My dear Theo,
Just wanted to write and tell you that I’ve pressed ahead with models. I’ve made two fairly large heads by way of a trial for a portrait.1
Firstly that old man I already wrote to you about — a type of head in the style of V. Hugo’s2 — then I also have a study of a woman.3
In the woman’s portrait I’ve introduced lighter tones in the flesh, white tinted with carmine, vermilion, yellow, and a light background in greyish yellow, from which the face is separated only by the black hair. Lilac tones in the clothes.
Rubens is certainly making a strong impression on me. I find his drawing immensely good, by which I mean the drawing of heads and hands in themselves. I’m utterly carried away, for instance, by his way of drawing the features in a face with strokes of pure red or, in the hands, modelling the fingers with similar strokes. I go to the museum quite often and then look at little else but a few heads and hands by him and Jordaens.4 I know that he isn’t as intimate as Hals and Rembrandt, but those heads are so alive in themselves. I probably don’t look at the ones that are most generally admired. I look for fragments such as those blonde heads in St Theresa in Purgatory.5  1v:2
I’m also looking for a blonde model just because of Rubens.
But you mustn’t take it too much amiss of me when I tell you that I can’t manage on my money for this month.
I’ve bought some more paint and two new types of drawing brush which I’m extremely pleased with and with which I can work more accurately. Then the canvases I brought with me were too small for the heads, since using other colours means I need more room for my surroundings. All this and the models are ruining me.
I’m telling you this as urgently as possible, because if one has to lose time, one loses double.
Towards the end of the month, when I’ve done a few more heads, I hope to make a view of the Scheldt,6 which I’ve also got a canvas for. If the weather’s bad I can go into an inn at St Anne,7 which is right opposite the rise where the Church of Our Lady is.8 Other painters have been there before.  1v:3
I’m very glad to have come here, because it’s useful and necessary for me for many things. I’ve made the acquaintance of Tyck,9 the best paint manufacturer here, and he was very obliging in giving me information about some colours. The greens that persist, for example. For instance, I asked him things about Rubens’s technique, to which he replied in a way that proves to me that he analyzes well, which is doing something that not everyone thinks of, and which is nonetheless a very useful thing. Now what else shall I tell you? Oh yes — I’ve seen two collections of modern paintings. Firstly what was bought at the exhibition for the lottery,10 and then a collection of paintings that was sold.11 That’s why I saw various fine things, two studies by Henri de Braekeleer, you know that he has nothing to do with the old De Braekeleer,12 I mean the one who’s a famous colourist and analyzes rigorously — Manet-like, at any rate as original as Manet. One was a woman in a studio or other interior with Japanese objects, the woman had on a costume, yellow and black. Flesh colour, white and carmine. All sorts of strange little tones in the surroundings.
The other was a half-finished study of a landscape.13  1r:4 Flat, faded yellow fields as far as the eye could see, a black cinder road with a canal alongside it crossing them. Above a sky of lilac, grey, with accents of carmined lilac. Far distant a small red (vermilion) note of a roof and two little black trees.14 So nothing, and yet I found a lot because of the singular feeling for contrasting colours. I also saw an old study by Degroux, Woman by a cradle,15 something like an old Israëls. What else shall I tell you about these new paintings? I think many of them very fine, and by that I mean precisely the work of the Colourists or those who try to be, who look for mother-of-pearl-like combinations everywhere in the lights. Only for me, it’s by no means always that — it’s too contrived and I’d rather see a simple brushstroke and a less contrived, less difficult colour. More simplicity, in a word that knowledgeable simplicity which isn’t afraid of frank technique. I like Rubens precisely because of his straightforward manner of painting, his working with the simplest means.
I don’t count Henri de Braekeleer among those seekers of mother-of-pearl everywhere, for with him it’s a strange, a very interesting endeavour to be literally true, and he stands very much on his own.
Also saw various grey paintings, among others a printer’s workshop by Mertens,16 a painting by Verhaert of his own studio, where he sits etching and his wife stands behind him,17 De la Rivière, an Amsterdam undertaker after the funeral18very fine in the blacks, a Goya-like conception — that tiny little painting was masterly.
Landscapes and Seascapes — saw very fine ones — in both collections.  2r:5
But as regards paintings — it’s the fisher boy by Frans Hals,19 Rembrandt’s Saskia,20 a number of countenances by Rubens, smiling or weeping, that come most to my mind.
