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Nuenen: The Potato Eaters · 893 dagen geleden by Ad van den Ende

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Sunday, 14 December 1884.
“My dear Theo,
Here are a couple of scratches of the heads I’m working on — which I do in haste and from memory.
I have to make 50 of these heads — while I’m still here and can get models of all types relatively easily during the winter months. Now the winter months are passing, though, without my making as many as I want and as are necessary if I don’t continue getting on with it.
That’s why I continue getting on with it …”

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 16 December 1884.
My dear Theo,
I’m very busy working on the series of heads of the people1 that I’ve resolved to make.
I enclose herewith another scratch of the last one — I usually just scribble them from memory on a scrap of paper in the evening, hence this one.
I may perhaps do them in watercolour too, later on. But paint them first.
Now listen — do you remember that right at the very beginning I always spoke to you of my great respect and sympathy for the work of père Degroux? I think about him more than ever these days. One mustn’t look at his few history pieces — although they’re fine, too — nor in the first place at a few paintings that are in the sentiment of the writer Conscience, for instance. But one must see his Saying grace, The pilgrimage, The paupers’ pew and, above all, above all, the simple Brabant types.

Degroux Saying grace, The pilgrimage

Degroux is as little appreciated as Thijs Maris, for instance. He’s different, however — but — they have this in common, that they met with fierce opposition.
Now — in this age — whether the public is wiser — I don’t know — but I do know this — that it’s absolutely not superfluous to be serious in what one wants and what one does.
And at this moment I could name you several new names of people who are hammering again on the same old anvil on which Degroux hammered.
If Degroux — at that time — had chosen to dress his Brabant characters in medieval costumes, he would have run parallel to Leys, not just as regards genius but perhaps also — fortune. However, he didn’t do that and now — years later — people have noticeably changed their minds about the medieval — although Leys will always be Leys and Thijs Maris, Thijs Maris — and Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame — Notre-Dame.
But — realism — not wanted then — is now — demanded — and — there’s more need of it than ever. For that realism that has character and a sincere sentiment. I want to tell you this, that as for me, I’ll try to steer a straight course — and will paint — the dead simple, most everyday things.”



To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Monday, 26 January 1885.
My dear Theo,
You would do me a very great favour if you could manage to get hold of
L’Illustration No. 2174 24 October 1884
for me. It’s already an old No, but they’ll still give it out at the office. There’s a drawing by Paul Renouard in it — a weavers’ strike in Lyon. Also one from a series about the Opera — of which he’s also published etchings, it says — The Harpist, which I think very good.
And then he’s also just made The legal world, which I got from Rappard — you probably know it from Dumas’s Paris Illustré.
But I find the drawing of the weavers the finest of them all, and there’s so much body and breadth in it that it seems to me this drawing could well hold its own beside Millet, beside Daumier, beside Lepage.
When I think how he reached this height, by working from nature from the start without imitating other people, and how he’s still in harmony with the very clever people, as far as technique is concerned too, although he had his own way of doing things from the start, then I find him another proof that if one just persists in sticking to nature, it gets better every year.

What I’m more persuaded of every day is that those people who don’t make wrestling with nature the main consideration do not get there.
I think that if one has tried to follow the masters attentively, one encounters them all at certain moments, deep in reality. I mean — what are called their creations — one will also see in reality to the extent that one — has — similar eyes — similar sentiment — to them. And so I also believe this — if the critics or connoisseurs were more familiar with nature, their judgement would be better than now, when it’s the routine to live only among paintings and to compare them with one another.
Which, of course, is right in its context as one side of the question, but lacks a solid basis if one forgets nature and doesn’t look deeply into it.
If I make better work later, I still won’t work otherwise than now; I mean it will be the same apple only riper — I myself won’t turn from what I’ve thought from the start. And this is why I say for my part, if I’m no good now, I won’t be any good later either — but if later, then now too. For wheat is wheat, even if it looks like grass at first to townsfolk — and the other way round too.
In any event — whether people like or don’t like what I do and how I do it, for my part I know no other way but to wrestle with nature until such time as she reveals her secret.

