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663 To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Saturday, 18 August 1888.

metadata
No. 663 (Brieven 1990 663, Complete Letters 520)
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Arles, Saturday, 18 August 1888

Source status
Original manuscript

Location
Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, inv. no. b561 V/1962

Date
This letter was previously dated Saturday, 11 August 1888 (in exhib. cat. New York 1984, in De brieven 1990 and in Hulsker 1993-1, p. 32). It is clear from the subjects discussed (the portraits of Patience Escalier and the postman Joseph Roulin) that it was written in August, and Van Gogh says that it is Saturday (l. 122). Were this actually to have been 11 August it is strange that he writes about Eugène Boch with so much affection here (ll. 36 ff. and n. 8 below), whereas three days earlier he had had considerable reservations about him (see letter 657 of 8 August). He moreover says that he has lived on biscuits, milk and eggs ‘for 3 weeks of the month’ (ll. 105-106), which would seem to indicate that the current month is already about three weeks old. In line with Dorn’s suggestion, we have therefore dated the letter Saturday, 18 August 1888 (see Dorn 1990, pp. 491-492).

Additional
In the top margin of p. [1r:1] Theo van Gogh noted in pencil seven sizes for picture frames, and a few related figures. As Dorn has already observed, this most probably relates to the large batch of works that Milliet brought to Theo (see the notes to letter 660 for a reconstruction of the consignment). Because of the narrow margin, the notes are split into four short columns of two or three lines. They read:
1st column: 2 64 x 54 2 frames
1 55 x 38 ,,
2nd column: 2 / 19 x 24 frame
jardin? (g/arden)
3rd column: 79 64 crossed out
72 92
4th column: 64 x 80 sower cad? (frame)
60 x 73
1 64 x 50 frame marin? (seascape)
The other notes were made by Jo van Gogh-Bonger when she was preparing for the publication of Brieven 1914. Dorn pointed out that the dimensions of 64 x 54 in column 1 correspond with the size of Rocks with a tree (F 466 / JH 1489); and the measurements 64 x 80 in column 4, where Theo wrote ‘sower’, with the format of The sower (F 422 / JH 1470). If the uncertain reading ‘marin’ in de last line is correct, this could be Fishing boats at sea (F 417 / JH 1453). See Dorn 1990, pp. 491-492.

