Arles, c. 22 June 1888
Many thanks for your letter, which I have been longing for.
I dare not indulge my feelings to the extent of writing you
often or of encouraging you to do the same.
An acquaintance of ours used to assert that the best
treatment for all diseases is to treat them with profound
The remedy for the immersion which you mention is not, as
far as I know, to be found growing among the herbs with healing
The sun in these parts, that is something different,
and also if over a period of time one drinks wine, which - at
least partly - is pressed from real grapes. I assure you that
in our native country people are as blind as bats and
criminally stupid because they do not exert themselves to go
more to the Indies or somewhere else where the sun shines. It
is not right to know only one thing - one gets stultified by
that; one should not rest before one knows the opposite
What you say about extenuating circumstances, namely that,
alas, they do not obviate the fact of one's having done
something wrong or of having spoiled something is very true.
Only think of our national history, the Rise and fall of the
Dutch Republic, and you will understand what I mean. We
must never invoke the excuse of extenuating circumstances, of
our inability, and so on. It is less Christian (in the sense in
which it is diluted nowadays), but it is better for us, and
perhaps even for others. And energy begets energy, and
conversely paralysis paralyzes others.
Here we are now, living in a world of painting which is
unutterably paralytic and miserable. The exhibitions, the
picture stores, everything, everything, are in the clutches of
fellows who intercept all the money. And do not suppose for a
moment that this is only my imagination. People give a lot of
money for the work after a painter himself is dead. And they
are always slighting the living painters, fatuously defending
themselves by pointing to the work of those who are no longer
I know we are unable to do anything to alter this. So for
heaven's sake one must resign oneself to it, or try to find
some sort of subvention, or conquer a rich woman, or something
of the kind, or else one cannot work. All that one hopes for,
independence through work, influence on others, all comes to
nothing, nothing at all.
And yet it is a certain pleasure to paint a picture, and yet
at this very moment there are some twenty painters here, all
having more debts than money, etc., all leading lives
approximately comparable to the lives of street dogs, who are
going to be of perhaps more importance than the whole of the
official exhibition as far as the future style of painting is
I should imagine that the most distinctive characteristic of
the painter is being able to paint. Those who are able to
paint, to paint the best, are the beginnings of something that
will last a long time to come; they will go on existing as long
as there are eyes capable of enjoying something that is
specifically beautiful. But I always regret that one cannot
make oneself richer by working harder - on the contrary -
If only one could do that, one would be able to achieve a
good deal more, get associated with others, and whatnot. For
now everybody is chained to the opportunity he has of earning
his bread, which means that in fact one is far from free.
You ask whether I sent something to the “Arti”
exhibition 1 - certainly not! Only Theo sent Mr.
Tersteeg a consignment of pictures by impressionist painters
and among them there was one of mine. But the only result has
been that neither Tersteeg nor the artists, as Theo informed
me, have seen anything in them.
Well, this is extremely comprehensible, for it is invariably
the same thing all over again. One has heard talk about the
impressionists, one expects a whole lot from them,
and…and when one sees them for the first time one is
bitterly, bitterly disappointed and thinks them slovenly, ugly,
badly painted, badly drawn, bad in colour, everything that's
This was my own first impression too when I came to Paris,
dominated as I was by the ideas of Mauve and Israëls and
other clever painters. And when there is an exhibition in Paris
of impressionists only, it is my belief that a lot of visitors
come back from it bitterly disappointed, and even indignant, in
a state of mind comparable to the mood of the decent Dutchmen
in the days of yore, who left church and a moment later heard a
discourse by Domela Nieuwenhuis 2 or one of the
And yet - you know it - within ten or fifteen years the
whole edifice of the national religion collapsed, and - the
socialists are still there, and will be there for a long time
to come, although neither you nor I are very much addicted to
Well, Art - the officially recognized art - and its
training, its management, its organization, are stagnant-minded
and moldering, like the religion we see crashing, and it will
not last, though there be ever so many exhibitions, studios,
schools, etc. Will last as little as the bulb trade.
But this is none of our business; we are neither the
founders of something new, nor are we called on to be the
preservers of something old.
But this is what remains - a painter is a person who paints,
in the same way that a florist is in reality a person who loves
plants and grows them himself, which is not done by the flower
And consequently, though some of those twenty painters or so
who are called impressionists have become comparatively rich
men, and rather big fellows in the world, yet the majority of
them are poor devils, whose homes are cafes, who lodge in cheap
inns and live from hand to mouth, from day to day.
But in a single day those twenty whom I mentioned
paint everything they lay eyes on, and better than many a big
noise who has a high reputation in the art world.