Ah — a painting has to be painted — and why not simply? If I look at life itself now — I have similar impressions. I see the people in the street — very well — but I often find the servant girls so much more interesting and beautiful than the ladies — the labourers more interesting than the gentlemen. And I find a power and vitality in those common girls and fellows which, to express them in their singular character, would have to be done with a firm brushstroke, with a simple technique.
Wauters understood that, at one time anyhow, for I saw nothing by him this time.
What I find so fine about Delacroix is precisely that he reveals the liveliness of things, and the expression and the movement, that he is utterly beyond the paint.21
And — well — many of the fine things I saw — although I think they’re good, often it’s much too much paint.
At the moment I’m getting more and more accustomed to talking to the models while I’m painting, so as to keep the liveliness in their faces.
I’ve discovered a woman who formerly — she’s old now — when living in Paris — provided models for painters, for Scheffer, Gigoux, Delacroix, she says for instance, and to another one who was painting a Phryne. Now she’s a washerwoman and knows a lot of women, and would always be able to provide them, she says.
It has snowed, and first thing this morning the city was beautiful in the snow — splendid groups of street-sweepers.  2v:6
It’s a good thing I came, because I’m already full of ideas — for when I’m back in the country, too. I read an article by E. Bataille, I think it was in L’Etoile Belge, reprinted from Le Figaro, about the situation in Paris,22 an article that gave me the impression of being very sound, but according to him affairs in general are really bad. In Amsterdam, contrary to the opinion of Dutch journalists, this Mr Bataille also expressed himself pessimistically about the state of affairs in Holland.23 As far as the art trade is concerned — here, as I already wrote, the dealers are complaining — sheer destitution. And yet — I believe that so much more might still be done.
To mention just one thing — in the cafés, the restaurants, the cafés chantants — one sees no paintings, at least as good as none. And how this goes against nature! Why aren’t there any still lifes hanging there, in the way Fijt, Hondecoeter,24 so many others made splendid decorations in the old days? Why — if girls are what they want — no portraits of women? I know that one has to work cheaply for such purposes, but one can work relatively cheaply. Pushing the prices high is the ruin of the trade and makes it as quiet as the grave. Anyway.
Regards, do write again between times if you will.
As to the money, do what you can, but know this, that we have to do our utmost to succeed. And I’m not abandoning my idea of the portraits, because it’s a cause worth fighting for to show people that there’s something else in human beings besides what the photographer is able to get out of them with his machine. Regards, with a handshake.

Yours truly,

I’ve noticed the many photographers here, who are much the same as everywhere and apparently have plenty to do.
But always the same conventional eyes, noses, mouths, waxy and smooth and cold.
It still always remains dead.
And painted portraits have a life of their own that comes from deep in the soul of the painter and where the machine can’t go. The more photographs one looks at, it seems to me, the more one feels this.


Br. 1990: 550 | CL: 439
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Antwerp, Monday, 14 December 1885

1. By ‘fairly large heads’ Van Gogh means that these recent heads fill up much more of the picture space than the earlier Nuenen works; he is not referring to the size of the canvas.
2. Head of an old man (F 205 / JH 971 [2541]).
3. We do not know which work this is. It was previously assumed that it was Woman with her hair loose (F 206 / JH 972). While it is true that the flesh tones do correspond, no lilac has been found in the clothes (in so far as any clothes are visible in this portrait) and the background is not ‘greyish yellow’. See cat. Amsterdam 2011.
4. The Museum voor Schone Kunsten has various works by Rubens and Jordaens; see letter 544, and cat. Antwerp 1988, pp. 203-207, 318-331.
6. At that time the River Scheldt bordered Antwerp to the west.
7. This inn must have been opposite the ‘Vlaams Hoofd’, which was also known as Sint-Anna or Sint-Anneke. In the period from 1880 to 1930 it was a village on the west bank of the Scheldt, where there were various entertainment venues, with bars, mussel stalls and restaurants. Among the best known were De Roose and Het Oude Belvédère. See Frans Lauwers, Oud Sint-Anneke herleeft. Deurne and Antwerp 1983, esp. pp. 36, 98, 103-104.
8. The Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest church in Antwerp, is in the Grote Markt in the old city centre, not far from the bank of the Scheldt.
9. Petrus (Piet) Joannes Tyck, paint merchant and manufacturer at number 8 Rubensstraat (district 3). On 31 December 1885 he moved to number 35 Blindenstraat (SAA).
