My dear Theo,
Thanks for what you sent. I appreciate your doing it, because what really matters is to do a lot of work in the winter months, when models are easier to get.1
In 3 days or so you’ll receive 12 little pen drawings after studies of heads.2 After all, I feel most at home when I work on a figure. And it also seems to me that there’s more character in, say, those heads I made back in The Hague and some other figures than in the other things I did. And it might perhaps be wise for me to concentrate even more exclusively on the figure.
Only, the figure always stands somewhere, and one sometimes can’t help putting in the surroundings, their being indispensable.
Ma wanted to write something here,3 so I’ll keep it brief, because I’m sending you those pen drawings in the next few days anyway.
I don’t know in advance what I’ll do with these heads, but I want to derive the subject from the characters themselves.  1v:2
I do know why I’m making them, though, and to what end in general.
I’m curious to see that painting you got, sooner or later. I don’t exactly understand the legend itself — what it’s getting at.4 Why I don’t is because you say: the figure is Dantean — yet — it’s the symbol of an evil spirit that lures people into the abyss. Surely the two can hardly go together, since the sober, austere figure of Dante, entirely filled with indignation and protest at what he had seen happen — in protest at the atrocious medieval abuses and prejudices — is certainly one of the most upright, most honest, most noble that are conceivable.
In short — people said of Dante, ‘there is the one who went into hell and who returned’5 — something very different to go in oneself and come out again than to  1v:3 lure others in satanically.
Consequently — one can’t have a Dantean figure play a satanic role without a huge misconception of character.6
And the silhouette of a Mephistopheles7 is mightily different from Dante’s.
In his own time, people wrote of Giotto, ‘first he put “goodness” into the expression of human heads’.8 Giotto painted Dante, and with much emotion as you know, for you’re familiar with the old portrait.9
From which I draw the conclusion that Dante’s expression, however sad and melancholy, is essentially an expression of something infinitely good and tender.
I therefore can’t imagine Satan or Mephistopheles as Dantean at all.
So all the more reason why I’m curious to see what it looks like in the painting.
Best wishes for the New Year.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 479 | CL: 391
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, Tuesday, 30 December 1884

1. It would seem likely that the money Theo had sent was the allowance for January; had it been the extra for December which Vincent had so urgently requested in letter 476, he would probably have thanked Theo for it sooner. This could mean that a letter (confirming the receipt of this extra money) has been lost.
2. There are several small pen-and-ink drawings of heads from this period which could have been part of this planned consignment: see letter 475, n. 1.
3. There is no known letter from Mrs van Gogh, but there is one from her husband, who wrote to Theo on Tuesday, 30 December 1884 thanking him for all his help that year: ‘You help constantly in what you do and did for Vincent and for Cor too, you have faithfully sent us all something’ (FR b2264). Because Theo’s parents usually both wrote to Paris, and his father says here that he is replying to a letter from Theo of 8 December (which means there was relatively little contact that month), this not only increases the chances that his mother also added a few lines on the occasion of the New Year, but also that Vincent’s letter was part of it.
4. Jo van Gogh-Bonger noted here in Brieven 1914: ‘The reference is to a painting by the Swedish painter Josephson – the preliminary study for his painting, De Waternix, which became famous later’ (vol. 2, p. 457).
This is Ernst Josephson’s The water sprite, 1881 (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum). Ill. 1003 [1003], inspired by Swedish folklore. In 1946 V.W. van Gogh gave the aforementioned preliminary study of the 1882 painting of the same name to this Swedish museum (Ill. 2133 [2133]). At that time Josephson was working in Paris. The legend of the water nymph tells of how she used her music to lure people to the underworld, from where they could never return. Cf. also letter 499.
[1003] [2133]
5. This remark could be based on Van Gogh’s reading of Hugo’s William Shakespeare. Hugo had said in this context: ‘Once the depths of Hell have been touched, Dante passes through it, and rises up on the other side of the infinite’. (Le fond de l’enfer touché, Dante le perce, et remonte de l’autre côté de l’infini). See Hugo 1864, p. 93. We know from letter 155 that Van Gogh was familiar with this book.
6. In his Divine comedy (1313-1321) Dante Alighieri describes how he descended into hell, whence he also returned. Vincent therefore did not understand why Theo compared the water nymph to Dante.
7. The sophisticated seducer Mephistopheles, the devil in the story of Faust.
8. The ‘people’ who wrote this was the sixteenth-century biographer of artists Giorgio Vasari. Van Gogh derived his knowledge from Jules Michelet, L’amour, the start of book 5, chapter 4: ‘Vasari said a remarkable thing about the old master Giotto, creator of Italian art: “The first thing he puts in the facial expressions is goodness.”’ (Vasari a dit un mot remarquable sur le vieux maître Giotto, créateur de l’art italien: “Dans l’expression des têtes, le premier il mit la bonté.”) (Michelet, L’amour, p. 381). Cf. also Pabst 1988, p. 30.
9. Giotto painted Dante’s likeness in his frescoes in the Palazzo del Podestà and in the Santa Croce in Florence. Ill. 875 [875]. Although there are now doubts as to whether the paintings in the Palazzo are by Giotto, at this time it was still assumed that they were authentic. There were drawings of the portrait in circulation, and no doubt reproductions too.