My dear Theo,
I think I already told you in my last letter that I also wanted to start a large male figure as well as that woman spinning.1 I now send you a little scratch of it herewith. Perhaps you remember two studies of the same corner, which I already had in the studio when you were here.2
I read Les maîtres d’autrefois by Fromentin3 with great pleasure. And in different places in that book I again found the same questions dealt with that have preoccupied me very much recently, and about which I actually think continually, specifically since, at the end of my time in The Hague, I indirectly heard things that Israëls had said about starting in a low register and making colours that are still relatively dark appear light. In short, expressing light through opposition with dark. I already know what you say about ‘too black’, but at the same time I’m still not completely persuaded that, to mention just one thing, a grey sky always HAS to be painted in the local tone. Which Mauve does; but Ruisdael doesn’t do it, Dupré doesn’t do it. Corot and Daubigny???
Well, as it is with the landscape, so it is with the figure too — I mean, Israëls paints a white wall quite differently from Regnault or Fortuny.4  1v:2 And consequently the figure looks quite different against it.
When I hear you talk about a lot of new names, it’s not always possible for me to understand when I’ve seen absolutely nothing by them. And from what you said about ‘Impressionism’, I’ve grasped that it’s something different from what I thought it was, but it’s still not entirely clear to me what one should understand by it.5
But for my part, I find so tremendously much in Israëls, for instance, that I’m not particularly curious about or eager for something different or newer.
Fromentin says of Ruisdael that people nowadays are much more advanced in technique than he was.6 They’re also more advanced than Cabat — who’s sometimes very like R. because of his dignified simplicity, for instance in the painting in the Luxembourg.7 But does this mean that what R., what Cabat said has become untrue or superfluous? No. The same with Israëls, too — with Degroux, too (Degroux was very simple).
If one says what one says clearly, though, this isn’t enough, strictly speaking.
And saying it with more charm might make it more pleasant to hear (which I don’t disparage, however), but it doesn’t make what is true very much more beautiful, since the truth is beautiful in itself.8  1v:3

[Paint sample 1, framed]

