van Gogh's letters - unabridged and annotated
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Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh
Arles, 9 and 16 September 1888
Relevant paintings:

"Portrait of Eugene Boch," Vincent van Gogh

"Night Cafe on Place Lamartine in Arles," Vincent van Gogh

"Night café on Place Lamartine," Vincent van Gogh

"Three White Cottages in Saintes-Maries," Vincent van Gogh

"Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night," Vincent van Gogh

"Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin)," Vincent van Gogh

Letter W071

Arles, 9 and 16 September 1888

My dear sister,

Your letter gave me a great deal of pleasure, and today I have the leisure to calmly reply. So your visit to Paris was quite a success. I should very much like you to come here next year too. At the moment I am furnishing the studio in order to always be ready to put somebody up. Because there are 2 little rooms upstairs looking onto a very pretty public garden, and from which one can see the sun rise in the morning. I will arrange one of these rooms to accomodate a friend, and the other will be for me.

In it I want nothing but straw-bottomed chairs and a table and a whitewood bed. The walls whitewashed, the tiles red. But I want a great wealth of portraits and painted studies of figures in it, which I intend to do in the course of time. I already have one to begin with, the portrait of a young Belgian impressionist. I have painted him a little like a poet, the head fine & nervous standing out against a background of a deep ultramarine night sky with the twinkling of stars.

However, I want to have the other room just as elegant with a walnut bedstead and a blue coverlet. And all the rest, the dressing table as well as the cupboard, in dull walnut. In this very tiny room I want to put, in the Japanese manner, at least 6 very large canvases, particularly the enormous bouquets of sunflowers. You know that the Japanese instinctively look for contrasts and eat sweet peppers, salted candy, fried ices and iced fried things. So it follows, according to the same system, that in a large room there should only be very small pictures and in a very small room one should hang very large ones. I hope the day will come when I shall be able to show you this beautiful country here.

I have just finished a canvas representing the interior of a night café illuminated by lamps. A few poor night wanderers are asleep in a corner. The room is painted red, and there under the gaslight the green billiard table casts an immense shadow on the floor. There are 6 or 7 different reds in this canvas, from blood red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or deep greens. I sent Theo a sketch of it today which is like a Japanese crepe print.

Theo wrote me that he had given you Japanese pictures. This is surely the practical way to arrive at an understanding of the direction which painting in bright clear colours has taken at present.

For my part I don't need Japanese pictures here, for I always tell myself that here I am in Japan. Which means that I have only to open my eyes and paint the effect of what is right in front of me.

Have you seen a very little mask of a smiling fat Japanese woman at Theo's? It is surprisingly expressive, that little mask. Did you think of taking a painting of mine there for yourself? I hope so, and I am very curious to know which one you chose. I am inclined to think that you took the white cabins surrounded by green plants under a blue sky, which I made at Saintes-Maries on the coast of the Mediterranean.

I ought to have gone back to Saintes-Maries again, as there are now people on the beach. But never mind, I have such a lot to do here. At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.

My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter outside with raw green shutters; it stands in the full sunlight on a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it the intensely blue sky. There I can live and breathe, think and paint.

You see, I can hardly doubt that you on your part would also like the South enormously. The fact is that the sun has never penetrated us people of the North enough.

It is already a few days since I started writing this letter, and now I will continue it. In point of fact I was interrupted these days by my toiling on a new picture representing the outside of a café at night. On the terrace there are the tiny figures of drinkers. An immense yellow lantern illuminates the terrace, the façade and the sidewalk, and even casts its light on the pavement of the streets, which takes a pinkish violet tone. The gables of the houses in the street stretching away under a blue sky spangled with stars are dark blue or violet with a green tree. Here you have a night picture without black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and lemon-yellow.

Of course it's true that in the dark I may mistake a blue for a green, a blue-lilac for a pink-lilac, for you cannot distinguish the quality of a hue very well. But it is the only way to get rid of the conventional night scenes with their poor sallow whitish light, when even a simple candle gives us the richest yellows and orange tints.

I also made a new portrait of myself, a study, in which I look like a Japanese.

So far you have not told me whether you have read Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant, and what in general you think of his talent now. I say this because the beginning of Bel Ami happens to be a description of a starlight night in Paris with the brightly lighted cafés of the Boulevard, and this is approximately the same subject I just painted.

Speaking of Guy de Maupassant, I want to tell you that I very much admire what he does, and I strongly urge you to read everything that he has written. You ought to read Zola, de Maupassant, de Goncourt as completely as possible in order to get something of a clear insight into the modern novel. Have you read Balzac? I am reading him again here.

My dear sister, it is my belief that it is actually one's duty to paint the rich and magnificent aspects of nature. We need gaiety and happiness, hope and love.

The more ugly, old, mean, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent. Jewellers too get old and ugly before they learn how to arrange precious stones properly. And arranging the colours in a painting in order to make them vibrate and to enhance their value by their contrasts is something like arranging jewels properly or designing costumes. You will see that by making a habit of looking at Japanese pictures you will love to make up bouquets and to do things with flowers all the more. I must finish this letter now if I want to get it off today. I shall be very happy to have the picture of Mother that you speak of, so don't forget to send it to me. Give my dearest love to Mother, I often think of you two, and it pleases me very much that you know our life a little better now.

I'm afraid Theo will feel too lonely now, but he will be visited by a Belgian impressionist painter one of these days, the one I told you about at the beginning of this letter, and who is going to spend some time in Paris. And there will be a lot of other painters who will return to Paris with the studies they did during the fine season …

I embrace you and Mother.

Yours, Vincent

1. Written in French.

At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh. Written 9 and 16 September 1888 in Arles. Translated by Robert Harrison, edited by Robert Harrison, number W07.

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