Do you remember that I wrote some time ago, “I am
sitting in front of two large blank sheets and do not know how
I shall get something onto them”?
Since then, you know I did the refuse dump on one, but these
last days I have also made good progress with the second one,
which represents a coalyard on the grounds of the Rhine railway
station as I see it from my studio window.
There are heaps of coal and men working in them and people
coming with little wheelbarrows to buy a sack of coals, for
which there is sometimes a great demand; and especially with
the snow last winter, it was an intriguing sight.
I have been thinking it over for a long time, and a few days
ago it was so splendid one evening and I made my sketch in such
a way that later I made hardly any changes in the main lines of
the composition. Then I had a man as a model right on the spot;
he climbed onto those heaps of coal and stood in different
spots so that I could see the proportion of the figure in
But since then I have made several figure studies for it,
though the figures will only be small.
Just while making these studies, the plan for an even larger
drawing is beginning to take root, namely one of potato
digging, and I am so absorbed in it that I think you will
perhaps find something in it, too.
I should want the landscape to be a level ground with a
little row of dunes on the horizon. The figures about a foot
high, a broad composition, 1 by 2.
Right in front, in a corner, as a setoff, kneeling figures
of women gathering the potatoes.
On the second plane, a row of diggers, men and women.
And I want to make the perspective of the field such
that the spot where the wheelbarrows arrive is in the corner of
the drawing opposite the one where the potatoes are being
Well, except for the figures of the kneeling women, I could
already show you all the other figures in large studies.
Yes, I should like to start that drawing one of these days.
I have the grounds pretty well in my mind, and will choose a
fine potato field at my ease and make studies of it for the
lines of the landscape.
The drawing ought to be finished - at least an elaborate
sketch of it - toward autumn, when the potatoes are dug, and I
should only have to put in the finishing touches.
Last year I saw it here, the year before last I saw it in
Brabant, where it was splendid, and the year before that in the
Borinage, where it was done by miners. So it has ripened in my
The figures ought to be such that it would be true
everywhere, rather than a costume study.
Well, that blank canvas preoccupies me continually, and
while making studies, I am already looking for new ones.
The row of diggers must be a row of dark figures, seen only
in the distance, but very elaborate and varied in movement and
type. For instance, a simple young fellow beside one of those
typical old Scheveningen men, in a white and brown patched suit
with an old top hat, such a dull black one which they push back
on the neck; for instance, a short, sturdy figure of a woman
soberly clad in black, beside a tall grass mower in white
trousers, Tight blue frock and straw hat - a bald head next to
a young woman. These thoughts rise in my mind because of the
contrast in the studies I have made already.
We must wait and see. But anyhow, I have bought a large
stretcher (an old picture frame) at Laarman's and put canvas
over it. And every day it becomes clearer to me, but it is
confoundedly difficult to find figures which contrast well with
each other and yet can be put in a very narrow space. And one
has to draw each of them three times or more before it fits
But I shall make the sketch and do the same with it as I did
with the refuse dump, that is, begin it anew later, on another
sheet, if the first one doesn't turn out as I wish. But I
wanted it almost finished about the real time of potato
digging, though I may have to work it up again on a new
It was a good thing that I went to see Rappard, for I really
got the first idea of making those large drawings there, and I
have observed that one feels more definitely what kind of
studies one has to make while composing. I am working with
great animation these days, and am relatively untired because I
am so interested in it. As you know, I had repressed my desire
to make compositions for a long time, and in that respect a
revolution has taken place in me now because the time was ripe
for it, and I breathe more freely now that I have loosened the
reins which I had put on myself. But I believe it was a good
thing after all that I drudged so long on the studies; for it
is true in all things, especially with regard to figures, that
one must study seriously, and not suppose that one knows it
already. I think it such a fine saying of Mauve's -
notwithstanding all his work and experience, he says, Sometimes
I do not know the place of the joints in a cow.
I hope I shall succeed in having the outline or ghost of the
potato drawing ready by the time you come. I long very much to
see you. Do you know anything more definite about your coming?
Well, I must set to work on my coal men.
For the moment my entire supply of ready cash consists of a
postal order for 1.23 guilders torn in two, which has already
been refused once. So I need not tell you that I am already on
the lookout for your letter. As a diversion I have just fixed
the large frame, and so that I shall be able to work before I
get the money on those days when I may not be able to take a
model. But perhaps I shall after all.
My Scheveningen cape is a splendid possession; I made three
elaborate studies with it: a woman with a dustbin and two
others with wheelbarrows.
The next time you send money, I hope to be able to get a
fisherman's jacket with high turn-up collar and short sleeves,
and a woman's bonnet. It seems the bonnets are expensive and
difficult to get; well, at all events, I already have one.
Scheveningen drawings must be done as well, and shortly
too. About this time last year, I was in the hospital -
last summer's painted studies are bad and incorrect, I find - I
think of it because I have just been looking up an old painted
study of those coal heaps to see how the situation was last
year: I now think them done in too slovenly a fashion, in too
much of a hurry.
Well, since then, I have concentrated anew on the drawing of
the figure, and I think only very vaguely of painting. Adieu,
write as soon as you can. Good luck! With a handshake,
Yours sincerely, Vincent
At this time, Vincent was 30 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 13 or 14 June 1883 in The Hague. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 293.
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