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Saint-Rémy, 5th or 6th
My dear brother,
I have already written to you, but there are still quite a
few things you said to me that I haven't answered yet. Firstly,
that you have rented a room in Tanguy's house and that my
canvases are there, which is very interesting - provided you
aren't paying too much for it - the expenses go on all the time
and the canvases still take so long to bring anything in - it
often frightens me.
Be that as it may, I'm sure it's a very good step, and I
thank you for taking it, as for so many other things. It is
curious that Maus had the idea of inviting young Bernard and me
for the next Vingtistes exhibition. I should like to exhibit
with them very much, though I'm conscious of my inferiority by
the side of so many tremendously talented Belgians.
This Mellery, now, is a great artist. And has been one for a
number of years. But I shall try my best to do something good
I am working away in my room without interruption which does
me good and chases away what I imagine are abnormal ideas.
Thus I've done the painting of the Bedroom once more.
That's certainly one of my best studies - and sooner
or later it must definitely be relined.
They say - and I am very willing to believe it - that it is
difficult to know oneself - but it isn't easy to paint oneself
either. So I am working on two self-portraits at the moment -
for want of another model.
Because it is high time I did a little figure work. In the
one I began the first day I got up, I was thin and deathly
pale. It is dark purple-blue, and the head whitish with yellow
hair, thus with a colour effect.
But I have since started another, three-quarter profile on a
Then I'm retouching this summers studies - in fact, I am
working morning, noon and night.
Are you well? - damn it, I really wish that you were 2 years
further on and that these early days of your marriage, however
lovely they may be at times, were behind you. I'm quite
convinced that a marriage grows better with time, and that it's
then that your constitution will recover.
So take things with a pinch of northern equanimity, and look
after yourselves, both of you. This confounded life in the
world of art is exhausting, it seems.
What you told me about Maus having been to see my canvases
made me think a lot about the Belgian painters these last few
days and also during my illness.
Which isn't any good, because our way lies - forwards - and
retracing our steps is both impossible and impermissible. In
other words one can think about the past without being swamped
by an over-melancholic nostalgia.
Anyway, Henri Conscience may not be a perfect writer by any
means, but no two ways about it, what a painter! And what human
kindness in what he said and hoped for. There's a preface in
one of his books on my mind all the time (the one to Le
Conscrit), where he writes that he had been very ill, and says
that during his illness, despite all his efforts, he felt his
affection for mankind draining away, but that his feeling of
love returned on long walks in the countryside.
The inevitability of suffering and despair - well, here I
am, bucked up again for a time - and I thank him for it.
I am writing you this letter bit by bit in the intervals
when I am worn out with painting. The work is going pretty
well. I'm struggling with a canvas I started a few days before
my illness - a reaper. The study is all yellow, extremely
thickly painted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. For
I see in this reaper - a vague figure toiling away for all he's
worth in the midst of the heat to finish his task - I see in
him the image of death, in the sense that humanity might be the
wheat he is reaping. So it is, if you like, the opposite of the
sower which I tried to do before. But there's no sadness in
this death, this one takes place in broad daylight with a sun
flooding everything with light of pure gold.
Well, here I am, at it again. But I won't give in, and shall
try once more on a new canvas. Ah, I could almost believe that
I have a new spell of lucidity before me.
So what next - carrying on here for the next few months, or
moving elsewhere - I don't know. It's just that the attacks,
when they come, are no joke, and running the risk of having a
bout like that at your place or at anyone else's house is a
My dear brother - I always write to you in between bouts of
work, and I am working like one truly possessed, more than ever
I am in the grip of a pent-up fury of work, and I'm sure it
will help to cure me. Perhaps something along the lines of what
Eug. Delacroix spoke of will happen to me - “I discovered
painting when I had neither teeth or breath left,” in the
sense that my sad illness makes me work in a pent-up fury- very
slowly - but without leaving off from morning till night - and
- that is probably the secret - to work long and slowly. But
what do I know about it? Still, I think I've one or two
canvases on the go which are not too bad, firstly, the reaper
in the yellow wheat, and the portrait on a light background
which should go to the Vingtistes, if indeed they remember me
when the time comes. Actually, I care very little one way or
another, it might be preferable if they did forget all about
For my part, I do not forget how inspired I am whenever I
give my memory of certain Belgians free rein. That is the
positive side, and the rest is of no more than secondary
And here we are already in September, soon we will be in the
middle of autumn, and then winter.
I shall continue to work without let-up, and then if I have
another attack around Christmas, we'll see, and when that's
over, I can't see any objection to my telling the
administration here to go to hell, and to my returning north
for a fairly long time. To leave now, when I believe I may well
have another attack this winter, that's to say in three months'
time, would perhaps be too foolhardy.
