My dear Theo,
The fine weather of these past few days has disappeared and has been replaced by mud and rain. But it will surely return before the winter.
Only it’ll be a matter of taking advantage of it because —

the fine days — are short —

Especially for painting. I plan to do a lot of drawing this winter. If only I could draw figures from memory, I’d always have something to do, but — take a figure by the most skilful of all the artists who sketch from life — Hokusai, Daumier, for me this figure is never what the figure painted from the model by these same masters would be, or other master portraitists.
Ah well — if inevitably we’re too often faced with a shortage of models, and especially of intelligent models, we mustn’t despair or grow weary of the struggle for that reason.
I’ve arranged all the Japanese prints in the studio,1 and the Daumiers2 and the Delacroixs and the Géricault. If you come across the Delacroix Pietà,3 or the Géricault,4 I urge you to buy as many of them as you can.
Another thing that I’d very much like to have in the studio is Millet’s Labours of the fields5 — and Lerat’s etching of his Sower that Durand-Ruel is selling for 1.25 francs.6 And lastly the little etching by Jacquemart after Meissonier, The reader.7 A Meissonier that I’ve always found admirable. I can’t help liking Meissoniers.
I’m reading an article on Tolstoy in the Revue des Deux Mondes — it appears that Tolstoy takes an enormous interest in his people’s religion.8 Like George Eliot in England.9
There’s said to be a religious book by Tolstoy, I believe it’s called ‘Ma religion’; it must be very beautiful. From what I gather from that article, in it he’s searching for what will remain eternally true in the religion of Christ, and what all religions have in common;  1v:2 it appears that he admits of neither the resurrection of the body nor even that of the soul, but says like the nihilists that after death there’s nothing more, but when a man’s dead, and well and truly dead, living humanity remains for ever.10
Anyway, not having read the book itself, I couldn’t say exactly how he conceives of the matter, but I believe that his religion cannot be cruel and increase our sufferings, but on the contrary, it must be very consoling and must inspire serenity, and energy, and the courage to live, and a whole lot of things.
Among Bing’s reproductions I find the drawing of the blade of grass, and the carnations, and the Hokusai admirable.11
But whatever one may say, for me the more ordinary Japanese prints, coloured in flat tones, are admirable for the same reason as Rubens and Veronese. I know perfectly well that this isn’t primitive art. But the fact that the primitives are admirable isn’t in the very least a reason for me to say, as is becoming a habit, ‘when I go to the Louvre I can’t go beyond the primitives’.12
Supposing one were to say to a serious collector of Japanese art — to Lévy13 himself — sir, I cannot help finding these 5-sous Japanese prints admirable —
It’s more than likely that that person would be a bit shocked and would pity my ignorance and my bad taste.
Exactly as in the past it was in bad taste to like Rubens, Jordaens, Veronese.  1v:3
I believe that eventually I’ll stop feeling lonely in the house, and that on days of bad winter weather, for example, and in the long evenings, I’ll find an occupation that will absorb me completely.
A weaver, a basket-maker, often spends entire seasons alone, or almost alone, with his work as his only pastime.
But what makes those people stay where they are is precisely the feeling of the house, the reassuring, familiar look of things. Of course I’d like company, but if I don’t have it I won’t be unhappy on that account, and then, above all, the time will come when I’ll have someone. I have little doubt about that. Now in your home too, I believe that if one is willing to put people up one can find plenty among artists, for whom the matter of somewhere to stay is a very serious problem.
And for me, I believe that it’s my absolute duty to try to earn money with my work, and so I see my work quite clearly ahead of me.
Ah, if only all artists had enough to live on — enough to work on — but that not being so, I wish to produce, and to produce a great deal, and with intense effort and determination. And perhaps the day will come when we can expand our business and be more influential for others.
But that’s a long way off, and there’s a great deal of work to be got through first.
If we were living in wartime we’d possibly have to fight, we’d regret it, we’d bemoan not living in peacetime, but at all events, the necessity being there — we’d fight.
And in the same way, we surely have the right to wish for a state of affairs in which money wouldn’t be needed in order to live. However, since  1r:4 everything’s done with money now, we must think hard about making some while we spend it. But I have a better chance of earning from painting than from drawing.
