My dear Theo,
Many thanks for your letter and for the 50 francs enclosed, which was very welcome to me this month in particular, what with the move. I think that I’ll save a very great deal of time in the long run by living in the studio, since I’ll be able to get started first thing in the morning, for instance, whereas the way it was at home I couldn’t do anything.
I’ve been slogging away at drawings these last few days. The old tower in the fields is being demolished. There was a sale of woodwork and slates and old iron, including the cross.1
I’ve finished a watercolour of it in the manner of that timber sale, but better, I think.2 I also had a second large watercolour of the churchyard, which has so far been a failure.
But still, I have a very good idea of what I want in it — and perhaps I’ll now get what I mean on the third sheet of paper. And if not, then not. I’ve just now sponged out the two failures, but I’m going to try it once more.3  1v:2
If you want, though, you can have the one of the sale.
Then I’m working on a large study of a cottage in the evening.4
And about 6 heads.5
One thing and another was the reason I didn’t send you confirmation of the receipt of your letter before.
I’m working as hard as I can because I’m thinking of going to see the Antwerp exhibition sometime with that friend of mine in Eindhoven, if I can manage it.6 And then I’d want to take some work with me so as to do something more with it there if possible. I’m longing to hear whether Mr Portier has seen the potato eaters.7
What you say about the figures is true, that as figures they aren’t like the heads are. I’ve therefore thought about starting it very differently, that is tackling it from the torsos instead of from the heads.
But then it would have become something altogether different.
As to sitting, though, don’t forget  1v:3 that these people certainly don’t sit on chairs like in one of Duval’s cafés,8 say.
The finest thing I saw was that the woman was simply kneeling — that’s in the first sketch that I sent you.9
But anyway, it’s simply painted the way it’s painted, and we’ll do it again sometime — and then certainly not the same. The last few days I’ve also been busy drawing little figures.
Thanks, too, for the No. of Le Temps you sent with Paul Mantz’s article about the Salon. I haven’t seen such a good article in a long time.10 I think it uncommonly good — the opening sentences — the painting of those Laplanders in their dark hut, who see the sun rise after the long winter night — how in art one also sits waiting for light.11
Then immediately afterwards his reference to Millet, who has certainly given new light — ‘and who remains’.12
Then pointing to Lhermitte as Millet’s successor — I think all of it manly language, and outstanding in accuracy and broad view.13  1r:4
Except I think it a shame that he calls Roll ‘a beginner’14 — for that’s to denigrate him, and Roll has already made so many fine things and is — matchless.
Already matchless since his Miners’ strike15 at least. When Paul Mantz says that Roll’s labourers don’t work very hard, and that it is ‘a dream’.16 Well now — it’s a nice conceit and there’s something to it. The only thing is that it’s precisely because it’s Paris, and not the down-to-earth work in the fields. After all, a workman in the city is just exactly the way Roll paints him.
Rappard has a painting in Antwerp that I think will be very fine, at least the sketch, which practically no one liked, was to my mind very good. I think he’s very clever.17
Have you finished Zola’s book, Germinal, yet?18 I’d very much like to read it and will send it back within a fortnight or so. Is Lhermitte’s month of May in yet?19
In Mantz’s article I also think what he manages to say about colour in 4 words very good and logical, when he talks about ‘the ash blues that we love’,20 and ‘the grass of the meadow is very green, the bull is russet brown, the young girl is pink, here is the harmony of 3 tones’,21 when he talks about the same question in regard to Lhermitte.22
Regards, with a handshake.