I’m still working on various heads and — hands — I’ve also drawn some more, perhaps you’ll see something in them — then again, perhaps not — what can I do about it? Again — I know no other way.”


To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, between about Thursday, 5 and about Thursday, 26 February 1885.
My dear Theo,
Many thanks for your parcel of L’Illustrations, with which you’ve given me great pleasure.
I hadn’t yet seen anything from Salon 84 in reproduction, and now at least got some idea of a few interesting paintings from the Salon No. Among other things, of that composition by Puvis de Chavannes.2
I imagine that the Harpignies with the setting sun must have been magnificent.3 And the paintings by Feyen-Perrin, of which there are croquis.
What also struck me was a figure of a girl by Emile Lévy, Japonaise, and the painting by Beyle, Women burning seaweed, and the one by Collin, Summer, 3 female nudes.
I’m hard at work on painting those heads. I paint during the day and draw in the evening. I’ve already painted at least 30 or so this way, and drawn as many.
With the result that I see a chance, before long I hope, of doing it very differently. I think that it will help me with the figure in general. Today I had a white and black one, against the flesh colour.
And I’m also always looking for blue. As a rule, the peasant figures here are blue. That, in the ripe wheat or against the withered leaves of a beech hedge, so that the hidden nuances of darker and lighter blue are brought alive again and made to speak by contrast with gold tones or reddish brown, is very beautiful, and has struck me here from the first.

The people here instinctively wear the most beautiful blue that I’ve ever seen. It’s coarse linen that they weave themselves, warp black, weft blue, which creates a black and blue striped pattern. When it’s faded and slightly discoloured by wind and weather, it’s an infinitely calm, subtle shade that specifically brings out the flesh colours. In short, blue enough to react with all the colours in which there are hidden orange elements, and faded enough not to clash.

But this is a question of colour, and the question of the form is what matters more to me at the point where I now find myself. Expressing the form — I think — works best with an almost monochrome colour scheme, the tones of which vary chiefly in intensity and in value. For instance, The well by Jules Breton was painted in a single colour, almost. But one does have to study each colour individually in association with its opposite before one can be really sure of being harmonious.

I painted a few more studies of our garden when there was snow on it.

The garden in the snow

The landscape has changed greatly since then — we now have magnificent evening skies of lilac and gold, above the tonal silhouettes of the houses between the masses of the coppices, which are a ruddy colour, above which rise slender black poplars — while the foregrounds are blanched and bleached green, varied by strips of black earth and dry, pale reeds along the sides of the ditches. I see all that, too — I find it as superb as anyone else — but what interests me even more is the proportion of a figure, the division of the oval of a head, and I have no grasp on the rest until I have more mastery of the figure.
In short — the figure first — for my part, I can’t understand the rest without it, and it’s the figure that creates the mood. I can understand, though, that there are people like Daubigny and Harpignies and Ruisdael and so many others, who are absolutely and irresistibly carried away by the landscape itself; their work is totally satisfying because they themselves were satisfied by sky and soil and a pool of water and a bush.


However, I think what Israëls said about a Dupré is a mighty clever saying — it’s just like a painting of a figure.
Regards, and thanks again for the illustrations.
Yours truly,


To Theo van Gogh, c/o Messrs Goupil, 19 boulevard Montmartre, Paris. Telegram, sent from Eindhoven, Friday, 27 March 1885.
sudden death, come, van gogh.

To Theo van Gogh, c/o 19 boulevard Montmartre, Paris. Telegram, sent from Eindhoven, Friday, 27 March 1885.
Our father fatal stroke, come, but it is over.
Van Gogh

“Mr van Gogh died of a stroke in the evening of Thursday, 26 March. The only known eyewitness account of this was given by Willemien: ‘Pa went out in the morning healthy and in the evening he came home and as he came in the door he collapsed without giving any further sign of life. It was terrible. I shall never forget that night. It happened at half-past seven in the evening. Cor was in Helmond and didn’t get home until half-past one in the morning; oh, it was so dreadful. I hope that you will be preserved from ever experiencing something like that.’ This letter was sent to her friend Line Kruysse (FR b4636. Breda, 26 August 1886).

