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 He is one of those people who has seen the world at close quarters and has withdrawn from it.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, Amsterdam 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.
13. See for Frans Hals, The fool [2154] from the L. Dupper Wzn. Collection: letter 534, n. 7.
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.
15. See for Frans Hals, The merry drinker [150]: letter 534, n. 8.
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.
24. See for The barque of Dante [2158] by Delacroix: letter 535, n. 19.
25. See for Jozef Israëls’s The Zandvoort fisherman [3063]: letter 534, n. 19.
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.