My dear Theo,
Just wanted to tell you that I’m hard at work on the potato eaters.
I’ve started it again on a new canvas1 and painted new studies of the heads;2 changed the hands, in particular, a great deal. Above all, I’m doing my best to put life into it.3
I’m very curious as to what Portier will say about it when it’s finished.
The Lhermittes are superb.4 I adore them.
It is felt, in the sense of being studied on a large and on a small scale at the same time, but above all largely imagined and broadly conceived too.
I sincerely hope that you’ll keep watching out for new months in the series.
Tell me, if you will, in what way I should send a painting of a larger format, and to which address. I won’t send the potato eaters unless I know for sure that it’s something.
Still, it’s coming along, and I think there’ll be something very different in it from what you can ever have seen by me. At least that clearly.  1v:2
I mean the life especially. I’m painting this from memory on the painting itself.
But you know yourself how many times I’ve painted the heads!
And furthermore I keep going and looking every evening, to redraw sections on the spot.5 But in the painting I let my own head, in the sense of idea or imagination, work, which isn’t so much the case with studies, where no creative process may take place, but where one obtains food for one’s imagination from reality so that it becomes right.
But you know I wrote to Mr Portier — up till now I’ve made nothing but studies — but — the paintings will come. And I’ll stick to that.
I think I’ll also send a few more studies from nature soon.  1v:3
It’s the second time that I’ve derived a great deal from something Delacroix said.
The first was his theory of colour,6 but I also read a conversation that he had with other painters about the making, that is the creation, of a painting.
He asserted that one made the best paintings — from memory. By heart! he said.
And I read of the conversation in question that when all those good people were going home late in the evening — Delacroix, with his usual vivacity and passion — shouted out after them in the middle of the boulevard, By heart! by heart!, probably to the great surprise of respectable passers-by.7
Just like Jacque who, when he had been talking somewhere, kept sending someone messages by his boy after midnight and all through the night: ‘I herewith again have the honour to assure you that your Mr Ingres is nothing but an image maker and that Daumier infinitely surpasses him’, or something of the kind.8  1r:4
I shan’t send it unless I hear further from you, and anyway it’s not even finished yet.
But the most difficult things, the heads, hands and ensemble, are. Perhaps you’ll now find in it what you wrote about a while ago — that, although personal, it will nonetheless remind you of other painters with a certain family likeness. Which you didn’t find in the studies then, but I suggest that if one compared my studies with other studies, there would also be a resemblance.
Thanks again for the Lhermittes and other illustrated magazines. I was disappointed in Le Chat Noir, although the title is good. I was glad to find some biographical particulars of Jules Dupré in the No. of La Vie Moderne9 — I’ve sometimes thought that Mistigris (the shrewdest of landscape painters), who appears in Balzac’s Comédie humaine, could perhaps have been Dupré in his youth. But I don’t know who Balzac had in mind, and anyway the character doesn’t play a major part in the book.10 Do you know who also often works in that manner of drawing with ovals that Gigoux spoke of? — Henri Pille. Do not start from the line but from the middle — is a famous truth.11 Meunier, Mellery and Rappard also often draw like that, and Allebé.
Regards, with a handshake.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 500 | CL: 403
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 28 April 1885

1. The potato eaters (F 82 / JH 764 [2510]).
2. It is impossible to say for certain which studies for the heads of the potato eaters Van Gogh is referring to here; he made several of them.
3. Later in this letter Van Gogh refers to Jean Gigoux, Causeries sur les artistes de mon temps, who wrote about Delacroix: ‘He wanted life; life at all costs, life everywhere, in the fields, in the skies, around his figures’ (Il voulait la vie; la vie à tout prix, la vie partout, sur les terrains, dans les ciels, autour de ses figures) (Gigoux 1885, p. 65).
4. The plural ‘Lhermittes’ indicates that Theo sent the prints by Léon Augustin Lhermitte from the series ‘Les mois rustiques’ for March and April, both engraved by Clément Edouard Bellenger. The first is Le labourage (Ploughing), published in Le Monde Illustré 29 (28 March 1885), Supplement to no. 1461 (Ill. 2138 [2138]). We know from letter 500 that the print for April, Hirondelles ou le jardinage (Swallows or gardening), which appeared in Le Monde Illustré 29 (25 April 1885), Supplement to no. 1465 (Ill. 2137 [2137]) was certainly in this parcel.
