Wenkebach came to see me, I had just
finished painting some cottages.
In the matter of wood engravings I have literally nothing
new except four large compositions by Lhermitte. For me that
man is Millet the Second, in the full sense of the term;
I adore his work as much as that of Millet himself. I think his
genius of the same order as that of Millet the First.
My brother was here; he told me a few things about the talk
of the day in Paris now which I think very fortunate - the
success of the Eugene Delacroix exhibition. I was further
interested in what he told me about Raffaelli, a figure
painter, and Claude Monet, a landscape painter cum
For the rest - you will experience it yourself - it is less
a golden age than an iron age for painters - I mean, it
is not exactly easy for them to keep alive - no more than that.
At least as far as I am concerned it is misère ouverte -
but despite that my courage, and perhaps my powers too, are
greater rather than smaller than they were before. Don't think
you're the only one who considers or considered it his duty to
criticize me, you know, even to the limits of total
annihilation; on the contrary, it's about the only thing I have
encountered so far. For the very reason that you are, or were,
not the only one to speak in this way and no other, your
criticism is connected with other criticism to which I on my
part oppose the conviction that my endeavours have a raison
d'être, and to which I shall continue to oppose it more
and more strongly.
The reason why - although I did not insist on what I wanted,
but gave in to what you wanted - the reason why I
started out by suggesting that you should withdraw your
criticism completely was not that I wanted to bend or break
your opinions despotically. Nothing was further from my
intention, although you took it that way.
There are details that are quite correct - I have made it
hot for you on account of plaster-of-Paris drawing, and I
freely admit that I am capable of doing it again.
And as for other questions - I cannot always keep quiet
under it; now and then it seems to me as though people were
touching my body, so much do I feel taken up by the question,
and so much is my conviction a part of myself.
It is true that there are faulty things in that lithograph
as well as in my other work - certainly there are. But my other
work proves so clearly that I render what I see that people
cannot be justified, or speaking in good faith, when they judge
my work otherwise than as a whole and in a broader way, taking
into account my purpose and endeavour - namely to paint le
paysan chez soi, peasants in their surroundings.
Now you call the aggregate of my work utterly
weak, and you demonstrate at great length that its
deficiencies exceed its good qualities.
Thus about my work, thus about my person.
Well, I won't accept this -
The work in question, the painting of peasants, is such a
hard job that the utterly weak won't even attempt
And at least I have attempted it, and I have laid certain
foundations, which is not exactly the easiest part of the job!
And in drawing as well as in painting I can sometimes keep hold
of certain solid and useful things, a firmer hold than you
think, amice. But I am always doing what I can't do yet
in order to learn how to do it. But writing you about this
bores me. So I'll end by saying that the work is difficult, and
that, instead of quarreling, the fellows who paint peasants and
the common people would do wisely to join hands as much as
possible. Union is strength, and what we have to fight
against is not each other but those fellows who, even in
the present period, are obstructing the progress of the ideas
which Millet and others of a past generation fought for and
which they pioneered. Nothing is a greater hindrance than this
fatal fighting among ourselves.
As for you and me, let's put a stop to it, for our goal is
But my real motive was the wish that your efforts and mine,
though not identical, should run parallel
and not in opposite directions. And seeing that in the matter
of tendency and principle there are enough points of agreement,
which I think will be permanent, it would appear to me that
your criticism as a whole - when you applied this criticism
to me - was inconsistent with the character of your own
This much we have in common, that we seek our subjects in
the heart of the people; and we further have in common a desire
- either as a final purpose or as a means - to obtain
our studies from reality. And that means - having much
in common. And that we are opposed to each other
basically, with regard either to the technique of
drawing or the technique of painting, is something I'm not
convinced of. You are ahead of me in many things, I don't deny
that; still I think you went too far.
But, be that as it may, inasmuch as, if we want to and it is
our earnest endeavor, we may be useful and give support to each
other - and because union is strength - I deem it desirable for
us to remain friends.
And as regards technique, I am still searching for many
things; and though I happen to find some of them, still there
are an infinite number of things wanting. But for all that I
know why I work as I do, and my efforts are planted on
I said to Wenkebach only the other day that I did not know
any painter who had as many faults as I do - but for all that I
was not convinced that I am radically wrong.
At times my case is like this: the product of two negatives
is a positive. Take whatever drawing or study of
mine you like, especially those that I myself would point out
to you with a certain resignation, and - in the drawing as well
as in the colour or the tone - there will be errors that a
realist would hardly commit...certain inaccuracies which
I am convinced of myself - and which under certain
circumstances I could point out with keener discernment than
others - errors maybe, or imperfections.
And yet I believe that - even if I go on producing work in
which people can point out errors - when they want to,
if this is their special purpose and point of view - it will
still have a certain vitality and raison d'être of its
own that will hurl the errors into the shade - in the eyes of
those who appreciate character and the spiritual
conception of things. And it will not be so easy to
confound me as they think, despite all my faults. I know too
well what my ultimate goal is, and I am too firmly convinced of
being on the right road after all, to pay much attention to
what people say of me - when I want to paint what I feel and
feel what I paint.
Nevertheless it makes life difficult at times, and - I think
it quite possible that later on some fellows will regret either
the things they said of me or the opposition and indifference
which they have pestered me with. The way I see it is this: I
withdraw from people to such an extent that I literally don't
meet anybody except - the poor peasants - with whom I am
directly concerned because I paint them.
And this will remain my policy, and it is quite possible
that I shall give up my studio before long and go live in a
peasant's cottage, so as not to hear or see educated people -
as they call themselves - any longer.
When I tell you - and I mean it - that I want to remain
friends with you, it is because I observe in you an endeavour
which I highly esteem. You penetrate the heart of the common
people deeply, and you have the will power to carry it through.
When I say that we may be useful and give support to each
other, I say so because, if you don't give in to
convention, you will probably, when you are better known, do
even bolder things, and then it may come to a regular
light in which the pictures of one school are used as weapons
against those of another! And in that case it might be a good
thing for a number of painters to act in unison On the other
hand - I don't think it is useless to exchange views and to see
each other's work.
Herewith a third little sketch of a study I did yesterday [F
097, JH 876].
Goodbye. I felt impelled to submit the remark on the action
of the woman in the center of your composition to your
consideration; otherwise I think the composition very sensible
and the whole conception sympathetic. When you see Wenkebach,
don't forget to give him my regards.
Ever yours, Vincent
From my little sketch you will see that I take rather great
pains to get action into my little figures, to express their
being at work, their doing something.
I think it a good thing that at least one figure in
your composition is already stooping down - perhaps relatively
many vertical lines in the composition would make it
more difficult to express the fact that work is actually in
See letter 421 to Theo: “... that yesterday I had
a letter from Rappard, and that our quarrel is
completely made up …”
Probably Van Rappard altered this tool into a
long-handled spade because of this remark.
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Anthon van Rappard. Written 2nd half August 1885 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number R57.
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