My dear Theo,
I received your letter with the enclosed today. Your letter gave me a great deal of pleasure because I think I discern in it a few things that I’d like to go into in more detail. Coming straight to the point: what you write about a certain study of a basket of apples1 — is well observed — but — did you come up with that on your own??? Because I fancy, indeed I’d say know for sure, that you used not to see that sort of thing. Be this as it may — here we are on the way to agreeing more about colours. Now pursue those questions — because that will get you further, and Bürger and Mantz and Silvestre knew that.
Just to say how that study was painted — quite simply this. Green and red are complementary. Well there’s a particular — red in the apples, very coarse in itself — and greenish things as well. Now there are one or two apples in a different colour too — which make the whole thing right — in a particular pink. That pink — is the broken colour, created by mixing the aforementioned red and the aforementioned greenish. There you have the reason why there’s an association between the colours. Added to this is a second contrast — the background forms a contrast to the foreground.  1v:2
The one is a neutral colour, obtained by breaking blue with orange, the other the same neutral colour, only altered by the addition of some yellow.
But — this gives me immense pleasure, that either by direct or by indirect personal feeling you notice a colour combination. Further — that one of the studies appeared to you to be a variation on the brown-grey theme — that’s very definitely the case — only — all 3 of them are, the ones of the potatoes, with the difference that one is a study in sienna,2 the other in burnt sienna,3 the other in — yellow ochre and red ochre.4
The latter — that’s the large one — to my mind — is the best — despite the matt black background, which I left matt on purpose because the ochres are also naturally non-transparent colours. As regards this study — the largest one of the potatoes — it was made by altering those non-transparent ochres, by breaking them with a transparent blue.  1v:3
Red ochre and yellow ochre forming an orange, their combination with blue is more neutral, and they become either redder or yellower against that neutralized colour. The highest light on that whole canvas is quite simply some pure yellow ochre. And the fact that this matt yellow still stands out is because it’s in a wide field of a sort, albeit neutral, of violet; after all — red ochre with a blue gives violet tones.
Well — the nests were also painted on a black background on purpose5 — for the reason that I simply want it to be obvious in these studies that the objects appear against a conventional background, and are not in their natural setting. A — living nest in nature is — something very different; one hardly sees the nest itself, one sees the birds.
Given that one wants to paint nests from one’s collection of nests, one can’t say emphatically enough that the background and setting in nature are very different — so I made the background — simply black.  1r:4
That, though, a coloured background is attractive in a still life is — certain. In Amsterdam I saw still lifes by Miss Vos that I thought outstandinga good deal better than Blaise Desgoffe — really Van Beijerenesque.6 It also occurred to me that those simple still lifes of hers had a good deal more artistic value than many a pretentious canvas by other Amsterdam artists.
They struck me as very good. Particularly one with a gold vase, a few empty oyster shells, a broken coconut shell and a crust of bread.
I’ll send you the book by Blanc7 — want to read L’art du XVIIIme siècle as soon as possible — I particularly want to hear something about Chardin by De Goncourt.8 La Caze’s Rembrandt is really also in that sentiment of Rembrandt’s late years.9 It must be 12 years ago that I saw it, but I still remember it because it struck me, just like that head by Fabritius in Rotterdam.10 If I remember rightly, that nude woman in the La Caze Collection is also very fine, also from the later period.11 The fragment of Rembrandt’s anatomy lesson, yes, I was astounded by it too. Do you remember those flesh colours? It’s — OF THE EARTH, particularly the feet.12  2r:5
Listen — Frans Hals’s flesh colours are also earthy, that’s to say in the sense you know. At least often. There’s also sometimes — I almost dare say always — a relationship of contrast between the tone of the clothes and the tone of the face.
Red and green are opposed — the singer (Dupper),13 who has carmine tones in the flesh colour, has green tones in his black sleeves, and ribbons on those sleeves in a different red from that carmine. The orange, white, blue chap I wrote about has a relatively neutral complexion, earthy, pink, violetish, by contrast with his Frans Hals yellow leather suit.14
The yellow chap — dull lemon — definitely has dull violet in his mug.15
Well — the darker the garb the lighter the face, sometimes at least (not by chance) — in his portrait and that of his wife in the garden,16 there are two black violets (blue violet and reddish violet), and a solid black (yellow-black?) — repeat — reddish violet — and blue violet-black and — black — in other words the 3 most sombre things — well then — the faces are — very fair — extraordinarily fair, even for Hals.
