My dear sister,
Your letter gave me great pleasure, and today I have the leisure to reply to you in peace and quiet.1 So your visit to Paris was a great success. I would really like it if you were to come here too next year. At the moment I’m furnishing the studio in such a way as always to be able to put someone up. Because there are 2 small rooms upstairs, which look out on a very pretty public garden, and where you can see the sunrise in the morning. I’ll arrange one of these rooms for putting up a friend, and the other one will be for me.
I want nothing there but straw-bottomed chairs and a table and a deal bed. The walls whitewashed, the tiles red. But in it I want a great wealth of portraits and painted studies of figures, which I plan to do as I go along. I have one to start with, the portrait of a young Belgian Impressionist; I’ve painted him as something of a poet, his refined and nervous head standing out against a deep ultramarine background of the night sky, with the twinkling of the stars.2
Now the other room, I would like it almost elegant, with a walnut bed with a blue blanket.  1v:2
And all the rest, the dressing-table and the chest of drawers too, in matt walnut. I want to stuff at least 6 very large canvases into this tiny little room, the way the Japanese do, especially the huge bouquets of sunflowers.3 You know that the Japanese instinctively look for contrasts, and eat sweetened peppers, salty sweets, and fried ices and frozen fried dishes.4 So, too, following the same system you should probably only put very small paintings in a large room, but in a very small room you’ll put a lot of big ones.
I hope the day will come when I’ll be able to show you this beautiful part of the world.
I’ve just finished a canvas of a café interior at night, lit by lamps. Some poor night-prowlers are sleeping in a corner. The room is painted red, and inside, in the gaslight, the green billiard table, which casts an immense shadow over the floor. In this canvas there are 6 or 7 different reds, from blood-red to delicate pink, contrasting with the same number of pale or dark greens.5  1v:3
Today I sent Theo a drawing of it, which is like a Japanese print.6
Theo wrote telling me that he has given you some Japanese prints.7 It’s certainly the most practical way of getting to understand the direction that painting has taken at present. Colourful and bright.
For myself, I don’t need Japanese prints here, because I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here. That as a result I only have to open my eyes and paint right in front of me what makes an impression on me.8
Have you seen a tiny little mask of a fat, smiling Japanese woman at our place? The expression on that little mask is really surprising.9
Did you think of taking one of my paintings with you for yourself? I hope so, and I’m quite intrigued to know which you would have chosen.10 I myself thought you would have taken the white huts under the blue sky among the greenery, which I did at Saintes-Maries, on the Mediterranean.11
I should have gone back to Saintes-Maries already, now that there are people on the beach. But anyway, I have so much to do right here.  1r:4
I definitely want to paint a starry sky now. It often seems to me that the night is even more richly coloured than the day, coloured in the most intense violets, blues and greens.
If you look carefully you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without labouring the point, it’s clear that to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.
My house here is painted outside in the yellow of fresh butter, with garish green shutters, and it’s in the full sun on the square, where there’s a green garden of plane trees, oleanders, acacias. And inside, it’s all whitewashed, and the floor’s of red bricks. And the intense blue sky above. Inside, I can live and breathe, and think and paint. And it seems to me that I should go further into the south rather than going back up north, because I have too great a need of the strong heat so that my blood circulates normally. I’m in really much better health here than in Paris.
Now I have scarcely a doubt that for you, too, you would like the south enormously.
It’s the sun, that has never sufficiently penetrated us northerners.

I started this letter several days ago, up to here, and I’m picking it up again now.  2r:5
I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green.12 I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.13 I’ve also done a new portrait of myself, as a study, in which I look like a Japanese.14 You never told me if you had read Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-ami, and what you now think of his talent in general. I say this because the beginning of Bel-ami is precisely the description of a starry night in Paris, with the lighted cafés of the boulevard,15 and it’s something like the same subject that I’ve painted just now.  2v:6
Speaking of Guy de Maupassant, I find what he does really beautiful, and I really recommend that you read everything that he’s done. Zola — Maupassant, De Goncourt, one has to have read them as thoroughly as possible in order to get a reasonably clear idea of the modern novel. Have you read Balzac? I’m reading him again here.
My dear sister, I believe that at present we must paint nature’s rich and magnificent aspects; we need good cheer and happiness, hope and love.
The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent.
Jewellers are old and ugly too, before they know how to arrange precious stones well. And arranging colours in a painting to make them shimmer and stand out through their contrasts, that’s something like arranging jewels or — designing costumes.
You’ll see now that by regularly looking at Japanese prints you’ll enjoy making bouquets even more, working among flowers. I must finish this letter if I want it to go off today. I’ll be very happy to have the photograph of our mother that you mention, so don’t forget to send it to me.16 Give my warm regards to our mother; I often think of you both, and I’m really pleased that now you know our life a little better. I really fear that Theo will find himself too lonely. But one of these days there’ll be a Belgian Impressionist painter, the one I mentioned above, who’ll come to spend some time in Paris. And there’ll be many other painters who’ll soon come back to Paris with their studies done during the summer.
