Highlighting art - theory - Turn off highlighting
My dear Theo,
My warmest good wishes for good health and peace of mind on
your birthday. I should have liked to send the painting of the
Potato Eaters for this day, but although it's coming along
well, it isn't quite finished yet.
Though the actual painting will have been completed in a
comparatively short time, and largely from memory, it has taken
a whole winter of painting studies of heads and hands.
And as for the few days in which I have painted it now -
it's been a tremendous battle, but one for which I was filled
with great enthusiasm. Even though at times I was afraid it
would never come off. But painting, too, is
When weavers weave that cloth which I think they call
cheviot, or those curious multicoloured Scottish tartan
fabrics, then they try, as you know, to get strange broken
colours and greys into the cheviot - and to get the most vivid
colours to balance each other in the multicoloured chequered
cloth - so that instead of the fabric being a jumble, the
effet produit [overall effect] of the pattern looks
harmonious from a distance.
A grey woven from red, blue, yellow, off-white and black
threads - a blue broken by a green and an orange, red or yellow
thread - are quite unlike plain colours, that is, they
are more vibrant, and primary colours seem hard, cold
and lifeless beside them.
Yet the weaver, or rather the designer, of the pattern or
the colour combination does not always find it easy to make an
exact estimate of the number of threads and their direction -
no more than it is easy to weave brush strokes into a
If you could see the first painted studies I did on my
arrival here in Nuenen side by side with the canvas I am doing
now, I think you would agree that things are livening up a bit
as far as colour is concerned.
I feel certain that you too will get involved with the
question of colour analysis one day. For as an art connoisseur
and critic, it seems to me, one must also be sure of
one's ground and have firm convictions - for one's own
pleasure at least, and in order to substantiate one's
opinion. And one should also be able to explain it in a few
words to others who sometimes turn to someone like yourself for
information when they want to know a little more about art.
But now I have something to say about Portier. Of course I
am not wholly indifferent to his private opinion and I also
appreciate his saying that he does not take back anything of
what he has said. Nor do I mind that he apparently failed to
hang these first studies. But - if he wants me to send
him a painting intended for him, then he can only have it on
condition that he shows it.
As for the Potato Eaters - it is a painting that will do
well in gold - of that I am certain. But it would do
just as well on a wall papered in a deep shade of ripe corn.
However, it simply mustn't be seen without being set
off in this way. It will not appear to full
advantage against a dark background and especially not
against a dull background. And that is because it is a
glimpse into a very grey interior. In real life it is
also set in a gold frame, as it were, because the hearth and
the light from the fire on the white walls would be nearer the
spectator - they are situated outside the painting, but in its
natural state the whole thing is projected backwards.
Once again, it must be set off by putting something
coloured a deep gold or copper round it. Please bear that in
mind if you want to see it as it should be seen. Associating it
with a gold tone lends brightness to areas where you would
least expect it, and at the same time does away with the
marbled aspect it assumes if it is unfortunately placed
against a dull or black background. The shadows are painted
with blue and the gold colour sets this off.
Yesterday, I took it to a friend of mine in Eindhoven who is
doing some painting. In about 3 day's time I'll go back over
there and give it some egg-white and finish off a few
This man, who is trying very hard himself to learn how to
paint and to handle colour, was particularly taken with it. He
had already seen the study on which I had based the lithograph
and said that he would never have believed I could improve the
colour and the drawing to such an extent. As he, too, paints
from the model, he is well aware of what there is to a
peasant's head or fist, and as for the hands, he said that he
now had a quite different understanding of how to do them.
The point is that I've tried to bring out the idea that
these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have
dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting
into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and -
a meal honestly earned. I wanted to convey a picture of
a way of life quite different from ours, from that of civilized
people. So the last thing I would want is for people to admire
or approve of it without knowing why.
I've held the threads of this fabric in my hands all winter
long and searched for the definitive pattern - and although it
is now a fabric of rough and coarse appearance, the threads
have none the less been chosen with care and according to
certain rules. And it might just turn out to be a genuine
peasant painting. I know that it is. But anyone who
prefers to have his peasants looking namby-pamby had best suit
himself. Personally, I am convinced that in the long run one
gets better results from painting them in all their coarseness
than from introducing a conventional sweetness.
A peasant girl, in her patched and dusty blue skirt and
bodice which have acquired the most delicate shades from the
weather, wind and sun, is better looking - in my opinion - than
a lady. But if she dons a lady's clothes, then her authenticity
is gone. A peasant in his fustian clothes out in the fields
[is] better looking than when he goes to church on Sunday in a
kind of gentleman's coat.
And similarly, in my opinion, it would be wrong to give a
painting of peasant life a conventional polish. If a peasant
painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam, fine - that's
not unhealthy - if a stable reeks of manure - all right, that's
what a stable is all about - if a field has the smell of ripe
corn or potatoes or of guano and manure - that's properly
healthy, especially for city dwellers. Such pictures might
prove helpful to them. But a painting of peasant life
should not be perfumed.
I am eager to know whether you will find something in it to
please you - I hope so.
I'm glad that just as Mr. Portier has said that he'll handle
my work, I've got something more important for him than
studies. As for Durand Ruel - though he didn't consider the
drawings worth bothering with, do show him this painting. Let
him think it ugly, I don't mind - but let him have a look at it
all the same, let people see that we put some effort into our
endeavours. No doubt you'll hear “quell
croûte!” [what a daub!] Be prepared for that, as I
am prepared myself. Yet we must go on providing something
genuine and honest.
Painting peasant life is a serious business, and I for one
would blame myself if I didn't try to make pictures that give
rise to serious reflection in those who think seriously about
art and life.
Millet, De Groux, so many others, have set an example of
character by turning a deaf ear to such taunts as
“sale, grossier, boueux, puant” [nasty, crude,
filthy, stinking], etc., etc., so it would be a disgrace should
one so much as waver. No, one must paint peasants as if one
were one of them, as if one felt and thought as they do. Being
unable to help what one actually is. I very often think that
peasants are a world apart, in many respects one so much better
than the civilized world. Not in all respects, for what do they
know of art and many other things?
I still have a few smaller studies - but you will appreciate
that I'm being kept so busy by the larger one that I've been
able to do little else. As soon as it is completely finished
and dry, I shall forward you the canvas in a small packing
case, adding a few smaller items. I think it would be as well
not to delay the dispatch too long, which is why I'll make
haste with it. The second lithograph of it will probably have
to be abandoned in that case, though I realize that Mr.
Portier, for instance, must have his opinion endorsed if we are
to count on him once and for all as a friend. It is my sincere
hope that we may.
I have been so absorbed in the painting that I almost forgot
that I am moving house, something that has to be attended to as
well. My worries won't be any the less, but the lives of all
painters in this genre have been so full of cares that I
shouldn't want to have things any easier than they did. and
since they managed to get their paintings done anyway, I, too,
may be held back by material difficulties, but not
destroyed or undermined by them. So there you
I believe that The Potato Eaters will turn out well -
as you know, the last few days are always tricky with a
painting because before it's completely dry one can't use a
large brush without running a real risk of spoiling it. And
changes must be made very coolly and calmly with a small brush.
That's why I took it to my friend and asked him to make certain
I didn't spoil it, and why I'll be going to his place to apply
those finishing touches.
You'll certainly see that it has originality. Regards, I'm
sorry it wasn't ready for today - best wishes once again for
your health and peace of mind, believe me, with a
Ever yours, Vincent
I'm still working on some smaller studies that will go off
at the same time. Did you ever send that copy of the Salon
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written c. 30 April 1885 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 404.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.