Theo set out for Nuenen the same day and arrived there on 28 March. Andries Bonger told his father H.C. Bonger about it: ‘Never have I taken a friend to the Gare du Nord in more melancholy circumstances than on Friday of last week. My friend Van Gogh had heard the news that morning that his father had suffered a sudden stroke and died. He had received a letter from him just the day before in which he said he was perfectly well. Van Gogh himself is not very strong; so you can understand the state he was in when he left.’ (FR b1811. Paris, 31 March 1885). (Van Gogh museum)

The Bible and Zola’s ‘La Joie de vivre’

The extinguished candle links this picture to the death of Vincent’s father. The Bible is a fine edition, sober and melancholy. It is opened at Isaiah 53, where the prophet speaks of the exaltation that awaits those who suffer. Zola’s ‘La Joie de vivre’ tells of a family who sqander their great fortune. The household is ruined. The maidservant hangs herself, the mother dies of dropsy. But the inflexible father asserts the value of life. In this character Vincent probably saw himself.


Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, Thursday, 9 April 1885.
Herewith two scratches after a couple of studies that I made, while at the same time I’m working on those peasants around a dish of potatoes again.
I’ve just come home from there — and have worked on it further by lamplight — although this time I started it in daylight.

The Potato Eaters

See, this is what the composition has now become. I’ve painted it on a fairly large canvas, and as the sketch is now, I believe there’s life in it.
But I know for certain that C.M. for instance, would speak of — badly drawn &c.
Do you know what can definitely be said to counter that? That the beautiful effects of the light in nature require one to work very fast. Now I know very well that the great masters were able both to finish and to maintain the vitality, particularly in the period of their mature experience.
But that’s something I certainly won’t be able to do like that for the time being.
At the point where I now am, though, I see a chance of giving a felt impression of what I see.
Not always literally exactly — rather never exactly — for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.
What I’d like to advise now is the following: don’t let the time slip by — let me work as much as is in any way possible — and keep all the studies from now on yourself. I’d rather not sign any of them yet, though, because I wouldn’t like to have them circulating like paintings, so that one would have to buy them back later should one make something of a name.
But it’s good that you’re showing them, because you’ll see that some day we’ll find someone who wants to do what I’m suggesting to you, that is, make a collection of studies.
I mean to go out regularly in the mornings and just tackle whatever I see the people doing in the fields or at home. As I do now anyway.
Not all painters make a lot of studies — but many do, and the young ones in particular have to do it as much as possible, don’t they? Anyone who owns a painter’s studies can be as good as certain (at least so it seems to me) that there’s a bond between the painter and him that can’t easily be broken just on a whim.
I hope that gradually my studies will give you some new courage. Neither you nor I are contemporaries of that generation that Gigoux rightly calls ‘the valiant ones’ in that book of yours that I read.

But maintaining the enthusiasm of those days at this time is nonetheless advisable, it seems to me, because it’s often true that fortune favours the bold, and be this as it may — about fortune or ‘la joie (?) de vivre’,6 that is — one must work and be bold if one really wants to live. And I say, let’s paint a lot and be productive, and be ourselves with faults and qualities — I say us — because the money from you that I know causes you trouble enough to provide for me, gives you the right, if anything good happens in my work, to consider half of it as your own creation.
Regards, with a handshake.
Yours truly,

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, Thursday, 30 April 1885.
“My dear Theo,
Sincere wishes for your good health and serenity on your birthday. I would like to have sent you the painting of the potato eaters for this day, but although it’s coming along well, it’s not quite finished yet.
Although I’ll have painted the actual painting in a relatively short time, and largely from memory, it’s taken a whole winter of painting studies of heads and hands. And as for the few days in which I’ve painted it now — it’s consequently been a formidable fight, but one for which I have great enthusiasm. Although at times I feared that it wouldn’t come off. But painting is also ‘act and create’.