I kiss you affectionately, and Mother too.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 681 | CL: W7
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Willemien van Gogh
Date: Arles, Sunday, 9 and about Friday, 14 September 1888

1. Vincent had received this letter from Willemien on Sunday, 2 September; see letter 673.
2. Eugène Boch (‘The poet’) (F 462 / JH 1574 [2710]).
3. Van Gogh had intended Sunflowers in a vase (F 456 / JH 1561 [2703]) and Sunflowers in a vase (F 454 / JH 1562 [2704]), no. 30 canvases, for Gauguin’s room. See letters 677 and 743. Later he added the four pictures of the ‘poet’s garden’. See letters 695, n. 13 and 709, nn. 6 and 7.
[2703] [2704]
4. An allusion to Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème; see letter 657, n. 17. Vincent had already recommended Loti’s Le mariage de Loti to his sister (letter 590), and she was also familiar with his Pêcheur d’Islande (FR b2275).
5. The night café (F 463 / JH 1575 [2711]).
6. Vincent had sent Theo the drawing of The night café (F 1463 / JH 1576 [0]); see letter 677.
7. On 19 October 1888 Willemien wrote to Theo and told him that she got great pleasure from the Japanese prints. There must have been a considerable number, since she said that she had given fifteen or so to a friend (FR b2275).
8. Although Van Gogh says here that he doesn’t need any Japanese prints, he had asked Theo that same day to send him prints to hang in his studio (see letter 677).
9. The mask that Vincent and Theo had in Paris is no longer in the estate. It was probably of the primitive Shinto goddess Okame or Otafuku, whose full name is Ame no Uzume no Mikoto (the goddess of mirth). Her plump, rosy cheeked, laughing maiden’s face and well fed look symbolize prosperity. With thanks to Tsukasa Kōdera. The mask, from the Kyogen theatre, was popular in Japan and probably sold in large quantities. Ill. 2305 [2305]. Cf. Louis Gonse, L’Art japonais. Paris 1883, pl. xi, no. 6 (between pp. 82-83).
10. Assuming Willemien actually did take a painting, two works from the Arles period qualify: Sprig of almond blossom in a glass with a book (F 393 / JH 1362 [2566]), which Van Gogh said in letter 590 he had intended for her, and Orchard bordered by cypresses (F 554 / JH 1388 [2586]). We know that Willemien had both these paintings. See Account book 2002, p. 20 (n. 33). She might equally, of course, have chosen a Paris work: according to De la Faille A public garden with people strolling (F 225 / JH 1110) and Edge of a wheatfield with poppies (F 310a / JH 1273) once belonged to Willemien.
[2566] [2586]
11. Cottages in Saintes-Maries (F 419 / JH 1465 [2643]).
12. Café terrace at night (F 467 / JH 1580 [2714]). The pavement café is the Grand Café du Forum in the place du Forum in Arles.
13. His nocturnal painting in Arles prompted a report in the local press: ‘Mr Vincent, an Impressionist painter, works, we are told, in the evening, by the light of the gaslamps, in one of our squares’ (M. Vincent, peintre impressionniste travaille, nous assure-t-on, le soir, à la lueur des becs de gaz, sur l’une de nos places.) See ‘Chronique artistique et musicale’, L’Homme de Bronze, 30 September 1888. See also Dorn 1990, pp. 85, 266 (n. 178).
14. Self-portrait (F 476/ JH 1581 [2715]).
15. For Maupassant’s Bel-ami see letter 568, n. 11. Van Gogh is referring to the description of the boulevards of Paris on a summer evening at the beginning of the book. There is no mention of a starry sky, but Maupassant does describe the brightly-lit café’s Duroy, the central character, walks past: ‘The big cafés, full of people, overflowed out on to the pavements, displaying their clientele of drinkers in the harsh, bright lights of their illuminated facades’. (Les grands cafés, pleins de monde, débordaient sur le trottoir, étalant leur public de buveurs sous la lumière éclatante et crue de leur devanture illuminée.) He also pictures the ‘sandy paths, lit by electric light’ (allées bien sablées, éclairées à la lumière électrique) and the ‘floodlit façade’ (façade illuminée) of the cabaret Les Folies-Bergère. See Maupassant 1987, pp. 199, 205-206. Cf. also Sund 1992, pp. 193-194.
16. Mrs van Gogh – who was now 69 – had given Willemien the photograph to take to Paris (FR b2421). Ill. 2244 [2244]. Vincent received it soon after this (see letter 685). He painted the Van Gogh’s mother (F 477 / JH 1600 [2729]) from it in October 1888 (see letter 699, n. 13).
[2244] [2729]