My dear Theo,
Today I sent — carriage paid — crate V4 with the still lifes.1
To my regret, the two little sketches of Amsterdam are quite badly damaged.2 They got wet on the journey; then the little panels warped when they dried, and dust &c. got into them. I’m sending them all the same to show you that if, in the space of an hour, I want to dash off an impression somewhere, I’m beginning to be able to do this in the same sentiment as others who — analyze — their impressions. And give themselves a reason for what they see. This is something other than feeling, that’s to say undergoing impressions — there may perhaps be a great deal between experiencing impressions and — analyzing them, that’s to say taking them apart and putting them together again. But it’s enjoyable to put something down in a rush.
What particularly struck me when I saw the old Dutch paintings again is that they were usually painted quickly. That these great masters like Hals, Rembrandt, Ruisdael — so many others — as far as possible just put it straight down — and didn’t come back to it so very much.3  1v:2
And — this, too, please — that if it worked, they left it alone.
Above all I admired hands by Rembrandt and Hals — hands that lived, but were not finished in the sense that people want to enforce nowadays. Particular hands in the Syndics even,4 in the Jewish bride,5 in Frans Hals.
And heads, too — eyes, nose, mouth done with the first brushstrokes, without any sort of retouching. Unger, Bracquemond etched it well — as it was done, and one can see the manner of painting in their etchings.6
Theo, how necessary it is at this time to look at old Dutch paintings now and again! And at the French paintings, Corot, Millet &c. The rest, one can if necessary do without them very well — and upset some people more than they think.  1v:3
Paint in one go, as far as possible in one go. What a joy it is to see a Frans Hals like that — how very different it is from the paintings — there are so many of them — where everything has been carefully smoothed out in the same way.
I happened to see a Meissonier (the one at the Fodor)7 on the same day that I saw old Dutch masters, Brouwer, Ostade, Ter Borch in particular.8 Well then — Meissonier does it like them — a very considered, very calculated touch — but — on in one go and, if possible, right in one go.
I think it’s better to take off a part that goes wrong with a palette knife and start again from the beginning than to keep coming back to it.
Now — I saw a sketch by Rubens and a sketch by Diaz, too, as it were at the same time.9 They were by no means the same, but the belief that the colour expresses the form when it’s in its place and in its context — that they do have in common. At any rate Diaz is a painter to the core — and he was conscientious to the tips of his fingers.  1r:4
The Diaz in the Fodor is only sketchy, but perhaps precisely because of this it was a real joy for me, who hadn’t seen one in years, to see one again, and it stood up very well, even when one had just seen the way the old masters went about it.
I must just come back to certain present-day paintings that are becoming more and more numerous. Some 10, 15 years ago people started to talk about ‘clarity of light’.10 It’s true that originally this was a good thing; it’s a fact that masterly things came about as a result of that system. But where it increasingly degenerates into an overproduction of paintings where all through the painting — in all 4 corners the same light, the same what I think they call day tone and local colour dominates, is this a good thing??? I think not.
Is the Ruisdael in the Van der Hoop, the one with the mill, not outdoors? Is there no sky in it and vast space?11 And yet — the whole painting is very much darker than the fellows would do, sky and earth moreover form a single whole, belong together.
Van Goyen — that Corot among the Dutchmen — I stood for a long time in front of that masterly piece in the Dupper Collection, two oaks on a dune in the autumn, in a storm.12  2r:5
A sentiment indeed, let me say, like Jules Dupré or like The bush.13
But there’s ordinary yellow ochre rather than — white — carried through in the painting. Now the Cuyp — the view of Dordrecht in the Van der Hoop14 — entirely reddish gold — there again — the ochres.
Frans Hals’s yellow — call it what you will, dull lemon or fawn yellow — what’s it done with? It seems very light in the painting — but just try holding white against it.15
A great lesson that the old Dutch masters teach, it seems to me, is this: to regard drawing and colour as one — which Bracquemond says too.16 That now — many do not do it, they draw with everything except with sound colour. Oh Theo, it’s so awful to listen to, it’s so horribly boring when a chap like Haverman, say, talks about ‘technique’. I don’t say Rappard, because he talks like that too but, fortunately for him, paints better than he talks.17  2v:6
I have absolutely no desire to make a lot of acquaintances among the painting gang. But again — speaking of technique — there’s a great deal sounder and more solid technique in Israëls — for instance in that very old work, the Zandvoort fisherman, with superb chiaroscuro18 — than the technique of those who are equally smooth and flat all over, and distinguished by their cold, tinny colour.
