Arles, 9 and 16 September 1888
My dear sister,
Your letter gave me a great deal of pleasure, and today
I have the leisure to calmly reply. So your visit to
Paris was quite a success. I should very much like you to come
here next year too. At the moment I am furnishing the
studio in order to always be ready to put
somebody up. Because there are 2 little rooms upstairs
looking onto a very pretty public garden, and from which one can
see the sun rise in the morning. I will arrange one of these
rooms to accomodate a friend, and
the other will be for me.
In it I want nothing but straw-bottomed chairs and a
table and a whitewood bed. The walls whitewashed, the tiles red.
But I want a great wealth of portraits and
painted studies of figures in it, which I intend to do in
the course of time. I already have one to begin with,
the portrait of a young Belgian impressionist. I have painted
him a little like a poet, the head fine & nervous standing out
against a background of a deep ultramarine night sky with
the twinkling of stars.
However, I want to have the other room just as elegant with a
walnut bedstead and a blue coverlet. And all the rest, the
dressing table as well as the cupboard, in dull walnut. In this
very tiny room I want to put, in the Japanese manner, at
least 6 very large canvases, particularly the enormous
bouquets of sunflowers. You know that the Japanese
instinctively look for contrasts and eat sweet peppers, salted candy,
fried ices and iced fried things. So it follows, according to
the same system, that in a large room there should only be very small
pictures and in a very small room one should hang very large
ones. I hope the day will come when I shall be able to show you
this beautiful country here.
I have just finished a canvas representing the interior of a
night café illuminated by lamps. A few poor
night wanderers are asleep in a corner. The room is painted
red, and there under the gaslight the green billiard table
casts an immense shadow on the floor.
There are 6 or 7 different reds in this canvas, from
blood red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or
deep greens. I sent Theo a sketch of it today which is like a
Japanese crepe print.
Theo wrote me that he had given you Japanese pictures. This
is surely the practical way to arrive at an understanding of
the direction which painting in bright clear colours has taken
For my part I don't need Japanese pictures here, for I
always tell myself that here I am in Japan. Which
means that I have only to open my eyes and paint the effect of what is right
in front of me.
Have you seen a very little mask of a smiling fat Japanese
woman at Theo's? It is surprisingly expressive, that little
mask. Did you think of taking a painting of mine there for yourself? I
hope so, and I am very curious to know which one you chose. I
am inclined to think that you took the white cabins
surrounded by green plants under a blue sky, which I made at
Saintes-Maries on the coast of the Mediterranean.
I ought to have gone back to Saintes-Maries again, as there
are now people on the beach. But never mind, I have such a lot
to do here. At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky.
It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured
than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues
and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that
certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a
green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my
expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little
white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.
My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter
outside with raw green shutters; it stands in the
full sunlight on a square which has a green garden with plane
trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed
inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it
the intensely blue sky. There I can live and breathe,
think and paint.
You see, I can hardly doubt that you on your part would also
like the South enormously. The fact is that the sun has never
penetrated us people of the North enough.
It is already a few days
since I started writing this letter, and now I will continue
it. In point of fact I was interrupted these days by my toiling
on a new picture representing the outside of a
café at night. On the terrace there are the tiny figures of
drinkers. An immense yellow lantern illuminates
the terrace, the façade and the sidewalk, and even casts
its light on the pavement of the streets, which takes
a pinkish violet tone. The gables of the houses
in the street stretching away under a blue sky spangled with
stars are dark blue or violet with a green tree. Here
you have a night picture without black in it, done with
nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and
Of course it's true that in the dark I may mistake a blue
for a green, a blue-lilac for a pink-lilac, for you cannot
distinguish the quality of a hue very well. But it is the only
way to get rid of the conventional night scenes with their poor
sallow whitish light, when even a simple candle gives us
the richest yellows and orange tints.
I also made a new portrait of myself, a study, in which I
look like a Japanese.
So far you have not told me whether you have read Bel Ami by
Guy de Maupassant, and what in general you think of his talent
now. I say this because the beginning of Bel Ami happens to be
a description of a starlight night in Paris with the brightly
lighted cafés of the Boulevard, and this is
approximately the same subject I just painted.
Speaking of Guy de Maupassant, I want to tell you that I
very much admire what he does, and I strongly urge you to read
everything that he has written. You ought to read Zola, de Maupassant,
de Goncourt as completely as possible in order to get something
of a clear insight into the modern novel. Have you read
Balzac? I am reading him again here.
My dear sister, it is my belief that it is actually one's
duty to paint the rich and magnificent aspects of nature. We
need gaiety and happiness, hope and love.
The more ugly, old, mean, ill, poor I get, the more I
want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant colour, well
arranged, resplendent. Jewellers too get old and ugly before
they learn how to arrange precious stones properly. And arranging
the colours in a painting in order to make them vibrate and to
enhance their value by their contrasts is something like
arranging jewels properly or designing costumes. You will see
that by making a habit of looking at Japanese pictures you will
love to make up bouquets and to do things with flowers all the
more. I must finish this letter now if I want to get it off
today. I shall be very happy to have the picture of Mother that
you speak of, so don't forget to send it to me. Give my dearest
love to Mother, I often think of you two, and it pleases me
very much that you know our life a little better now.
I'm afraid Theo will feel too lonely now, but he will be
visited by a Belgian impressionist painter one of these days,
the one I told you about at the beginning of this letter, and
who is going to spend some time in Paris. And there will be a
lot of other painters who will return to Paris with the studies
they did during the fine season …
I embrace you and Mother.
1. Written in French.
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh. Written 9 and 16 September 1888 in Arles. Translated by Robert Harrison, edited by Robert Harrison, number W07.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.