My dear Theo,
I received your letter this afternoon, and wanted to reply to it straightaway. I’m longing to get an idea of the Salon, particularly of the painting by Roll.1
It doesn’t surprise me that Durand-Ruel, say, haven’t yet taken notice of the drawings. And I would even prefer that Portier didn’t exaggerate in finding them good (at least, I feel I can do it better), because I’m just changing again, and in such a way that I find the earlier things hesitant.
I think you’ll see what I mean from the painting of the potato eaters.2
I think that Portier will understand it. It’s very dark, though, and in the white, for instance, white has hardly been used at all but simply the neutral colour that occurs if one mixes red, blue, yellow together — say vermilion, Paris blue and Naples yellow. So this colour in itself is a fairly dark grey, but it looks white in the painting. I’ll tell you why I do this. The subject here is a grey interior, lit by a small lamp.
The drab linen tablecloth, the smoke-stained wall, the dusty caps in which the women have worked on the land — all these, when you look at them through your eyelashes, prove to be very dark grey in the light of the lamp, and the lamp, although being a red gold glow, is even lighter — and by a long way — than that white.  1v:2
Now the flesh tones — I know that on a superficial examination, that is if you don’t think it through, they look like what people call flesh colour.
I did paint them that way at the beginning of the painting — some yellow ochre, red ochre and white, for example.
But that was much too light and certainly didn’t do.
What was to be done? — I had finished all the heads and even finished them with great care — but I quickly repainted them without mercy, and the colour they’re painted now is something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course.
While I was doing it I thought again about what has so rightly been said of Millet’s peasants — ‘His peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow’.3 A phrase I can’t help thinking of whenever I see them at work, outside as well as indoors. I’m certain that if you were to ask Millet, Daubigny, Corot to paint a snowy landscape without using white — they would do it and the snow would appear white in their paintings.  1v:3
What you say about the lithograph,4 that the effect is woolly, I think so too, and it isn’t my own fault, in so far as the lithographer insisted that it wouldn’t print properly because I’d left virtually no white on the stone. On his advice I then bit out light areas. If I had just printed it as the drawing was, it would have been generally darker but wouldn’t have lacked cohesion. And there would still have been atmosphere between the planes.
Still, what should I do with the painting? It’s as big as last year’s woman spinning.5 I’ve got it in the cottage again to do more things to it from life. I believe I’ll finish it though — in a manner of speaking — for I myself will actually never think my own work finished or ready.
I can make a smaller version of it or a drawing, though, if you would rather have that, for I feel the thing in such a way that I can literally dream it.

Can you not understand that the thing I scribble down here was superb? When I went to the cottage this evening I found the folk eating their meal by the light of the little window instead of under the lamp.6
Oh, it was astonishingly beautiful. The colour was also singular — you remember those heads painted against the window7 — the effect was like that, only darker still.  1r:4
So that the two women and the interior were almost exactly the same colour as dark green soap. But the figure of the man on the left was just lit by light coming in from a door further along. Thus head and hands became the colour of, say, a 10-centime piece, that is, dull copper. And his smock the most delicate faded blue possible, where the light caught it.
When you write again, please tell me what you want me to do with the painting. Obviously we must make sure Portier gets something new. But I could just as well paint it again half size, say, for him, and send this larger one to Antwerp, say.
As regards the light paintings of the present day, I’ve seen so few of them in recent years.8 But I’ve thought a great deal about the question. Corot, Millet, Daubigny, Israëls, Dupré, others — also paint light paintings — that is, one can see into all the corners and depths etc. — however deep the spectrum may be.
But not one of them — the above-mentioned — are people who literally paint the local tone; they follow the spectrum they start with — carry through their own idea — in colour and tone and drawing. And that their lights are generally fairly dark greys — in themselves — which look light in the painting by contrast — that’s a truth that you have the opportunity to observe every day.
Well, regards. You understand, I do not say that Millet doesn’t use any white when he paints snow, but maintain that, if they’d ever wanted to, and deliberately, he and the other tonists could have done that in the same way as Delacroix says of Paul Veronese — that he painted white, blonde, nude women with a colour that in itself is very like dirt from the street.9
With a handshake.

Yours truly,

I think that you’ll certainly see in the painting that I have my own way of looking, but that it nonetheless links up with others — certain Belgians, for instance.10

Scandalous that they rejected Josephson’s painting.11 But why don’t the rejected ones band together to do something themselves?12 Unity is strength.


Br. 1990: 502 | CL: 405
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 2 May 1885

1. Alfred Philippe Roll, Le travail, chantier de Suresnes (Seine) (Labour, building site at Suresnes (Seine), 1885 (Cognac, Musée Municipal). The print after this painting, Le travail, chantier de Suresnes (Seine) was published in the Salon issue of L’Illustration 85 (25 April 1885), p. 292. Ill. 2139 [2139]. See letter 500, n. 4.
2. The potato eaters (F 82 / JH 764 [2510]).
4. The potato eaters (F 1661 / JH 737 [2135]).
5. See for this large painting of a woman spinning, which is only known from a photograph on a ‘carte de visite’: letter 463, and cf. letters 449 and 450.
6. We do not know whether Van Gogh made a work of the scene in the letter sketch Three people sharing a meal (F - / JH 776). There is a sketchy drawing of virtually the same scene: Three people sharing a meal (F 1229v / JH 775).
The ‘cottage’ he refers to, at number 4 Gerwenseweg (in the continuation of De Berg, where the parsonage was), was home to members of the De Groot and Van Rooij family. It is not clear whether this family really was portrayed, but there is no doubt that one of the sitters was Gordina de Groot. See cat. Amsterdam 1999, pp. 136-145, cat. no. 26.
7. In March Van Gogh painted various heads silhouetted against a window, among them Head of a woman (F 70 / JH 715) and Head of a woman (F 70a / JH 716), which Theo had seen in Nuenen at the end of March; cf. letter 485.
8. Theo must have written to Vincent about painters who used a light palette. He discusses this again at length in his next letter.
9. Taken from Charles Blanc, Les artistes de mon temps (see Blanc 1876, pp. 23-24). This observation is also in the passage that Van Gogh quoted in letter 449. In Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin there is a reference to a flesh tone based on ‘la boue des rues’ (the mud of the streets) (see Blanc 1870, p. 609).
10. Van Gogh would have been thinking here of Charles Degroux, whom he had talked about in letters 493 and 497Henri Leys, who is mentioned not long after this, did not paint peasants.
11. In 1885 Ernst Josephson’s Strömkarlen (Stockholm, Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde) – a new version of The water sprite of 1884 (see letter 477, n. 4) – was rejected by the Salon judges. Ill. 1004 [1004].
12. From the way this is put, we can infer that Van Gogh did not know about the Salon des Indépendants, staged for the first time in 1884. He must have been thinking of the Salon des Refusés (1863). Ironically, the painting was eventually shown at the exhibition of the so-called Opponents, ‘Vom Strand der Seine’, in Stockholm in the spring of 1885, and then in the autumn of the same year at the Opponents’ second exhibition, likewise in Stockholm. See exhib. cat. Hamburg 1984, p. 132, and exhib. cat. Portland 1964, pp. 21-23.