My dear Theo,
You’ve received my letter in which I wrote about how, while I was working, an idea came to me for making figures from the people for the people.1 How it seemed to me that it would be a good thing if several individuals joined together for this purpose, not for the bookshops but out of charity and duty. Since I wrote that to you, I’ve naturally thought not so much ‘Who will do this or that?’ as ‘What shall I do for it?’ on the grounds that I’m not responsible for the one, but I am for the latter.
But I can tell you this, just when I was drawing for this purpose the idea took shape more firmly in my mind that setting up such a thing would be useful, and that there would be absolutely no need to resort to aping other popular publications, that on the contrary, the existence of similar magazines like British Workman,2 for instance, is a guide as to How to do it and How not to do it.3 I don’t know whether you know Little Dorrit by Dickens and the character Doyce in it, the man who could be taken as typical of those who have as their principle: How to do it.
Even if you don’t know this wonderful figure of a working man from the book, you will understand the chap’s character from this one quotation. When what he wanted didn’t come about, encountering indifference and even worse, and he couldn’t carry on, he simply said: This misfortune alters nothing — the thing is just as true now (after the failure) as it was then (before the failure).  1v:2
And began again on the continent with what hadn’t succeeded in England, and launched it there.4
What I wanted to say is this. The idea of drawing types of working man from the people for the people, and circulating them as a popular publication, seeing the whole thing as necessarily being an affair of duty and charity — that and nothing else than that — see, that idea is such that I believe one is entitled to assume, even if it isn’t successful immediately or at once: The thing is as true today as it was yesterday, and will be as true tomorrow.5 And that it’s thus something that one can begin and pursue with serenity, something whose good outcome one also needn’t doubt or despair of — provided one doesn’t weaken or lose heart.
I said to myself that what I should do was obvious — do my very best with the drawings. So since my letter on this subject I now have some new ones.  1v:3
First of all a Sower. A big old chap, a tall dark silhouette against a dark ground.
Far off a heath cottage with a mossy roof and a bit of sky with a lark.6 This is a sort of cockerel type:7 a shaven face, fairly sharp nose and chin, the eye small, mouth sunken. Long legs with boots.
Then a second sower with a light brown bombazine jacket and trousers, so this figure comes out light against the black field bounded at the end by a row of pollard willows.8 This is a very different type, with a fringe of beard, broad shoulders, a little stocky, a little like an ox in the sense that his whole appearance has been shaped by working on the land. If you like, more the type of an Eskimo, thick lips, broad nose.9
Then a reaper with a big scythe in a pasture.10 The head with a brown woollen cap stands out against the light sky.
Then one of the old boys with short jackets and big, old top hats one meets sometimes in the dunes.
He’s carrying home a basket of peat.11
Now in these drawings I’ve tried to express my intention even more clearly than in the old man with his head in his hands.12 All these chaps are doing something, and I think that in general that, above all, should be adhered to in the choice of subjects. You yourself know how fine the numerous resting figures are, which are made so very, very often. They’re done more often than working figures.
It’s always very tempting to draw a figure at rest — expressing action is very difficult, and in the eyes of many the effect is ‘more pleasing’ than anything else.
But this pleasing aspect mustn’t lose sight of truth, and the truth is that there’s more toil than rest in life.  1r:4
So you see that my attitude to it all is chiefly this, that for my part I’m trying to work on it. It seems to me that the drawings themselves have greater urgency than even the reproduction.
I’ll also be careful about talking about the matter, because I believe that people generally act more practically in a small group than when many are involved.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.
How I wish we were together a little more.
Do you know why I, for my part, don’t doubt that I could do it? You know from physics that an object immersed in a fluid loses as much weight as the specific gravity of the amount of fluid that the body displaces. This is why some things float, and why even those that sink are lighter under water than in the air. Something similar — a kind of fixed law of nature — seems to exist as regards working, in the sense that when one is engaged in it, one feels more capacity for work than one knew one had, or rather actually did have. You would experience that too if you set yourself to painting sometime. At first it seems something unattainable, a hopeless thing, later it becomes clear, and I believe that you would see this in my work too.
