My dear Theo,
Last Sunday I saw the two large paintings by Rubens for the first time, and because I’d looked at the ones in the museum repeatedly and at my leisure, these — The descent from the Cross and The elevation of the Cross — were all the more interesting for it.1 There’s an oddity in The elevation of the Cross that struck me right away, and that is — there are no female figures in it. Unless on the side panels of the triptych.2 It’s no better for it in consequence. Let me tell you that I adore The descent from the Cross. Not, though, because of the depth of emotion that one would find in a Rembrandt or in a painting by Delacroix or in a drawing by Millet.
Nothing moves me less than Rubens when it comes to the expression of human sorrow. Let me start by saying, to make it clearer what I mean — that even his most beautiful heads of a weeping Magdalen or Mater Dolorosas always just remind me of the tears of a pretty tart who’s caught the clap, say, or some such petty vexation of human life3 — as such they’re masterly, but one needn’t look for anything more in them. Rubens excels in the painting of ordinary beautiful women. But he is not dramatic in the expression. Compare him with, say, the head by Rembrandt in the La Caze Collection4 — with the male figure in the Jewish bride5 — you’ll understand what I mean — that, for instance, his 8 or so bombastic fellows performing a feat of strength with a heavy wooden cross in The elevation of the Cross seem absurd to me as soon as I look at them from the standpoint of modern analysis of human passions and emotions. That in his expressions, particularly in the men (always excepting actual portraits) Rubens is superficial, hollow, bombastic, yes, altogether conventional and nothing, like — Giulio Romano and even worse fellows of the decadence.6
But all the same, I adore it because it is precisely he, Rubens, who seeks to express a mood of gaiety, of serenity, of sorrow, and actually achieves it, through the combination of colours — even if his figures are sometimes hollow etc.
Thus in The elevation of the Cross, even — the pale spot — the body a high, light accent — is dramatic in the context of its contrast with the rest, which has been pitched so low.
The same thing, but to my mind far more beautiful, is the charm of The descent from the Cross, where the pale spot is repeated by the blonde hair, pale faces and necks of the female figures, while the sombre setting is immensely rich because of those various low masses, brought together by the tone, of red, dark green, black, grey, violet.
And Delacroix tried again to get people to believe in the symphonies of the colours.7 And in vain, one would say, judging by how much almost everyone understands good colour to mean the correctness of local colour, the small-minded preciseness — that neither Rembrandt, nor Millet, nor Delacroix, nor whomever you like, not even Manet or Courbet, set as their aim, any more than Rubens or Veronese did.  1v:2
I’ve also seen various other Rubens paintings &c. in several churches.8 And it’s very interesting to study Rubens, precisely because he is, or rather seems, so supremely simple in his technique. Does it with so little, and paints — and above all draws, too — with such a swift hand and without any hesitation. But portraits and — heads or figures of women, that’s his forte. There he’s deep and intimate, too. And how fresh his paintings have remained precisely because of the simplicity of the technique.
Now what else shall I tell you? That I feel increasingly inclined, without rushing, that’s to say without rushing nervously — to do all my figure studies over again from the beginning very calmly and coolly. I’d like to get to the point in knowledge of the nude and the structure of the figure where I can work from memory. I’d like to work either with Verlat or at another studio for a while, and for the rest also paint from models for myself as much as possible. At the moment I’ve left 5 paintings — 2 portraits, 2 landscapes, 1 still life — with Verlat’s painting class at the academy.9 I’ve just been there again, but each time I haven’t found him there. But I’ll soon be able to let you know how that turns out. And I hope to arrange it so that I can paint from the model at the academy all day, which would make it easier for me, since the models are so awfully expensive that I can’t keep it up.
And I must find some way of getting help in that regard.
In any event, I think that I’ll stay in Antwerp itself for a while, instead of going back to the country. It would be so much better than postponing it, and there’s so much more opportunity here of finding people who might take an interest in it. I feel that I dare do something and can do something, and things have already been dragging on for far too long.
