My dear Theo,
The fine weather of the last few days has gone, and instead
we have mud and rain. But it's sure to come back again before
winter. Only one must make the most of it, as the fine days are
Especially for painting. This winter I intend to do a lot of
drawing. If only I could draw figures from memory, I should
always have something to do. But if you take a figure by the
most skilful of all the artists who sketch from life - Hokusai,
or Daumier - in my opinion that figure will never compare to a
figure painted from the model by those same masters or other
master portrait painters.
Anyway - if we are so often fated to go short of models, and
especially of intelligent models, we mustn't despair or tire of
I have arranged all the Japanese prints in the studio, and
the Daumiers, and the Delacroixs and the Géricaults. If
you come across Delacroix's “Pieta” again, or the
Géricault, I urge you to get as many of them as you
What I should really love to have in the studio as well is
Millet's “Work in the Fields,” and Lerat's etching
of his “Sower” which Durand-Ruel sells at 1.25
francs. And lastly the little etching by Jacquemart after
Meissonier, the “Man Reading,” a Meissonier I've
always admired. I cannot help liking Meissonier's things.
I am reading an article on Tolstoy in the Revue des Deux
Mondes - it appears that Tolstoy is enormously interested in
the religion of his people. Like George Eliot in England. I
believe there is a book on religion by Tolstoy, I think it is
called My Religion, it's sure to be very good. In it he goes in
search, or so I gather from the article, of what all religions
have in common. It seems that he admits neither the
resurrection of the body, nor even that of the soul, but says,
like the nihilists, that after death there is nothing else.
Though man dies, and dies completely, living humanity endures
Anyhow, not having read the book itself, I'm not able to say
exactly what his conception is, but I don't imagine that his
religion is a cruel one which increases our suffering, but must
be, on the contrary, a very comforting one, inspiring one with
peace of mind, and energy, and the courage to live, and many
But whatever they say, the most ordinary Japanese prints,
coloured in flat tones, seem admirable to me for the same
reason as Rubens and Veronese. I know perfectly well that they
are not primitive art. But just because the primitives are so
admirable, there is absolutely no reason for me to say, as is
becoming the custom, “When I go to the Louvre, I cannot
get beyond the primitives.”
If I said to a serious collector of Japanese art - to
Levy himself - “My dear sir, I cannot help admiring these
Japanese prints at 5 sous apiece,” it is more than
probable he would be a little shocked, and would pity my
ignorance and bad taste. Just as at one time it was considered
bad taste to admire Rubens, Jordaens, and Veronese.
I'm sure I shan't end up feeling lonely in the house, and
that during bad winter days, and the long evenings, I shall
find something absorbing to do.
A weaver or a basket maker often spends whole seasons alone,
or almost alone, with his craft as his only distraction. And
what makes these people stay in one place is precisely the
feeling of being at home, the reassuring and familiar
look of things. Of course I'd welcome company, but it won't
make me unhappy if I don't have it, and anyway, the time will
come when I will have someone, I have little doubt of that.
I'm sure that if you were willing to put people up in your
house too, you would find plenty of artists for whom the
question of lodgings is a very serious problem.
For my part I think that it is absolutely my duty to try to
make money by my work, and so I see my work very clear before
Oh, if only every artist had something to live on, and to
work on, but as that is not so, I want to produce, to produce a
lot and with a consuming drive. And perhaps the time will come
when we can extend our business and be more help to the
But that is a long way off and there is a lot of work to get
If you lived in time of war, you might possibly have to
fight; you would regret it, you would lament that you weren't
living in times of peace, but after all the necessity would be
there and you would fight.
And in the same way we certainly have the right to wish for
a state of things in which money would not be necessary in
order to live.
As for the pictures done in fairly thick impasto, I think
they need longer to dry out here. I've read that the
works of Rubens in Spain have remained infinitely richer in
colour than those in the North. Even the ruins here exposed to
the open air remain white, whereas in the north they turn grey,
dirty, black, etc. You may be sure that if the Monticellis had
dried in Paris, they would be very much duller by now.
I am beginning to appreciate the beauty of the women here
better, so my thoughts return to Monticelli over and over
again. Colour plays a tremendous part in the beauty of these
women - I'm not saying that their figures are not beautiful,
but that is not the native charm. That is to be found in the
grand lines of the colourful costume, worn just right, and in
the tone of the flesh rather than the shape. It won't be easy
doing them the way I'm beginning to feel about them. But what I
am sure of is that by staying here I shall make some progress.