Anyway — Frans Hals is a colourist among the colourists, a colourist like Veronese, like Rubens, like Delacroix, like Velázquez.17
Millet, Rembrandt and, for instance, Israëls — it has sometimes rightly been said of them that they are — harmonists rather than colourists.18
But — tell me — black and white, may one use them or not? Are they forbidden fruit?19
I think not. Frans Hals must have had twenty-seven blacks.
White — but you know yourself what singular paintings some modern colourists purposely made with white on white. What does that phrase mean, one may not?  2v:6
Delacroix — called them rests, used them as such.20 You mustn’t be prejudiced against them, because provided they’re in their place and in balance with the rest, one may use all tones — that goes without saying. Do you know that I often think the things by Apol, say, in white on white, are very good.
His Sunset in the Haagse Bos, for instance, which is in Amsterdam. That thing is actually deuced fine.21
No — black and white, they have their reason and significance, and anyone who suppresses them won’t get it right. The most logical, certainly, is to regard them both as — neutral.
The white the very highest combination of the lightest possible red, blue, yellow — black the very lowest combination of the darkest red, blue and yellow — I have nothing to say against that statement, I think it absolutely true. Well — the light and shade — the tone in terms of value — is directly related to that 4th spectrum from white to black. After all, where one has:

Spectrum  1   from  yellow   to  violet
,, 2   ,, red  
,, 3   ,, blue  
–––––––   –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Sum a fourth spectrum
that of the neutral
tones, that of red + blue + yellow

,, white
red + blue + yellow.
the most extreme light
  to black
red + blue + yellow.
the most extreme black

That’s how I, for my part, understand the blacks and whites.
If I mix red and green to a reddish green or greenish red,
by adding white I then get
  Pinkish green or greenish pink.
And, if you will, by adding black,
  brownish green or greenish brown.
Isn’t this clear?
If I mix yellow with violet to a lilac yellow or yellow lilac, in other words to a neutralized yellow or a neutralized lilac, by adding white and black I get greys.
So. There is primarily a question of greys and browns when one makes colours lighter or darker, whatever their nature and their red, yellow or blue content may be.
To my mind, speaking of light and of dark greys and browns is expressing it correctly.
But how fine what Silvestre says about Delacroix is — that he took an accidental tone on his palette, the unspeakable shade, purplish, that he put that tone down somewhere, either for the highest light or for the deepest shadow, but made something of that mud that either glittered like light or was as sombrely silent as deep shadow.22
For instance I’ve heard of an experiment with a sheet of neutral coloured paper — which became greenish on a red background, reddish on a green one, bluish on orange, orangish on blue, yellowish on violet, and violetish on yellow.  2r:8
Listen — suppose one wants to make a muddy tone or snot colour like this look light in the painting, what Delacroix said — that Veronese could paint a blonde, nude woman with a colour like mud so that she looked white and blonde in the painting.23 Question — how is such a thing possible except by opposing great forces in blue-blacks or violets or reddish browns?
You — who look to see whether you can find dark shadows somewhere and think that if the shadows are dark, indeed black, then it’s no good, are you right? I think not. For — then Delacroix’s Dante,24 say, the Zandvoort fisherman,25 say, are no good, for they really do have the strongest forces of blue or violet blacks in them.
Rembrandt and Hals, didn’t they use black? And Velázquez??? Not just one, but twenty-seven blacks, I assure you.26 So that — ‘not allowed to use black’, come on, do you actually know yourself what you mean by it? And what you want to achieve by it? Really think about it, because you could well come to the conclusion — I regard this as highly likely, that you have learnt and understood the question of — tones — wrongly, or rather have learnt them vaguely and understood them vaguely. There are so many people like this; most people are like this. But you’ll discover it eventually through Delacroix and others of that period. Tell me — have you thought that those studies of mine that have black backgrounds have been pitched very low IN THEIR LIGHTS??? And so where I pitch my study lower than in nature I still maintain the relationship between the tones, since I become darker not only in my shadows but also proportionally IN MY LIGHTS TOO? I made my studies specifically as gymnastics, to fall and to rise in tone — so — don’t forget this, that I painted my white and grey moss literally with a mud colour, and that it nonetheless looks light in the study.27 Adieu, regards.

