1. See for L’art du dix-huitième siècle by the De Goncourts: letter 535, n. 27.
2. Van Gogh derives his remarks from the essay on Boucher in L’art du dix-huitième siècle (see Goncourt 1881-1914, vol. 1, pp. 195-314). On the aspects in Boucher’s work: pp. 197-198; on Boucher’s dalliance with the Duchess of Orleans: pp. 206, 223; the word ‘vulgar’ (canaille) appears on p. 239, and the nude women and Rubens are discussed on pp. 210, 217-218. The source for the English translations from the De Goncourt’s book is: Goncourt 1948.
3. Van Gogh is referring here to what it says in the essay on Watteau in L’art du dix-huitième siècle (pp. 1-90).
4. The De Goncourts write that Chardin’s father was a carpenter, not that the painter himself was a member of the Tiers état (the third estate, the (common) people – the term was used under the Ancien Régime to describe the lower classes, the proletariat). They do observe that Chardin portrayed the domestic life and the occupations of working people in the ‘petty bourgeoisie of the time, the strong mother of the third estate’ (petite bourgeoisie du temps, la forte mère du Tiers état) (pp. 121-122). ‘Without education, without the classics, he has, like the poor households that he paints, something of the common people in some respects’ (Sans éducation, sans humanités, il est, comme les ménages pauvres qu’il peint, peuple par certaines côtés) (p. 148).
Chardins ‘bonhomie’ is discussed on pp. 149-150; on the hardships in his life it says that his first wife was sickly, that his work did not sell well and that later in life he was ‘weary, ill, weakened’ (lassé, malade, affaibli) p. 144) – at the end of his life he suffered from kidney stones and was confined to bed with swollen legs (p. 153).
5. The essay on the French portrait painter and pastel artist Maurice Quentin de La Tour: pp. 315-413; the reference to the ‘witty’ painter is on pp. 343-344, and the ‘Voltaire-like’ reference is on pp. 340, 350.
6. Several passages are devoted to Chardin’s astonishing technique, particularly his use of colour. The comparison with Rembrandt – which Van Gogh also makes – occurs repeatedly, as does his comment that works of art have to be seen from a distance. The De Goncourts say of Chardin’s works: ‘look at them carefully, from a little way off, and soon the flowers will stand out from the canvas’ (regardez-les attentivement, d’un peu loin, et bientôt les fleurs se lèvent de la toile) (pp. 106-108, 117, 126-127, 146-147, 157-158; quotation on p. 107).
7. This notion derives from what E.J.T. Thoré (under the pseudonym W. Bürger) had written in his Musées de la Hollande, in which he contrasted Rembrandt’s work with that of Bartholomeus van der Helst; to him the realism of the latter represented ‘the common view’: ‘in contrast, Van der Helst’s way of looking at things is more general or more vulgar, which is the same thing. It is more in line with the common view of the masses. The scene depicted in The Banquet would come across the same, or almost the same, to everyone’ (La manière de voir de van der Helst, au contraire, est plus générale, ou plus vulgaire, c’est le même mot. Elle s’accorde mieux avec le sens commun à la foule. La scène du Banquet apparaîtrait ainsi, ou à peu près, à tout le monde) (see Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 1, p. 38).
8. In Zola’s novel Germinal the simple Bonnemort, an old man who has lived all his life in and around the mines, says: If we always ate bread, that would be too much of a good thing!’ (Si l’on mangeait toujours du pain, ça serait trop beau!) See Zola 1960-1967, vol. 3, p. 1141.
a. Read: ‘Om het bovendien zo uit te voeren’ (moreover to carry it off like this).
9. Van Gogh may have taken this remark by Michelangelo from Eugène Emmanuel Amaury-Duval, who observed: ‘Michel-Ange disait: “Mon style est destiné à faire de grands sots”.’ See L’atelier d’Ingres; souvenirs par Amaury-Duval. Paris 1878, p. 287.
10. Autumn landscape with four trees (F 44 / JH 962 [2540]). It measures 69 x 87.8 cm. By ‘the 4th time’ Van Gogh must mean that he had worked on it in four sessions.
11. Vincent had sent Theo the paintings The cottage (F 83 / JH 777 [2513]) and The old church tower at Nuenen (‘The peasants’ churchyard’) (F 84 / JH 772 [2512]): see letters 506 and 507. They measure 65.7 x 79.3 cm and 65 x 80 cm respectively.
[2513] [2512]
b. Means: ‘kruinen’ (canopies).
12. The friend is Anton Kerssemakers. He described the painting and recalled the events when Van Gogh gave it to him: Verzamelde brieven 1973, vol. 3, p. 97.
c. Means: ‘kalmer’ (more coolly).
13. Van Gogh again refers to the conversation between Mouret and his friend Vallagnosc in Au bonheur des dames, which he had quoted in letter 464. During this conversation Mouret becomes ‘grave’, after he had said, among other things, that he had lived, despite his problems: ‘I have never lived so much... it’s the shortest hours in which one dies of suffering!... I’m broken, I can’t go on; it doesn’t matter, you won’t believe how much I love life! (Jamais je n’ai tant vécu... ce sont les heures les plus courtes, celles où l’on meurt de souffrance! ... Je suis brisé, je n’en peux plus; n’importe, tu ne sauras croire combien j’aime la vie!) (see Zola 1960-1967, chapter 11, pp. 696-697).
14. Jules de Goncourt was the etcher and watercolourist of the two. Van Gogh may already have borrowed Philippe Burty’s Maîtres et petits maîtres (1877) (cf. letter 542). In it, in the essay ‘Les eaux-forts de Jules de Goncourt’ it says that Edmond ‘was also a painter when it suited him’ (fut peintre aussi à son moment) (see Burty 1877, pp. 333-357 (quotation on p. 341)).
15. Water mill at Gennep (F 125 / JH 525 [2490]).
16. This painting by Kerssemakers is not known.
17. In the essay on La Tour in L’art du dix-huitième siècle the authors describe him as ‘diabolical’ (see Goncourt 1881-1914, vol. 1, p. 352).
18. The De Goncourts held forth about La Tour’s greed (‘the painter is grasping’ (le peintre est avide)) on the basis of a number of anecdotes about the exorbitant prices he sometimes asked (pp. 347 ff.).
19. After his visit to the Rijksmuseum, where he had studied Hals’s loose brushwork, Van Gogh wrote about it in letters 534 and 535.
20. The De Goncourts describe pastel as ‘volatile’ (p. 326) and ‘fragile paint’ (p. 372) and they say of the vitality of La Tour’s work: ‘it’s no longer art, it’s life’ (ce n’est plus de l’art, c’est la vie) (p. 358).
21. This had been a point of discussion as early as August 1883: ‘But now I don’t give a rap if the drawing is erased, and I always do them directly with the brush, and enough form comes into it to make the study useful’ (letter 370).
22. See for Van Goyen’s Landscape with two oaks [2157]: letter 535, n. 12.
23. See for this copy after Aelbert Cuyp, View of Dordrecht at sunset [35]: letter 535, n. 14.
24. See for the expression ‘beyond the paint’: letter 439, n. 3.
25. Van Gogh skipped two phrases and added three exclamation marks and the italics (cf. Goncourt 1881-1914, vol. 1, p. 147).
26. See for Jan Vermeer of Delft, View of Delft [2162]: letter 538, n. 9, where the work is also cited as an argument.