I tell you this in order to make you understand what kind of
tie exists between me and the French painters who are called
impressionists - that I know many of them personally, and that
I like them.
And that furthermore in my own technique I have the same
ideas about colour, even thought about them when I was still in
Cornflowers and white chrysanthemums and a certain number of
marigolds - see here a motif in blue and orange.
Heliotrope and yellow roses - motif in lilac and yellow.
Poppies or red geraniums in vigorously green leaves - motif
in red and green.
These are fundamentals, which one may subdivide further, and
elaborate, but quite enough to show you without the help of a
picture that there are colours which cause each other to shine
brilliantly, which form a couple, which complete each
other like man and woman.
Explaining the whole theory to you would involve quite a lot
of writing, yet it might be done.
Colourings, wallpapers and whatnot could be made much
prettier by paying attention to the laws of colours.
You will understand that Israëls and Mauve, who did not
use whole colours, who were forever working in grey - with all
due respect and love - do not satisfy the present-day for
And another thing: somebody who can really play the violin
or the piano is in my opinion highly amusing. He takes his
violin and starts playing, and a whole company enjoys itself
all through the evening. This is something a painter should be
able to do too. And now and then it gives me pleasure, when I
work outdoors, to have somebody looking on. Suppose, for
instance, one is in a wheat field. Well, within a few hours one
ought to be able to paint that wheat field, and the sky above
it, in perspective, in the distance. Somebody witnessing this
will, as soon as an opportunity occurs, keep his mouth shut
about the clumsiness of the impressionists, and their
incompetent painting - do you see?
But we of the present day seldom have acquaintances who are
sufficiently interested to accompany us - but if they do, they
may be converted once and for all.
Now contrast this with the fellows in studios who require
months and months to do something, which is often enough rather
insipid when all is said and done.
Can't you understand then that there is something in this
new style of painting? And there is something additional that I
should like to have - I want to be able to paint a portrait in
one morning or in one afternoon, which I have done
occasionally, for that matter. This kind of work does not
prevent one from working on other pictures for a long time. By
yesterday's mail I sent you a drawing which is the first
scratch for a large picture.*
But isn't it curious that, as I tell you this, there are at
least a score of fellows who in a few hours could paint a
portrait in which there would be character - they are hardly
ever asked to do one - some twenty fellows capable of doing
whatever landscape you please, at whatever hour of the day with
whatever colour effect, on the spot, without hesitation - and
nobody stands behind them looking on? They are always working
alone. If only everybody knew this - but this is how conditions
are, they are so little known.
But I imagine that in the next generation, or in one of the
later generations, this working resolutely and without
hesitation, this measuring correctly at a glance, this
adroitness in the mixing of colours, this drawing with
lightning speed - there will come a generation that will not
only do this just as we are doing it now, unappreciated, but
then with a public that will like it, in the portrayal of
persons no less than in the portrayal of landscapes or of
But I am writing far too much just about painting; only what
I wanted to make you understand is this, that it is rather
important that Theo has succeeded in introducing the business
he manages to have a permanent exhibition of the impressionists
now. Next year will be rather important.
Just as in literature the French are irrefutably the
masters, they are the same in painting too; and in modern art
history, names like Delacroix, Millet, Corot, Courbet, Daumier,
dominate all that is produced in other countries.
Oh well, that clique of painters who are lording it over the
official world nowadays adorn themselves with the laurels won
by those of the past, but they themselves are of a far lower
rank. Consequently they won't be able to contribute much
at the forthcoming World's Fair to helping French art retain
the importance it now has. Next year the attention, not
of the public in general - which of course looks at everything
without troubling its head about history - but the attention of
those who are well informed will be drawn to the retrospective
exhibition of the pictures of the big fellows who are dead,
and by the impressionists. This will not instantly alter
the circumstances in which the latter find themselves either,
but it will certainly be conducive to the spreading of the
ideas, and induce a little more animation. But the dull
schoolmasters who are now on the selection committee of the
Salon will never think of admitting the impressionists.
But the latter will hardly desire this at all, and they will
hold an exhibition of their own.
If you now take into consideration that I want to have at
least some fifty pictures ready toward that time - though I may
not be exhibiting at all - you will perhaps feel that I am
gradually and to a certain extent taking part in the battle in
which, if one does participate, one is at least not exposed to
the danger of being awarded a prize or a medal like a
“good boy.” In point of fact these fellows are
ambitious too, but there is a difference nevertheless, and many
here are beginning to understand how preposterous it is to make
oneself dependent on the opinion of others in what one
I hate writing about myself, and I have no idea why I do it.