In short, there are many more people who can skilfully make a croquis than people who can paint freely and who grasp nature from the point of view of colour. That will always be rarer, and whether or not the paintings are slow to be appreciated, they’ll find their collector one day.
But I believe that as for the paintings with rather thick impasto, they’ll have to dry longer here.
I’ve read that Rubenses in Spain have remained infinitely richer in colour than those in the north.14 Ruins, even exposed to the open air, remain white here, whereas in the north they turn grey, dirty, black, &c. You can be sure that if the Monticellis had dried in Paris they’d now be very much duller.
I’m beginning now to see better the beauty of the women here, and so always, always I think again of Monticelli.
Colour plays an immense part in the beauty of the women here — I’m not saying that their forms aren’t beautiful, but that’s not where the local charm lies. It’s the broad lines of the colourful costume, worn well, and it’s the tone of the flesh more than the form. But I’ll have trouble before I’ll be able to do them in the way I’m beginning to feel it. But what I’m certain of is making progress while staying here. And a certain skilfulness isn’t enough to make a painting that would be truly of the south. It’s looking at things for a long time that matures you and makes you understand more deeply.  2r:5
I hadn’t thought when leaving Paris that I would have found Monticelli and Delacroix so true. It’s only now, after months and more months, that I’m beginning to realize that they didn’t imagine anything. And I think that next year you’ll see the same subjects again: orchards, the harvest, but — with a different colour and above all, altered execution. And that will still continue, these changes and these variations. Even while working, I feel that I needn’t rush. After all, what would it do to put into practice the old saying that one should study for ten years or so, and then produce a few figure paintings?15 That’s what Monticelli did, though. Think of several hundred of his paintings as no more than studies.
Then, however, figures the way the yellow woman16 was, the way the woman with the parasol is, the small one that you have,17 the lovers that Reid had,18 those are complete figures, in which as far as the drawing goes there’s absolutely nothing to do but to admire it. Because there Monticelli achieves a way of drawing that’s as rich and superb as Daumier and Delacroix. Certainly, at the prices Monticellis are at, it would be an excellent speculation to buy some. The day will come when his fine drawn figures will be valued as very great art.  2v:6
I believe that the town of Arles was once infinitely more glorious for the beauty of its women, for the beauty of its traditional dress. Now it all looks sickly and faded as far as character goes.
But if you look at it for a long time, the old charm reveals itself.
And that’s why I understand that I’m losing absolutely nothing by staying where I am, and contenting myself with watching things go by, the way a spider in its web waits for flies.
I can’t force anything, and as I’m settled now I can take advantage of all the fine days, all the opportunities to catch a real painting from time to time.
Milliet’s lucky, he has all the Arlésiennes he wants, but there you are, he can’t paint them, and if he was a painter he wouldn’t have any. I must bide my time now, without rushing anything.
I’ve read an article on Wagner — L’amour dans la musique, by the same author who wrote the book on Wagner, I believe.19 What a need we have of the same thing in painting!
It seems that in the book Ma religion, Tolstoy suggests that whatever may occur in the way of a violent revolution, there will also be a private, secret revolution in people, from which a new religion, or rather, something altogether new, will be reborn, which will have no name but which will have the same effect of consoling, of making life possible, that the Christian religion once had.20  2v:7 It seems to me that that book must be very interesting. We’ll eventually have enough of cynicism, scepticism, mockery, and we’ll want to live — more musically. How will that come about, and what will we find? It would be curious to be able to predict it, but it’s even better to have a feeling of what it will be, instead of seeing in the future absolutely nothing but disasters, which will nevertheless be sure to fall into the modern world and civilization like so many terrible thunderbolts, through a revolution or a war or the bankruptcy of moth-eaten governments.
If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.
But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.
Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?
And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.21  2r:8
Isn’t it saddening that up to now Monticellis have never been reproduced in fine lithographs or vibrant etchings? I’d like to see what artists would say if an engraver like the one who engraved the work of Velázquez22 were to do a fine etching of them. Be that as it may, I believe it’s still more our duty to try to admire and to know things for ourselves than to teach them to others. But the two things can go together. I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects. While I’ve been writing you this letter, I’ve drawn a good dozen of them. I’m on the track of finding it. But it’s very complicated, because what I’m after is that in a few strokes the figure of a man, a woman, a kid, a horse, a dog, will have a head, a body, legs, arms that will fit together. More soon, and good handshake.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 690 | CL: 542
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Arles, Sunday, 23 or Monday, 24 September 1888

1. Theo had given Milliet a package of prints to take to Vincent; see letter 685. The Japanese prints included The Matsumotorō theatre in the Tokyo pleasure district [2250] [2285] [2286] and probably also Geishas in a landscape: see letter 685, n. 2.