It's been six weeks since I put a foot outdoors, even in
the garden. Next week, however, when I've finished the canvases I'm
busy with, I'm going to have a go.
But another few months and I'll be so flabby and lethargic
that a change will probably do me a lot of good.
That's the way I'm thinking at the moment, though of course
nothing is settled.
But I do believe that one shouldn't stand on ceremony with
the people of this establishment, any more than of the
proprietors of a hotel. We have rented a room from them for a
certain length of time, and they are well paid for what they
provide, and that's absolutely all there is to it.
Not to mention that they might like nothing better than for
my condition to be chronic, and we would be unforgivably stupid
to gave in to them. They make far too many inquiries, to my
mind, not only about what I am, but also what you earn,
So let's not quarrel with them and simply give them the
I am continuing this letter again at intervals. Yesterday I
began the portrait of the chief attendant, and
I may do his wife as well, since he is married and lives in a
little farmhouse a stone's throw from the institution.
A most interesting face. There's a beautiful etching by
Legros of an old Spanish grandee - if you remember it, it will
give you an idea of the type.
He was at the hospital in Marseilles during two cholera
epidemics, in short, he is a man who has seen an enormous
amount of suffering and death, and he has an indefinable
expression of quiet contemplation, so that I am irresistibly
reminded of Guizot's face - for there is something of that in
his head, if different. But he is a man of the people and
simpler. Anyway, you will see it if I succeed in doing it and
if I make a copy of it.
I am struggling with all my might to keep my work under
control by telling myself that success would be the best
lightning rod for my illness. I make sure I don't overdo
things, and take care to keep myself to myself. It's selfish,
if you like, not getting used to my companions in misfortune
here and not going round to see them, but still, I feel none
the worse for it, for my work is making headway, and that's
what we need, for it is absolutely vital that I do better that
before, as that was not enough.
Supposing I get out of here one day, wouldn't it be far
better if I came back definitely capable of doing a portrait
with some character than if I came back as I started? That's
clumsily put, for I'm well aware one cannot say, “I know
how to do a portrait,” without telling a lie, because
that is an infinite objective. Still you will understand what I
mean, that I must do better than before.
A few days ago, I was reading in the Figaro about a Russian
writer who also suffered from a nervous illness of which,
moreover, he sadly died, and which brought on terrible attacks
from time to time [Dostoevsky]. But what is one to do? There is
no remedy, or if there is one, it is to work with a will.
I am dwelling on this more than I should.
All in all, I prefer to be definitely ill like this than be
the way I was in Paris when all this was brewing.
You will also see that when you put the portrait with the
light background that I have just done next to those portraits
I did of myself in Paris, you really will see that I look saner
now than I did then, indeed much more so.
I am even inclined to believe that the portrait will tell
you better than my letter how I am, and that it will reassure
you - it took me a lot of trouble to do.
And the “Reaper” is also going well, I think -
it is very, very simple.
By the end of the month I'd go so far as to say you can
count on 12 size 30 canvases, but in most cases they will be
the same picture twice over, a study and the final
Still, perhaps my journey to the south will yet bear fruit,
for the stronger light and the blue sky teaches you to see,
especially, or even only, if you see it all for a long
The north will undoubtedly seem quite new to me, and I have
looked at things so much here that I have become very attached
to them, and I shall feel sad for a long time.
Something odd occurs to me - in Manette Salomon there is a
discussion of modern art, and some artist or other, talking of
“what will last,” says that what will last is
“the landscape painters” - that view has already
been proved true to some extent, for Corot, Daubigny,
Dupré, Rousseau, and Millet do endure as landscape
painters, and when Corot said on his deathbed, “I saw
landscapes in a dream with skies all pink, it was
charming,” well, yes, we see those skies all pink in
Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir, so the landscape painters do last
very well, it's quite true. We'll leave aside the figure
painting of Delacroix and Millet.
In any case, what is it that we are now beginning
hesitatingly to recognize as original and long-lasting?
Portraiture. You might say that it's old stuff, but it's
also quite new. We'll talk about it again - but we must never
stop being on the lookout for portraits, especially by artists
such as Guillaumin - that portrait of the young girl by
Guillaumin! - and take good care of my portrait by Russell
which I'm so fond of. Have you framed Laval's portrait? I don't
think you told me what you thought of it. I thought it
splendid, that gaze through the glasses, such a frank gaze.
