My dear Theo,
By chance I’ve finally seen something by Lhermitte — a very superficial reproduction in woodcut. It showed an old woman on a pew. Beside her a kneeling girl.1 Whatever the shortcomings of the reproduction, it has given me some idea of his work. It reminded me straightaway of Degroux and Legros, for example. There must undoubtedly be many similarities between his work and that of Millet or Breton.
However superficial the small woodcut was, it stayed in my mind for days, and I still think of it, precisely because I’d heard about Lhermitte, due to one thing and another, I was on the lookout and searching for something by him. You remember that I wrote to you about him in connection with reviews of the Black and White.2
I’ve received the natural chalk — many thanks — it’s very good — softer than what I first had from you, though, and the pieces are shorter by half. I would still like to have the harder kind in larger pieces, but I’m very pleased with this.
I’ve done a large drawing with it, more specifically with it and lithographic crayon. It’s a drawing of a digger — I took as my model the orphan man you’re familiar with — a bald head bent forward over the black earth3 — it seemed to me to have a certain significance, making one think of ‘in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’, for instance.4  1v:2
The appearance of the drawings of the woman with the spade5 and of this digger is such that people won’t think they were done in some complicated way, but won’t give any thought, I believe, to how they were done.
Only I think that if I had done them in ordinary conté, something deathly or iron-like would have entered into them that would have made people say immediately: that isn’t life or nature.
Through certain greys — through a certain warmth of life and pith in the black — one prevents it being deathly and iron-like.
And in my view these little things make it worthwhile to go to the trouble of finding such materials as natural chalk and lithographic crayon. I’m very glad that you sent it.
This morning a painter saw these two drawings — it was Nakken, who didn’t come for me but rang my bell in the belief that Van Deventer lived here, but he lives in the other street.6 I put him right and asked him if he’d like to have a look at the studio. He did so. Since I was working on that digger, that was what he saw first on the easel and he said, ‘That’s strongly drawn and seriously studied’.  1v:3 Leaving that remark aside without picking it to pieces, it still gave me pleasure, because I hardly think Nakken would say of a figure that it was well drawn if it wasn’t properly put together. But I attach no further importance to it. I write to you about it because the drawing was the very one in natural chalk, and you can see from this that if you take the trouble to get me some, I for my part like nothing better than to work with it.
Now to what degree such drawings could match up to certain charcoal drawings — Lhermitte is an ideal — and reaching that standpoint a long way off — aspiring towards it, though, is an everyday concern.
Anyway, when you come sooner or later, we’ll be better able to talk about it.
I spoke to Smulders about lithographs recently — he asked me on the street whether I was going to do some more.7 Which I’d like to do.
But I must discuss it with Rappard sometime, and he must first see my studies.
It often seems to me that something that would have a raison d’être could be made from figures of workmen.  1r:4
The lithographs by Emile Vernier after Millet and Corot and Daubigny have qualities I rate very highly.8 How one would like to talk to someone with such a mastery of the craft. Not with the aim of making reproductions of paintings, but better to understand what lithography is capable of.
Imagine original drawings with those curious greys and that curious rendering of fabric. Bodmer found that — he is original as an artist and at the same time he has what one might call the lithographic spectrum of colours, or rather spectrum of greys. In some respects that’s entirely different from Gavarni’s lithography. With Bodmer they are prints finished like paintings. I mean not only Bodmer’s actual lithographs like At Bas-Bréau and Stags fighting,9 but the prints from L’Illustration as well, or Monde Illustré.10 Respect for and a need and desire for advice or correction by others mustn’t, however, become an excuse for standing idle, in my view. To say I don’t need others is premature, however, if on the basis of that one systematically finds others wanting.