But something I’ve already written to you has been confirmed, namely that Rappard is seriously ill. I’ve again had news from his father, who doesn’t say what it is exactly. By the time he’s better I want to have as many drawings as possible finished, because I’d like R. to do the same as soon as he’s up and about. R. has what not everyone has, namely he ponders, and his feeling is something he cultivates. He can make a plan, take stock of something, keep hold of an idea.  2r:5
Many others regard the pondering and the willing as unartistic, are at least not equipped for long-term labours. The matter in question now involves both skill and action and perseverance, and furthermore being calmly patient. Then Rappard has another thing that in my view means he can be of great value for something like this. He really studies the figure, not just as a note of colour in a watercolour, but more strictly as to its form and structure.
I often think I’d like to be able to spend more time on landscape proper. I often see things that I find remarkably beautiful, which moreover make me say instinctively, I’ve never seen this or that painted like that.
In order to paint it — how to do it — I would have to give up other things. I would like to know whether you agree with me that in landscape there are things that have still not been done, that, for example, Emile Breton has imparted effects (himself continues to work in that direction) that are a beginning of something new which it seems to me hasn’t yet reached its full force, understood by few, practised by even fewer. Many landscape painters don’t have that intimate knowledge of nature possessed by those who have looked at the fields with feeling from childhood. Many landscape painters give something that satisfies neither you nor me, for example, as people (even if we appreciate them as artists). People call Emile Breton’s work superficial, which it isn’t, he ranks much higher in sentiment than many others, and knows much more and his work holds up.  2v:6
Truly, huge voids are also beginning to come in the sphere of landscape, and I’d like to apply a remark by Herkomer: the interpreters allow their cleverness to mar the dignity of their calling.13 And I believe that the public will begin to say, deliver us from artistic combinations, give us back the simple field. How good it feels to see a fine Rousseau that has been laboured over in order to be faithful and honest. How good it feels to think of people like Van Goyen, Old Crome and Michel.14 How beautiful an Isaac Ostade or a Ruisdael is. Do I want them back, or do I want them to be imitated? No, but I do want the honesty, the naivety, the faithfulness to remain. I know old lithographs by Jules Dupré, either by himself or facsimiles of his croquis.
But what spirit and what love is in them, and yet how freely and gaily they are done.
Copying nature absolutely isn’t the ideal either, but knowing nature in such a way that what one does is fresh and true — that’s what many now lack. Do you think, for instance, that De Bock knows what you know? No, most definitely not. You will say, but everyone has surely seen landscapes and figures from childhood. Question: was everyone also thoughtful as a child? Question: did everyone who saw them — heath, grassland, fields, woods — also love them, and the snow and the rain and the storm? Not everyone has that the way you and I do; it takes a special kind of setting and circumstances to contribute to it, and a special kind of temperament and character as well to make it take root.  2v:7
I remember letters from you from when you were still in Brussels15 with descriptions of landscapes like those in your last letters.
Do you realize that it’s so very, very necessary that honest people should remain in art? I’m not saying that there are none, but you yourself feel what I mean, and know as well as I how a host of people who paint are enormous liars. Honesty is the best policy16 applies here too, as does the fable of the hare and the tortoise,17 and the ugly duckling by Andersen.18 Edwin Edwards the etcher, for example — why is his work so absolutely beautiful, why did he rightly gain a position among the best in England? Because what he wanted was honesty and faithfulness. I would rather be Jules Dupré than Edwin Edwards, but, you see, one must have great respect for sincerity, and it holds up when other things turn out to be chaff.
To me the Bernier, The fields in winter in the Luxembourg is an ideal.19
Then you have Lavieille, the wood engraver and painter — I saw a winter night with a Christmas sentiment by him20 that now comes to mind.
