My dear Theo,
I’ve been to Amsterdam this week — I hardly had time to see anything but the museum.1
I was there 3 days; went Tuesday, back Thursday. Result is that I’m very glad I went, whatever the cost, and that I don’t propose going for so long again without seeing paintings.
I’d already put it off and put it off, that and so much else, because of the cost. But it’s much better that I can no longer imagine that this is the thing to do. I get too much out of it — for my work, and when I look at the old paintings, which I can decipher as regards technique very differently from before — then perhaps I have precious little need for conversation anyway.
I don’t know whether you remember that to the left of the Night watch,2 in other words as a pendant to the Syndics,3 there’s a painting — it was unknown to me until now — by Frans Hals and P. Codde, 20 or so officers full length.4 Have you noticed it???5 In itself, that painting alone makes the trip to Amsterdam well worth while, especially for a colourist. There’s a figure in it, the figure of the standard-bearer in the extreme left corner, right up against the frame.  1v:2 That figure is in grey from top to toe, let’s call it pearl grey, — of a singular neutral tone — probably obtained with orange and blue mixed so that they neutralize each other — by varying this basic colour in itself — by making it a little lighter here, a little darker there, the whole figure is as it were painted with one and the same grey. But the leather shoes are a different material from the leggings, which are different from the folds of the breeches, which are different from the doublet — expressing different materials, very different in colour one from another, still all one family of grey — but wait!
Into that grey he now introduces blue and orange — and some white.
The doublet has satin ribbons of a divine soft blue. Sash and flag orange — a white collar.
Orange, white, blue, as the national colours were then.6 Orange and blue next to each other, that most glorious spectrum — on a ground of grey judiciously mixed,  1v:3 precisely by uniting just those two, let me call them poles of electricity (in terms of colour, though) so that they obliterate each other, a white against that grey. Further carried through in that painting — other orange spectrums against a different blue, further the most glorious blacks against the most glorious whites — the heads — some twenty — sparkling with spirit and life, and how they’re done! and what colour! the superb appearance of all those fellows, full length. But that orange, white, blue chap in the left corner — — …… I’ve seldom seen a more divinely beautiful figure — — it’s something marvellous.
Delacroix would have adored it — just adored it to the utmost.
I stood there literally rooted to the spot. Now you know the singer, that laughing chap — bust in a greenish black with carmine.
Carmine in the flesh colour, too.7
You know the bust of the man in yellow — dull lemon — whose face, because of the opposition of tones, is a daring and masterly bronze, like wine-red (violet?).8  1r:4
Bürger wrote about Rembrandt’s Jewish bride9 just as he wrote about Vermeer of Delft,10 just as he wrote about Millet’s sower,11just as he wrote about Frans Hals12 — dedicating himself and surpassing himself. The Syndics is perfect — the finest Rembrandt — but that Jewish bride — not reckoned so much — what an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting, painted — with a glowing hand.13 You see, in The syndics Rembrandt is true to life, although even there he still goes into the higher — into the very highest — infinite. But yet — Rembrandt could do something else — when he didn’t have to be true in the literal sense, as he did in a portrait — when he could — make poetry — be a poet, that’s to say Creator. That’s what he is in the Jewish bride. Oh how Delacroix would have understood that very painting! What a noble sentiment, fathomlessly deep. One must have died many times to paint like this14 — is certainly applicable here. Still — one can speak about the paintings by Frans Hals, he always remains — on earth. Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.15 It is with justice that they call Rembrandt — magician16 that’s no easy occupation.  2r:5
I’ve packed up various still lifes which you’ll receive next week, with two souvenirs of Amsterdam that I snatched in haste and also a couple of drawings.17 Will also send you before long a book by De Goncourt — Chérie.18 De Goncourt is always good, and the way he works so conscientious, and so much toil goes into it.
I saw two paintings by Israëls in Amsterdam, that is the Zandvoort fisherman and — one of his very latest, an old woman, hunched up like a bundle of rags, by a bedstead in which her husband’s corpse is lying.19 I thought them both masterly. Let people prattle on about technique as they will, with hollow, hypocritical, Pharisee words — the true painters — allow themselves to be guided by that conscience that’s called sentiment; their soul, their brains aren’t led by the brush, but the brush is led by their brains. Moreover it’s the canvas that’s afraid of a true painter, and not the painter who’s afraid of the canvas.  2v:6
In Amsterdam I saw other present-day paintings, Witkamp20 and others. Witkamp’s certainly the best, reminds me of Jules Breton; others I have in mind but won’t name, who — fence — with what they call technique, for my part I found WEAK precisely in the technical sense. You know — all those cold, grey tones that they think are distinguished and that are flat and bloody boringly, childishly mixed. Nowadays, for the convenience of painters who work in what they think is a distinguished, light spectrum, they deliberately manufacture colours consisting of — the ordinary ones mixed with pure white. Bah!
Listen — the technique, the mixing of colour, the modelling of the Zandvoort fisherman, for instance, is to my mind Delacroix-like and superb, and the present-day cold, flat greys — don’t mean much in terms of technique, become paint, and Israëls is beyond the paint.21 To be sure — I’m not talking about Jaap Maris, Willem Maris, Mauve, Neuhuys, who each worked in his singular spectrum in the right manner — Blommers &c.  2v:7 But the school of the masters, their followers, Theo — I think they’re getting threadbare.
