I must write you again to tell you that I have succeeded in
finding a model. I have made two fairly big heads, by way of
trial for a portrait. First, that old man whom I wrote you
about, a kind of head like Hugo's; then also a
study of a woman. In the woman's portrait I have brought
lighter tones into the flesh, white tinted with carmine,
vermilion, yellow and a light background of grey-yellow, from
which the face is separated only by the black hair. Lilac tones
in the dress.
Probably I don't look at those which are generally admired
most. I look for fragments like, for instance, those blonde
heads in “Ste. Thérèse au
Purgatoire.” I am now looking for a blonde model just
because of Rubens. But you must not be angry if I tell you that
I cannot make both ends meet this month.
All that and the models are ruining me.
I tell you this as emphatically as possible, because when
losing time one loses doubly.
In the last days of this month, after I have done some more
heads, I hope to paint a view on the Scheldt, for which I have
already bought a canvas. I can also go there in bad weather, to
an inn at St. Anne's, that is on the other side, opposite the
Lieve Vrouwekerk [Our Lady's Church]. Other painters have
worked there before.
I am very glad I came here, for in many ways it is useful
and necessary for me.
I made the acquaintance of Tyck, the best colour
manufacturer here, and he was very kind in giving me
information about some colours. About green colours, for
instance, that are fast. I also asked him things about Rubens's
technique, which he answered in a way that proved to me how
well he analyzes the material used, which not everybody does,
although it is very useful.
What more shall I tell you? Oh yes, I have seen two
collections of modern pictures, first, what was bought at the
exhibition for the raffle, and then a collection of pictures
that was for sale.
So I saw several fine things, two studies by Henri de
Braekeleer; you know that he is absolutely different from the
old De Braekeleer, I mean the one who is a famous colourist,
and who analyzes rigorously. He is somewhat like Manet, that is
to say as original as Manet.
One study was of a woman in a studio, or some such interior,
with Japanese objects; the woman wore a costume of yellow and
black. The flesh colour, white with carmine. In the
surroundings, all kinds of quaint little tones. The other one
was a half-finished study of a landscape. Yellow, faded, flat
fields à perte de vue [as far as the eye can see],
crossed by a black cinder path, with a ditch alongside; over
it, a sky of lilac gray, with accents of carmined lilac. Far
away the little red patch of vermilion of a roof, and two
little black trees. Hardly anything, and yet for me a great
deal, because of the peculiar sentiment in the juxtaposition of
colours. I also saw an old study by De Groux, a woman beside a
cradle, somewhat like an old Israëls.
Further, what shall I say about those modern pictures? I
thought many of them splendid, and then I mean
especially the work of the colourists, or of those who try to
be so, who look everywhere for mother-of-pearl-like
combinations in the light parts. But to me it is not always
perfect by a long shot; it is too affected. I prefer to see a
simple brush stroke and a less far-fetched, difficult colour.
More simplicity, in short that intelligent simplicity which is
not afraid of frank technique.
I like Rubens just for his ingenuous way of painting, his
working with the simplest means.
I don't count Henri de Braekeleer among those who look for
mother-of-pearl effects everywhere, because his is a curious,
very interesting endeavor to be literally true, and he stands
quite apart. I also saw various gray paintings, including a
printing shop by Mertens, a picture by Verhaert representing
his own studio, where he himself is sitting etching and his
wife standing behind him.
By La Rivière - an Amsterdam hired mourner after a
funeral, very fine in the black tones, a Goya-like
conception; that little picture was a masterpiece. In both
collections I saw very beautiful landscapes and marines. But as
to the portraits - those I remember best are the
“Fisherboy” by Frans Hals, “Saskia” by
Rembrandt, a number of smiling or weeping faces by Rubens.
Ah, a picture must be painted - and then why not simply? Now
when I look into real life - I get the same kind of
impressions. I see the people in the street very well, but I
often think the servant girls so much more interesting and
beautiful than the ladies, the workmen more interesting than
the gentlemen; and in those common girls and fellows I find a
power and vitality which, if one wants to express them in their
peculiar character, ought to be painted with a firm brush
stroke, with a simple technique.
Wauters understood this, used to at least, for so far I
haven't seen any work of his here. What I admire so much in
Delacroix, too, is that he makes us feel the life of things,
and the expression, and the movement, that he absolutely
dominates his colours.
And in a great many of the good things I saw, though I
admire them, there is often far too much paint. At present I am
getting more and more in the habit of talking to the models
while painting, to keep their faces animated.
I have discovered a woman - she is old now - who used to
live in Paris and provided the painters with models, for
instance, Scheffer, Gigoux, Delacroix and another one who
painted a Phryne.
Now she is a washerwoman and knows a lot of women, and could
always supply some, she said.
It has been snowing, and the city was splendid early this
morning in the snow, fine groups of street cleaners.
I am glad I came here, for I am already full of ideas, also
for the time when I shall be in the country again.
It was in the Etoile Belge, I think, that I read an article
by Eugène Battaille, reprinted from the Figaro, about
conditions in Paris, an article which impressed me as being
very well thought out; but according to him conditions in
general are very bad. This Mr. Battaille has, contrary to the
opinion of the Dutch journalists, expressed himself in
Amsterdam pessimistically about the state of affairs in
As to art dealing - as I have already written you, the
dealers here complain like misère ouverte. And yet I
believe that so much might still be done. To mention one thing,
for instance, one sees no pictures in the cafés,
restaurants, café-chantants, at least hardly any. And
how contrary this is to nature. Why don't they hang still lifes
there, like the splendid decorations Fijt, Hondekoeter and so
many others made in times of old? Why not women's portraits, if
they want prostitutes? I know one must work cheaply for such
purposes, but one can work relatively cheaply. Raising prices
to such a height is the trade's ruin, and leads to no good
Goodbye, write again between times if you can. As to the
money, do what you can, but remember that we must try our
utmost to succeed. And I won't let that idea of painting
portraits go, for it is a good thing to fight for, to show
people that there is more in them than the photographer can
possibly get out of them with his machine.
Goodbye, with a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
I have noticed the great number of photographers here, who
are just about the same as everywhere, and seem to be pretty
But always those same conventional eyes, noses, mouths -
waxlike and smooth and cold.
It cannot but always remain lifeless.
And the painted portraits have a life of their own, coming
straight from the painter's soul, which the machine cannot
reach. The more one looks at photographs, the more one feels
this, I think.
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 8-15 December 1885 in Antwerp. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 439.
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