The Potato Eaters

When the weavers weave those fabrics that I believe they call cheviots, and also the singular Scottish multicoloured tartan fabrics — then they try, as you know, to get singular broken colours and greys in the cheviots — or to get the very brightest colours in balance against one another in the multicoloured tartans so that, rather than the fabric clashing, the overall effect of the pattern is harmonious from a distance. A grey that’s woven from red, blue, yellow, off-white and black threads, a blue that — is broken by a green and an orange, red or yellow thread — are very different from plain colours — that is, they vibrate more and make whole colours look harsh, whole, and lifeless.
However, it’s not always exactly easy for the weaver, or rather the designer of the pattern or the colour combination, to work out his calculation of the number of threads and their direction — nor is it easy to weave brushstrokes together into a harmonious whole. If you saw the first painted studies that I made when I came here to Nuenen — and the present canvas — side by side — I think you’d see that as far as colour is concerned — things have livened up.”


To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 2 May 1885.
My dear Theo,
I think you’ll see what I mean from the painting of the potato eaters.
I think that Portier will understand it. It’s very dark, though, and in the white, for instance, white has hardly been used at all but simply the neutral colour that occurs if one mixes red, blue, yellow together — say vermilion, Paris blue and Naples yellow. So this colour in itself is a fairly dark grey, but it looks white in the painting. I’ll tell you why I do this. The subject here is a grey interior, lit by a small lamp.

The drab linen tablecloth, the smoke-stained wall, the dusty caps in which the women have worked on the land — all these, when you look at them through your eyelashes, prove to be very dark grey in the light of the lamp, and the lamp, although being a red gold glow, is even lighter — and by a long way — than that white.
Now the flesh tones — I know that on a superficial examination, that is if you don’t think it through, they look like what people call flesh colour.
I did paint them that way at the beginning of the painting — some yellow ochre, red ochre and white, for example.
But that was much too light and certainly didn’t do.
What was to be done? — I had finished all the heads and even finished them with great care — but I quickly repainted them without mercy, and the colour they’re painted now is something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course.

The Potato Eaters

While I was doing it I thought again about what has so rightly been said of Millet’s peasants — ‘His peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow’. A phrase I can’t help thinking of whenever I see them at work, outside as well as indoors. I’m certain that if you were to ask Millet, Daubigny, Corot to paint a snowy landscape without using white — they would do it and the snow would appear white in their paintings.
What you say about the lithograph, that the effect is woolly, I think so too, and it isn’t my own fault, in so far as the lithographer insisted that it wouldn’t print properly because I’d left virtually no white on the stone. On his advice I then bit out light areas. If I had just printed it as the drawing was, it would have been generally darker but wouldn’t have lacked cohesion. And there would still have been atmosphere between the planes.

Lithograph Potato Eaters

Still, what should I do with the painting? It’s as big as last year’s woman spinning. I’ve got it in the cottage again to do more things to it from life. I believe I’ll finish it though — in a manner of speaking — for I myself will actually never think my own work finished or ready.
I can make a smaller version of it or a drawing, though, if you would rather have that, for I feel the thing in such a way that I can literally dream it.

Can you not understand that the thing I scribble down here was superb? When I went to the cottage this evening I found the folk eating their meal by the light of the little window instead of under the lamp.
Oh, it was astonishingly beautiful. The colour was also singular — you remember those heads painted against the window — the effect was like that, only darker still.
So that the two women and the interior were almost exactly the same colour as dark green soap. But the figure of the man on the left was just lit by light coming in from a door further along. Thus head and hands became the colour of, say, a 10-centime piece, that is, dull copper. And his smock the most delicate faded blue possible, where the light caught it.

Millet Angelus

As regards the light paintings of the present day, I’ve seen so few of them in recent years. But I’ve thought a great deal about the question. Corot, Millet, Daubigny, Israëls, Dupré, others — also paint light paintings — that is, one can see into all the corners and depths etc. — however deep the spectrum may be.
But not one of them — the above-mentioned — are people who literally paint the local tone; they follow the spectrum they start with — carry through their own idea — in colour and tone and drawing. And that their lights are generally fairly dark greys — in themselves — which look light in the painting by contrast — that’s a truth that you have the opportunity to observe every day.
I think that you’ll certainly see in the painting that I have my own way of looking, but that it nonetheless links up with others — certain Belgians, for instance.