You get cross if I make a comment, or rather you take no notice of it, and all the rest that we know, and yet I believe that there will come a time when you yourself will have to acknowledge that you’ve been too weak in seeing to it that I get back some of my credit with people. But anyway, we’re facing the future, not the past. And again — I believe that time will bring you to the realization that, if there had been more cordiality and warmth between us, we could have set up our own business together.10  1v:3
Even if you’d stayed with G&C. You said to me, indeed, that you know very well that you’ll get no thanks for your pains — but are you so very sure that this isn’t a misunderstanding like the one Pa himself laboured under? At any rate I won’t put up with it, you can be sure of that. For there’s still too much to do, even nowadays.
The other day I saw an excerpt from Zola’s new book for the first time, ‘L’oeuvre’, which as you know is appearing as a serial in Gil Blas.11 I think that this novel will do some good if it sinks in a little in the art world. I thought the excerpt that I read was very realistic.
For my part I’ll admit that something else is needed when working absolutely from nature — facility of composition — knowledge of the figure — but after all — I don’t think I’ve been putting myself to all this trouble for years for absolutely nothing. I feel a certain power in me because, wherever I may go, I’ll always have a goal — painting people as I see and know them.
As to whether we’ve already heard the last of Impressionism — to stick to the term Impressionism — I always imagine that many newcomers may still emerge in figure painting, in particular, and I’m beginning to think it increasingly desirable in a difficult time like the present that one should seek one’s salvation precisely by going deeper into high art. For there is relatively higher and lower — people are more than the rest, and for that matter a whole lot harder to paint, too.
I’ll do my best to make acquaintances here, and I thought that if I worked for a while with Verlat, say, I’d be in a better position to know what’s going on here, and what there is to do, and how one can get into it.
So just let me scratch around, and for heaven’s sake don’t lose heart or weaken. I don’t think that you can reasonably ask me to go back to the country for the sake of perhaps 50 francs a month less, when the whole stretch of years ahead is so closely related to the associations I have to establish in town, either here in Antwerp or later in Paris.
And I wish I could make you understand how easy it is to foresee that a great deal will change in the trade. And consequently there are many new opportunities too, if one could come up with something original.12 But that that is therefore necessary, if one wants to do something useful. It’s no fault of mine and no crime when I tell you we must put more force into this or that, and if we don’t have it ourselves we’ll have to find friends and new contacts. I have to earn a bit more or have a few more friends — preferably both. That’s the way to get there, but it’s been too tough for me recently.  1r:4
As regards this month, I really do definitely have to insist that you manage to send me at least another 50 francs.
At the moment I’m losing weight, and moreover my clothes are getting too bad &c. You know very well yourself that this won’t do. All the same, I have a degree of confidence that we can pull through.
But you said that if I became ill we’d be in even more of a state — I hope it won’t come to that, but I would like to be a little bit more comfortable, precisely so as to prevent that.
Anyway — when one thinks how many people just go on living without ever in their lives having even a notion of care — and who always just think that everything will turn out for the best. As if people didn’t starve — and no one ever perished.
I’m beginning to object more and more to your imagining yourself to be a financier and, for instance, thinking the exact opposite of me.
People aren’t all alike, and if one isn’t able to see that in calculating, above all, time must have passed over the calculation before one can consider for certain that one has calculated correctly; if one can’t see this, one is no calculator. And a broader view of finance is precisely what characterizes many modern financiers. That’s to say not exploiting, but allowing freedom of action. I know, Theo, how you yourself could perhaps be rather hard pressed. But you’ve never in your life had it as hard as I have for the last 10 or 12 years in a row. Can’t you understand that I’m right when I say that now, perhaps, it’s been long enough; in that time I’ve learned something I couldn’t do before, so all the opportunities have been renewed and I come up against it, against always being neglected? And if it were now to be my wish to stay here again in city life for a while, then perhaps also go to a studio in Paris, will you try to prevent it?13 Be fair enough to let me go on, because I tell you, I’m not looking for a row and I don’t want a row, but I won’t allow my career to be blocked. And what can I do in the country, unless I go there with money for models and paint? There’s no opportunity in the country, absolutely none, to make money from my work, and that opportunity does exist in town. So I won’t be secure until I’ve made friends in the city, and that’s the order of the day. Now for the moment it might make things a bit more difficult but it’s the way, all the same, and going back to the country now would end in stagnation.