Yours truly,

These things that relate to complementary colours, to simultaneous contrast28 and to the way complementaries neutralize each other, this question is the first and foremost. The other is — the effect on each other of two similar colours, for example a carmine on a vermilion, a pink lilac on a blue lilac.
The third question is a light blue against the same dark blue, a pink against a brown red, a lemon yellow against fawn yellow, &c. But the first question is the most important.

And if you find some book or other on colour questions that is good, do be sure to send it to me, for I too know far from everything about it, and go on searching every day.


Br. 1990: 539 | CL: 428
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 20 October 1885

1. A number of still lifes can be identified in the light of the colour references later in the letter. See cat. Amsterdam 1999, pp. 167-176. The work referred to here is Basket of apples (F 99 / JH 930 [2529]). It is clear from what Theo wrote to his sister Elisabeth on 13 October 1885 that he had faith in Vincent’s work during this period: ‘You ask me about Vincent. He is one of those people who has seen the world at close quarters and has withdrawn from it. Now we shall have to wait and see whether he proves to have genius. I believe it and several with me, Bonger among them. When his work comes right he will be a great man. As far as success goes, it may be the same for him as Heyerdahl, appreciated by some, but not understood by the general public. Those, however, who care whether there really is something in an artist, or if it’s just pinchbeck, will esteem him and in consequence he will have had sufficient revenge for the displeasure expressed by so many’ (FR b903).
2. Basket of potatoes (F 100 / JH 931 [2530]).
3. Basket of potatoes (F 116 / JH 934 [2532]).
4. Baskets of potatoes (F 107 / JH 933 [2531]), Van Gogh says that it is the largest of the three: it measures 65.0 x 78.5 cm.
5. It is not certain how many still lifes of birds’ nests were sent, nor which they were; the possibilities are Still life with birds’ nests (F 111 / JH 939 [2533] (overpainted); F 112 / JH 938 (black background); and F 109r / JH 942 (brown background). See also letter 535, n. 1.
6. In 1885 there were two still lifes by the Dutch artist Maria Vos in the Rijksmuseum. The painting described later in the letter is Still life with goblet (destroyed in 1944). Ill. 1410 [1410]. The other painting, Fruit of 1875 (present whereabouts unknown), was auctioned by Paul Brandt in Amsterdam in 1964. See minutes of the Vereeniging tot het vormen van eene openbare verzameling van Hedendaagsche Kunst (VVHK) of 14 April 1964. Stedelijk Museum Inventory, B 4340, with a photograph of the still life.
The French painter Blaise Alexandre Desgoffe was known for his still lifes of valuable objects; critics often compared them with seventeenth-century still lifes.
In subject and composition, Vos’s Still life with goblet [1410] is very reminiscent of, for example, Abraham van Beijeren’s Still life in the Rijksmuseum (inv. no. A 3944). Van Gogh is referring primarily to the warm, tonal qualities and the atmospheric effects in Van Beijeren’s painting, which he also saw in Vos’s still lifes.
[1410] [1410]
7. Van Gogh had bought Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin (see letter 454); Theo had evidently asked him to send him this book. Vincent did so at the beginning of November: see letter 538. (He no longer had Blanc’s Les artistes de mon temps, which he had borrowed from Van Rappard for a while: see letter 459). What Van Gogh says here about colour theory is derived from what Blanc had written on the subject in chapter 13 (Blanc 1870, pp. 601-617).
8. Theo sent the De Goncourts’ L’art du dix-huitième siècle not long after this: see letter 539.
9. Van Gogh is referring to Portrait of a man or Young man with a walking stick, 1651 (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Ill. 2159 [2159]. The painting, which is no longer regarded as an authentic Rembrandt, came from Louis La Caze’s collection and hung in the gallery that bore his name in the Musée du Louvre.