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, Monday, 4 and Tuesday, 5 May 1885.
My dear Theo,
When I see in the Salon issue, for instance, so many paintings which are impeccably drawn and painted in terms of technique, if one will, many of them bore me stiff all the same, because they don’t make me feel or think anything, because they’ve evidently been made without a certain passionateness. And there’s something passionate in what I’m sending you — I’ve had a great desire to make it, and it’s with a certain fervour that I worked on it. I wasn’t bored — so perhaps it won’t bore others.

Jules Breton The song of the lark

How fine, though, I think Jules Breton’s The song of the lark in the Salon issue — the painting by Roll, also the Fantin-Latour— also The Cornish coast, Vernier, and several others too — rest assured — I think they’re magnificent, although I can safely say that I find other apparently huge canvases dreadfully boring.
I hear Tissot has an exhibition — have you seen it?
It all comes down to the degree of life and passion that an artist manages to put into his figure. So long as they really live, a figure of a lady by Alfred Stevens, say, or some Tissots are also really magnificent. And the peasants by Lhermitte, Millet, are so fine precisely because of the life.
Whichever school one may work in — be it Israëls, Herkomer, so many different views — if it’s felt and lives, then it’s good.

Herkomer Hard times

And nothing says more clearly what I mean, nowhere do I find so many grounds for my supposition, as that phrase which so accurately makes one feel Millet’s colour and technique. His peasant seems to have been painted with the very soil he sows.

Your letter with the enclosure just came, for which many thanks. I find what you say about the Salon interesting. I can see from what you say about the Besnard painting that you understood what I was talking about, about broken colours, orange broken by blue and vice versa. Only, there are other, different spectrums too. But that of orange against blue is logical, as is yellow against lilac, as is red against green.”


To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 2 June 1885.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for sending the money for this month so promptly. I’m satisfied with what you write about the painting, the comments that they made, Portier and Serret, but that they still found good things in it. I myself have criticisms of it, and more serious ones than theirs — that about the torsos — so I don’t wish them to approve of the whole. When you speak to them, just tell them that it may very well be that I draw back from the present copper and green soap-like tones, but that this drawing back will, I hope, be twofold, namely that I hope to paint some in a lighter spectrum, more flesh and blood — but equally am searching for something that’s even more green soap and coppery. In reality, every day in the gloomy cottages I see effects against the light or in the evenings in the dusk that are so curious that so far my work still seems to me too light for the effects in question, that is, those I compare to green soap and the copper-colour of a worn 10-centime piece, for want of anything better, and paint them with those colours, for want of anything better. But I wanted to succeed on the gloomy side too. What I’ve talked about before: the peasant painted with the soil he sows.
among the latter you’ll find a head that I couldn’t help painting after reading Germinal.

I’m actually planning to repeat the painting of the cottage once more. The thing struck me greatly; those two cottages, half decayed under one and the same thatched roof, reminded me of a couple of worn-out old folk who make up just one single being and whom one sees supporting each other.
For you see, they are two dwellings and the chimney is double. One sees that here a lot, by the way.
What shall I say to you? — some day the future and experience will say — what I can’t find the right words for. I mean — that enthusiasm sometimes counts for more than even the calculating types who consider themselves ‘above it all’. And instinct — inspiration — impulse — conscience — guide more truly than many people think. And be that as it may, for my part I agree with it, better to die of passion than to die of boredom.”

The old Tower

The old tower is being pulled down next week! The spire’s already off — I’m working on a painting of it. In these new drawings I’m starting the figures with the torso, and it seems to me that they’re fuller and broader as a result. If 50 aren’t enough, I’ll draw 100 of them, and if that’s still not enough, even more, until I’ve got what I want solidly, that’s to say that everything is round, and there is as it were neither beginning nor end anywhere on the form, but it constitutes a single, harmonious, living whole.
You know that this is precisely the question that was discussed in Gigoux’s book, ‘do not start from the line but from the middle’.
And then there are also fellows who maintain that all dogmas are absurd by the very nature of the thing. Pity that this is just another dogma itself. One simply has to do it as one does it, take care to make something of it, seek to get it to live.