Yours truly,

I can understand that Besnard must be interesting.23

I’ll add another word or two here — I cannot advise you enough to work out E. Delacroix’s different propositions about colour for yourself.
Although — out of touch — although out of the art world for a long time — turned out — because of my clogs &c. — yet I see from that article by Mantz that there are still connoisseurs and art lovers, even now, who — know something — and that is what Thoré, what Théophile Gautier knew. And that, leaving aside the self-styled more civilized world of progress for what it is, namely a deception, it continues to come down to what the reformers already announced about taste in ’48, for instance, in a manly and forceful way.
Just as Israëls won’t be surpassed here in Holland but, it seems to me, will remain the master. And in Belgium, Leys and Degroux.
Don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking that I’m insisting on imitation, because I don’t mean that at all.24  2v:6
You’ve seen much more than I have — and I wish that I’d seen what you’ve seen and are still looking at every day.
But perhaps seeing a great deal is precisely what makes it difficult to reflect. Anyway.
My assertion is just that it’s the same with you as with a mass of others, that when you’re older you have to repeat the ground rules once more and study them again. I mean that in your capacity as an art expert you have to know certain rules of colour mixing and perspective just as well as the painters themselves — in terms of theory even better than them actually — since you have to advise and speak about paintings in the making. Don’t take it amiss, for what I say is true; that this would be of more practical use to you than you might think, and would raise you above the usual standard of dealers. Which is necessary, because the usual standard is below standard. I do know a little from my own experience what the dealers know and what they don’t know.
I believe that they’re often taken in and make deals that they later regret, precisely because they know too little about how a painting is made. Anyway — I know you’re already taking pains — for example by reading good things like the one by Gigoux.25 Really study the subject of colour etc. for yourself. I’m trying to do it myself too, and I’d also like to read everything you find of that nature. These days I’m working on putting what Delacroix said about drawing into practice on drawing a hand and arm:26 don’t start from the line but from the middle.27 One has opportunity enough to start from ovals there. And what I’m trying to get with it is to be able to draw not a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head but the overall expression. The sniffing of the wind when a digger looks up, say, or speaking. Life, in short.


Br. 1990: 505 | CL: 408
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, on or about Friday, 22 May 1885