2. These Daumiers probably included the lithograph Emotions de chasse (Emotions of the hunt) from Le Charivari of 17 September 1858. It emerges from a letter Gauguin wrote to Schuffenecker on 22 December 1888 that there was an impression of this lithograph in the Yellow House. See Merlhès 1989, pp. 241-243 (ill. on p. 242).
3. The lithograph by Célestin François Nanteuil-Leboeuf after Delacroix’s Pietà [3062] is in the Van Goghs’ estate. Ill. 75 [75]. (t*622) It bears the stamp: ‘Les artistes anciens et modernes’. This series of lithographs – Van Gogh writes that they could be bought for 1 franc each – is also mentioned in letters 726, 732 and 798. One of the other Delacroix prints may have been the lithograph The Good Samaritan [2290], see letter 768, n. 22.
[3062] [75] [2290]
6. Paul Edmé Lerat’s etching after Millet’s Sower [1888] appeared in the series Recueil d’estampes gravées à l’eau-forte, published by the art dealer Durand-Ruel in 1873-1874. Cf. also letter 156, n. 3.
8. This long article by Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu appeared on 15 September 1888 in the Revue des Deux Mondes. It is the fifth part of the series ‘La Religion en Russie’, and is subtitled ‘Les Réformateurs. Le comte Léon Tolstoï, ses précurseurs et ses émules.’ See Revue des Deux Mondes 58-3. Paris 1888, vol. 89, pp. 414-443.
9. George Eliot, whose books Van Gogh had read in his youth, believed that orthodox Christianity must be replaced by an ethical religion that would instill in us ‘a more deeply awing sense of responsibility to man, springing from sympathy with the difficulty of the human lot’. See Alan Jacobs, ‘George Eliot: Good without God’, First Things 102 (April 2000), pp. 50-53.
10. Tolstoy’s Ma religion (1885) is mentioned on p. 438 of this article. Van Gogh writes that Tolstoy is searching for ‘what all religions have in common’. The article emphasizes the ideas that Tolstoy borrowed from Russian religious sects, such as the ‘doukhobors’: ‘According to them, the church is the meeting place of all those who walk in the path of light and justice, whatever their religion, whatever the nation to which they belong, Christians, Jews or Muslims’ (Suivant eux, l’église est la réunion de tous ceux qui marchent dans la lumière et la justice, à quelque religion, à quelque nation qu’ils appartiennent, chrétiens, juifs ou musulmans) (p. 420). Tolstoy’s view of the resurrection of the body and the soul is described as follows: ‘The survival of the soul after death is, just like the resurrection of the body, a superstition which goes against the spirit of the gospels’ (La survivance de l’âme à la mort n’est, comme la résurrection des corps, qu’une superstition contraire à l’esprit de l’évangile) (p. 434).
11. For the magazine Le Japon Artistique see letter 637, n. 10. Van Gogh had in any event received the first two issues (May and June 1888), from which he mentions the following illustrations: Study of grass (with the explanation: ‘of the graminae family. Facsimile of a brush sketch. Copied from life the 14th day of the 8th month, in Kokwa’s 2nd year (1845)’ (de la famille des graminées. Fac-similé d’une esquisse au pinceau. Copié d’après nature le 14e jour du 8e mois, dans la 2e année de Kokwa (1845)). Ill. 2251 [2251]; Study of carnations (‘taken from a flower album by (Kawamura) Bumpo (1800)’) (tirée d’un album de fleur par Boumpo (1800)) Ill. 2252 [2252]; and the double page with Crabs in seaweed and Figures in a shower of rain (‘Two compositions taken from the Gouashiki, a series of 3 volumes by Hokusaï signed Taïto, one of several brush names used by Hokusaï’) (Deux compositions tirées du Gouashiki, série de 3 volumes par Hokusaï signée Taïto, l’un des nombreux noms de pinceau adoptés par Hokusaï). Ill. 2253 [2253]. See also the print Portrait of Ousoukoumo [2289]: letter 768, n. 19.
