My dear Theo,
I painted another head today1 — of a model whom I couldn’t pay, though — but being able to get it, I took it anyway.
I’ve also now had a definite promise that I’ll make a portrait of someone, and then two studies for me in return.2
I have to tell you, though, that I’m really hard pressed now — out of the near enough five francs that I still had — I had to buy two canvases for those two portraits, and my laundry has just come back. So that at the moment I have a few centimes left.
So what I’m urgently asking you is: for God’s sake don’t put off writing, and send me a lot or a little, such as you have — but know that I’m starving, literally.
If I succeed in getting 50 or so heads together, there’s a chance of getting work, that is to see about being employed by the photographers, which I wouldn’t want in the long run, but would do if needs must. The photographers seem to have plenty to do here. One also sees painted portraits in their shops, which they apparently work up on a background obtained by photography, which obviously has a weak, feeble effect to anyone who knows what painting is. It occurs to me now that one could get very much better colours if one worked with studies painted directly from life from the photographs that people want to see painted. And after all, at any rate this is one of the chances of earning something that one might have.  1v:2
But whatever I want to begin and where — I have to be able to show things, that goes without saying.
Since I need all my high spirits, all my energy — putting it bluntly, I dread feeling physically weak.
I’ve been to see someone else with my view of Het Steen, who thought the tone and colour good, who was in a state of confusion drawing up his inventory and is in small premises, though, but where I could3 go back after the New Year. It’s a good thing for when there are foreigners who want to have a souvenir of Antwerp, and for this reason I’ll make a few more in the same genre of townscapes. Yesterday, for example, I drew a few studies4 for a thing in which one sees the cathedral. And similarly I also have a small one of the Park.5 However, I’d rather paint people’s eyes than cathedrals, for there’s something in the eyes that isn’t in the cathedral — although it’s solemn and although it’s impressive — to my mind the soul of a person, even if it’s a poor tramp or a girl from the streets, is more interesting. I consequently believe that nothing helps one progress so directly as working with a model. Of course it’s a great problem to have to pay the models we’re at a stage where it comes down to energy and  1v:3 the paintings will have to be energetic in order to find buyers.
I’m convinced that something can be done here. There seem to be a lot of beautiful women in this city, and it has to be the case that there’s money to be earned with either women’s portraits or imaginary women — heads and figures.
It’s a real pleasure for me to work with a rather better type of brush, and to have cobalt and carmine and a good brilliant yellow and vermilion.
The most expensive is still sometimes the cheapest. Cobalt especially — it can’t be compared with any other blue as regards the delicate tones that one can get with it.
And the quality of the colour may not be everything in a painting, but all the same that’s what gives it vitality.
As to whether or not I’d live here permanently — given that things don’t look exactly rosy in the art trade — and there seems to be something of a tendency for each painter to be his own dealer — which I imagine will increase still further in the long run — it might be wise to keep a studio here.
If you have any thoughts or wishes about it, either for or against, let me know as frankly as possible. But it strikes me right away that — if you should ever get to the point of working for yourself, independently of the Goupils, either sooner or later —  1r:4 Antwerp could perhaps be a place where, given the poor displays there are now, by exhibiting properly quite a lot could be done that the other houses don’t understand. Furthermore — It’s relatively easy to go back and forth to England from here.
Why — for the trade — are all paintings always in frames? As a commercial article there’s surely sometimes a lot to be said for something’s being light and easy to handle and to move.
The trade is old-fashioned and... thrice mouldered. There has to be renewal — and the old systems don’t exactly work well any more.
The prices — the public — everything needs renewing. And the future is working cheaply for the bourgeoisie, perhaps. At any rate — the ordinary art lovers themselves seem to be getting more and more set, becoming hard. Anyway.
Starting with capital so often only leads to losing everything first, and thus one’s courage and zest for work, too. Whereas starting with virtually nothing at least makes someone more decisive and firmer of character. Anyway.
Regards — but see that you write to me by return, for I have a faint sensation in my body because I’ve exerted myself rather a lot on this and that, and I need my strength.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 552 | CL: 441
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Antwerp, Saturday, 19 December 1885

1. This head is not known.
2. We do not know which portrait this was; from letter 550 it is clear that Van Gogh did indeed paint the portrait and was able to make one study of the head in return. See for the two works to which this may have led: letter 550, nn. 3 and 4.
3. This may read ‘kan’ (can) rather than ‘kon’ (could).
4. There are two surviving drawings in which the cathedral in Antwerp can be seen: The Grote Markt (F 1352 / JH 975) and The spire of the Church of Our Lady (F 1356 / JH 974). Nothing is known of any working up of these drawings on canvas.
[627] [628]
5. This picture of the park is not known; it must have been the Stadspark, near the Central Station.