Went to the Fodor too.22
Decamps’s shepherd really is a masterpiece23 — do you remember the Meissonier — a sketch — of a deathbed?24 The Diaz?25 Well, I always like to see Bosboom,26 Waldorp,27 Nuijen,28 Rochussen,29 the original fellows of that period 40 years back. Rochussen has a vitality like Gavarni’s.
The still lifes I’m sending you are studies for colour. I’m going to do some more — don’t think this is pointless. They’ll sink in after a while, but in a year, say, they’ll be better than now once they’re dry right through and are given a thorough varnishing. If you use drawing pins to hang a large number of my studies on a wall in your room, both the earlier ones and these — just jumbled together — you’ll see, I believe, that there’s a link between these studies, that the colours work well alongside one another.  2r:8
Speaking — of — too black — I’m very glad, all the more so as I see more of the paintings in cold, childish spectrums — that they think my studies are too black.30
Look at the Zandvoort fisherman, and what is it painted with? Is it painted with red, with blue, with yellow, with black and some off-white, with brown (all well mixed and broken) or not? When Israëls says that one mustn’t be black, he certainly never means what they’re making of it now; he means that one gives colour to the shadows, but of course that really doesn’t rule out a single spectrum, however low, not that of the blacks and browns and deep blues.
But what’s the point of thinking about it — it’s better to think about Rembrandt, about Frans Hals, about Israëls, than about that respectable impotence.  3r:9
I’m writing at some length — even if you perhaps don’t believe what I say about the colours, and even if you think me pessimistic when I say that much of what they call subtle grey is very ugly grey, even if you think me pessimistic or worse still when I also condemn the smooth finishing of faces, hands, eyes, since all the great masters worked differently — perhaps, little by little, your own study of art, which you have happily begun again properly, will change you too. Now I have a favour to ask you. That friend of mine in Eindhoven, who went with me to Amsterdam,31 bought Bürger, Musées de la Hollande, Van der Hoop et Rotterdam at C.M.’s, but C.M. didn’t have the first volume, Musées de la Haye et d’Amsterdam.32 We must have that one though. It’s out of print, but you’ll be able to dig one up somewhere, and he’s even prepared to give 10 francs for it if need be, although preferably cheaper, of course. I’ll send you what it costs you straightaway, since it’s for him, and he charged me with this on that condition. So will you do your best to get it? If you do find it, read it through again yourself first — because it’s so good.
I didn’t go into C.M.’s with him.  3v:10
The two little panels I painted in Amsterdam were done in a tearing hurry, one of them, mark you, in the station waiting room when I was a bit early for the train, the other one in the morning, before I went to the museum at about 10 o’clock. Even so, I’m sending them to you, in the manner of tiles on which one has dashed something off with a few strokes.
As regards the end of this month — old chap, I’m literally cleaned out — what’s to be done? Couldn’t you send an extra twenty francs or something? I have to pay for paint again next month, 1 Nov. 25 guilders rent.
As regards connections for my work — I did speak to someone, and if I ever go again I’ll take work with me. There’s a general laxness that MAKES it EASY ENOUGH as regards finding a chance to exhibit.
LET´S PAINT A VERY GREAT DEAL. That’s the message if we want to succeed, work a lot precisely because it’s slack — then one day, rather than finding all ports closed to us — we may be able to lash a broom to the mast.33 Regards.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 537 | CL: 426
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 10 October 1885

1. By ‘the museum’ Van Gogh means the Rijksmuseum, which had opened in July; later in the letter we learn that he also went to see other collections.
2. Rembrandt, The night watch, 1642. Ill. 356 [356].
4. Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, The company of Captain Reynier Reael and Lieutenant Cornelis Michielsz. Blaeuw (‘The meagre company’) (1637). Ill. 152 [152].
5. Theo had visited Amsterdam at the beginning of August (see letter 522, n. 1).
6. Orange, white and light blue were the colours of William I, Prince of Orange, the founder of the Dutch state; they were used for (and to refer to) the Dutch flag.
7. Van Gogh means The fool. Ill. 2154 [2154]. At the time it was believed to be a work by Frans Hals, but is now thought to be a copy of the Hals painting that is in Alain de Rothschild’s collection in Paris. See cat. Amsterdam 1976.
8. Frans Hals, The merry drinker, c. 1628-1630. Ill. 150 [150]. Van Gogh borrowed the term ‘citron amorti’ (dull lemon) from De Goncourt's Chérie, where an artist talks of ‘la nuance citron amorti’, which was a fashionable colour in the eighteenth century (ed. 1884, p. 182). Van Gogh had just read this book (see n. 18).
9. See for Rembrandt’s Jewish bride [2119] and for what Thoré (under the pseudonym W. Bürger) wrote about it: letter 430, nn. 10 and 11.
10. Thoré wrote about Jan Vermeer of Delft in Musées de la Hollande (Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 1, pp. 272-273; vol. 2, pp. 67-88).