1. Demolition work on the tower had begun on 11 May. The spire (with the cross) must have been dismantled some days earlier, and the tower had probably been totally demolished by the end of June. See De Brouwer 2000, p. 75.
2. Sale of building scrap (F 1230 / JH 770 [2511]), which measures 37.5 x 55 cm; the earlier watercolour is Timber sale (F 1113 / JH 438 [2450]) of December 1883.
[2511] [2450]
3. This planned third watercolour is not known.
4. The cottage (F 83 / JH 777 [2513]), which measures 64 x 78 cm.
5. It is difficult to tell which six heads these are. They probably included Head of a man (F 163 / JH 687 [2495]) and – possibly – Head of a woman (F 388r / JH 782 [2514]). The paintings F 141 / JH 783 [2515] and F 86 / JH 785 [2516] are not mentioned until letters 505 and 506 respectively.
[2495] [2514] [2515] [2516]
6. The World Exhibition of Art was staged in Antwerp from 2 May to 2 November 1885. This friend was Anton Kerssemakers. In his published memoirs he recalls a visit to Antwerp with Van Gogh, that must have taken place in October. See Verzamelde brieven 1973, vol. 3, pp. 92 ff. and letter 527, n. 5.
7. The potato eaters (F 82 / JH 764 [2510]).
8. A reference to the furniture in twelve popular restaurants in Paris known as the Bouillons Duval. Pierre Louis Duval had had department stores converted into restaurants. See Dictionnaire de biographie française. Paris 1970. Vincent knew that Theo would understand exactly what he meant: they are referred to more than once in the letters from Andries Bonger to his parents, and in the correspondence between Theo and Jo. On 9 July 1881, for instance, Andries wrote: ‘On Sundays I put my legs under the mahogany at Duval’s’, and Jo van Gogh-Bonger told her parents on 9 November 1889: ‘We dined in one of the Duvals’ (FR b1665 and b4295). See also letter 666, n. 5.
9. Study for ‘The potato eaters’ (F 77r / JH 686 [2494]); the kneeling woman is the figure in the foreground. ‘First’ here does not mean the first one he sent, but the one that was done first.
10. Paul Mantz, ‘Le Salon i’, published as ‘Feuilleton du Temps’ in Le Temps of 10 May 1885.
11. The painting Lapons saluant le soleil, revenant après la longue nuit d’hiver (Lapps greet the return of the sun after the long winter night) by the Norwegian Otto Sinding, described by Mantz: ‘The delighted and grateful air given to his Laplanders by the Norwegian artist is the same as that which would be taken by the group of salon visitors smitten with light if the sky in art which had became so dreary with the disappearance of the great stars were suddenly to be lit up with golden crimsons’ (L’attitude enchantée et reconnaissante que l’artiste norvégien a donnée a ses Lapons, c’est celle-là même que prendrait le groupe des salonniers épris de lumière si le ciel de l’art si morne depuis l’effacement des grandes étoiles, s’illuminait soudain de pourpres dorées) (p. 1).
12. Mantz writes: ‘Millet has entered into history, and there he will remain’ (Millet est entré dans l’histoire, et il y restera) (p. 1).
13. Among other things Mantz writes of Lhermitte: ‘Despite the differences, easily visible, which separate him from his predecessors, he belongs to the same intellectual movement’ (Malgré les différences, aisément appréciables, qui le séparent de ses prédécesseurs, il appartient au même mouvement intellectuel) (p. 1).
14. Mantz observed: ‘Mr Roll is a great beginner’ (M. Roll est un grand commenceur) (p. 2).
16. Mantz wrote: ‘painting is not just inspired by dreams’ (la peinture ne se nourrit pas seulement de rêve) (p. 1).
17. According to the catalogue, Anthon van Rappard was represented at the World Exhibition of 1885 in Antwerp by the painting Na de koffie, oudevrouwenhuis (After coffee, old women’s home) (see exhib. cat. Antwerp 1885, p. 21, cat. no. 110). Old women in the West-Terschelling home [329] (The Hague, Kunstmuseum), which has a similar subject, was probably a preliminary study for it (see letter 416).
18. In Germinal (1885) Emile Zola describes the misery of the miner’s life, the brutal struggle for survival that robbed the workers of their human dignity. Etienne Lantier, an outsider who comes to work in the Montsou mines, tries to mobilize the workers to bring about a change in their conditions. Eventually there is a strike, but the mine owners take drastic action and enlist the help of the army to break it. Although the miners’ living conditions have not improved by the time that Lantier leaves the area, he detects a change in their attitude that could be the germ of a radical revolution.
19. Léon Augustin Lhermitte drew Le mois de Marie à Chartèves (The month of May at Chartèves) (present whereabouts unknown) as the month of May in the series ‘Les mois rustiques’, but it was never published because several issues were devoted in their entirety to the death of Victor Hugo. Van Gogh went on to ask in vain for this unpublished engraving several times. Les amoureux (‘Idylle’) (The lovers (‘Idyll’)), engraved by Clément Edouard Bellenger, appeared in the month of June; Lhermitte changed the title from ‘June’ to ‘May’. The print appeared in Le Monde Illustré 29 (27 June 1885), Supplement to no. 1474. Ill. 213 [213]. See Le Pelley Fonteny 1991, pp. 402, 452-453, cat. nos. 437, 737.
20. Mantz wrote: ‘He always drew on those ash blues that we love, but today he goes further’ (Il y puisait déjà des bleus cendrés que nous aimons, mais aujourd’hui il va plus loin) (p. 1).
21. Mantz actually wrote: ‘The animal is a russet brown, the woman is a pinkish blonde, the grass of the meadow is very green: one sees here the harmony of the three notes and the beauty of the spectacle’ (L’animal est d’un brun roux, la femme est d’un blond rosé, les herbes de la prairie sont très vertes: on voit d’ici l’accord des trois notes et la jolie du spectacle) (p. 2). A ‘girl’ and ‘the bull’ are mentioned several lines earlier.
22. Mantz was talking about Alfred Roll in this context, not Lhermitte.
23. See for the two works by Besnard, Paris and Portrait de Mme G.[eorges Duruy] at the Salon: letter 500, n. 23.
24. From what follows it appears that Theo had responded to Vincent’s instructive comment that he should devote more time to studying colour theory: see letter 495.
26. We cannot say for certain which drawings these are. There are several sheets on which Van Gogh drew hands, and one with Two hands and two arms (F 1155 / JH 744), which could be what he has in mind here.
27. See for this expression, derived from Gigoux’s Causeries sur les artistes de mon temps: letter 494, n. 2.