Thijs Maris

If people hadn’t made Thijs Maris too wretched and too melancholy to work, perhaps he would have found something amazing. I think about that chap so often, Theo, for his work is truly marvellous.
It’s a pipe dream — but what a master! God! If only that chap was still as he was when he began! What a focus he would become! For the present-day Dutch school needs new people who can do something in order to come along.”

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 9 June 1885.
My dear Theo,

Peasant cemetery

Today I sent off that little crate, containing 1 other painting, Peasant cemetery, besides what I already told you.
I’ve left out some details — I wanted to say how this ruin shows that for centuries the peasants have been laid to rest there in the very fields that they grubbed up in life — I wanted to say how perfectly simply death and burial happen, coolly as the falling of an autumn leaf — no more than a bit of earth turned over — a little wooden cross. The fields around — where the grass of the churchyard ends, beyond the little wall, they make a last fine line against the horizon — like the horizon of a sea. And now this ruin says to me how a faith and religion mouldered away, although it was solidly founded — how, though, the life and death of the peasants is and will always be the same, springing up and withering regularly like the grass and the flowers that grow there in that churchyard. Victor Hugo, whom they’ve also just buried, said Religions pass, God remains.
I don’t know whether you’ll see anything in these two things — the cottage with the mossy roof reminded me of a wren’s nest. Anyway, you must just look at them.
What I further assert is that one does both others and especially oneself too a disservice by being bored. In spite of many wise lessons, I’ve never seriously granted that being bored ‘for one’s own good’ can have its good, practical side. Now a MASS of people have reformed themselves at the age of about 30 and changed very considerably.
Tomorrow I’m going to paint a thing in another village — also a cottage — in a smaller size. I found it last Sunday on a long trip I made in the company of a peasant boy — in order to get hold of a wren’s nest. We found 6; without doubt it was a place that Bodmer would have adored. And they were all nests from which the young had already flown, so that one could take them without too many pangs of conscience. It was so real; I also have some other splendid nests.

A wren’s nest

I’m glad that this time I can show Portier something very different again. I’m busy drawing, by the way, so as to send a few full-length figures in a little while. But working on the cottages — perhaps you’ll say imitations of Michel, although they aren’t — and searching for subjects, I’ve found such splendid cottages that I now really must go bird’s nesting with a number of variations of these ‘people’s nests’, which remind me so much of the nests of wrens — that’s to say, paint them.
Oh — one mustn’t doubt — anyone who paints the peasants nowadays and has his heart in his work, he wins — at least a part, and not the worst although it’s not the largest — of the public.
I wish you’d been here on Sunday when we went on that trip. I came back covered in mud because we had to spend a good half hour wading through a stream. But for me painting is now becoming as stimulating and enticing as hunting — it is a hunt, after all, for models, and beautiful places too.
Regards again, and best wishes to you. It’s already late and I have to be at the place at 5 o’clock, so — adieu.”

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, Monday, 15 June 1885.
My dear Theo,
I’m very busy with the figure drawings; however I’ll have to make 100 or so before I paint them, since that will save me time and money.
I believe I’ll get them rounder and fuller than before.
Yours truly,
Painting peasant life is something that remains good, and the fight that others won is still going on and one can win it again. Far from there being too many peasant painters — to my mind it would be better if there could be hundreds more.
It’s not a bad idea that in France they’re going to decorate the town halls with subjects from rural life, like a number of the paintings that were at the Salon. I do think that this will be taken still further.
But — it would be even better for the peasant paintings to come into the houses, straight to the people, in the illustrated magazines and other reproductions.
So when I feel discouragement it’s only in passing.
I heard from home that you’d written something to them about Serret, about how he said I could be assured of his sympathy &c. Is Serret a painter, a dealer or an art lover? As of today, I don’t know.”

