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I think I already told you in my last letter that I also
wanted to start a large man's figure besides that woman
spinning. Enclosed you will now find a sketch of it. Perhaps
you remember two studies of the same nook, which I already had
in the studio when you were here.
I have read Les Maitres d'Autrefois [The Masters of the
Past] by Fromentin with great pleasure. And that book
frequently deals with the same questions which have greatly
preoccupied me of late, and which, in fact, I am continually
thinking of, especially because when I was last in The Hague I
heard things Israëls had said about starting with a deep
colour scheme, thus making even relatively dark colours seem
light. In short, to express light by opposing it to black. I
already know what you're going to say about “too
black,” but at the same time I am not quite convinced yet
that a grey sky, for instance, must always be painted in
the local tone. Mauve does it, but Ruysdael does not,
Dupré does not. Corot and Daubigny???
Well, it is the same with figure painting as it is with
landscape. I mean Israëls paints a white wall quite
differently from Regnault or Fortuny.
And consequently, the figure stands out quite differently
When I hear you mention so many new names, it is not always
easy for me to understand because I have seen absolutely
nothing of them. And from what you told me about
“impressionism,” I have indeed concluded that it is
different from what I thought, but it's not quite clear to me
what it really is.
But for my part, I find Israëls, for instance, so
enormously great that I am little curious about or desirous for
other or newer things.
Fromentin says of Ruysdael that at present they are much
further advanced in technique than he was, also much more
advanced than Cabat, who sometimes greatly resembles Ruysdael
in his stately simplicity, for instance in the picture at the
But has what Ruysdael, what Cabat, said become untrue or
superfluous for that reason? No, it's the same with
Israëls, with De Groux too (De Groux was very simple).
But if one says what one has to say clearly,
strictly speaking, isn't that enough? And it may become more
pleasant to hear if it is said with more charm, something I do
not disdain, yet it does not add very much to the beauty of
what is true, because truth has a beauty of its own.
The measurements of the foregoing sketch are about 105 x 95
cm., and that of the little woman spinning, 100 X 75. They are
painted in a tone of bistre and bitumen, which, in my opinion,
are well suited to expressing the warm chiaroscuro of a
close, dusty interior. Artz would certainly find it too
But at the same time they require some effort in learning to
use them, for they must be used differently from the ordinary
colours, and I think it quite possible that many are
discouraged by the experiments one must make first and which,
of course, do not succeed on the very first day one begins to
use them. It is now just about a year ago that I began
to use them, chiefly for interiors; at first I was awfully
disappointed in them, but I could not forget the beautiful
things I had seen made with them.
You have better opportunities than I to hear about art
books. If you come across good books, such as that book of
Fromentin's on the Dutch painters, for instance, or if you
remember any, don't forget I should be very glad if you
bought some - provided they treat technical matters -
and if you deducted the money from my usual allowance. I
certainly intend to study theory seriously, I do not think it
at all useless, and I believe that what one feels by instinct
or by intuition often becomes definite and clear if one is
guided in one's efforts by some really practical words.
Even if there might be just one or very few
things of that kind in a book, it is sometimes worth while not
only to read it but even to buy it, particularly now.
And then in the time of Thoré and Blanc there were
people who wrote things which, alas, are already being
forgotten. To give you an example.
Do you know what “un ton entier” and “un
ton rompu” is? Of course you can see it in a
picture, but can you also explain what you see? What is meant
by rompre? Such things one ought to know theoretically
also, either practically as painter, or in discussing colour as
Most people give it whatever meaning they like, and
yet these words, for instance have a very definite
The laws of the colours are unutterably beautiful, just
because they are not accidentals. In the same way
that people nowadays no longer believe in fantastic
miracles, no longer believe in a God who
capriciously and despotically flies from one thing to another,
but begin to feel more respect and admiration for and faith in
nature - in the same way, and for the same reasons, I think
that in art, the old-fashioned idea of innate genius,
inspiration, etc., I do not say must be put aside, but
thoroughly reconsidered, verified - and greatly modified.
However, I do not deny the existence of genius, or even its
being innate. But I certainly do deny the inference that theory
and instruction should, as a matter of course, always be
The same thing which I applied in the woman spinning
and the old man spooling yarn, I hope, or rather I shall try,
to do much better later on.
But in these two studies from life I have been a little
more myself than I succeeded in being in most of the other
studies - except perhaps in some of my drawings.
With regard to black - accidentally I did not use it
in these studies, as I needed, among other things, some
stronger effects than black; and indigo with terra sienna,
Prussian blue with burnt sienna, really give much deeper tones
than pure black itself. When I hear people say “there is
no black in nature,” I sometimes think, There is no real
black in colours either.
Well, goodbye, do write soon if you have anything to tell
It sometimes surprises me that you do not feel as
much for Jules Dupré as I should like you to do.
I am firmly convinced that, if I again saw what I saw of his
work in the past, far from thinking it less beautiful, I should
think it even more beautiful than I always instinctively
did. Dupré is perhaps even more of a colourist
than Corot and Daubigny, though these two are that too, and
Daubigny especially is very daring in this colour. But
in Dupré's colour there is something of a splendid
symphony, complete, studied, manly. I imagine Beethoven
must be something like that…
That symphony is enormously calculated, and yet
simple, and infinitely deep as nature itself. That is what I
think of Dupré.
Well, goodbye, with a handshake,
Yours sincerely, Vincent
[Sketch “Old Man Reeling Yarn” JH 498, enclosed
At this time, Vincent was 31 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written early June 1884 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 371.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.