Saint-Rémy, 19 September 1889
My dear sister,
In the interval since my last letter I have tried more than
once to write a letter to you and Mother. I therefore thank you
very much for the second kind letter you wrote me. I think both
you and Mother did right to leave Breda after Cor went away -
it is certain that we ought not to let grief accumulate in our
heart like water in a turbid pool. It is true that I have a
profound feeling at times that my mind is turbid indeed, but
this is a disease; for persons who are active and in good
health, however, it is certainly necessary to do what you have
As I told Mother in my letter, I shall send her a picture -
say within a month or so - and there will be one for you
These last weeks I have also painted some pictures for
myself - I don't especially like to see my own pictures in my
bedroom, which is why I copied one picture by Delacroix and some
others by Millet. 2
The Delacroix is a “Pietà” that is
to say the dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted
corpse lies on the ground in the entrance of a cave, the hands
held before it on the left side, and the woman is behind it. It
is in the evening after a thunderstorm, and that forlorn figure
in blue clothes - the loose clothes are agitated by the wind -
is sharply outlined against a sky in which violet clouds with
golden edges are floating. She too stretches out her empty arms
before her in a large gesture of despair, and one sees the good
sturdy hands of a working woman. The shape of the figure with
its streaming clothes is nearly as broad as it is high. And the
face of the dead man is in the shadow - but the pale head of
the woman stands out clearly against a cloud - a contrast which
causes those two heads to seem like one somber-hued flower and
one pale flower, arranged in such a way as mutually to
intensify the effect.
I do not know what had become of this picture, but at the
very time I was busy working on it, I happened to read an
article by Pierre Loti, author of My Brother Yves, Fisherman of
Iceland [Pécheur d'Islande] and of Madame
Chrysanthéme. An article he wrote about Carmen
Sylva. You have read her poems, if my memory doesn't deceive
me. She is a queen - is she the queen of Hungary or of some
other country? - that I do not know - and Loti, when describing
her boudoir, or rather her studio in which she writes and
applies herself to the art of painting, says that he saw the
canvas of Delacroix's in question, and that it made a deep
impression on him.
When speaking of Carmen Sylva he makes his readers feel that
her personality is even more interesting than her words, though
she says things like these: A woman without a child is like a
bell without a clapper - perhaps the sound of the bronze is
very fine - but…
As a matter of fact it does one good to think that such a
painting should be in such hands, and it may be something of a
consolation to the painters to be able to imagine that there
really are souls who have a feeling for pictures. But there are
relatively few of them.
I thought fit to send you a sketch of it in order to give
you an idea of what Delacroix is. Please understand fully that
this little copy hasn't the slightest value, whatever the point
of view. Notwithstanding which you may see from it that
Delacroix does not draw the features of a Mater Dolorosa after
the manner of the Roman statues, but there is in it the grayish
white countenance, the lost, vague look of a person exhausted
by anxiety and weeping and waking, rather in the manner of
It is a very good and fortunate thing, as I see it, that you
are not quite enthusiastic about the masterly book by de
Goncourt. All the better that you should prefer Tolstoi, you
who read books in the first place to draw from them the energy
to act. I tell you, you are a thousand times in the right.
But I, who read books to find the artist who wrote them,
should I for my part be in the wrong if I like the French
novelists so much?
The other day I finished the portrait of a woman upward of
forty years old, an insignificant woman. The withered face is
tired, pockmarked - a sunburned, olive-coloured complexion,
black hair. A faded black dress relieved by a geranium of a
delicate pink, and the background in a neutral tone, between
pink and green.
For I often paint things like that - as insignificant and as
dramatic as a dusty blade of grass by the roadside - and
consequently it seems to me that it is only right that I should
have a boundless admiration for de Goncourt, Zola, Flaubert,
Maupassant, Huysmans. As for you, don't hurry, and go on
courageously with your Russians.
Have you already read My Religion by Tolstoi? It is said to
be very practical and really useful. So dive into the very
depths of it, seeing that you like this.
I painted two pictures of myself lately, one of
which has rather the true character, I
think, although in Holland they would probably scoff at the
ideas about portrait painting that are germinating here. Did
you see the self-portrait by the painter Guillaumin at Theo's,
and the portrait of a young woman by the same? They give an
idea of what painters are looking for. When Guillaumin
exhibited his self-portrait, public and artists were greatly
amused by it, and yet it is one of those rare things capable of
holding their own beside the old Dutch painters, even Rembrandt
and Hals. I always think photographs abominable, and I don't
like to have them around, particularly not those of persons I
know and love.
Those photographic portraits wither much sooner than we
ourselves do, whereas the painted portrait is a thing which is
felt, done with love or respect for the human being that is
portrayed. What is left of the old Dutchmen except their
In the same way the children in Mauve's family will always
see him in the portrait Masker painted so well of him.
I just received a letter from Theo, in which he replies to
what I told him about my wish to return to the North for some
time. It is rather probable that this will happen, but it is
impossible to say when, as this depends on what opportunities
present themselves for going to live with some artist or other.
But seeing that we know a good many of them, and that it is
often to their mutual advantage for two artists to live
together, it won't take long.
Well, in conclusion I say to you, “See you
soon,” and I thank you very much for your letters.
I don't know yet which canvases I am going to send you and
Mother, probably a field of wheat and an orchard of olive
trees, together with that copy after Delacroix.
What I need is courage, and this often fails me.
And it is also a fact that since my disease, when I am in
the fields I am overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness to such
a horrible extent that I shy away from going out. But this will
change all the same as time goes on. Only when I stand painting
before my easel do I feel somewhat alive. Never mind, this is
going to change too, for now my health is so good that I
suppose the physical part of me will gain the victory.
I embrace you in thought, and “see you
Written in French.
See letter 607 to Theo.
At this time, Vincent was 36 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh. Written 19 September 1889 in Saint-Rémy. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number W14.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.