My dear Theo,
Thanks for the money, your letter and Raffaëlli catalogue. I think the drawings in it are masterly.1 What he himself also says about ‘character’ is interesting.2
His writing is a mixture of very simple words that come from the heart and from a nervous artistic emotion — they’re moving — and further — of words that I think Raffaëlli himself understands as little as one who has to read them. Thus it is writing full of very fine things and full of mistakes — I would rather read that than anything else. For what he’s talking about is mightily complicated.
It seems to me, though, that the totality of what he says satisfies — when one has read it — and with all his strange outbursts he nonetheless says something sound and true.
Theo, you mustn’t think that if I saw Uhde’s painting itself I would lose the impression I got of it.3 I say again that I believe this man will go the same way as Knaus and Lobrichon — namely that after a few things full of character, the very technique will play a dirty trick on him, that’s to say he’ll start working more and more correctly — and — more and more drily.  1v:2 I find Raffaëlli, say, a painter who stands much higher — than Uhde.
You don’t hear me having any pessimistic doubts about Lhermitte, do you? So I’m not someone who always doubts. On the contrary, I have a very firm faith in some people. I had never seen anything by Raffaëlli besides those two blacksmiths4 when I wrote to you about it. Raffaëlli, and above all specifically Lhermitte, though, have what Raffaëlli’s talking about, ‘conscience’.5 I’m afraid that that’s where Uhde’s weak spot will be. That he’ll no longer know what he wants.
Anyway. Now you say that Uhde’s silvery grey is so beautiful — and that if I saw the painting I’d think differently about it. No, old chap. I’ve already seen so almighty much grey that I’m not so easily seduced by a bit of silvery grey as I once was. Painting grey as a system is becoming intolerable, and we’ll get the other side of that coin! All the same, to convince you that I want to go on seeing the good in it and am not against it, I have a grey thing going right now.  1v:3
We’ll — inevitably talk about these things again sometime.
Don’t forget, though, that although I have certain reservations about Uhde, I said at the outset that I really do think this painting — as far as the main part is concerned, which is 3/4 of the painting — the children — very fine.
I must get going — didn’t want to wait any longer; am dog-tired every day because I’m so far away on the heath.6
I’ve got some more figures.
I’m sorry about what you write about the money, that you’ll be short yourself.
Painting is sometimes so damned expensive, and nowadays it just comes down to following one’s own idea at all costs.
We need an art with strength and vigour, says Raffaëlli,7 and in achieving this in the figure one has so much difficulty finding models.
The time has passed, and I’m not complaining about it. Although it’s enough for a figure to be put together conventionally, academically – or actually, although many people want precisely that, there’ll be a reaction nonetheless — and I hope that will stir things up. The artists are calling for character,  1r:4 well — the public will do the same. I assure you that I find Uhde’s Christ extraordinarily unfortunate, it won’t do — the children are good.
I’m so fond of LhermitteRaffaëlli — because it’s thought out through and through, sensible and honest.
I’ve got a few figures here, a woman with a spade seen from behind,8 another one bending over to glean ears of corn9 — another one from the front with her head almost on the ground, digging up carrots.10
I’ve been spying on these peasant figures here for 1 1/2 years and on their activities, precisely to get some character into it. So I really can’t stand a Santa Claus like Uhde put there in that little school — the little school itself is so fine, though! Uhde himself — well, I wager that he knows it too — and that he did it on account of the fact that the good citizens of that country where he lives desire a ‘subject’ and ‘something conventional to think about’, and otherwise he’d have to starve. If I find another moment one of these days when I’m not too tired to write, I’ll try to tell you how outstandingly good I find some things in Raffaëlli.
Regards, with a handshake.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 519 | CL: 416
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, Monday, 6 July 1885

1. Catalogue illustré des oeuvres de Jean-François Raffaelli, exposées 28 bis, avenue de l’Opéra. Suivi d’une étude des mouvements de l’art moderne et du beau caractériste. Paris 1884. Facsimile printed in: Exhibitions of Impressionist Art ii. New York and London 1981. This exhibition ran from 15 March to 15 April 1884; Portier was responsible for organizing it. One of the categories was ‘Portraits-types de gens du bas peuple’ (Portrait heads of the lower classes). The catalogue contains five illustrations followed by Raffaëlli’s lengthy essay, titled ‘Etude des mouvements de l’art moderne et du beau caractériste’ in which he puts into words what makes up the essence of art for him (pp. 21-70). Theo handled several works by Raffaëlli from 1886 onwards.
2. One of the main themes of Raffaëlli’s essay is the concept of ‘character’; expressing this well in the work of art is the most important task of the modern artist; the concept is discussed in particular on pp. 21-30, 43, 66-68. The piece begins with a number of pithily formulated contentions: ‘Character is the essential beauty, in a positivist era. Characteristic beauty must at the same time be natural beauty, intellectual beauty and artistic beauty, finally leading to moral beauty. Characteristic beauty must be a means of judicial action in all manifestations of freedom.’ (Le caractère est le beau essentiel, à une époque positiviste. Le beau caractériste doit être en même temps le beau naturel, le beau intellectuel, et le beau artistique, menant comme fin au beau moral.– Le beau caractériste doit être un mode d’action judiciaire de toutes les manifestations de la liberté) (p. 21). Cf. also Schinman Fields 1979, pp. 60, 102-118.
4. See for Raffaëlli’s The blacksmiths: letter 510, n. 18.
5. In this essay, Raffaëlli explores the concept of ‘conscience’ (specifically on pp. 43, 47-48, 69).
6. Van Gogh painted cottages there, as becomes clear in letter 513.
7. The sentence from which this quote is taken reads: ‘We need art with strength and vigour which addresses issues by reproduction and by considering new, poetic, critical, natural and scientific manifestations; whether damnable or praiseworthy.’ (Il nous faut un art de force vive s’adressant à l’idée par la reproduction et par l’attention portée à des spectacles nouveaux, poétiques, critiques, naturels, scientifiques; condamnables ou à louanger (p. 25).
8. Probably Woman digging (F 1255 / JH 826 [2521]). From letter 515 it emerges that these are drawings.
9. A stooping woman picking up ears of corn occurs in several drawings of this period, so it is not possible to identify the specific drawing Van Gogh is referring to here.
10. Probably Woman stooping, with a spade (F 1691 / JH 835 [2522]).