10. See for Carel Fabritius, Self-portrait [1885]: letter 155, n. 18, first paragraph.
11. Van Gogh may mean Rembrandt’s Bathsheba bathing, 1654, or Susanna bathing, 1647 (now regarded as a copy after Rembrandt), both of which came from La Caze’s collection. Ill. 2160 [2160] and Ill. 2161 [2161]. See F. Reiset, Notice des tableaux légués au Musée impérial du Louvre par M. Louis La Caze. Paris 1870, cat. nos. 96-97.
[2160] [2161]
12. Rembrandt, The anatomy lesson of Dr Joan Deyman, 1656 (Amsterdam, Amsterdams Historisch Museum). Ill. 337 [337]. The canvas has not survived in its entirety. The description of the flesh tones as being ‘of the earth’ derives from Sensier, La vie et l’oeuvre de J.F. Millet: see letter 495, n. 9.
14. Van Gogh’s memory is playing him false. The ‘orange, white, blue chap’ in this painting is not wearing a yellow leather suit – he is dressed in the pearl-grey satin doublet and darker grey breeches that Van Gogh raved about in letter 534. There is a man in the centre of the same painting who is wearing a buff-coloured coat that might well be leather. See for this figure in The company of Captain Reynier Reael and Lieutenant Cornelis Michielsz. Blaeuw (‘The meagre company’ [152]) by Hals and Codde: letter 534, nn. 4 and 6.
16. Frans Hals, Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, married in Haarlem on 25 April 1622 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Ill. 153 [153]. In the nineteenth century this portrait was still thought to be a self-portrait of Frans Hals and his wife Lysbeth Reyniersdr. Cf. for example Fromentin 1902, chapter 11, pp. 299-300, and exhib. cat. Washington 1989, pp. 162-165, cat. no. 12.
17. Fromentin in Les maîtres d’autrefois had also called Hals, Veronese, Rubens and Velázquez true colourists (see Fromentin 1902, chapter 13, p. 340).
18. The term ‘harmonist’ in connection with Rembrandt may be derived from what Baudelaire had written in his Salon 1846: ‘However, Rembrandt is not a colourist, but a harmonist’ (Cependant Rembrandt n’est pas un coloriste, mais un harmoniste). See Charles Baudelaire, Curiosités esthétiques. L’art romantique et autres oeuvres critiques. Paris 1962, p. 104. A year earlier he had used the term in connection with Corot and Delacroix. See Van Uitert 1966-1967, p. 113. Cf. in this context also Blanc 1876, p. 67.
19. Blanc had written about this in the section ‘Le blanc et le noir’ (chapter 13) of Grammaire des arts du dessin, architecture, sculpture, peinture (see Blanc 1870, pp. 608-610).
20. On the same page that Blanc discusses Delacroix’s Barque of Dante [2158], he says: ‘Whilst the colouring of the picture is absolutely magnificent and very varied, white and black – whether more or less pure or as grey – acting as non-colours, are used to rest and refresh the eye, softening the dazzling impact of the whole thing.’ (Si le coloris du tableau est d’une extrême magnificence et d’une grande variété, le blanc et le noir – soit à l’état plus ou moins franc, soit à l’état de gris, – agissant comme non-couleurs, serviront à reposer l’oeil, à le rafraîchir, en modérant l’éblouissant éclat du spectacle entier) (Blanc 1870, p. 609).
He also wrote in Les artistes de mon temps: ‘he uses the interaction of whites and blacks in turn as foils and mordants and to provide rest ... One of Eugène Delacroix’s most precious resources was the introduction of black and white. White and black are, so to speak, non-colours which, by separating other colours, serve to rest and refresh the eye, especially when the eye is fatigued by the extreme variety as much as by the extreme magnificence. According to the proportions one gives them, according to the environment in which one uses them, black and white soften or enhance nearby colours; sometimes the role of white in a dark painting is like the sudden beating of a tom-tom in an orchestra’ (il emploie l’action des blancs et des noirs, qui est tour à tour un repoussoir, un mordant et un repos ... Une des ressources les plus précieuses d’Eugène Delacroix, c’est l’introduction du noir et du blanc. Le blanc et le noir sont, pour ainsi parler, des non-couleurs qui servent, en séparant les autres, à reposer l’oeil, à le rafraîchir, alors surtout qu’il pourrait être fatigué par l’extrême variété autant que par l’extrême magnificence. Suivant les proportions qu’on leur donne, suivant le milieu où on les emploie, le blanc et le noir atténuent ou rehaussent les tons voisins; quelquefois le rôle du blanc dans un tableau sinistre est celui qui joue en plein orchestre un coup de tam-tam) (see Blanc 1876, pp. 69, 71).