The Zandvoort fisherman, well, just go ahead and hang it next to an old Delacroix, The barque of Dante,19 and it’s the same family. I believe in that, but every day I dislike the paintings that are equally light all over more and more. It’s an unpleasant thing for me when they say that I have ‘no technique’ — it’s possible that this will blow over because I don’t make the acquaintance of any of the painters. It’s true, on the contrary, that it’s precisely in terms of technique that I find many of the people who prattle on about it the most are weak. I wrote to you about that before.20 But if I show any of my work in Holland, I know in advance what I have to deal with and with what sort of  2v:7 calibre of technicians. Meanwhile, I’d rather go very calmly to the old Dutchmen and rather to the paintings by Israëls and those who have a direct affinity with Israëls, which the newer ones do not. They are, rather, diametrically opposed to Israëls. And I think I’ve observed that Israëls himself, Maris, Mauve, Neuhuys himself, view a certain direction we’re now discussing with nothing but displeasure. A Mesdag, for instance, who was once a terrible realist,21 as you’ll remember — is becoming more tonal in his later paintings and drawings, and often more mysterious. Anyway.
Witkamp has a devilish lot that’s good — resembles Jules Breton or Bastien-Lepage — but — Jules Breton is warm, and he’s much too cold. And that’s not a fault that’s easy to put right — to get a thing warm, it has to be put on warm, and otherwise one won’t easily get the cold out of it.22
In many cases, what they call brightness is an ugly studio tone in a cheerless city studio. It seems people don’t look at the half-light in the early morning or in the evening, it seems nothing exists other than midday from 11-3 — truly a very respectable hour! — but — often as characterless as Jan Salie.23  2r:8
But for all that, Theo — I’m devilish poor at present. Painting a lot is expensive — I feel really hard up, and as for the end of the month, it’s miserable. The fact that ‘money is the sinews of war’24 sadly can’t be ignored in painting either. Nothing but sorrow comes out of war, though, there is only destruction, and in painting it’s sometimes — sowing — even if the painter doesn’t reap the harvest himself.
How are you and how’s business? I don’t know whether my intuition is right — but judging from the shop windows &c. &c., the Art trade in Amsterdam certainly did not appear to be flourishing — but oh so quiet and respectable. Truly, overconfidence and enthusiasm aren’t the faults(?) of the present day. I hardly spoke to anyone — but indirectly sounded things out because I’m curious as to what the results will be, what it will come to in the art trade. I don’t think you’re exactly overwhelmed with paintings, are you?
In the winter I’m going to explore various things regarding manner that I noticed in the old paintings. I saw a great deal that I needed.
But this above all things — what they call — dashing off — you see that’s what the old Dutch painters did famously.  3r:9 That — dashing off — with a few brushstrokes, they won’t hear of it now — but how true the results are. And how masterfully well many French painters, how an Israëls understood precisely that. At the museum — I thought a lot about Delacroix. Why? Because in front of Hals, in front of Rembrandt, in front of Ruisdael and others, I thought constantly of that saying, When Delacroix paints – it’s like the lion devouring his piece of flesh.25 How true that is — and oh, Theo — when I think about what I’ll call the self-styled technical gang, how deathly it is. Rest assured that if I ever have to do with those gentlemen or come across one of them, I’ll play the innocent — but — à la Vireloque — followed by a cutting remark.26
I hate it when things hang fire and go wrong.
And isn’t it something fatal, that forced finishing the same everywhere (what they call finishing!), everywhere that same boring grey light instead of light and shade — local colour, colour instead of tone? Aren’t those deplorable things — and isn’t it so?  3v:10 Anyway — I think these things are wrong because I think Israëls, for instance, so good, because there are so many new and old painters alike whom one can adore.
I should have realized earlier that I’m most probably boring you with this letter. But I simply didn’t think about it; for my part I can say that I wish you’d write to me about your impressions of things in the Louvre or Luxembourg or of anywhere else.
Write soon, if you will — and be aware that it’s awfully tough for me at the end of the month. All the same, I’m glad I went there, even if it’s at a moment when I can afford the expenditure less than ever. As to that — things will be very hard around New Year, say, but anyway — nothing ventured, nothing gained, and for my part I’ll always resign myself to being in difficulties if it’s for the sake of painting. Regards, hope you’ll get my consignment in good order. There’s a book by De Goncourt about Chardin, Boucher, Watteau and Fragonard — I must read it; do you or any of your acquaintances have it?27 I don’t suppose you do, but do you perhaps know whether or not it’s particularly important? Regards.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 538 | CL: 427
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 13 October 1885

1. Some of the works that were sent can be identified. In letter 532 Van Gogh had said that he had ‘some still lifes — of a basket of potatoes — fruit — a copper kettle &c.’ ready for Theo. He had painted several versions of these subjects in this period, although it is often not possible to establish precisely when a work was finished.
