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"Portrait of a Woman with Red Ribbon," Vincent van Gogh
My dear Theo,
It's more than time I thanked you for the 50 fr. you sent,
which enabled me to get through the month, although from today
onwards things will be more or less back to normal.
But - a few more studies have been done and the more I paint
the more progress I think I make. The moment I received the
money I took on a beautiful model and did a life-sized painting
of her head. It's all quite light, except for the black hair.
Yet the head itself stands out in tone against a background
into which I have tried to put a golden glimmer of light.
Anyway, here is the colour range: a flesh colour full of
tonal values, with more bronze in the neck, jet-black hair -
black which I had to do with carmine and Prussian blue -
off-white for the little jacket, light yellow, much lighter
than the white, for the background. A touch of flame in the
jet-black hair and again a flame-coloured bow in the
She's a girl from a café-chantant and yet the
expression I was looking for was somewhat “ecce
homo-like.” But that was because I was aiming for the
truth, especially in the expression, though I also wanted to
put my own thoughts into it. When the model arrived, it was
obvious she had had quite a few busy nights - and she said
something that was fairly characteristic: “Pour moi le
champagne ne m'égaye pas, il me rend tout triste.”
[For me, champagne doesn't cheer me up, it makes me very sad.]
Then I knew how matters stood and tried to produce something
voluptuous and at the same time heart-rending.
I've started a second study of the same subject in profile.
Apart from that I've done the portrait about which, as I
told you, I'd been negotiating, and a study of the same head
for myself. And now, during these last few days of the month,
I'm hoping to paint another head of a man. I feel very
cheerful, especially as far as work is concerned, and being
here is doing me good.
I imagine that no matter what the girls may be, one can make
money painting them, sooner than anything else. There's no
denying that they can be damned beautiful, and that it is in
keeping with the times that just that kind of painting should
be gaining ground. Nor can there be any objections to that from
even the highest artistic standpoint - painting human
beings, that was the old Italian art, that was Millet and
that is Breton.
The only question is whether one should start from the soul
or from the clothes, and whether one allows the form to serve
as a peg for hanging ribbons and bows from, or if one looks
upon the form as a means of conveying an impression, a
sentiment - or again, if one does modelling for the sake of
modelling because it is such an infinitely beautiful thing to
do. Only the first is ephemeral, the other two are high
What rather pleased me was that the girl who posed for me
wanted to have one of the portraits for herself, preferably
just like the one I'd done. And that she's promised to let me
paint a study of her in a dancer's costume at her room, as soon
as possible. It can't be done right away because the man who
runs the café where she stays objects to her posing, but
she's about to take lodgings with another girl, and both she
and the other girl would like to have their portraits done. And
I really very much hope that I'll get her back, for she has a
remarkable head, and she's witty.
However, I must first get into practice because it certainly
takes a special knack - they don't have much time or patience.
Actually, the work needn't be the worse for being done fairly
quickly, and one must be able to paint even if the model
doesn't sit stock-still.
Well, you can see that I am working with a will. If I could
sell something so that I could earn a bit more, I should work
As for Portier - I haven't lost heart yet - but poverty is
dogging my steps and at present all dealers are suffering a
little from the same defect, that of being more or less
“une nation retirée du monde” [a people
withdrawn from society] - they are so much sunk in gloom that
how is one really to feel inspired to go grubbing about in all
that indifference and apathy - the more so as the disease is
For it's just a lot of nonsense that business is slack, one
has to work quand bien même with self-confidence and
enthusiasm, in short with some zeal.
As for Portier - you wrote to me yourself that he was the
first to show the impressions and that he was overwhelmed by
Durand-Ruel - well, one is bound to conclude from this that he
has the initiative not just to say things but also to do
them. It could be put down to his 60 years, however - and
anyway, perhaps it was just one of those many cases when, at
the time when paintings were all the rage, and trade was doing
well, a great many intelligent people were being wantonly
brushed aside, as if they were incompetent and of no
importance, simply because they couldn't bring themselves to
believe that the sudden rage in paintings and the enormous rise
in prices would last. Now that business is hanging fire,
one sees those same dealers who were so very entreprenant
[enterprising] a few years ago - let's say about 10 years ago -
turning more or less into “une nation retirée du
monde.” And we haven't yet seen the end of it.
Personal initiative with little or no capital is perhaps the
seed corn for the future. We shall see.
My thoughts are full of Rembrandt and Hals these days, not
because I see many of their paintings but because I see so many
types among the people here that remind me of that period. I
still keep going to those bals populaires [dance halls] to look
at the heads of the woman and of the sailors and soldiers. One
pays an entrance fee of 20 or 30 centimes and drinks a glass of
beer - for there isn't much hard drinking and one can have a
firs-rate time all evening, or at least I can, just watching
the people's en-train [high spirits].