original text
 1r:1
Mon cher Theo,
Sous peu tu vas faire connaissance avec le sieur Patience Escalier – espèce d’homme à la houe, vieux bouvier Camarguais actuellement jardinier dans un mas de la Crau.1
Aujourd’hui même je t’envoie le dessin que j’ai fait d’après cette peinture2 ainsi que le dessin du portrait du facteur Rollin.3
la couleur de ce portrait de paysan est moins noire que les mangeurs de pommes de terre de Nunen – mais le très civilisé parisien Portier, probablement ainsi nommé parce qu’il fout les tableaux à la porte – s’y retrouvera le nez devant la même question.4 Maintenant toi depuis as changé mais tu verras que lui n’a pas changé et vraiment c’est dommage qu’il n’y ait pas davantage de tableaux en sabots5 à Paris. Je ne crois pas que mon paysan fera du tort par exemple au Lautrec que tu as6 et même j’ose croire que le Lautrec deviendra par contraste simultané encore plus distingué et le mien gagnera par le rapprochement étrange parceque la qualité ensoleillee et brulee, hâlée du grand soleil et du grand air, se manifestera davantage à côté de la poudre de riz et de la toilette chic. Quelle faute que les parisiens n’ont pas pris assez gout aux chôses rudes, aux Monticelli, à la barbotine.7 Enfin je sais qu’on ne doit pas se décourager parceque l’utopie ne se réalise pas. Il y a seulement que je trouve que ce que j’ai appris à Paris s’en va et que je reviens à mes idées qui m’etaient venues à la campagne avant de connaitre les impressionistes. Et je serais peu étonné si sous peu les impressionistes trouveraient à redire sur ma facon de faire qui a plutot eté fecondée par les idees de Delacroix que par les leurs.
 1v:2
Car au lieu de chercher à rendre exactement ce que j’ai devant les yeux je me sers de la couleur plus arbitrairement pour m’exprimer fortement. Enfin laissons cela tranquille en tant que theorie mais je vais te donner un exemple de ce que je veux dire.
Je voudrai faire le portrait d’un ami artiste qui rêve de grands rêves, qui travaille comme le rossignol chante parceque c’est ainsi sa nature.8
Cet homme sera blond. Je voudrai mettre dans le tableau mon appréciation, mon amour que j’ai pour lui.
Je le peindrai donc tel quel, aussi fidèlement que je pourrai – pour commencer.–
Mais le tableau n’est pas fini ainsi. Pour le finir je vais maintenant être coloriste arbitraire.
J’exagère le blond de la chevelure, j’arrive aux tons oranges, aux cromes, au citron pâle. Derrière la tête – au lieu de peindre le mur banal du mesquin appartement je peins l’infini.
je fais un fond simple du bleu le plus riche, le plus intense que je puisse confectionner et par cette simple combinaison, la tête blonde eclairee sur ce fond bleu riche obtient un effet mysterieux comme l’étoile dans l’azur profond.
Pareillement dans le portrait de paysan j’ai procédé de cette façon.
Toutefois sans vouloir dans ce cas évoquer l’éclat mystérieux d’une pâle étoile dans l’infini bleu.
 1v:3
Mais en supposant l’homme terrible que j’avais à faire en pleine fournaise de la moisson en plein midi. De là des orangés fulgurants comme du fer rougi, de là des tons de vieil or lumineux dans les ténèbres. Ah, mon cher frère – – et les bonnes personnes ne verront dans cette exagération que de la carricature. Mais qu’est ce que cela nous fait, nous avons lu la terre et germinal9 et si nous peignons un paysan nous aimerions montrer que cette lecture a un peu fini par faire corps avec nous.
Je ne sais si je pourrai peindre le facteur comme je le sens, cet homme est comme le pere Tanguy en tant que revolutionaire, probablement il est considéré comme bon republicain parcequ’il déteste cordialement la republique de laquelle nous jouissons et parcequ’en somme il doute un peu et est un peu désenchanté de l’idée republicaine elle-meme. Mais je l’ai vu un jour chanter la marseillaise – et j’ai pensé voir 89, non pas l’année prochaine mais celle d’il y a 99 ans. C’était du Delacroix, du Daumier, du vieux hollandais tout pur.
Malheureusement cela ne se pose pas et pourtant il faudrait pour pouvoir faire le tableau un modèle intelligent.
Je dois maintenant te dire que ces jours ci sont matériellement d’une excessive dureté.
La vie quoi que je fasse est assez chère ici, à peu près comme Paris où en depensant 5 ou 6 francs par jour on n’a pas grand chôse.
Ai je des modèles, conséquemment j’en souffre considerablement. N’importe. et aussi vais je continuer.
 1r:4
Aussi je t’assure que si tu m’envoyais par hasard un peu plus d’argent quelquefois cela ferait du bien aux tableaux mais pas à moi. Je n’ai que le choix moi entre être un bon peintre ou un mauvais. Je choisis le premier. Mais les nécessités de la peinture sont comme celles d’une maitresse ruineuse, on ne peut rien faire sans argent et on n’en a jamais assez.
Aussi la peinture devrait s’exécuter aux frais de la société et non pas l’artiste devrait en être surchargé.
mais voilà, il faut encore se taire car personne ne nous force à travailler, l’indifférence pour la peinture étant fatalement assez générale, assez éternellement.–
Heureusement mon estomac s’est à tel point rétabli que j’ai vécu 3 semaines du mois de biscuits de mer avec du lait, des oeufs.
C’est la bonne chaleur qui me rend mes forces et certes je n’ai pas eu tort d’aller maintenant dans le midi au lieu d’attendre jusqu’à que le mal fût irréparable. Oui je me porte aussi bien que les autres hommes maintenant, ce que je n’ai pas eu que momentanément – à Nunen par exemple – et cela n’est pas désagreable. Par “les autres hommes” j’entends un peu les terrassiers grevistes, le père Tanguy, le père Millet, les paysans. si l’on se porte bien il faut pouvoir vivre d’un morceau de pain tout en travaillant toute la journée et en ayant encore la force de fumer et de boire son verre, il faut ça dans ces conditions.10 Et sentir neamoins les etoiles et l’infini en haut clairement. Alors la vie est tout de même presqu’enchantée. Ah ceux qui ne croient pas au soleil d’ici sont bien impies.
Malheureusement à côté du soleil, bon dieu, il y a 3 quarts du temps le diable mistral.
Le courrier de samedi est nom de Dieu passé et j’avais pas douté de recevoir ta lettre mais tu vois que je ne me fais pas de mauvais sang. Poignée de main.

