"Lottery office," Vincent van Gogh
"Sea with boats and people on the beach," Vincent van Gogh
My dear Theo,
I don't need to tell you how delighted I was with your
letter and the enclosure, it comes just in time and will be of
tremendous help to me.
We are having autumn weather here, rainy and chilly, but
full of atmosphere, especially splendid for figures, which
stand out in tone against the wet streets and roads reflecting
the sky. It is what Mauve, in particular, does so beautifully
time and again. So I have been able to do some work on the
large watercolour of the crowd of people in front of the
lottery office, and I have also started another
one of the beach, of which this is the composition.
I get the same feeling quite often and it sometimes helps if
I then tackle something quite different. When I feel jaded with
landscape or light effects, I tackle figures, and vice versa.
Sometimes there is nothing for it but to wait for it to pass,
but many a time I manage to do away with the numbness by
changing my subject matter.
However, I am becoming more and more fascinated by the
figure. I remember there used to be a time when my feeling for
landscape was very strong and I was much more impressed by a
painting or drawing which captured a light effect or the
atmosphere of a landscape than I was by the figure. Indeed,
figure painters in general filled me with a kind of cool
respect rather than with warm sympathy
However, I remember very well being most impressed by a
drawing of Daumier's: an old man under the chestnut trees in
the Champs Elysées (an illustration for Balzac), though
the drawing was not all that important. What impressed me so
much at the time was something so stout and manly in Daumier's
conception, something that made me think It must be good to
think and to feel like that and to overlook or ignore a
multitude of things and to concentrate on what makes us sit up
and think and what touches us as human beings more directly and
personally than meadows or clouds.
That is also why I always feel attracted to the figures of
both the English draughtsmen and of the English writers, whose
Monday-morning-like soberness and studied restraint and prose
and analysis is something solid and substantial to which one
can hang on in days when one feels weak. Among French writers
the same is true of Balzac and Zola.
I don't know the books by Murger you mention, but I hope to
become acquainted with them soon.
Did I tell you that I was reading Daudet's Les Rois en Exil?
I thought it rather good.
The titles of those books greatly appeal to me, for
instance, La Bohème [he is referring to Scènes de
la vie Bohème, by Henry Murger]. How far we have strayed
nowadays from la bohème of Gavarni's time! It seems to
me that there was definitely something warmer and more
light-hearted and alive about those days than there is today.
But I cannot be certain, and there is much good nowadays, or
there could be much more than in fact there is if there were
At the moment I can see a splendid effect out of my studio
window. The city, with its towers and roofs and smoking
chimneys, is outlined as a dark, sombre silhouette against a
horizon of light. This light is, however, no more than a broad
streak over which hangs a heavy raincloud, more concentrated
below, torn above by the autumn wind into large shreds and
lumps that are being chased away. But that streak of light is
making the wet roofs glisten here and there in the dark mass of
the city (on a drawing one would achieve this with a stroke of
body colour), so that although the mass has a single tone one
can still distinguish between red tiles and slates. The
Schenkweg runs through the foreground like a glistening streak
through the wetness; the poplars have yellow leaves, the banks
of the ditches and the meadows are a deep green; the little
figures are black. I would have drawn it, or rather tried to
draw it, if I hadn't been working hard all afternoon on figures
of peat-carriers, which are still too much on my mind to allow
room for anything new, and should be allowed to linger.
I long for you so often and think of you so much. What you
tell me about the character of some artists in Paris, who live
with women, and are less narrow minded than others, perhaps
trying desperately to preserve something youthful, I think is
shrewdly observed indeed. Such people can be found here as
well. It may be even more difficult over there than it is here
to preserve some freshness in one's daily life, because to do
so there means swimming even more against the tide. How many
have not become desperate in Paris - calmly, rationally,
logically and rightly desperate. I have been reading something
of that sort about Tassaert, whom I like very much, and I feel
sorry that this was what happened to him.
All the more, all the more do I consider every effort in
that direction worthy of respect. I also think it is possible
to achieve success without having to start out with despair.
Even though one loses out here and there, and even though one
sometimes feels a kind of exhaustion; one must rally and take
courage again, even though things should turn out differently
from what one originally intended.
Please don't think that I look with contempt on such persons
as you describe, just because their lives are not based on
serious and well-considered principles. My opinion on the
matter is this: what matters is deeds, not some abstract
idea. I only approve of principles and think them worth the
trouble if they turn into deeds, and I think it is good to
reflect and to try to be conscientious, because this
concentrates a man's energies and combines his various actions
into a whole. The people you describe would, I believe, be more
resolute if they thought more clearly about what they were
going to do, but for the rest I greatly prefer the likes of
them to people who parade their principles without taking the
slightest trouble or even thinking about putting them into
practice. For the latter gain nothing from the most beautiful
principles and the former are precisely the people who,
if they come round to living with resolve and
thoughtfulness, might do something great. For great things do
not done just happen by impulse but are a succession of small
things linked together.
What is drawing? How does one learn it? It is working
through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what
one feels and what one can do. How is one
to get through that wall - since pounding at it is of no use?
In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it
steadily and patiently. And there you are - how can one
continue such work assiduously without being distracted or
diverted, unless one reflects and orders one's life according
to principles? And as it is with art so it is with other
things. And great things are not something accidental, they
must be distinctly willed.
Whether a man's deeds originate in his principles or his
principles in his deeds is something that seems to me as
indeterminable (and as little worthy of determination) as the
question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. But I
consider that trying to develop one's power of thought and will
is something positive and of much moment.
I am very curious to know what you will make of the figures
I am doing these days, when you eventually see them. That poses
another chicken and egg question: must one do figures for a
previously planned composition, or combine figures that one has
done separately so that they give rise to a composition? It
seems to me that it probably comes down to the same thing,
provided only that one keeps working.
I conclude with the same thing you said at the end of your
letter, that we share a liking for peering behind the scenes,
or, in other words, we have a tendency to analyze things. Now I
believe that this is precisely the quality one has to have in
order to paint - the strength one must exert in painting or
drawing. It may be that nature has favoured us to some extent
(in any case you and I certainly have it - perhaps we owe it to
our boyhood in Brabant and to surroundings that taught us to
think more than is usual), but it is really and truly not until
later that the artistic sensibility develops and ripens through
work. I cannot tell you how you might become a very good
painter, but that you have it in you and can bring it out is
something I really do believe. Goodbye, my dear fellow, thank
you for what you sent me and an affectionate handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
I have already lit my little stove. My dear fellow, how I
wish we could just spend an evening together looking at
drawings and sketches and woodcuts, I have some splendid new
ones. I hope to get some boys from the orphanage to pose for me
this week, I might yet be able to save that drawing of
At this time, Vincent was 29 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 22 October 1882 in The Hague. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 237.
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