10. As part of the World Exhibition that was staged in Antwerp from 2 May to 2 November 1885, there was a ‘World Exhibition of Fine Arts’. The organizers – the Koninklijke Maatschappij ter Aanmoediging van Schoone Kunsten te Antwerpen – bought the exhibited works for a lottery after the exhibition closed; the tickets cost 1 franc each. The draw for the 95 works that were purchased in 1885 was held on 14 December. The works were exhibited together for one last time prior to this draw – from Sunday, 6 December. See exhib. cat. Antwerp 1885, p. xix. An appendix bound into the catalogue, ‘Tableaux’, lists all the paintings in the lottery and the winning ticket numbers, sometimes with the winner’s name. See also Handelsblad van Antwerpen, 5 December, 6-7 December and 13-14 December 1885 and exhib. cat. Antwerp 1993, pp. 214-218.
11. Van Gogh must be referring here to a ‘public sale of a collection of old and modern paintings, all guaranteed authentic’ which took place on Monday, 14 December in the Verlat Rooms in Twaalf Maandenstraat, which was advertised in the Handelsblad van Antwerpen of 12 December 1885. The viewing was on 13 and 14 December from 11.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m.
13. Since there were no paintings by Henri de Braekeleer among the works in the lottery, Van Gogh must be referring here to paintings that were auctioned in the Verlat Rooms. The former could be The sleeping model (formerly the property of Jef Dillen), The adornment (private collection) or The meal (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten). See Todts 1988, pp. 155, 205-206.
[620] [621]
14. This painting is not known.
15. Unidentified.
16. Van Gogh saw this painting and the two referred to below at the lottery exhibition. Charles Mertens’s The etcher’s studio, 1885, was exhibited at the World Exhibition under the title Printer’s workshop. See exhib. cat. Antwerp 1885, p. 34, cat. no. 247. Illustrated in the sale catalogue J.B. Christoffel Collection, Antwerp (Guillaume Campo), 9-10 February 1965, no. 33. Ill. 2171 [2171].
17. Pieter Verhaert, The engraver (present whereabouts unknown). See exhib. cat. Antwerp 1885, p. 55, cat. no. 402.
18. Adriaan Philippus de la Rivière, Van Staveren Jr, Rotterdam undertaker’s man (present whereabouts unknown); it was therefore not an Amsterdam undertaker as Van Gogh assumed. See exhib. cat. Antwerp 1885, p. 21, cat. no. 112. Cf. also Catalogus van de tentoonstelling der kunstwerken van levende meesters bestemd voor de tentoonstelling te Antwerpen. Exhib. cat. Amsterdam (Arti et Amicitiae), April 1885. Amsterdam 1885, p. 13, cat. no. 138.
20. Copy of 1651 after Rembrandt’s Saskia van Uylenburgh [1849]. see letter 131, n. 25. At that time authorities like E.J.T. Thoré regarded it as an autograph replica by Rembrandt.
21. See for the expression ‘beyond the paint’: letter 439, n. 3.
22. On 30 November 1885 the French journalist Albert Bataille, ‘chroniqueur judiciaire’ of Le Figaro, wrote an article for the paper headed ‘La loi sur les récidivistes’ about how to proceed against criminals who repeatedly offend. This article has not been traced in L’Etoile Belge.
23. On 19 September 1885 Bataille followed the trial of Jeanne Marie Lorette in Amsterdam; a day later he was present at the large-scale demonstration for universal suffrage in The Hague (Dagblad De Amsterdammer 19 and 21 September 1885).
On 30 September both the Algemeen Handelsblad and De Amsterdammer reported on an article that Bataille had published in response to these events in the previous day’s Figaro. The Algemeen Handelsblad printed a brief summary of the piece, from which it appears that Bataille was warning against a too overtly revolutionary trend in the Netherlands and the danger that the moderate social democrats would allow themselves to be eclipsed by the real socialists. The comment in the Handelsblad that Bataille’s article also contained ‘many mistaken opinions’ lends force to the notion that this was the subject of the polemic between him and the Dutch journalists to which Van Gogh refers in his letter; there really were revolutionary tendencies in the Netherlands at this time.
Van Gogh, who had been in Amsterdam for a few days in September, must have heard or read about this topical issue.
24. Jan Fijt and Melchior (d’)Hondecoeter painted countless still lifes, many of them of hunting trophies.