t. à t.
Vincent

translation
 1r:1
My dear Theo,
You’ll shortly make the acquaintance of Mr Patience Escalier — a sort of man with a hoe, an old Camargue oxherd, who’s now a gardener at a farmstead in the Crau.1
Today without fail I’ll send you the drawing I made after this painting,2 as well as the drawing of the portrait of Roulin the postman.3
The colour of this portrait of a peasant isn’t as dark as the Nuenen potato eaters — but the very civilized Parisian, Portier, probably so-called because he kicks paintings out of the door — will find himself up against the same question again.4 You’ve now changed since then, but you’ll see that he hasn’t changed, and really it’s a pity that there aren’t more paintings in clogs5 in Paris. I don’t believe that my peasant will do any harm, for example, to the Lautrec that you have,6 and I dare even believe that the Lautrec will, by simultaneous contrast, become even more distinguished, and mine will gain from the strange juxtaposition, because the sunlit and burnt, weather-beaten quality of the strong sun and strong air will show up more clearly beside the face powder and stylish outfit. What a mistake that Parisians haven’t acquired sufficient taste for rough things, for Monticellis, for barbotine.7 Well, I know that one shouldn’t be discouraged because utopia isn’t coming about. It’s just that I find that what I learned in Paris is fading, and that I’m returning to my ideas that came to me in the country before I knew the Impressionists. And I wouldn’t be very surprised if the Impressionists were soon to find fault with my way of doing things, which was fertilized more by the ideas of Delacroix than by theirs.  1v:2
Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully. Well, let’s let that lie as far as theory goes, but I’m going to give you an example of what I mean.
I’d like to do the portrait of an artist friend who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because that’s his nature.8
This man will be blond. I’d like to put in the painting my appreciation, my love that I have for him.
I’ll paint him, then, just as he is, as faithfully as I can — to begin with.
But the painting isn’t finished like that. To finish it, I’m now going to be an arbitrary colourist.
I exaggerate the blond of the hair, I come to orange tones, chromes, pale lemon. Behind the head — instead of painting the dull wall of the mean room, I paint the infinite.
I make a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can prepare, and with this simple combination, the brightly lit blond head, against this rich blue background achieves a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep azure.
Similarly, I’ve proceeded in this way in the peasant’s portrait.
However, without wishing to evoke the mysterious brilliance of a pale star in the infinite blue in this case.  1v:3
But imagining the terrific man I had to do, in the very furnace of harvest time, deep in the south. Hence the oranges, blazing like red-hot iron, hence the old gold tones, glowing in the darkness. Ah, my dear brother — — and the good folk will see only caricature in this exaggeration. But what does that do to us, we’ve read La terre and Germinal,9 and if we paint a peasant we’d like to show that this reading has in some way become part of us.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to paint the postman as I feel him; as a revolutionary this man is like père Tanguy, he’s probably considered a good republican because he heartily detests the republic we currently enjoy, and because, in short, he’s a little dubious and a little disillusioned with the republican idea itself. But one day I saw him singing the Marseillaise — and I thought I was seeing ’89, not next year, but the one 99 years ago. It was something out of Delacroix, out of Daumier, out of the old Dutch painting entirely.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get that in a pose, and yet you need an intelligent model to be able to do the painting.
I must tell you now that materially speaking, these days are extremely hard.
Whatever I do, living is pretty expensive here, more or less like Paris, where, while spending 5 or 6 francs a day, you don’t have much.
If I have models, then I suffer considerably as a result. Doesn’t matter. And so I’ll go on.  1r:4
So I assure you that if by chance you sometimes sent me a little more money, that would benefit the paintings, but not me. Myself, I only have the choice between being a good painter or a bad one. I choose the former. But the things needed for painting are like those of a ruinous mistress; you can do nothing without money, and you never have enough of it.
And so painting should be done at society’s expense, and the artist shouldn’t be overburdened by it.
But there you are, we should keep quiet once again, because nobody is forcing us to work, indifference towards painting being, inevitably, fairly general, fairly eternal.
Fortunately my stomach has recovered to such an extent that I lived for 3 weeks of the month on ship’s biscuits with milk, eggs.
It’s the good heat that gives me strength, and I definitely wasn’t wrong to go to the south now instead of waiting until the damage was irreparable. Yes, I’m as well now as other men, which I have only been briefly — in Nuenen, for example — and that’s not disagreeable. By ‘other men’ I mean a bit like the road-menders on strike, père Tanguy, père Millet, the peasants. If you’re well, you should be able to live on a piece of bread, while working the whole day long, and still having the strength to smoke and to drink your glass; you need that in these conditions.10 And still to feel the stars and the infinite, clearly, up there. Then life is almost magical, after all. Ah, those who don’t believe in the sun down here are truly blasphemous.
Unfortunately, along with the sun, dear God, for 3 quarters of the time there’s the devil of a mistral.
Saturday’s post has gone by, damn it, and I didn’t doubt but that I would receive your letter, but you can see that I’m not getting upset about it. Handshake.