Perhaps I do it in order to answer your questions. You see what
I have found - my work; and you see too what I have not found -
all the rest that belongs to life. And the future? Either I
shall become wholly indifferent to all that does not belong to
the work of painting, or . . . I dare not expatiate on the
theme, seeing that this becoming exclusively a painting
machine, unfit for and uninterested in anything else, may be so
much better or worse than the average. It might be pretty easy
for me to resign myself to the average, and so be it for the
present, for I am now in the same mess as in the past.
Listen, speaking about messes. Perhaps it might be worth
while to try to save something of the “mess” that
Theo tells me is still lying in some garret at Breda; however,
I dare not ask you to do this, and perhaps it has got lost, so
But the question is this - you know that Theo brought a
whole lot of wood engravings with him last year. Yet a number
of the best portfolios are missing and the rest is less good
because of the very fact that the collection is no longer
complete. Of course the wood engravings from illustrated papers
get rarer and rarer according to the age of the issues they are
taken from. Enough - so I am not wholly indifferent to that
“mess,” you see? There are, for instance, a copy of
Gavarni's “Human Masquerade,” and a book Anatomy
for Artists - in short a number of things that are really far
too good to lose. However, I look upon them in advance as lost;
what may be found would be pure profit. When I went away, I did
not know it would be for good. For the work at Nuenen did not
go badly, and it was only a matter of continuing it; I still
feel the want of my models, who seemed to be made for me,
and whom I still adore; if only I had them here - I feel sure
my fifty pictures would turn out to be hits. Do you understand
this?? I am not the master of mankind because I am this or that
- I fully grant in advance that those who say so are right -
but I feel grieved because I do not have the power to make
those I want to pose for me to do it, wherever I want them, and
as long as I want them.
There, and not in the technical difficulties, lies
the obstacle, which I shall have to clear out of the way in the
end. And today I am a landscape painter, whereas in reality
portrait painting would suit me better. So it would not
surprise me if at some future time I should change my style.
One painter - Chaplin - who paints the most beautiful women of
Paris gloriously - ladies in boudoirs, with or without costume
- has painted vigorous landscapes and herds of pigs on the
heath. What I want to say is that one must do the work that is
nearest, and retain a hold on one's technique. If you were
within my reach I am greatly afraid you would get irretrievably
addicted to painting. There are Parisian ladies, at least one
of them really good, among the impressionists - even two good
And when I think that it is precisely this new style which
would put women who are incapable of pernickety
accuracy, who feel musically, on the right track, I regret now
and then that I am getting older and uglier than my interest
It is very commendable of Theo to have invited you to come
to Paris. I don't know how it would impress you. When I saw it
for the first time, I felt above all the dreary misery, which
one cannot wave away, as little as one can wave away the
tainted air in a hospital, however clean it may be kept. And
this remained with me afterward - though later on I gained the
impression that it is also a hotbed of ideas, and that people
try to get everything out of life that can by the remotest
chance be got out of it. Other cities become small in
comparison with it, and it seems as big as the sea. There one
always leaves behind a considerable part of one's life. But one
thing is certain, nothing is fresh there. Therefore,
when one leaves it, one thinks a lot of things elsewhere
I am extremely glad you have regained your health. All that
one does, one does involuntarily; and so, without understanding
it oneself for the moment, one does wrong when one falls
It is my impression that you would not think
the sun here unpleasant at all; I feel it is excellent for me
to work in the open air during the hottest part of the day. It
is a dry, clean heat.
Essentially the colour is exquisite here. When the green
leaves are fresh, it is a rich green, the like of which we
seldom see in the North, quiet. When it gets scorched and
dusty, it does not lose its beauty, for then the landscape gets
tones of gold of various tints, green-gold, yellow-gold,
pink-gold, and in the same way bronze, copper, in short
starting from citron yellow all the way to a dull, dark yellow
colour like a heap of threshed corn, for instance. And this
combined with the blue - from the deepest royal blue of the
water to the blue of the forget-me-nots, cobalt, particularly
clear, bright blue - green-blue and violet-blue.
Of course this calls up orange - a sunburned face gives the
impression of orange. Furthermore, on account of the many
yellow hues, violet gets a quick emphasis; a cane fence or a
grey thatched roof or a dug-up field make a much more violet
impression than at home. Furthermore - something you've already
suspected - people are often good-looking here. In a word, I
believe that life here is just a little more satisfying than in
many other spots. However, I have the impression that people
are getting slack here, a little too much affected by the
decadence of carelessness, indifference, whereas if they were
more energetic the land would probably produce more.