11. Thoré discussed Millet’s Sower in his article ‘Salon de 1861’: see letter 298, n. 2.
12. Thoré wrote about the works of Frans Hals in the Rijksmuseum in Musées de la Hollande. He called him a ‘Dutch Tintoretto’ (Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 1, pp. 58-60, quotation on p. 58).
13. The description ‘with a glowing hand’ is probably a quote.
14. In La femme Jules Michelet had written about the painting Charity by Andrea del Sarto in the Louvre: ‘You can only talk or paint like that when you have died several times’ (C’est quand on est mort plusieurs fois qu’on peut dire ou peindre ainsi) (Michelet 1863, p. 187).
15. Fromentin had described Rembrandt’s inimitable spirit in similar terms in Les maîtres d’autrefois: ‘He was a spiritualist through and through; in a word: an ideologist, I mean a soul whose world is that of ideas and language is that of ideas. Therein lies the key to the mystery’ (C’était un pur spiritualiste, disons-le d’un seul mot: un idéologue, je veux dire un esprit dont le domaine est celui des idées et la langue celle des idées. La clef du mystère est là) (see Fromentin 1902, chapter 16, p. 413). Van Gogh was familiar with this book: see letter 450.
16. Van Gogh borrowed the description ‘magician’ for Rembrandt from Jules Michelet, L’amour (book 5, chapter 4, ‘There is no such thing as an old woman’ (Il n’y a point de vieille femme), in which he refers to ‘The powerful magician, Rembrandt’ (Le puissant magicien Rembrandt) (Michelet, L’amour, p. 382).
17. For a partial reconstruction of the content of this consignment see letter 535, n. 1. The ‘two souvenirs of Amsterdam’ (Van Gogh refers to them again in l. 219) are the small panels View in Amsterdam (F 113 / JH 944 [2534]) and De Ruyterkade in Amsterdam (F 211 / JH 973 [2542]), painted on 7 and 8 October. For the identification of the location they depict and the related redating of the second work: cat. Amsterdam 1999, pp. 212-217, cat. no. 41.
[2534] [2542]
18. The novel Chérie (1884) by Edmond de Goncourt tells the story of the brief life of Marie Chérie Haudancourt, a girl living in the Paris ‘beau monde’ at the time of the Second Empire. From repeated references, however, it appears that it was primarily the introduction that held significance for Van Gogh. See letters 550, 559, 560 and 562. Van Gogh’s copy, an 1884 edition, is in the Van Gogh Museum Collection (shelf mark BVG 1341).
19. The two works by Jozef Israëls referred to here are The way past the graveyard, 1856 (Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum. On loan to the Groninger Museum), which was also known as Passing mother’s grave and The Zandvoort fisherman (Ill. 3063 [3063]), and Alone in the world, 1878 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Ill. 2155 [2155].
[3063] [2155]
20. At that time Ernest Witkamp’s painting In the field hung in the Rijksmuseum; the current title is Woman in the field, 1883 (Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum). Ill. 1427 [1427].
21. See for the expression ‘beyond the paint’: letter 439, n. 3.
22. See for the Fodor collection: letter 131, n. 7.
23. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, A shepherd with his flock, 1843 (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum; on loan from the Amsterdams Historisch Museum). Ill. 752 [752].
24. Ernest Meissonier, The deathbed, 1838 (Lost since January 1972). Ill. 251 [251].
25. Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña, A nymph with cupids, 1851 (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). Ill. 2156 [2156].
26. Museum Fodor owned three paintings by Johannes Bosboom: A young monk playing the organ, The Bakenesse church in Haarlem and Communion Service in Grote Kerk, Utrecht as well as the drawing Communion Service in Grote Kerk, Utrecht. See cat. Amsterdam 1873, pp. 6 (cat. nos. 13-15) and 25 (cat. no. 295); exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1995-1, pp. 112-113, cat. nos. 18-20.
[963] [595]
27. There were six works by the Dutch painter Antonie Waldorp, who was known for his townscapes, beach scenes and river views, Ships by a jetty in calm weather, A lift bridge over a city canal (1849), Interior of a church in Alkmaar (1845) and View of Spaarnwoude in stormy weather; and the drawings Interior of a Reformed Church and View of Spaarndam (1842). See exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1995-1, pp. 154-155, cat. nos. 154-157.
[598] [599] [600] [601]
28. The Fodor Museum had A fish market by the Dutch painter Wijnand Nuijen, 1838. See exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1995-1, p. 136, cat. no. 96.
29. Fodor had Dogs resting by a fish-cart, 1850, by Rochussen. See exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1995-1, p. 141, cat. no. 113.
30. This is a reference to the reactions of people to whom Theo had showed Vincent’s work in Paris, among them Portier and Serret.
31. Anton Kerssemakers. He jotted down several recollections of this trip. Quoted in Verzamelde brieven 1973, vol. 3, p. 94.
32. See for Uncle Cor’s art gallery and bookshop: letter 4, n. 2; for Thoré, Musées de la Hollande: letter 15, n. 11.
33. A broom tied to the mast was the symbol of Holland’s mastery of the seas.