My urge to do portraits is very strong these days, in fact
Gauguin and I talked about this and similar matters until our
nerves were strained to the point of stifling all human
But I dare say some good pictures will come out of it, and
that's what we're after. And I should imagine they'll be doing
some good work in Brittany. I got a letter from Gauguin, I
think I already told you, and one day I should very much like
to see what they are doing.
10 meters of canvas
Large tubes 6 tubes zinc white
2 tubes emerald green
2 tubes cobalt
Small tubes 2 carmine
1 large tube crimson lake
6 marten brushes, black hair
Then I promised the attendant here a copy of Le Monde
Illustré, No. 1684, July 6, 1889, in which there
is a pretty engraving after Demont-Breton.
There! The reaper is finished. I think it'll be one of those
you'll keep at home - it's an image of death as the great book
of nature speaks of it - but the effect I've been looking for
is - “on the point of smiling.” It's all yellow,
except for a line of purple hills. A pale and golden yellow. I
find it odd that I saw it like that through the iron bars of a
Well, do you know what I hope for, once I allow myself begin
to hope? It is that the family will be for you what nature, the
lumps of soil, the grass, the yellow wheat, the peasant, are
for me, in other words, that you find in your love for people
something not only to work for, but to comfort and
restore you when you need it. So, I beg you not to let yourself
get too exhausted by business, but to take good care of
yourselves, both of you - perhaps there will still be some good
in the not too distant future.
I've a good mind to do the “Reaper” over again
for Mother. If not, I'll do another picture for her birthday -
it will be coming later, as I'll send it on with the rest.
For I am convinced that Mother would understand it - since
it is, in fact, as simple as one of those primitive woodcuts
one finds in farmer's almanacs.
Send me the canvas as soon as you can, for if I still want
to do other copies for the sisters, and if I am to make a start
on the new autumn effects, I'll have enough to fill my time
from the beginning of this month to the end.
I'm eating and drinking like a horse at present. I must say
that the doctor is taking very good care of me.
Yes, I do think that it's a good idea to do some pictures
for Holland, for Mother and our two sisters. That will make
three, that is to say the Reaper, the Bedroom, the Olive
trees, Wheat Field and Cypress. It will even make four,
for there's somebody else I'm going to do one for as well.
I shall work at that, of course, with as much pleasure as
for the Vingtistes, and more calmly. Since I feel strong, you
may be sure that I shall get through a lot of work.
I am choosing the best from the twelve subjects, so that
what they'll get will have been thought about a bit and
specially picked. And then, it's a good thing to work for
people who don't know what a picture is.
A good handshake for you and Jo.
I have re-opened this letter again to tell you that I have
just seen M. Peyron. I hadn't seen him for six days.
He told me that this month he expects to go to Paris, and he
will see you there.
This pleases me, because he has - this is certain - lots of
experience and I know he will tell you frankly what he
To me he only said “Hope that it never comes
back.” But I expect it to return for a good long time, at
least for several years.
But I also expect that work, far from being impossible for
me in the intervals, can go on as usual, and it may even be my
And then once again I tell you - other than Mr. doctor
Peyron - that with regard to the administration here it is
probably necessary to be polite, but we must limit ourselves to
that, and not bind ourselves to anything.
It is a very serious thought that wherever I should live
here for any length of time, I would perhaps be subject to
popular prejudices - I do not even know what these prejudices
are - that would make my life with them unbearable.
But after all I will wait for what M. Peyron says to you, I
have no idea of what his opinion may be. This afternoon I have
been working on the portrait of the attendant, which is getting
on. If it were not a good deal softened - completely softened -
by an intelligent look and an expression of kindliness, it
would be a veritable bird of prey. It is very much a Southern
I wonder whether M. Peyron's intended journey will come off
this time. I am very curious to know what may come of it.
After another year I shall perhaps attain command of myself
from the artistic point of view.
And that is always a thing worth seeking. But for that I
must have some luck.
What I dream of in my best moments is not so much striking
colour effects as once more the half tones. And certainly the
visit to the Montpellier gallery contributed to turning my
ideas this way. For what touched me there even more than the
magnificent Courbets, which are marvels - the “Village
Girls,” the “Sleeping Spinner” - were the
portraits of Brias by Delacroix and by Ricard, then the
“Daniel” and “Odalisques” by Delacroix,
all in half tones. For these “Odalisques” are quite
a different thing from those in the Louvre, mostly in violet
But in these half tones, what choice and what quality!
It is time I sent off this letter at last - I could tell you
in two pages what it contains, that is to say, nothing new, but
then I haven't time to do it again.
A good handshake once more and if it is not too much
trouble, let me have the canvas as soon as possible.
Ever yours, Vincent.
At this time, Vincent was 36 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 5 or 6 September 1889 in Saint-Rémy. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 604.
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