My dear Theo,
It gave me a great deal of pleasure to receive your letter just now, and because I was intending to write to you anyway one of these days, I’m doing it now straightaway, in response to your letter.
I think it’s wonderful that you’ve sent the Ingres paper, I still have some, but no more of that particular colour.
That Mr Tersteeg said what he said to you about my drawings pleases me,1 as does, certainly no less so, your finding progress in the sketches I sent.2 If it’s beginning to manifest itself, I most certainly hope to work to the utmost, so that neither you nor Mr Tersteeg will have to retract that rather favourable opinion. I’ll do my best not to betray you in this. Nature always begins by resisting the draughtsman, but he who truly takes it seriously doesn’t let himself be deterred by that resistance, on the contrary, it’s one more stimulus to go on fighting, and at bottom nature and an honest draughtsman see eye to eye. Nature is most certainly ‘intangible’ though, yet one must seize it, and with a firm hand.3 And now, after spending some time wrestling and struggling with nature, it’s starting to become a bit more yielding and submissive, not that I’m there yet, no one is less inclined to think so than I, but things are beginning to go more smoothly. The struggle with nature sometimes resembles what Shakespeare calls ‘Taming the shrew’4 (i.e. to conquer the opposition through perseverance, willy-nilly). In many things, but more particularly in drawing, I think that delving deeply into something is better than letting it go.
I feel more and more as time goes on that figure drawing in particular is good, that it also works indirectly to the good of landscape drawing. If one draws a pollard willow as though it were a living being, which it actually is, then the surroundings follow more or less naturally, if only one has focused all one’s attention on that one tree and hasn’t rested until there was some life in it.5 Herewith a couple of sketches, I’m rather busy in Leurseweg these days.6 Also work now and then with watercolour and sepia, but that isn’t immediately successful.
Mauve has gone to Drenthe,7 have agreed that I’ll go to him as soon as he writes to me, but perhaps he’ll be coming to Princenhage again for a day.8 I went to see the Fabritius in Rotterdam on my last journey,9 and I’m glad that you’ve seen that Mesdag drawing,10 among other things. If the drawing by Mrs Mesdag which you wrote about is yellow roses on moss-covered ground, then I saw it at the exhibition11 and indeed, it’s very beautiful and very artistic.  1v:2
What you say about De Bock I find true in every respect, it’s also what I think about him, but I had never succeeded in expressing it as you did in your letter.
If he were willing and able to concentrate, he’d be a better artist than he is now, to be sure. I told him frankly: De Bock, if you and I were to concentrate on figure drawing for a whole year, afterwards we’d both be completely different people from what we are now; if we fail to get a grip on ourselves and simply go on without learning anything new, we won’t even remain what we are but, standing still, we’ll go backwards. If we don’t draw figures, or else trees as though they were figures, then we’re like people who have no spine, or at least one that’s too weak. Millet and Corot, whom we both like so much, could they paint a figure or couldn’t they? I mean, those Masters balked at nothing. And he admitted that I was largely right. For that matter, I believe he has worked very seriously on that Panorama and that, too, will generally have a good influence on him, even if he doesn’t want to admit it himself. He told me the nicest thing about that Panorama, which caused me to feel a great deal of sympathy for him. Surely you know the painter Destrée. He had gone up to De Bock with a very pedantic air and had said to him, very superciliously, of course, and yet in a mealy-mouthed and unbearably patronizing way: De Bock, they also asked me to paint that panorama but I thought, since it was so unartistic, that I had to refuse. To which De Bock replied: My dear Mr Destrée, what is easier, painting a panorama or refusing to paint a panorama? What is more artistic, doing it or not doing it? I don’t know whether those were his exact words, but the reply was most certainly in this vein, and I found it very much to the point. And I have just as much respect for it as I do for your behaviour towards the older and wiser members of your club,12 whom you’ve left to the devices of their own seniority and wisdom while you pressed ahead with matters in a somewhat more youthful and energetic way. That is true philosophy, which makes us act like De Bock and you did on those respective occasions. One can say of such philosophy that it’s also practical, just as Mauve says, ‘colour is also drawing’. My paper is full, so I’ll finish and go out, accept my hearty thanks for your energetic support, and a handshake in thought, and believe me

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 174 | CL: 152
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Etten, between Wednesday, 12 and Saturday, 15 October 1881

1. Vincent had shown Tersteeg some of his drawings during a visit to The Hague in August (see letter 171). It is not known how Tersteeg conveyed his opinion of them to Theo.
2. This probably refers to the sketches in letters 172 and 173.
3. A similar remark about the intractability of nature also occurs in Zola and Taine. See Sund 1992, pp. 54, 277 (n. 11).
4. The taming of the shrew (1594-1595, first edition 1623) is the title of a comedy by William Shakespeare and the phrase occurs as a line in the play itself (act 4, scene 2). See ed. Brian Morris. London and New York 1981, pp. 254-255.
5. Van Gogh, who wrote in June 1881 that he was studying Armand Cassagne’s Traité d’aquarelle, could have had the following passage in mind when attributing these human characteristics to nature: ‘The painter who is strong in tones is the one who approaches nature with the greatest strength of coloration, and who, through skilful, powerful contrasts, succeeds in giving an idea of the solidity specific to each object. This tree, for example, has boughs that are vigorous, healthy, strong, juicy with sap; and you understand at first glance its strength and weightiness. Some other tree is enormous; but it is old, its wood lacks sap, it is hollow; you sense weakness under its apparent strength. The true painter must make it possible to guess all that in his work; his painting must have that je ne sais quoi that characterizes the moral diversity of these types’ (Le peintre puissant de ton est celui qui aborde la nature avec le plus force de coloration, et qui, par d’habiles et puissantes oppositions, arrive à donner une idée de la solidité propre à chaque objet. Cet arbre, par exemple, a des ramures vigoureuses, saines, fortes, humides de sève; on en comprend au premier coup d’oeil la force et la pesanteur. Tel autre arbre est gigantesque; mais il est vieux, son bois manque de sève, il est creux; sous sa force apparante on sent la faiblesse. Le vrai peintre doit faire deviner tout cela dans son oeuvre; sa peinture doit avoir ce je ne sais quoi qui caractérise la diversité morale de ces types.) Cassagne 1875, p. 102.
6. There are two sketches, at the end of the letter. No. 1 is Road with a man and pollard willows (F - / JH 58), of which no corresponding drawing is known, and the same applies to no. 2, Man putting potatoes in a sack (F - / JH 60). For the location depicted in the first sketch (with Leursestraat and the Roman Catholic Lambertuskerk at the end of it), see Kerstens 1990, pp. 24, 26.
7. Drenthe is a province in the north-east of the Netherlands. In Van Gogh’s day it was a relatively undeveloped region and therefore popular among landscape painters.
9. Van Gogh is referring to his short trip to The Hague at the end of August, at which time he must also have visited Rotterdam (see letter 171), where he saw the Self-portrait [1885] by Carel Fabritius (see letter 155, n. 18, first paragraph).
10. This is perhaps Mesdag’s drawing Fishing boat and horseman [1140], which Van Gogh had seen in Brussels (see letter 166, n. 17).
11. Fours works by Sientje Mesdag-van Houten were on display at the Sixth exhibition of drawings (see letter 171). Van Gogh must be referring to the drawing Rozen (Roses); see exhib. cat. The Hague 1881-2, p. 11, cat. no. 72.
12. Theo was a member of the Hollandsche Club (Dutch Club) in Paris, a society where young Dutchmen met (FR b1673). He must have written to Vincent about something that happened there.