Then you have Mme Collart — for instance that painting of an apple orchard with an old white horse.21
Then you have Chintreuil and Goethals. (I’ve often sought someone in order to explain to you with whom the beautiful things by Goethals could be compared — I believe Chintreuil.) But then I don’t know much of Chintreuil’s work, or of Goethals’s either, for that matter.  2r:8
Misconceptions as to the intentions of the great landscape painters are to a large extent the cause of the trouble. Almost no one knows that the secret of beautiful work is to a large extent good faith and sincere feeling.
Many can’t help it that they aren’t deep enough, and act in good faith, in so far as they have good faith.
Yet I believe you’ll admit (the more so since it’s a question here of something that isn’t your own sphere, although it does concern you somewhat) that it’s a fact that if many a landscape painter who is now highly rated knew half what you know of sound ideas about the outdoors, with which you’re naturally familiar, he would produce much better and sounder work. Think this over, and put this and many more things besides in the balance when, weighing yourself, you say things like, ‘I would only be something mediocre’. Unless you mean mediocre in its good, noble sense. Stalwartness, as people say here, they make great play of this word – for my part I don’t know the true meaning of it, and have heard it applied to very insignificant things – stalwartness, is that what must save art? I would be more hopeful that things were going well if there were more people like E. Frère or Emile Breton, for example, rather than stalwarts like Boldini or Fortuny coming. Frère, Breton, will be missed and mourned; Boldini, Fortuny, one may respect them in themselves, but the influence they exercised is fatal.
A chap like Gustave Brion has left something good, Degroux, for instance, too. If there were many more like them the world would be a better place; art would be a blessing. But Boldini, but Fortuny, but Regnault even, what good does it do us, what progress have we made? What you say is absolutely true, ‘Seriousness is better than raillery, however sharp and witty it is’. In other words, I would say, loving-kindness is better than mockery, that goes without saying, but many say, no, there’s good in that mocking. Well, they must reap as they sow. Adieu, old chap, I wanted to write to you about the drawings, namely that I hope this idea of prints for the people will induce me to make some progress. As I write to you, news of Rappard that there’s some change for the better, but he seems to be very ill. I know for sure that both he and his father are interested in the types from the people. I hope to go over there as soon as Rappard is back on his feet, or at least when his eyes are normal again.
Write again soon, and believe me

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 293 | CL: 251
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: The Hague, between Monday, 4 and Saturday, 9 December 1882

1. This is letter 289.
3. For the expression ‘How (not) to do it’, which Van Gogh borrowed from Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, see letter 179, n. 3.
4. When the mechanical engineer Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit wants to apply for a patent on his invention, he ends up in the slowly grinding wheels of the Circumlocution Office and is labelled a ‘public offender’. Asked by Arthur Clenham whether it is regrettable that he ever started on it, he replies: ‘But what is a man to do? If he has the misfortune to strike out something serviceable to the nation, he must follow where it leads him.’ He is not discouraged: ‘I have no right to be, if I am ... The thing is as true as it ever was’.
Doyce then starts up a business with Clenham, but he cannot forget his invention. Clenham sees that ‘the thing was as true as it ever was’ and in the name of Doyce he resumes the battle – unsuccessfully – with the Circumlocution Office. Clenham makes a bad investment with their joint capital and ends up in jail. On Clenham’s release, Doyce forgives him for everything that has happened: ‘First, not a word more from you about the past ... I have done a similar thing myself, in construction, often. Every failure teaches a man something, if he will learn’ (See Dickens 1979, book 1, chapter 10, p. 114; book 1, chapter 16, p. 185; book 2, chapter 8, p. 500; book 2, chapter 34, p. 797). Van Gogh says that Doyce speaks these words on his departure from England, but that does not fit with the course of the story.
5. Van Gogh based this expression on Dickens’s Little Dorrit (see n. 4).
6. It is not known which drawing of a sower this is. It may be a variant of Two sowers (F 853 / JH 274). See cat. Amsterdam 1996, pp. 173-175, cat. no. 46.