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Monday, 22 June 1885.
My dear Theo,
Thanks for your letter and the enclosure, which is exactly what I meant and enables me to work at the end of the month just as at the beginning of the month.
I was very pleased to hear that Serret is the painter about whom you had previously written things that I had really remembered, but the name had escaped me. I’d like to write much more to you than I will in this letter, but when I get home nowadays I’m really not in the mood for writing when I’ve been sitting in the sun all day. As to what Serret says, I think so too — I’ll drop him a line, because I’d like to become friends with him. As I already told you, these days I’m hard at work on figure drawings — I’ll send them specifically with an eye to Serret, to show him that I’m far from indifferent to the unity of a figure and the form.
It just happened to me that, having not heard anything from him in 3 months or so, I suddenly got a letter from Rappard, with whom I’ve been on good terms for years, so supercilious and so full of insults and, it seemed to me, so obviously written after he’d been in The Hague that I’m as good as certain that I’ve lost him as a friend for good.
The drawback to painting is that if one doesn’t sell one’s paintings one still has to have money for paints and models to make progress. And that drawback is ugly. But otherwise — painting and, to my mind, particularly painting peasant life, gives peace of mind, even though one has a lot of scraping along and wretchedness on the outside of life. I mean painting is a home, and one doesn’t have that homesickness, that peculiar thing that Hennebeau had.
The passage I copied out then struck me very much because, almost literally at that time, I had just such a longing to be something like a grass-mower or polder worker.
And I was sick of the boredom of civilization. It is better, one is happier if one puts it into effect — but pretty much literally — at least one feels really alive. And it is something to be deep in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in the autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in the summer, to be deep in the grass in the spring. It is something to always be with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with the big sky above, in the winter by the black fireplace. And to feel -– this has always been so and always will be. One may sleep on straw, eat rye bread — well then, in the long run one is the healthier for it.
Serret may agree with you that making good things and selling are quite separate. But there’s no truth in that. When the public saw Millet at last, his work collected together — then the public in both Paris and London was enthusiastic. And who was it who had stood in the way and rejected Millet? — the dealers — the so-called experts &c.”

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 14 July 1885.
My dear Theo,
I don’t know the future, Theo — but — I do know the eternal law that everything changes — think back 10 years and things were different, the conditions, the mood of the people, everything in short. And 10 years on, a great deal is bound to have changed again. But doing something endures — and one doesn’t easily regret having done something. The more active the better, and I’d rather fail than sit idle.


If you had these 4 canvases and a few more, smaller studies of cottages, and someone saw nothing by me other than those, they’d be bound to think that I did nothing other than paint cottages. And likewise with that series of heads. But peasant life involves such diverse things that when Millet speaks of ‘working like a bunch of negroes’, this really does have to happen if one wants to achieve a whole.
One may laugh at Courbet’s saying, ‘painting angels! who has ever seen angels!’ But I’d just like to add, for instance, ‘justices in the harem, who has ever seen justices in the Harem?’ (the painting by Benjamin-Constant). ‘Bull fights, who has ever seen those?’ and so many other Moorish, Spanish things, Cardinals, and then all those history paintings, which are still always there, metres high by metres wide! What’s the point of it all, and what do people want with it? After a few years most of it becomes stale and dull, and more and more boring.
Perhaps you think that I’m wrong to comment on this — but — I’m so gripped by the thought that all these exotic paintings are painted in THE STUDIO. But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen — I must have picked a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand &c. — not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them &c. Not to mention that when one arrives on the heath after a couple of hours’ walk in this weather, one is tired and hot. Not to mention that the figures don’t stand still like professional models, and the effects that one wants to capture change as the day wears on.
Zola who otherwise, to my mind, often makes colossal mistakes in his judgement of paintings — says something beautiful about art in general in ‘Mes haines’. ‘In the painting (the work of art) I look for, I love the man — the artist.’
That’s to say, living in those cottages day in and day out, being out in the fields just like the peasants — enduring the heat of the sun in the summer, the snow and frost in the winter, not indoors but outside, and not for a walk, but day in and day out like the peasants themselves.
And I ask you, when you think about it, am I so wrong to criticize the criticism of the connoisseurs, who are presently fencing more busily than ever with the often so meaningless word technique (they’re increasingly giving it a conventional meaning)?
Seemingly there’s nothing simpler than painting peasants or rag-pickers and other labourers but — no subjects in painting are as difficult as those everyday figures!
There isn’t — as far as I know — a single academy where one learns to draw and paint a digger, a sower, a woman hanging a pot over the fire, or a seamstress. But in every town of any consequence at all there’s an academy with a choice of models for historical, Arab, Louis XV and, in a word, all figures, provided they don’t exist in reality.