On the basis of letter 536 we know that at any rate Basket of potatoes (F 100 / JH 931 [2530], F 116 / JH 934 [2532]) and Baskets of potatoes (F 107 / JH 933 [2531]) were part of the consignment, as was Basket of apples (F 99 / JH 930 [2529]). Since the only extant still life with a kettle is Still life with a brass cauldron and jug (F 51 / JH 925 [2527]), this must be the one he means (see also letter 532, n. 4).
In letter 536 Vincent also mentioned birds’ nests on a ‘black background’ (ll. 62-63), which Theo must have been able to picture in his mind’s eye. It is unclear whether he is referring to one or more still lifes here. Still life with birds’ nests (F 111 / JH 939 [2533]; F 112 / JH 938; and F 109r / JH 942) fit the bill.
Going by what is – or was once – in the family estate, the following works may also have been in this batch: Beer tankards (F 49 / JH 534); Basket of apples (F 101 / JH 927); Still life with earthenware and bottles (F 53 / JH 538) and Still life with a basket of apples and two pumpkins (F 106 / JH 936). They are now in the Van Gogh Museum. Still life with an earthenware bowl and pears (F 105 / JH 926 [2528]) was sold by Jo van Gogh-Bonger in 1905. It is not impossible that The parsonage at Nuenen (F 182 / JH 948) was also sent in this crate.
We do not know whether the crate also contained other works besides the two small Amsterdam panels discussed below – such as the drawings promised in letter 532. See for all this: cat. Amsterdam 1999, pp. 11-13 (nn. 25 and 30), 164-167, 239. The consignment probably also contained a still life with potatoes, which Van Gogh overpainted with a flower still life in Paris, Still life with gladioli (F 248 / JH 1146).
[2530] [2532] [2531] [2529] [2527] [2533] [607] [592] [2528] [990]
2. The panels View in Amsterdam (F 113 / JH 944 [2534]) and De Ruyterkade in Amsterdam (F 211 / JH 973 [2542]), which were therefore part of this consignment, show traces of dirt and (probably) soot. See cat. Amsterdam 1999, pp. 214-216.
[2534] [2542]
3. Discussing Rembrandt’s Syndics [1835] in Les maîtres d’autrefois, Fromentin referred to the rapid execution, the broad brushstroke, the heavier, more substantial paint and the tougher surface than in his earlier paintings (Fromentin 1902, chapter 15, p. 385).
4. See for Rembrandt’s Syndics of the the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild [1835]: letter 121, n. 5. It is possible that the word ‘even’ (‘zelfs’) refers to the Jewish bride and not the Syndics.
6. William Unger and Félix Bracquemond were known as etchers and engravers, among other things for their prints after old masters. Van Gogh most probably knew Unger’s etchings after Hals from Etsen naar Frans Hals door Prof. William Unger. Met eene verhandeling over den schilder door Mr. C. Vosmaer. Leiden 1873. There were twenty well-known works in this de luxe edition.
Béraldi lists three etchings that Bracquemond made after works by Rembrandt: two portraits of women in the Catalogue de vingt-trois tableaux des écoles flamande et hollandaise provenant de la galerie San Donato... dont la vente aura lieu Hôtel Drouot... le 17 avril 1868 and a Christ aux roseaux for the Catalogue de la collection du comte Koucheleff, 5 juin 1869 (Lugt 1938-1987, no. 31353). See Béraldi 1885-1892, vol. 3, pp. 104-105.
8. There were two paintings by Adriaen Brouwer, seven by Adriaen van Ostade, two by Isaac van Ostade and three by Gerard ter Borch in the Rijksmuseum. See cat. Amsterdam 1885 and cat. Amsterdam 1976.
a. Means: ‘paletmes’ (palette knife).
9. The sketch by Peter Paul Rubens is Christ carrying the Cross, 1634-1637 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Ill. 1301 [1301]. It is a preliminary study for the painting The road to Calvary (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts). See for A nymph with cupids [2156] by Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña in the Fodor Museum, with which Van Gogh compares it, letter 534, n. 25.
[1301] [2156]
10. A reference to the generation of painters of the Hague School who started to use a brighter, lighter palette to capture the atmospheric grey of the light.