I’ve always thought printing a miracle, the kind of miracle by which a grain of wheat becomes an ear. An everyday miracle — all the greater because it’s everyday. One sows a single drawing on the stone or in the etching plate and one reaps a multitude.11
Can you understand that it’s something I think about a great deal while at work, and that I have a great love of it? Anyway, my chief concern now is to ensure that the quality of the seed (namely the drawings themselves) improves, and if it takes a little longer I’ll be content, provided the harvest is better as a result. But I still have my eye on that harvest.
Now write again soon and believe me, with a handshake,

Ever yours,

I kept this letter for a few days because today, Sunday, I have more time to write. I’m reading Les misérables by V. Hugo.12 A book of which I have old memories, but at the same time I felt a need to read it again — just as one can feel a strong desire to see some painting again.
It’s immensely beautiful, and I find the figure of Monseigneur Myriel or Bienvenu sublime.13
In your last letter you spoke of ‘exercising influence’ with regard to your patient. That Mgr Myriel reminds me of Corot or Millet — although he was a priest and the other two painters. But because in the world of painting Corot and Millet too, or Breton, awoke so much energy in others which would never have fully developed without them, apart from doing their own work.
You know Les misérables, don’t you? — and no doubt the illustrations Brion drew for it14 — very good and convincing.
It’s good to read a book like that again, it seems to me, just to keep some feelings and moods alive. The love of man above all, and faith in and consciousness of something higher, in short of the something on High.15
This afternoon I was engrossed in it for a few hours and then came into the studio — about the time the sun was setting. From the window I looked out on a broad, dark foreground — dug-over gardens and soil, mostly warm black earth, very deep in tone. Running obliquely across that is the little road of yellowish sand with green edges of grass and the thin, spindly poplars. A background of a grey silhouette of the city with the round roof of the station and towers and chimneys. And, by the way, the backs of houses still everywhere – but in the evening everything is brought together by the tone. And so, overseeing the whole, simply a foreground of black, dug-over earth, a road crossing that, a grey silhouette of a city with towers behind, just above that and almost on the horizon the red sun.
It was just like a page in Hugo — and something that would certainly have struck you and that you could describe better than I. And I thought of you at the time.  2v:6
I’ve already written that I’ve drawn with the natural chalk — yesterday I began a second drawing with it, a woman sewing.16 Particularly with an eye to chiaroscuro. I believe that when you come to the studio again you’ll soon see that although I no longer talk so much about that plan of figures of workmen for lithography, I’ve borne it in mind all the time.17
The position is, though, that it’s beginning to weigh on me more and more, in the sense that I want to make my figures more beautiful.
I have a sower18 — a mower19 — a woman at the wash-tub20 — a woman miner21 — a woman sewing22 — a digger23 — a woman with a spade24 — the orphan man25 — Prayer before the meal26 — a fellow with a wheelbarrow of manure.27
Yet more if need be — but I believe you’ll understand that the very making of them, having the models before one, thinking about them, doesn’t lead to one’s being content with the work but rather to the opposite, namely that one says, yes, the same as that but better still and more serious still.
Now I wouldn’t be attached to this idea if I thought it was impracticable, but the very fact that these drawings already exist means that the desire to make them better is more a matter of actual toil on them than just an idea. And I haven’t got any further with making a final plan, since I find the execution of it more interesting.
It seems to me that these drawings are all striving straight in the direction you meant when you wrote about it recently — although matching those charcoal drawings by Lhermitte, for instance, is a very long way off. You will understand that.
Lhermitte’s secret, it seems to me, is none other than that he knows the figure in  2v:7 general — namely the sturdy, severe workman’s figure — through and through, and takes his subjects from the heart of the people. To reach the same level as he — one shouldn’t talk of that — one must work and see how far one gets. Because talking about it would be presumptuous on my part, I believe, while working, on the other hand, would be a sign of respect and trust and faith in artists like him.