If I send you and Serret a few studies of diggers or peasant women who are weeding, gleaning corn &c. as the start of a whole series about all kinds of work in the fields — then it may be that either Serret or you will discover faults in them which will be useful for me to know about, and which I’ll naturally concede myself.
But I want to point out something that’s perhaps worth noting. All academic figures are constructed in the same way and, let’s admit, one couldn’t do better. Impeccable — without faults — you’ll already have seen what I’m driving at — also without giving us anything new to discover.
Not so the figures of a Millet, a Lhermitte, a Régamey, a Lhermitte, a Daumier.

Lhermitte Payment of the Mowers

They’re also well constructed — but not the way the academy teaches, after all. I think that no matter how academically correct a figure may be, it’s REDUNDANT in this day and age, even if it were by Ingres himself (apart from his Source of course, because that indeed was and is and will remain something new) if it lacks that essential modernism — the intimate character, the actual DOING SOMETHING.

Ingres The Source

When will the figure not be redundant then, even though there were necessarily faults and grave faults in it to my mind, you’ll probably ask.
When the digger digs, when the peasant is a peasant, and the peasant woman a peasant woman. Is this something new? Yes. Even the little figures by Ostade, Ter Borch don’t work the way they do nowadays.

I’d like to say a lot more about this and I’d like to say how much I myself want to do what I’ve begun even better — and how much higher than my own I value the work of some others. I ask you — do you know of a single digger, a single sower in the old Dutch school??? Did they ever try to make ‘a labourer’? Did Velázquez try it in his water-carrier? Or his folk types? No.
Work, that’s what the figures in the old paintings don’t do. These days I’m slogging away at a woman whom I saw last winter, lifting carrots in the snow. There it is — Millet did it, Lhermitte, and in general the peasant painters of this century — an Israëls — they find that more beautiful than anything else. But even in this century, how relatively few there are among the legion of painters who want the figure — yes — above all — for the sake of the figure (i.e. for the sake of form and modelling) but can’t conceive of it other than working, and also have the need — which the old masters avoided, as did the old Dutch masters who depicted so many conventional actions — and — I say — have the need to paint the action for the action’s sake.
Tell Serret that I would be desperate if my figures were good, tell him that I don’t want them academically correct. Tell him that I mean that if one photographs a digger, then he would certainly not be digging. Tell him that I think Michelangelo’s figures magnificent, even though the legs are definitely too long — the hips and buttocks too broad. Tell him that in my view Millet and Lhermitte are consequently the true painters, because they don’t paint things as they are, examined drily and analytically, but as they, Millet, Lhermitte, Michelangelo, feel them. Tell him that my great desire is to learn to make such inaccuracies, such variations, reworkings, alterations of the reality, that it might become, very well — lies if you will — but — truer than the literal truth.

And now I must close soon — I did need, though, just to talk about the fact that those who paint the life of the peasants or the common people, although they aren’t counted among the men of the world — will still, however, perhaps endure better in the long run than the makers of the exotic but painted in Paris harems and cardinals’ receptions.
Showing the figure of the peasant in action, you see that’s what a figure is — I repeat — essentially modern — the heart of modern art itself — that which neither the Greeks, nor the Renaissance, nor the old Dutch school have done.
To me, this is a matter I think about every day. However, this difference between both the great and the lesser masters of the present (the great, for instance Millet, Lhermitte, Breton, Herkomer; the lesser, for instance Raffaëlli and Régamey) and the old schools isn’t something I’ve often found expressed truly forthrightly in articles on art.

Jules Breton

Just think about whether you don’t find it’s true, though. The figure of the peasant and the workman started more as a ‘genre’ — but nowadays, with Millet in the van as the eternal master, it’s the very heart of modern art and will remain so.”