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This afternoon I received your letter and will answer it at
once. I am anxious to get some idea of the Salon, especially of
the picture by Roll.
I'm not surprised that, for instance, Durand Ruel has not
yet taken any notice of the drawings.
And I should even prefer that Portier did not exaggerate his
admiration of them - at least I feel I can do better, just
because I am now changing again, so much so that I think my
former work but hesitantly done.
Therefore that colour is in itself a pretty dark grey, but
in the picture it looks white.
I'll tell you why I do it that way. Here the subject is a
grey interior, lit by a little lamp.
The dirty linen tablecloth, the smoky wall, the dirty caps
in which the women have worked in the field - when seen
through the eyelashes in the light of the lamp, all this
proves to be very dark grey; and the lamp, though a
yellow-reddish glow, is even lighter - even a great deal - than
the white in question.
But when starting the picture, I tried to paint them that
way, with yellow ochre, red ochre and white, for instance.
But that was much, much too light and was decidedly
What was to be done? All the heads were finished, and even
finished with great care, but I immediately repainted them,
inexorably, and the colour they are painted in now is like
the colour of a very dusty potato, unpeeled of
While doing this I thought how perfect that saying of
Millet's about the peasants is: “Ses paysans semblant
peints avec la terre qu'ils ensemencent.” [These peasants
seem to be painted with the soil in which they have been
A saying which I can't help being constantly reminded of
when I see them at work outdoors as well as indoors.
And I am quite sure that if one asked Millet, Daubigny or
Corot to paint a snow landscape without using white, they would
do it, and the snow would look white in the picture.
What you say about the lithograph, that the effect is wooly,
I think too, and it is not my own fault in that the
lithographer insisted that, as I had left hardly any white on
the stone, it would not print well. At this suggestion I had
the light spots corroded; if I had simply printed it as the
drawing was, the general effect would have been darker, but not
crude, and there would have been atmosphere between the planes.
But what should I do with the picture? It is the same size as
last year's woman spinning.
Just now I again took it to the cottage to give it some last
touches from nature. But I think I shall get it finished,
always in a comparative sense, for in reality I shall never
think my own work ready or finished.
I can do it in a smaller size, however, or make a drawing of
it if you prefer it, for the thing is so fixed in my mind that
I could literally almost paint it with my eyes shut.
Can you see how splendid the thing I scratch here was?
When I went to the cottage tonight, I found the people at
supper in the light of the small window instead of under the
lamp - oh, it was splendid! The colour was extraordinary too;
you remember those heads
painted against the window - the
effect was like that, but even darker.
So the two women and the interior were exactly the colour of
dark soft soap. But the figure of the man to the left was just
lit up by light streaming through a door farther on. So the
head and hands became the colour of a 10-centime piece, namely
dull brass. And where the light touched it, the blouse became
of the most tender faded blue.
In your next letter tell me, please, what you want me to do
with the picture. Of course we must see to it that Portier gets
something new. But I can just as well copy it in half-size for
him, and send this large one to Antwerp, for instance.
As to the light pictures at present, I have seen so
little of them these last years.
But I have thought a great deal about the question itself.
Corot, Millet, Daubigny, Israëls, Dupré and others
also paint light pictures, that is to say, one can see
through every corner and depth, however deep the colour scale
But those painters mentioned above, none of them paint the
local tone literally; they follow the colour scale in which
they started, express their own ideas in colour and tone and
drawing. And that their light is generally a rather dark grey
in itself, which gives the impression of being light in the
picture, is a truth which you have the opportunity to observe
Well, goodbye. Understand me well - I do not say that Millet
didn't use white when he painted snow, but I mean that he and
the other tonists could have done so if they had wanted to, in
the same way as Delacroix tells that Paul Veronese painted
pale, fair, nude women with a colour which, considered
separately, looked like street dirt.
With a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
I think you will see from the picture that I have my own way
of looking at things, but that there is some conformity with
others, for instance, certain Belgians. What a shame they
refused Josephson's picture. But why don't the rejected
painters join hands and do something for themselves? Union is
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written early May 1885 in Nuenen. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 405.
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