7. For the comparison of the appearance of sowers with animals, such as a cockerel and an ox, cf. Sensier’s remark in his biography of Millet about his attempts to give the farm workers ‘an expression that seems to admit that the human being is not always extraordinarily far above the animal’ (une expression qui semble avouer que l’être humain n’est pas toujours prodigieusement au-dessus de l’animal). Sensier 1881, p. 355. Van Gogh knew the theories of Lavater and Gall about physiognomy via Alexandre Ysabeau, Lavater et Gall. Physiognomonie et phrénologie rendues intelligibles pour tout le monde (Paris 1862). They also deal at length with the comparison of human heads with those of animals (‘Analogie de figures humaines avec divers animaux’, pp. 108 ff). Cf. also letter 160, n. 8.
8. This is probably Sower (F 852 / JH 275 [2420]).
9. Ysabeau (see n. 7 above) also mentions the Eskimo race on p. 100.
10. This drawing of a reaper is not known.
a. Means: ‘tekent zich af’ (stands out).
11. Man carrying peat (F 964 / JH 273 [2419]).
12.Worn out’ (F 997 / JH 267 [2416]).
b. Means: ‘doorgaat met’ (continues).
13. A reference to Herkomer’s observation: ‘Accepting the engraver as an interpreter, we have only to look back in order to see that all interpreters, no matter what their art, have at times allowed their cleverness to mar the dignity of their mission.’ See Herkomer 1882, p. 167, col. 2.
14. John Crome came to know the seventeenth-century landscape art of Aelbert Cuyp, Jan van Goyen, Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema among others. Inspired by Van Goyen, Crome painted like Michel (one of the forerunners of the Barbizon School who was also influenced by Dutch landscape painting) with an almost monochrome palette made up of neutral colours. Cf. Josephine Walpole, Art and artists of the Norwich School. Woodbridge and Aberdeen 1997, pp. 15-22 and DoA. Van Gogh may have linked Old Crome to Michel here because of his visit to Burlington House in 1875 (see letter 29). Cf. exhib. cat. Nottingham 1974, p. 14.
15. Theo worked for Goupil in Brussels from January to the beginning of November 1873.
16. In view of the rest of the sentence, in which he lists several stories adapted by Ten Kate, Van Gogh may be referring to the book Eerlijk duurt het langst (Honesty is the best policy) from the series Vertellingen voor de jeugd after César Malan, by J.J.L. ten Kate. It was published by J.J. van Brederode of Haarlem [1880].
17.The fable of the hare and the tortoise’ in De fabelen van La Fontaine nagevolgd door J.J.L. ten Kate (The fables of La Fontaine imitated by J.J.L. ten Kate). Illustrated with plates and vignettes by Gustave Doré. Amsterdam 1875, pp. 359-361. Originally ‘Le lièvre et la tortue’ (Fables, vi, 10). See Fontaine 1974, vol. 1, pp. 196-197; in this fable an overconfident hare loses a race against a tortoise, who does what he must and does not fail in his duty.
18.Het lelijke jonge eendtjen’ (The ugly duckling) in Sprookjens en verhalen van H.C. Andersen. Ed. J.J.L. ten Kate. Leiden 1868, pp. 3-24. In this fairy tale a duckling that is late in hatching from its egg is humiliated, teased and chased by those around him, until he turns out to have grown into a beautiful, happy swan
20. ‘Winter night’ may refer to the print Crépuscule en hiver, à Arsy (Oise) (Dusk in Winter, Arsy (Oise)), after the painting by Eugène Antoine Samuel Lavieille that was exhibited at the Salon of 1873. The wood engraving by Léon Louis Chapon was in Gazette des Beaux-Arts 15 (1873), 2nd series, vol. 8, p. 55. Ill. 1037 [1037]. Van Gogh may have been thinking, however, of a work by Adrien Lavieille.
21. It is not known which painting by Marie Collart is meant.