My dear Theo,
I just wanted to send you a few more impressions of Antwerp.
This morning I took a long walk in the pouring rain, the object
of the outing being to fetch my things from the custom house.
The various warehouses and storage sheds on the quays look
I've walked in many different directions along the docks and
quays several times already. The contrast is particularly
marked for one who has just arrived from the sand and the heath
and the tranquillity of a country village and has been in quiet
surroundings for a long time. It's all an impenetrable
One of de Goncourt's sayings was, “Japonaiserie for
ever.” Well, those docks are one huge Japonaiserie,
fantastic, peculiar, unheard of - or at any rate, that's one
way of looking at them. I would love some day to take a walk
there in your company, just to find out if we see things in the
Everything could be done there, townscapes, figures of the
most diverse character, ships as the main subject with water
and the sky a delicate grey - but, above all - Japonaiseries.
The point I'm trying to make is that there are always figures
in motion there, one sees them in the strangest setting,
everything looks fantastic, with interesting contrasts at every
turn. A white horse in the mud in a corner where piles of
merchandise lie covered with a tarpaulin - against the old,
black, smoke-stained walls of the warehouse. Perfectly simple,
but with a Black and White effect.
Through the window of a very elegant English public house
one can look out on the filthiest mud and on a ship from which,
say, such pleasing wares as hides and buffalo horns are being
unloaded by docker types as ugly as sin, or by exotic sailors,
while a very fair, very delicate English girl stands at the
window looking out at this or at something else. The interior
with figure wholly in tone, and for light - the silvery sky
above the mud and the buffalo horns - again a series of fairly
Flemish sailors with excessively ruddy faces and broad
shoulders, lusty and tipsy, Antwerpers through and through, are
to be seen eating mussels or drinking beer with a great deal of
noise and commotion. In contrast - there goes a tiny little
figure in black, small hands clasped close to her body,
scuttling noiselessly past the grey walls. In an encadrement
[frame] of jet-black hair, a small oval face. Brown?
Orange-yellow? I'm not sure. For a moment she looks up and
gives a slanting glance from a pair of jet-black eyes. She is a
Chinese girl, quiet as a mouse, stealthy, small, naturally
bedbug-like. What a contrast to the group of Flemish
Another contrast - one walks down a very narrow street
between tremendously tall buildings, warehouses and
storehouses. But at ground level in the street - alehouses for
every nationality, with males and females to match, shops for
food, for seamen's clothing, colourful and bustling. The street
is long, at every turn one sees a typical scene, a commotion,
perhaps, more intense than usual, as a squabble breaks out. For
example, there you are walking along, just looking around - and
suddenly cheers go up and there's a lot of yelling. A sailor is
being thrown out of a brothel by the girls in broad daylight
and is being pursued by a furious fellow and a string of
prostitutes, of whom he seems to be terrified - anyway, I see
him clamber over a pile of sacks and disappear through a window
into a warehouse.
When one has had enough of this hullabaloo - with the city
behind one at the end of the landing stages where the Harwich
and Havre steamers lie, there is nothing, absolutely nothing to
be seen in front except for an infinite expanse of flat,
half-flooded pasture, immensely melancholy and wet, with
undulating dry reeds, and mud - the river with a single small
black boat, water in the foreground grey, sky misty and cold,
grey - still as the desert.
As to the overall impression of the harbour, or of one of
the docks - at one moment it is more tangled and fantastic than
a thorn hedge, so chaotic that one finds no rest for the eye,
grows giddy, and is forced by the “papillot-ering”
[flickering. Vincent “Dutchified” the French
papillotement] of colours and lines to look first here,
then there, unable to distinguish one thing from another - even
after looking at the same point for a long time. But if one
moves on to a certain spot with an undefined stretch of land in
the foreground, then one again encounters the most beautiful,
most peaceful lines and those effects which Mols, for instance,
so often achieves.
Here one may se a splendidly healthy-looking girl, who is,
or at least seems, wholly honest and unaffectedly cheerful;
there a face so slyly vicious, like a hyena's, that it
frightens one. Not to forget faces ravaged by smallpox, the
colour of boiled shrimps, with dull, grey little eyes, no
eyebrows and sparse, greasy, thinning hair the colour of pure
hog bristle, or a bit yellower - Swedish or Danish types.
I'd like to do some work around there, but how and where,
for one would get into trouble exceedingly quickly. All the
same I've roamed through quite a number of streets and
alleyways without mishap, have even sat down to talk in a very
friendly way with various girls, who seemed to take me for a
I think it not unlikely that painting portraits may help me
to come by some good models. I got my gear today, and some
materials, to which I'd been looking forward very eagerly. So
now my studio is all ready. If I could come by a good model for
a song, I'd be afraid of nothing. Nor do I mind very much that
I haven't enough money to force the pace. Perhaps the idea of
doing portraits and getting the subjects to pay for them by
posing is a safer method. You see, in the city things aren't
the same as when one deals with peasants.
Well, one thing is certain, Antwerp is a splendid and very
remarkable place for a painter.
My studio isn't at all bad, especially now that I've pinned
up a lot of small Japanese prints which I enjoy very much. You
know, those small female figures in gardens or on the beach,
horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.
I'm glad I came here - and hope not to sit still and do
nothing this winter. Anyway, it's a relief to have a small
hideaway where I can work when the weather is bad. It goes
without saying that I won't be living in the lap of luxury.
Try to send your letter off on the first, for while I've
enough to live on until then, I shall be getting the wind up
My little room has turned out better than I expected and
certainly doesn't look dreary.
The park is beautiful too. I sat there one morning and did
Well - I've had no setbacks so far, and I'm well off as far
as accommodation is concerned, for by sacrificing another few
francs I've acquired a stove and a lamp. I shan't easily get
bored, believe me.
I've also found Lhermitte's Octobre, women in a
potato field in the evening, splendid, but not his Novembre
yet. Have you kept track of that by any chance? I've also seen
that there's a Figaro illustré with a beautiful drawing
My address, as you know, is 194 Rue des images, so please
send your letter there, and the second de Goncourt volume when
you've finished with it. Regards,
Ever yours, Vincent
It's odd that my painted studies look darker here in the
city than in the country. Is that because the light isn't as
bright in the city? I'm not sure, but it might matter more than
one might think at first sight. I was struck by it and can
imagine that some of the things that are with you now also look
darker than I thought they were in the country. Yet those I
brought along with me don't seem the worse for it - the mill,
avenue with autumn trees, a still life, as well as a few small
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 28 November 1885 in Antwerp. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 437.
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