My dear sister,
If you’ll let me write to you in French, that will really make my letter easier for me.
You please me much more by being moved by sculpture than by painting — all the more so since Theo assures me that you also have a good eye for paintings. Naturally, that couldn’t yet be a settled taste, which will never waver, but intuition, instinct, is already a great deal, and precisely what everyone doesn’t always have.
But all the same, I’m very curious to know what effect the Luxembourg will have on you.
Is it true, as I think in moments when I’m in a good mood, that what is alive in art, and eternally alive, is first the painter and then the painting?
Well, what difference does that make — but if one sees people working it’s still something one doesn’t find under glass in museums.
Poor Miss Harriet in Guy de Maupassant, she was right, perhaps.  1v:2
But was the painter wrong to go with the farm-girl?1 Perhaps not.
In life there’s always a fate that’s very annoying. And many painters die or go mad from despair, or become paralyzed in their production because nobody loves them personally.
Have you read Whitman’s American poems yet? Theo should have them, and I really urge you to read them, first because they’re really beautiful, and also, English people are talking about them a lot at the moment.2 He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of health, of generous, frank carnal love — of friendship — of work, with the great starry firmament, something, in short, that one could only call God and eternity, put back in place above this world. They make you smile at first, they’re so candid, and then they make you think, for the same reason. The prayer of Christopher Columbus is very beautiful.3  1v:3
What do you say about Monticelli’s bouquet of flowers that’s at Theo’s,4 and about Prévost’s Spanish woman?5 There are two real paintings of the south.
I myself think about Monticelli a great deal down here. He was a strong man — a little, even very, cracked — dreaming of sunshine and love and gaiety, but always frustrated by poverty, a colourist’s extremely refined taste, a man of rare breeding, carrying on the best ancient traditions. He died in Marseille, rather sadly and probably after going through a real Gethsemane.6 Ah well, I myself am sure that I’ll carry him on here as if I were his son or his brother.
We were talking just now about a fate that seemed sad to us. But isn’t there another, delightful fate? And what is it to us if there is or isn’t a resurrection, when we see a living man rise up immediately in a dead man’s place? Taking up the same cause, carrying on the same work, living the same life, dying the same death.  1r:4
When friend Gauguin’s here, and we go to Marseille, I firmly intend to walk there on the Canebière,7 dressed exactly like him, as I’ve seen his portrait, with an enormous yellow hat, a black velvet jacket, white trousers, yellow gloves and a reed cane and with a great southern air.8
And I’ll find Marseillais who knew him when he was alive, and if you’ve read in Tartarin what fên de brût is.......9 We’ll make quite a noise on that occasion. Monticelli is a painter who did the south all in yellow, all in orange, all in sulphur. Most painters, because they’re not colourists, properly speaking, don’t see these colours there, and declare that a painter who sees with other eyes than theirs is mad. (In the Luxembourg you’ll see Montenards that aren’t yellow,10 and I like them very much all the same. But it’s likely that Montenard would find what I do totally contemptible.) All that is to be expected, of course. So I’ve already prepared especially a painting all in yellow of sunflowers (14 flowers) in a yellow vase and against a yellow background11 (it’s yet another one, in addition to the previous one with 12 flowers against a blue-green background).12 And I expect one day to exhibit that one in Marseille. And you’ll see that there’ll be some Marseillais or other who will remember what Monticelli once said and did. Has Theo shown you the barbotine yet?13 It’s really fine. Enjoy yourself, I kiss you in thought.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 674 | CL: W8
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Willemien van Gogh
Date: Arles, on or about Sunday, 26 August 1888

1. Miss Harriet (1884) by Guy de Maupassant is a collection of twelve stories and novellas; the opening story – ‘Miss Harriet’ – is a tragic love story. When he is twenty-five, the painter Leon Chenal gets to know the English spinster Harriet, a fanatical propagandist for Protestantism. The two meet often, but when Harriet becomes deeply unhappy on seeing a painting of a pair of lovers, Leon decides to leave. The evening before his departure he has a fling with the maid Céleste, and Harriet, who witnesses this, takes a drastic decision – she throws herself down a well.
2. The American poet Walt Whitman’s reputation had been established in England since the 1870s; in France his work did not really start to be appreciated until the 1880s and 1890s. Whitman’s poems were published in a French translation in the magazines La Vogue and La Revue Indépendante in 1886 and 1887.
Willemien took Vincent’s advice. As early as October 1888 she wrote to Theo: ‘Your Whitman’s doing the rounds, too. I thought it was so wonderfully good that for the moment it has spoiled my taste for lighter poetry altogether, or rather taken it away. Those verses are so solid and broad, nothing can compare, a healthy, powerful, hard-working love of life shines through them, refreshing. I have enjoyed them’ (FR b2275).
3. Walt Whitman’s ‘Prayer of Columbus’ was included in his anthology Leaves of grass (1881). It is a poetic rendition of a prayer that Columbus addresses to God, in which the explorer puts his religious feelings and existential doubts into words. Since Van Gogh quotes the French title of the poem, it is possible that he read Whitman’s poetry in the French translation.
For a possible connection between Whitman’s poetry and Van Gogh’s work see Hope B. Werness, ‘Whitman and Van Gogh: starry nights and other similarities’, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2-4 (1985), pp. 35-41.
7. ‘La Canebière’ is Marseille’s main boulevard, which leads to the old docks.
8. Van Gogh is referring to Jules Monge’s Adolphe Monticelli, 1883 (Paris, Musée d’Orsay), or the similar drawing on the cover of the weekly La Provence Artistique et Pittoresque 1 (21 August 1881), no. 12. Ill. 2235 [2235]. In the accompanying article A. Meyer described Monticelli as follows: ‘I can still see him striding up and down the Avenues, dressed in a baggy black velvet jacket, over immaculate white trousers, dazzling long cuffs showing above his yellow gloves, dispensing good humour all along this fashionable walk of the time.’ (Je le vois encore arpentant les Allées; vêtu d’un grand sac en velours noir, sur un pantalon d’un blanc immaculé, avec de longues manchettes éclatantes qui franchaient sur ses gants jaunes, étalant sa belle humeur sur cette promenade alors à la mode.) Since Monticelli wears a flat black cap in the portrait, the ‘enormous yellow hat’ must be Van Gogh’s own embellishment, probably because he had one himself; in his previous letter (669) he wrote that he had bought a hat and a black velvet jacket.
9. See letter 599, n. 6, for the expression ‘fen de brut’ in Alphonse Daudet’s Tartarin de Tarascon.
10. Van Gogh is probably referring to Frédéric Montenard’s The warship La Corrèze leaving Toulon Roads, which was placed in the Musée National du Luxembourg in 1887 (Brignoles, Musée du pays Brignolais, géré par le Musée d’Orsay). Ill. 1178 [1178].
11. Sunflowers in a vase (F 454 / JH 1562 [2704]). See letter 668, n. 2, for the number of flowers.
12. Sunflowers in a vase (F 456 / JH 1561 [2703]). See Dorn 1999, pp. 49; Van Tilborgh and Hendriks 2001, p. 22, for the number of flowers.
13. For ‘barbotine’ (slip or liquid clay) and the association with Monticelli, see letter 663, n. 7.