[2138] [2137]
5. For various studies for The potato eaters, see cat. Amsterdam 1997, pp. 153-163.
6. Van Gogh had read about Delacroix’s ideas on colour in Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin and in Les artistes de mon temps. See also letters 449 and 494, in which he copied out passages from these books.
He felt a need to expound his knowledge of colour theory to other people, too. Dimmen Gestel recalled: ‘[He] argued a great deal on theoretical grounds and cited many French works which he strongly encouraged me to read. He always talked a great deal about the theory of colour; about primary and complementary colours and their effect against one another.’ Letter to Albert Plasschaert. Eindhoven, 16 August 1912 (FR b3039).
7. This anecdote is taken from Blanc’s Les artistes de mon temps (Blanc 1876, pp. 76-77).
8. Van Gogh may have got this from a passage in Pierre Véron, ‘Charles Jacque’ in the Galerie Contemporaine, Littéraire, Artistique. Album Mariani, in which Véron contrasted Jacque and Géricault: ‘In painting, [Jacque] is a resolute colourist whose pet hate was Ingres but who fanatically admired Daumier. Nothing was funnier than to hear him having heated debates about the subject with his friends ... Once, we retired at midnight, having held forth about the issue for hours. Suddenly, Jacque, who had just gone to bed, came back, took a pen and wrote to the person who had disagreed with him saying: “Your Mr. Ingres is just an image maker; I had to tell you again before I fell asleep and to say that Daumier is infinitely better”. He then woke up his oldest son and told him to deliver the note immediately to his adversary, who naturally responded. The correspondence lasted a good part of the night and we doubled up with laughter over it.’ (En peinture, [Jacque] est un coloriste déterminé dont Ingres était la bête noire et Daumier l’admiration fanatique. Rien n’était plus amusant que de l’entendre soutenir à ce sujet des discussions houleuses avec ses amis ... On s’était retiré par exemple à minuit, après avoir péroré pour et contre pendant des heures. Tout à coup, Jacque qui venait de se mettre au lit, se revelait, prenait une plume et écrivait à celui qui l’avait contredit: “Votre M. Ingres n’est qu’un imagier, j’ai tenu à vous le redire avant de m’endormir et à constater que Daumier lui est infiniment supérieur.” Après quoi il réveillait son fils aîné et lui donnait à porter sur-le-champ la missive à laquelle le contradicteur faisait naturellement une réponse. La correspondance durait ainsi une partie de la nuit et l’on riait à se tordre.) Quoted from Fanica 1995, p. 176. Cf. for ‘imagiers’ also letter 515, n. 10.
9. Paul de Katow, ‘Jules Dupré’, La Vie Moderne 7 (28 March 1885), no. 13, pp. 198-199. This presents a general overview of Dupré’s life and working method, and emphasizes how the painter carried on working throughout his life and succeeded in breathing life into nature. The brilliant ‘peintre vrai’ (true painter) was noble, passionate, serious and single-minded. He also endeavoured to persuade dealers and art lovers of Rousseau’s quality. Two quoted sayings of his are: ‘Nature is nothing – man is everything’ (La nature n’est rien, l’homme est tout) and ‘A wonderful landscape painter above all wants there to be soul in art.’ (L’admirable paysagiste veut avant tout qu’il y ait une âme dans l’art’) (p. 199).
10. Mistigris is the nickname of the landscape painter Léon Didas y Lora, known as Léon de Lora, a character in Balzac’s Les comédiens sans le savoir (1846) and Un début dans la vie (1844) from La comédie humaine; he is also mentioned several times in other novels in the series. It is in Honorine (1845) that he is described as ‘the most malicious man in Paris today’ (l’homme le plus malicieux de Paris actuel). See Balzac, La comédie humaine ii. Etudes de moeurs: scènes de la vie privée. Ed. Pierre Citron. Paris 1976, p. 528.