I have not had much time to read lately, except Madame
Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, and also L'Abbé
Constantin by Ohnet, frightfully sweet and heavenly, so that
even his Maître des forges, which already shows a similar
tendency, becomes all the more suspect. At times, driven by a
certain mental voracity, I even read the newspapers with fury,
but do not deduce from this fact that I feel a craving for
reading. This is not really the case to a large extent, because
I prefer to look at things myself; but the fact is that one
gets into the habit of reading for a few hours at night, so one
cannot help feeling as if one were in want of something; but
that this feeling is not really distressing, one may infer from
the fact that one goes on thinking what one sees
I have spent a week on the Mediterranean coast; you should
think it beautiful. What strikes me here, and what makes
painting so attractive, is the clearness of the air; you
cannot know what this means, because this is exactly
what we do not have in our country - but one distinguishes the
colour of things at an hour's distance; for instance the
grey-green of the olive trees and the grass green of the
meadows, and the pink-lilac of a dug-up field. In our country
we see a vague grey line on the horizon; here even in the far,
far distance the line is sharply defined, and its shape is
clearly distinguishable. This gives one an idea of space and
Seeing that I am so busily occupied with myself just now, I
want to try to paint my self-portrait in writing. In the first
place I want to emphasize the fact that one and the same person
may furnish motifs for very different portraits.
Here I give a conception of mine, which is the result of a
portrait I painted in the mirror, and which is now in Theo's
A pinkish-grey face with green eyes, ash-coloured hair,
wrinkles on the forehead and around the mouth, stiff, wooden, a
very red beard, considerably neglected and mournful, but the
lips are full, a blue peasant's blouse of coarse linen, and a
palette with citron yellow, vermilion, malachite green, cobalt
blue, in short all the colours on the palette except the orange
beard, but only whole colours. The figure against a
You will say that this resembles somewhat, for instance, the
face of - Death - in Van Eeden's book or some such thing - all
right, but it is a figure like this - and it isn't an easy job
to paint oneself - at any rate if it is to be different
from a photograph. And you see - this, in my opinion, is the
advantage that impressionism possesses over all the other
things; it is not banal, and one seeks after a deeper
resemblance than the photographer's.
- I live in a little yellow house with a green door and
green blinds, whitewashed inside - on the white walls very
brightly coloured Japanese prints, red tiles on the floor - the
house in the full sunlight - and over it an intensely blue sky,
and - the shadows in the middle of the day much shorter than in
our country. Well - can you understand that one may be able to
paint something like this with only a few strokes of the brush?
But can't you understand too that there are people who say,
“This makes too queer an impression,” not to
mention those who think it a total abortion or utterly
repulsive? But if only there is a likeness, but a likeness
different from the products of the God-fearing photographer
with his colourless phantoms - this is the aim.
I am positively not very fond of Mr. Vosmaer, 4
and am sufficiently hardhearted to be little impressed by the
man's departure from life.
I think it a very good thing that you and Mother preferred
to get hold of a garden with she-cats, tom-cats, sparrows and
flies, rather than put up with another flight of stairs.
If I should not mail this letter immediately, I feel
absolutely sure that I should tear it up if I read it over -
and so I will not read it over, and I think its legibility
doubtful. I don't always have time to write. I truly believe
there is nothing in this letter, and I should not be able to
understand by what means it got this long. Thank Mother in my
name for her letter. A long time ago now I designated a painted
study for you, and you are sure to get it. I am afraid that if
I should send it by parcel post, even if I prepaid the
carriage, I should make you pay for insufficient postage, as in
the case of the flowers from Menton, and this one is even
bigger - but Theo will be sure to send you one; so if I should
not think of it, please ask him for it.
I embrace you and Mother in thought.
Your loving Vincent
Theo is doing his best for all the impressionists; he has
done something, or sold something, for every one of them, and
he will certainly go on doing so. But the few things I wrote
you about this question will show you that he is quite
different from the other dealers, who do not care the least bit
about the painters.
* Were there enough stamps on the drawing? Please let
me know, for I have to know.
“Arti” for short, then (and now) a socially
recognized painters' association of Amsterdam.
Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846-1919), prophet of
socialism in Holland, who later passionately opposed the
formation of a political labour party, and became an
Literally, “Little Jack the Mower (or
Reaper),” seasonal labourer who in past centuries
came to Holland from Western Germany as mowers or
Carel Vosmaer (1826-1888), Dutch poet and essayist, who
evinced a highly progressive spirit for his time.
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh. Written c. 22 June 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number W04.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.