21. Louis Apol, Sunset in the Haagse Bos, known as A January evening in the Haagse Bos, 1875 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum – now The Hague, Instituut Collectie Nederland). Ill. 510 [510].
22. Van Gogh is mistaken here: it was not Silvestre, but Bracquemond who wrote in his Du dessin et de la couleur: ‘This playing with light became a theme for Delacroix, the gymnastics of coloured composition. Taking any tone, he used it indiscriminately in both the light and shaded areas of something which in appearance is alien to that coloration. Hence, using a swarthy, purplish tint of an unspeakable shade, he would bring out the clear, rosy tint of a child; he would make a green coloration contribute to the expression of the likelihood of the appearance of blond hair’ (Delacroix faisait de ces jeux de lumière un thème, une gymnastique de composition colorée. Prenant un ton quelconque, il l’appliquait indifféremment à la lumière ou à l’ombre d’une chose en apparence étrangère à cette coloration. Ainsi, d’une teinte bistrée, violacée, de nuance innommable, il tirait le teint rose et clair d’un enfant; il faisait concourir une coloration verte à l’expression de la probabilité d’aspect d’une chevelure blonde) (see Bracquemond 1885, p. 86). It is clear from the terminology Van Gogh uses later in this letter that this was the source (see n. 27 below). On the street dirt, the ‘boue des rues’: see Blanc 1870, p. 610.
23. Van Gogh copied this anecdote of Delacroix’s about Veronese (taken from Blanc’s Les artistes de mon temps) in letter 449. In the same letter it appears that the term ‘snot colour’ was coined by Théophile de Bock.
26. In this context Fromentin had written in Les maîtres d’autrefois: ‘There are men, witness Velázquez, who colour beautifully, with the dreariest of colours. What wonderful masterpieces were created with such dull hues of black, grey, brown and bitumen-shaded white! (Il y a des hommes, témoin Velasquez, qui colorent à merveille avec les couleurs les plus tristes. Du noir, du gris, du brun, du blanc teinté de bitume, que de chefs-d’oeuvre n’a-t-on pas exécutés avec ces quelques notes un peu sourdes!). On the blacks in Rubens he says: ‘If you look at his blacks, they are taken from the pot of ivory black and serve, with white, for every combination imaginable of his muted and tender greys’ (Si vous examinez ses noirs, ils sont pris dans le pot du noir d’ivoire et servent avec du blanc à toutes les combinaisons imaginables de ses gris sourds et de ses gris tendres). See Fromentin 1902, chapter 13, p. 341 and chapter 4, p. 63.
27. See for the use of the words ‘mud colour’ and ‘gymnastics’, the quotation from Bracquemond in n. 22 above. In his description Van Gogh may have been thinking of Still life with bird’s nests (F 111 / JH 939 [2533]), in which the nest furthest to the left is the mossiest. See cat. Amsterdam 1999, p. 201.
28. The physicist Michel Eugène Chevreul called the phenomenon that complementary colours reinforce each other when they are placed next to each other ‘the law of the simultaneous contrast of colours’ (la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs). He treated the subject at length in his book De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (1839). Van Gogh was familiar with the concept from Charles Blanc’s essay on Delacroix in Les artistes de mon temps – he quoted the relevant passage on colour theory in letter 494 – and from Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin (see n. 7 above).
Félix Bracquemond also calls it ‘simultaneous contrast’ in Du dessin et de la couleur (see Bracquemond 1885, pp. 241-245). In September 1885 Van Gogh said he had read this book ‘more than once’; he reread it in February 1886. See letters 532 and 564.