Anyway — regards — De Goncourt’s book is good.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 555 | CL: 444
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Antwerp, between Tuesday, 12 and Saturday, 16 January 1886

1. Rubens, The descent from the Cross, 1612, in the south aisle of the transept in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp; the triptych The elevation of the Cross, 1610, in the north aisle. Ill. 1299 [1299] and Ill. 1300 [1300].
[1299] [1300]
2. Women only appear on the left side panel of The elevation of the Cross [1300], among them Mary and Mary Magdalene.
3. See for the origin of this borrowing from Petites misères de la vie humaine by Old Nick and Grandville letter 178, n. 6.
4. See for Young man with a walking stick [2159], which is no longer regarded as a Rembrandt, letter 536, n. 9.
a. Read: ‘portretten in strikte zin’ (portraits in the strict sense) (cf. the French ‘proprement dit’).
6. The Mannerist style of Giulio Romano was regarded at the time as a decadent transitional style between the High Renaissance and the Baroque. Rubens was influenced by Romano and copied his work. See Fredrick Hartt, Giulio Romano. 2 vols. New Haven 1958, vol. 1, pp. xvi, xxi, 46, 150.
7. See for the description ‘symphonies of the colours’: letter 537, n. 7.
8. Aside from The descent from the Cross [1299] and The elevation of the Cross [1300] in the Cathedral of Our Lady referred to earlier in the letter, Van Gogh could have seen the following works by Rubens in Antwerp churches: also in the cathedral hung The assumption of the virgin, 1626 and The resurrection of Christ, 1612; in Sint-Jacobskerk Virgin and Christ with saints; in Sint-Augustinuskerk The Holy Family with saints, 1628; and in Sint-Pauluskerk The real presence in the holy sacrament, 1609? and The flagellation, 1617? See Joz. de Coo, Rubens-gids voor de Antwerpse kerken. Antwerp 1946-1947, pp. 83-88.
[1299] [1300] [635] [639]
9. The landscapes and the still life are the works Van Gogh brought with him from Nuenen: an unknown ‘mill’, Lane with poplars (F 45 / JH 959 [2538]) and Still life with Bible (F 117 / JH 946 [2535]). See letter 542, n. 3-5. He had evidently retrieved them in the meantime from the dealer’s where he had left them on consignment (letter 546). One of the portraits was probably Portrait of an old man (F 205 / JH 971 [2541]) – at least it appears from letter 565 that Charles Verlat saw it. The second portrait may have been one of the portraits of women mentioned in letter 550.
[2538] [2535] [2541]
10. The fact that Theo was still none too certain about what to do with his future emerges from a letter written by his sister Elisabeth during this period. On 21 January 1886 she wrote to Jo Bonger, with whom she had been corresponding since October 1885: ‘Does your brother write to you often? Mine has bouts of great communicativity (how’s that for a word?) but then relapses into a silence like the grave. I wish I could find him a nice little wife, but that requires an assured future, and well for him who does not look for the former until he is sure beforehand of the latter, otherwise misery, all misery’ (FR b3551).
11. Gil Blas was a left-leaning daily whose editors included Maupassant and Richepin, both admired by Van Gogh. The serialization of Zola’s L’oeuvre appeared in Gil Blas in 80 instalments, from 23 December 1885 to 27 March 1886.
L’oeuvre is the story of the painter Claude Lantier. His friends originally see him as a promising innovator in painting, but in practice he is unable to get any recognition for his work. He finds himself in an increasingly precarious position and finally hangs himself when he fears that he will not be able to finish a very ambitious work that was meant to have proved his genius once and for all.
12. After this Van Gogh crossed out: ‘That way salvation lies’ (‘Daarin is heil te zoeken’).
13. This is the first time the idea of working in a studio in Paris is mentioned – the course at the Antwerp Academy was due to end on 31 March.