Have you ever seen anything by an American called Abbey? In New York at the moment there’s a club of draughtsmen who call themselves The Tile Club or The tile painters and some of whose drawings I’ve seen, in a Xmas number of illustrations from Harper’s among other places. I ask because these gentlemen have apparently all been to Paris together, judging by a sheet of humorous sketches by one of them.28
In my view Abbey is by far the cleverest. His figures often have something of Boughton. Boughton is also a member or honorary member of the club, but is I believe more solid than all the rest of the club put together, and doesn’t make so much noise. But Abbey is very fine all the same. A figure of a woman in the snow by him that I have29 recalls both Boughton and Heilbuth.30
A large pen drawing of a Christmas party in the age of Washington or slightly earlier31 recalls Henri Pille, for instance.32
He has style — and that’s a great thing, but Boughton had that even more — especially in the past.  2r:8
I write about it because I believe you’ll agree with me that not all Americans are bad. That, on the contrary, there too extremes meet,33 and that besides a host of noisemakers and bunglers of the most insufferable and impossible sorts there are characters who have the effect of a lily or a snowdrop among thorns.34
Now I’m going to read a little more of Les misérables, although it’s already late. A book like that warms one up, just like paintings by Dupré and old Millets — or several Decamps’ — it’s written with what’s called verve.
I saw that a new volume by Zola has come out: ‘Au bonheur des dames’,35 if I remember rightly.


Br. 1990: 335 | CL: 277
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: The Hague, on or about Thursday, 29 March and Sunday, 1 April 1883

1. Van Gogh may be referring to the wood engraving after Léon Augustin Lhermitte’s painting L’aïeule (dit à tort: la vieille femme) (The grandmother (wrongly called: The old woman) of 1880 (Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten), engraved by Auguste Trichon, in L’Univers Illustré 23 (9 October 1880), p. 648. Ill. 220 [220]. Cf. Le Pelley Fonteny 1991, pp. 95, 99, cat. no. 26.
2. For this review, see letter 308 of 5 February 1883.
3. This drawing of a digger is not known.
4. Gen. 3:19. Millet had linked this biblical text with life as an artist: see letter 226, n. 2.
5. This drawing of a woman with a spade is not known; it is first mentioned in letter 331, where Van Gogh inserted a sketch after the drawing.
6. Jan Frederik van Deventer lived at Schenkweg 88, thus close to Van Gogh (GAH, Civil registration 1880-1895).
7. In November-December 1882 Van Gogh had had a number of lithographs printed by Smulders; see letters 281 ff.
8. Emile Louis Vernier made numerous lithographs after the works of Millet, Corot and Daubigny. For an overview, see Béraldi 1885-1892, vol. 12, pp. 225-227. For Vernier’s lithographs after Corot, see also letter 3, n. 4.
9. The lithographs by Karl Bodmer mentioned are Au bas Bréau. Forêt de Fontainebleau (lithograph, chez Mouilleron) (At Bas-Bréau. Forest of Fontainebleau) and Combat de cerfs. Forêt de Fontainebleau (lithograph, chez Jourdan et Barbot) (Stags fighting. Forest of Fontainebleau), after the paintings at the Salons of 1859 and 1861 (Paris, BNF, Cabinet des Estampes). Ill. 598 [598] and Ill. 599 [599].
[598] [599]
10. Karl Bodmer did various illustrations for L’Illustration and Le Monde Illustré.
a. Means: ‘werkeloos afwachten’ (idly waiting).
12. Victor Hugo’s novel Les misérables (1862) tells the story of the ex-prisoner Jean Valjean against a historical background (from the Restoration to the uprisings in 1832-1834). Valjean is inwardly chastened through remorse and sacrifice. At the same time the book is an indictment of contemporary French society in which Hugo takes up the cause of the oppressed. Cf. also letter 692, n. 3.
13. In Les misérables the poor peasant bishop Bienvenu Myriel is a symbol of Christian charity and mercy. It is he who offers Valjean a refuge and puts him on the right path when he comes out of prison.