Ever yours,
Vincent
notes
1. Van Gogh compares the gardener Patience Escalier with the man portrayed in Jean-François Millet, Man with a hoe, 1860-1862 (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum). Ill. 2218 . Van Gogh saw the work at the Millet exhibition in Paris in 1887. There were also various reproductions at the time, in Sensier 1881, p. 237, and elsewhere. The painting had attracted a lot of attention when it was sold for the record price of 125,000 francs shortly before Van Gogh left for the south. See Dorn 1990, p. 302 (n. 440).
2. The drawing Patience Escalier (‘The peasant’) (F 1460 / JH 1549 ) after the painting of the same name F 443 / JH 1548. The criticism of Portier must have been prompted in part by his cool attitude towards Van Gogh’s work in the past; see letter 548.
3. The drawing Joseph Roulin (F 1459 / JH 1547 ), after the painting of the same name F 432 / JH 1522 . This is the first time the postman’s name is mentioned; Van Gogh had evidently misheard it, for he wrote ‘Rollin’.
4. The potato eaters (F 82 / JH 764 ).
5. See letter 493, n. 8, for the expression ‘en sabots’ (in clogs), taken from Millet.
6. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Young woman at a table, ‘Poudre de riz’, 1887 (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). Ill. 432 . Theo had bought this painting from the artist for 150 francs on 12 January 1888 (FR b1156).
7. Barbotine is a sort of slip or liquid clay that had been used since time immemorial for joining together parts of statues and pottery. Ernest Chaplet used the technique in the early 1870s for underglaze painting in coloured slips on pottery, and went on to develop it further for the Haviland porcelain factory. The German chemist Herman Seger described the process as follows in 1878: ‘Barbotine means engobe or paste, and barbotine painting stands for a method of decoration which is essentially plastic in character, bringing out the colors by means of paste... The decoration consists usually of flowers and animal pieces, preferably birds, which are in a manner painted plastically, so to speak.’ Quoted in Gray 1963, p. 10 (n. 32). Gauguin had made a series of pots and vases together with Chaplet in the winter of 1886-1887, some of which were displayed in Theo’s gallery in December 1887. Van Gogh is referring here to his own deliberate use of heavy impasto; in letter 693 he also described the two views of the park as ‘impasted like barbotine’ and in letter 694 his decoration was ‘almost barbotine’.
8. In his plan for the portrait of an artist friend Van Gogh was thinking of Gauguin, with whom he hoped to share his studio in Arles. He painted the portrait, with Eugène Boch as his model, at the beginning of September (F 462 / JH 1574 ). See exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1990, p. 147.
9. See letters 657, n. 18, and 502, n. 18, respectively for Zola’s novels La terre and Germinal.
10. This idea of the need for an artist to subordinate his food to his work is something Van Gogh also got from Corot and Delacroix; see letters 396 and 765 respectively.