I must do a lot of work from the model, it's the only way to
ensure real progress.
I've discovered that my appetite has been held in check a
bit too long and when I received your money I couldn't stomach
any food. But I shall certainly do my best to remedy that. it
doesn't take away from the fact that I have all my wits and
energy about me when I'm painting. But when I'm out of doors,
work in the open air is too much for me and I come over all
Well, painting is something that wears one out. However, Van
der Loo [the van Gogh's doctor in Brabant] said, when I
consulted him shortly before I came here, that I am reasonably
strong après tout. That I needn't despair of reaching
the requisite age to produce a complete body of work. I told
him that I knew several painters who, for all their
nervousness, etc., had reached the age of 60, or even 70,
fortunately for themselves, and that I should like to do the
I also believe that if one aims for serenity, and retains
one's zest for living, one's state of mind helps a great deal.
And in that respect I have gained by coming here, for I've new
ideas and new means of expressing what I want;
Cobalt - is a divine colour and there is nothing as fine for
putting an atmosphere round things. Carmine is the red of wine
and is warm and lively like wine. The same goes for emerald
green too. It's false economy to dispense with them, with those
colours. Cadmium as well.
Something about my constitution that has pleased me a great
deal is that a doctor in Amsterdam, with whom I once discussed
a few things that sometimes made me think that I wasn't long
for this world, and whose opinion I didn't ask for directly,
wanting simply to gauge the first impression of someone who
didn't know me at all and availing myself of a small upset I
had at the time to bring the conversation round to my general
constitution - I was absolutely delighted that this doctor took
me for an ordinary worker, saying, “I daresay you're an
ironworker by trade.” That's exactly what I'd been trying
to achieve - when I was younger you could tell that my mind was
overwrought, and now I look like a bargee or an ironworker.
And changing one's constitution so that one gets “le
cuir dur” [a thick skin] is no easy matter. However, I
must go on being careful, try to hold on to what I have and to
improve on it still.
Above all, I should like you to tell me if you think it
absurd of me to suggest that now might be a good time for us to
sow the seeds of a future business. As far as my present work
is concerned, I feel I can do better - however, I do need more
air and space, in other words I must be able to spread my wings
a little. Above all, above all, I still haven't enough models.
I could soon produce work of higher quality, but my expenses
would be heavier. Still, one should aim at something lofty,
genuine, something distinguished, shouldn't one?
The female figures I see among the people here impress me
enormously - far more for the purpose of painting them than
having them, though if the truth be told I should like
I am again reading de Goncourt's book, it is first-rate. In
the preface to Chérie, which you should read, there is
an account of what the de Goncourts went through - and of how,
at the end of their lives, they were pessimistic, yes - but
also sure of themselves, knowing that they had done
something, that their work would last. What fellows they
were! if only we got on together better than we do now, if only
we too could be in complete accord - we could be the same,
By the way, since, après tout, I've been virtually
fasting for 4 or 5 days at this year's end - send your letter
no later than 1 January.
You may well find it difficult to imagine, but it is a fact
- when I receive the money my greatest craving will not be for
food, though I shall have been fasting, but even more so for
painting - and I shall immediately go on a hunt for models and
continue until all the money has gone.
The models here appeal to me because they're so completely
unlike the models in the country. And more especially because
their character is completely different. And the contrast has
given me some new ideas for the flesh colours in particular.
And though I'm still not satisfied with what I've achieved with
my last head, it does differ from the earlier ones.
I think you value the truth enough for me to speak freely to
you. For much the same reasons that if I paint peasant women I
want them to be peasant women - so I want to get a whore's
expression when I paint whores.
This is something new for me, and I want to achieve it at
all costs. Manet has done it and Courbet - well, sacrebleu,
I've the same ambition too, the more so as I've felt the
infinite beauty of the study of women by the giants of
literature - Zola, Daudet, de Goncourt, Balzac - in the very
marrow of my bones.
Even Stevens fails to satisfy me, because his women are not
like any I know personally. And those he chooses are not the
most interesting there are, I find.
Well, be that as it may - I want to get on à tout
prix [at all costs], and - I want to be myself. I am feeling
obstinate, too, and no longer care what people say about me or
about my work.
It seems more difficult to get a nude model here - the girl
I used wouldn't do it, at any rate. Of course, that
“wouldn't” is probably relative, but you certainly
can't take it for granted. Still, the fact is she would be
From a business point of view I can only say that we are in
what people have already begun to call “la fin d'un
siècle” - that the women have the same charm as at
the time of revolution - and just as much to say - and that one
would be “retiré du monde” if one worked
without them. It is the same everywhere, in the country as much
as in the city - one has to take women into account if one
wants to be up to date.
Goodbye, have a happy New Year, with a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
At this time, Vincent was 32 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 28 December 1885 in Antwerp. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 442.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the terms of this site.