And in order to do a picture which is really of the South, a
little skill is not enough. It is observing things for a long
time that gives you greater maturity and a deeper
I didn't think when I left Paris that I should ever find
Monticelli and Delacroix so true. It is only now, after
months and months, that I am beginning to realize that they
didn't dream it all up. And next year I think you'll see the
same subjects again, orchards, the harvest, but - with a
different colouring, and above all, a change in treatment. And
these changes and variations will go on.
My feeling is that I must work at a leisurely pace. Indeed,
what about practicing the old saying, One should study for ten
years or so, and then produce a few figures? That is what
Monticelli did, after all. Hundreds of his pictures should be
considered as nothing more than studies. But still, figures
like the woman in yellow, or the woman with the parasol, the
little one you have, or the lovers that Reid had, those are
complete figures and one can only admire the way they were
drawn. For in them Monticelli achieves drawing as rich and
magnificent as that of Daumier and Delacroix. Certainly, at the
price Monticellis are fetching, it would be an excellent
speculation to buy some. The day will come when his beautiful
drawn figures will be considered very great art.
As for the beauty of the women and their costume, I'm sure
the town of Arles was infinitely more glorious in the past.
Everything has a blighted, faded quality about it now. Still,
if you look at it for a long time, the old charm
And that is why I can see that I will lose absolutely
nothing by staying where I am and contenting myself with
watching things go by, like a spider in its web waiting for
I can't force things, and now that I'm settled in, I'll be
able to profit from all the fine days and all the opportunities
for catching a real picture now and then.
Milliet is lucky, he has as many Arlésiennes as he
wants, but then, he can't paint them, and if he were a painter,
he wouldn't have them. I shall just have to bide my time
without rushing things.
I've read another article on Wagner - Love in Music - I
think by the same author who wrote the book on Wagner. How we
need the same thing in painting!
It seems that in the book, My Religion, Tolstoy implies that
whatever happens in a violent revolution, there will also be an
inner and hidden revolution in the people, out of which a new
religion will be born, or rather, something completely new
which will be nameless, but which will have the same effect of
consoling, of making life possible, as the Christian religion
The book must be a very interesting one, it seems to me. In
the end, we shall have had enough of cynicism, scepticism and
humbug, and will want to live - more musically. How will this
come about, and what will we discover? It would be nice to be
able to prophesy, but it is even better to be forewarned,
instead of seeing absolutely nothing in the future other than
the disasters that are bound to strike the modern world and
civilization like so many thunderbolts, through revolution, or
war, or the bankruptcy of worm-eaten states.
If we study Japanese art, we discover a man who is
undeniably wise, philosophical and intelligent, who spends his
time - doing what? Studying the distance from the earth and the
moon? No! Studying the politics of Bismarck? No! He studies
… a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads
him to draw all the plants - then the seasons, the grand
spectacle of landscapes, finally animals, then the human
figure. That is how he spends his life, and life is too short
to do everything.
So come, isn't what we are taught by these simple Japanese,
who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a
And one cannot study Japanese art, it seems to me, without
becoming merrier and happier, and we should turn back to nature
in spite of our education and our work in a conventional
Isn't it sad that the Monticellis have never been reproduced
in beautiful lithographs or vibrant etchings? I should love to
see what artists would say if an engraver like the one who
engraved Velásquez's work made a fine etching of them.
Be that as it may, I think it rather more our duty to try to
admire and know things for ourselves than to teach them to
others. But the two can go hand in hand.
I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity of everything in
their work. It is never dull and it never seems to be done in
too much of a hurry. Their work is as simple as breathing, and
they do a figure in a few sure strokes as if it were as easy as
doing up your waistcoat.
Oh, I still have to learn to do a figure in a few strokes.
That will keep me busy all winter. Once I can do that, I shall
be able to do people walking the boulevards, in the streets,
and masses of new subjects. While I've been writing this letter
to you, I've already drawn a dozen. I'm on the right track, but
it's very complicated, as what I am trying to do in a few
strokes is to provide the figure of a man, a woman, a child, a
horse or a dog, with a head, a body, legs and arms that all fit
For the moment, and with a hearty handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
One day Madame De Lareby Laroquette said to me, Monticelli,
Monticelli, now he was a man who should have been at the head
of a great studio in the South.
I wrote to our sister the other day, and to you, you
remember, that sometimes I felt I was continuing Monticelli's
work here. Well, now you can see we are setting up that studio
What Gauguin will be doing, what I shall be doing as well,
will be in keeping with Monticelli's fine work, and we shall
try to prove to the good people that Monticelli did not die
slumped across the café tables of the Cannebiére,
but that the little fellow is still alive.
And the thing won't end with us, we shall merely start it
off on a fairly solid basis.
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 24 September 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 542.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.