[2251] [2252] [2253] [2289]
12. Bernard was probably the target of Van Gogh’s criticism here. He had a predilection for the Italian and German primitives, but Van Gogh wished he could have taken him to the Louvre to show him the greatness of the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century (see letters 632, 649 and 655).
13. See letter 637, n. 16, for Lévy, the manager of one of Bing’s branches.
14. Since it appears from this letter that Van Gogh had read the Revue des Deux Mondes of 15 September 1888 (see n. 8 above), he may have based his comment about Rubens on the article ‘Les maîtres Espagnols et l’art naturaliste’ by S. Jacquemont, particularly the following passage: ‘Surely everyone knows how much more understandable, lifelike and pleasing works of art are really when seen under the skies which saw them come into being? And surely everyone knows that the pure air of Florence or Madrid preserves paint differently from the air of northern climes? ... The incomparable Rubenses are so fresh, and that crowd of Italian, French and Dutch masterpieces, stacked up there as if to facilitate comparisons to be made there and then.’ (Qui ne sait combien les oeuvres d’art sont plus intelligibles, plus vivantes, plus sympathiques, enfin, sous le ciel qui les a vues naître? Et qui ne sait aussi que l’air pur de Florence ou de Madrid conserve autrement la peinture que les climats du Nord? … Aussi frais sont les incomparables Rubens, et cette foule de chefs-d’oeuvre italiens, français, hollandais, amassés là comme pour permettre sur place toutes les comparaisons.) Revue des Deux Mondes 58-3. Paris 1888, vol. 89, pp. 378-413 (quotation on p. 382). Cf. Dorn 1990, p. 554.
15. The origin of this saying has not been traced.
16. By the ‘yellow woman’ Van Gogh could be referring to Monticelli’s Woman at the well (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum), which comes from the family estate. Ill. 307 [307].
17. Monticelli, Woman with a parasol, undated (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). Ill. 308 [308]. The work measures 50 x 25 cm.
18. We do not know which painting of lovers by Monticelli Reid had.
19. The article ‘L’amour dans la musique’ by Camille Bellaigue appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes 58-3, pp. 305-347 (see n. 8 above). It discusses the love themes in operas by Gluck, Mozart, Meyerbeer, Verdi, Wagner and others (on pp. 332-339). The book about Wagner, Richard Wagner, musiciens, poètes et philosophes, was by Camille Benoît; see letter 621, n. 7. Van Gogh probably confused the names of the two authors.
20. The aforementioned article (see n. 8 above) said of the ‘inner revolution’ that Tolstoy advocated: ‘The transformation of humanity, he believes, can only come from the inner transformation of man ... Tolstoy’s doctrine is that of a healthy mind. He looks for the eternally dreamt-of promised land within man, rather than beyond him. He feels the impotence of revolutions’ (La transformation de l’humanité, il ne l’espère que de la transformation intérieure de l’homme ... la doctrine de Tolstoï est d’un esprit sain. La terre promise éternellement rêvée, il la cherche au dedans de l’homme plutôt qu’au dehors. Il sent l’impuissance des revolutions) (pp. 434, 439).
21. In his introduction in Le Japon Artistique, Bing wrote about the Japanese artist: ‘he believes that nature contains the primordial elements of all things and, according to him, there exists nothing in creation, be it a lowly blade of grass, that is not worthy of finding its place in the lofty concepts of art’ (il est persuadé que la nature renferme les éléments primordiaux de toutes choses et, suivant lui, il n’existe rien dans la création, fût-ce un infime brin d’herbe, qui ne soit digne de trouver sa place dans les conceptions élevées de l’art). Siegfried Bing, ‘Programme’, Le Japon Artistique 1 (May 1888), p. 7.
Kōdera suggests as a possible source for Van Gogh’s image of the wise, philosophical Japanese the article ‘Le caractère du Japonais’ by Tadamasa Hayashi in Paris Illustré of May 1886, whose front page Van Gogh had copied in his The courtesan (after Eisen) (F 373 / JH 1298). See Kōdera, ‘Van Gogh’s utopian Japonism’, in cat. Amsterdam 1991, p. 35.
22. It is not clear whether Van Gogh is referring to a single artist here. Given the large number of engravers of prints after Velázquez, it is not possible to determine who he might have meant.