14. Since the first, illustrated, edition of Les misérables in 1862 there have been various reprints, often illustrated, such as the Paris edition of 1870 whose title page reads: ‘Illustrés de deux cents dessins par Brion. Gravures de Yon et Perrichon’. The Paris edition [1879-1882], 5 vols, also has the Brion illustrations. See e.g. ‘M. Myriel’, ‘Jean Valjean’ and ‘Jean Valjean’ (vol. 1, pp. 9, 116-117). Ill. 2090 [2090], Ill. 2093 [2093] and Ill. 2091 [2091]. Cf. Hugo 1951, p. xxi.
[2090] [2093] [2091]
15. For this expression, cf. letter 288, n. 15.
16. Van Gogh speaks of a second drawing of a woman sewing in natural chalk which is not known. The drawing Woman sewing, with a girl (F 1072 / JH 341 [2434]) is with natural chalk, but had already been mentioned in letters 327 and 330.
17. The plan to make a series of lithographs of workmen was discussed in letters 289 ff.
18. Various drawings of sowers are known, two of which Van Gogh evidently regarded as the most important; one is not known, the other is probably Sower (F 852 / JH 275 [2420]). Cf. letter 291, nn. 6 and 8.
19. This drawing of a mower is not known.
20. This drawing of a woman at the washtub is not known.
21. This drawing of a woman miner is not known.
22. Van Gogh probably means the drawing of a woman sewing already mentioned; other drawings with this subject are Sien, sewing (F 1026 / JH 347) and Woman with a shawl, sewing (F 1033 / JH 353).
23. Van Gogh did various drawings of diggers.
24. For the (not known) drawing of a woman with spade, see n. 5 above.
25. Van Gogh frequently used the ‘orphan man’ as a model. If the fact that some drawings were used to make lithographs implies that Van Gogh attached a certain value to them, then here he may have in mind Old man with a stick (F 962 / JH 212 [2397]) or Old man drinking coffee (F 996a / JH 264 [2414]) – or the corresponding lithographs. Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland often modelled for Van Gogh. It may also be that the drawings referred to have been lost.
[2397] [2414]
26. Prayer before the meal (F 1002 / JH 281 [2422]), drawing; see letter 294, n. 3.
27. This drawing of a man with wheelbarrow is not known.
28. For The Tile Club, see letter 295, n. 2. In the Christmas Number of Harper’s Weekly of 1882 there were various contributions by members of this group of artists, who had had themselves depicted shortly before in a print after a drawing by Charles Stanley Reinhart, The Tile Club abroad, in Harper’s Weekly 26 (25 November 1882), p. 748. This engraving is in the estate. Below one of the twelve humorous sketches it says ‘some very important members are left behind’. Ill. 2092 [2092] (t*248). The accompanying commentary says of them: ‘The Tile club is one of the pleasantest associations in New York. It is an informal society of artists, musicians and literary men, limited as to membership, but boundless as to hospitality and good-fellowship toward congenial spirits’ (p. 747). See also Pisano 1999, pp. 51-53.
30. Van Gogh may be referring here to the print after the painting Priscilla by Boughton, on the back of which he did the drawing Sower (F - / JH 44); see cat. Amsterdam 1996, p. 32 (n. 46), and Appendix 1, no. 1.1 (pp. 242-243). He knew Fine weather [928]and By the water’s edge [927] by Heilbuth (see letters 311 and 314).
[928] [927]
32. Although Van Gogh wrote Henri Pille, this is a reference to Howard Pyle’s Christmas morning in Old New York, which is also mentioned in letter 346; see letter 279, n. 8.
33. An expression, also quoted in letter 331.
b. Means: ‘verve’.
35. Emile Zola’s novel Au bonheur des dames, in the series Les Rougon-Macquart, appeared in 75 instalments in Gil Blas from 17 December 1882 to 1 March 1883, after which it was published in book form (Paris 1883). See Zola 1960-1967, vol. 3, pp. 387-803, 1667-1734. On the novel: letter 464, n. 2 ff.