11. See for Jacob van Ruisdael’s The windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede [1312]: letter 325, n. 29. The work was in the Van der Hoop Collection (cf. letter 111, n. 1), which was housed in a separate gallery when the Rijksmuseum opened.
12. Jan van Goyen, Landscape with two oaks, 1641 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Ill. 2157 [2157]. The ‘Dupper Collection’ was a bequest of L. Dupper Willemsz. (64 paintings) in 1870, when the collection was still housed in the Trippenhuis.
14. Copy after Aelbert Cuyp, View of Dordrecht at sunset (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Ill. 35 [35].
15. Cf. letter 534, where Van Gogh also talked about Hals’s use of yellow. He borrowed the term ‘jaune chamois’ from Thoré, who used it in connection with Hals’s Merry drinker (see Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 1, p. 60).
16. In the chapter ‘Dessinateur. Coloriste’ in Du dessin et de la couleur Bracquemond observes: ‘Drawing and colouring are not two different professions, those of draughtsman and colourist, but they confront two principles, two conventions, two methods specific to painting, which also apply to sculpture’ (Le dessin, la couleur, ne constituent pas deux professions différentes, dessinateur et coloriste; mais ils mettent en présence deux principes, deux conventions, deux méthodes particulière à la peinture, tout en n’étant pas étrangères à la sculpture) (see Bracquemond 1885, p. 98).
17. Van Gogh had met Hendrik Johannes Haverman in Brussels in 1881. In 1879-1880 Haverman was in Antwerp, studying with Charles Verlat, he then studied at the Brussels Academy under Portaels. After this he went back to August Allebé in Amsterdam, with whom he had started in 1878.
Haverman wrote to Albert Plasschaert on 9 May 1912: ‘I indeed knew Vincent van Gogh in Brussels (1881 or thereabouts). But didn’t meet him often, because very soon we were having quite fierce arguments. I made a few etchings, but no impressions of them have been published; they were more in the way of trials in a rudimentary state’ (FR b3028).
Van Gogh had already spoken slightingly of the importance that Van Rappard and Haverman attached to ‘technique’ in letters 439 and 514.
19. Eugène Delacroix, The barque of Dante (Dante and Virgil in hell), 1822 (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Ill. 2158 [2158]. There is an engraving after it in Charles Blanc’s Les artistes de mon temps, from which Vincent had copied out a passage about Delacroix for Theo some months earlier (see letter 449) (Blanc 1876, p. 29). In Histoire des artistes vivants français et étrangers Silvestre quoted Thiers, who spoke of ‘the horrible tint’ (l’horrible teinte) and ‘the colours of death’ (les couleurs de la mort) in this work. See Silvestre, Histoire, p. 62. Van Gogh referred to this book several times during this period (cf. for example letters 526, 538 and 557).
20. Van Gogh wrote about the weak technique of people who talked about it a lot in letter 534.
21. A reference to Mesdag’s earliest works. See Poort 1989-1995.
22. Van Gogh had read about the concepts of ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ in Bracquemond: see for this letter 530.
23. In the Netherlands Jan Salie is the proverbial personification of a lack of energy and initiative. The name derives from the character of this name in E.J. Potgieter’s novel Jan, Jannetje en hun jongste kind (1842).
24. French proverb, based on François Rabelais, Gargantua 1, 46.
26. Like Thomas Vireloque, a tramp with a misanthropic view of the world. He features in twenty satirical prints in Gavarni’s La mascarade humaine (Gavarni 1881, pp. 77-115). Van Gogh, who owned this book (see letter 302), is referring here to Vireloque’s outspoken remarks in the captions: time after time he punctures ‘human pretensions’.
27. Van Gogh is referring to L’art du dix-huitième siècle (1859-1875) in which Jules and Edmond de Goncourt give an overview of a number of important eighteenth-century French artists through extracts from letters and anecdotes. These biographical sketches are accompanied by discussions of their work and exhibitions. The essay on Chardin is on pp. 91-192; on Boucher on pp. 195-314; on Watteau on pp. 1-90 (all in Goncourt 1881-1914, vol. 1); on Fragonard on pp. 241-342 (vol. 3). In Goncourt 1948, pp. 107-155; 55-105; 1-54 and 259-312 respectively.
As well as the artists Van Gogh mentions here, the De Goncourts also discuss La Tour, Greuze, Saint-Aubin, Gravelot, Cochin, Eisen, Moreau, Debucourt and Prudhon. Several editions of this book, in a number of volumes, were available in 1885.