This is the very highest note9 in the study of the little old man, which expresses the snowy white of his skein of yarn in the light. That same white is much darker still in the shadow.10
[Paint sample 2, preceded by an arrow]
The measurement of the subject overleaf is about 105 x 95 cm, and that of the woman spinning 100 x 75. They’re painted in a tone of bistre and bitumen which, it seems to me, lends itself to expressing the WARM11 chiaroscuro of an airless, dusty interior. Artz would certainly think it too dirty.
It has bothered me FOR A LONG TIME, Theo, that some of the painters nowadays are taking from us the bistre and the bitumen with which, after all, so many magnificent things were painted, which — properly used, make the coloration lush and tender and generous, and at the same time so dignified. And have such highly remarkable and individual qualities.
At the same time, though, they require that one take the trouble to learn to use them, for one has to deal with them differently from the ordinary types of paint, and I consider it perfectly possible that many people are frightened off by the experiments that one has to do first, and that naturally don’t succeed on the first day that one starts to use them. It’s now something like a year ago since I started using them, specifically for interiors, but at first they really disappointed me, and yet I always remembered the beautiful things I’d seen in them.  2r:5
You have a better opportunity than I do to hear about books on art. If you come across good works by people like, say, the book by Fromentin on the Dutch painters, or if you remember any from the past, be aware that I’d very much like you to buy a few sometime, provided they deal with technique — and deduct it from what you usually send. I do intend to learn the theory — I don’t regard it as useless at all, and believe that often what one feels or suspects instinctively leads to certainty and clarity if, in one’s search, one has some guide in truly practical words. Even if there’s just one or a very few things of that nature in a book, it’s sometimes worthwhile not just to read it but actually to buy it, particularly nowadays.
And in the days of Thoré and Blanc there were people who wrote things that are now, unfortunately, already beginning to pass into oblivion.  2v:6
To mention just one thing. Do you know what an unbroken tone and what a broken tone is?12 You can certainly see it in a painting, but do you also know how to explain what you see? What they mean by broken?
One should know this sort of thing, theoretically too, be it as a practitioner when painting or as an expert talking about colour.
Most people understand what they want to by it, and yet these words, for instance, have a VERY SPECIFIC meaning.
The laws of colour13 are inexpressibly splendid precisely because they are not coincidences. Just as people nowadays no longer believe in random miracles, in a God who jumps capriciously and despotically from one thing to another, but are beginning to gain more respect and admiration for and belief in nature, just so and for the same reasons I believe that people should — I don’t say ignore — but thoroughly scrutinize, verify and — — very substantially alter the old-fashioned ideas of innate genius, inspiration &c. in art.  2v:7
I don’t deny the existence of genius, though, nor even its innate nature.14 But I do deny the inferences of it, that theory and training are always useless by the very nature of the thing.
I hope, or rather, I’ll try to do the same thing that I’ve now done in the little woman spinning and the old man winding yarn much better later on. Yet in these two studies from life I’ve been a bit more myself than I’ve succeeded in being in most other studies till now (barring a few of my drawings).
As to black — as it happened I didn’t use it in these studies, since I needed a few stronger effects than black, among other things — — and indigo with terra sienna, Prussian blue with burnt sienna actually produce much deeper tones even than pure black. What I sometimes think when I hear people saying ‘there is no black in nature’ is — there doesn’t have to be any black in paint either.
Don’t, whatever you do, get the mistaken idea that the colourists don’t use black, because it goes without saying that as soon as an element of blue, red or yellow is added to black, it becomes a grey, that is a dark red, yellow or blue grey.  2r:8
Among other things I thought what C. Blanc says in Les artistes de mon temps about Velázquez’s technique was very interesting — that his shadows and half-tones usually consist of colourless cool greys of which black and a bit of white are the chief components15 — in which neutral, colourless parts the least little dash or hint of red, say, is immediately apparent.
Well — regards, do write soon when you have something to write. It does surprise me rather that you don’t feel as much for Jules Dupré as I wish you did.
I believe so firmly that if I were again to see what I’ve seen by him before, far from finding it less beautiful I would find it even more beautiful than I already did instinctively. Dupré is perhaps even more of a colourist than Corot and Daubigny, although they both are too, and Daubigny really is very daring in colours. But with Dupré there’s something of a magnificent symphony in the colour, carried through, intended, manly. I imagine Beethoven must be something like that. This symphony is surprisingly CALCULATED and yet simple and infinitely deep, like nature itself. That’s what I think about it — about Dupré.
Well — adieu, with a handshake.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 453 | CL: 371
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, mid-June 1884

1. This painting of a woman spinning – later in the letter it says that it measured 100 x 75 cm – must be the same one referred to in letter 449 (see letter 449, n. 1).
2. This painted study of a man winding yarn is not known; later in the letter Van Gogh says that it measured about 105 x 95 cm. The letter sketch that he made of it (F - / JH 498) shows that the work also bore some resemblance to the watercolour Man winding yarn (F 1140 / JH 487) and the pen-and-ink drawing Man winding yarn (F 1138 / JH 486 [2468]). It is not possible to identify the two studies Theo had seen on his visit in May.
3. Les maîtres d’autrefois (1876) by Eugène Fromentin contains an overview of the old Dutch and Flemish masters. Fromentin, himself an artist, approaches them with an artist’s eye and goes in depth into technique, composition, the use of colour and so forth. Van Rappard had sent this book for Van Gogh to read (letters 448 and 459).
4. Regnault greatly admired Fortuny, whose work he studied in Grenada during a trip to Spain in 1868. See Lizzie W. Champney, ‘In the footsteps of Fortuny and Regnault’, The Century, Illustrated Monthly Magazine 23 (1881), pp. 15-34.
5. Van Gogh remained ignorant of Impressionism for a long time: see letter 288, n. 4.
6. Van Gogh based this remark on a passage in Fromentin’s Les maîtres d’autrefois (1876) where he argues that the moderns have abandoned Ruisdael’s view of the function of atmosphere and skies in paintings. According to Fromentin he regarded the sky as ‘the real, compact, substantial ceiling to his paintings’ (le plafond réel, compacte, consistant de ses tableaux), whereas the moderns go so far as to condemn themselves to maintaining as a principle ‘that because the air is the emptiest and most imperceptible part of the painting, there is nothing against it being the most colourless and non-existent part’ (que l’atmosphère étant la partie la plus vide et la plus insaisissable du tableau, il n’y a pas d’inconvénient à ce qu’elle en soit la partie la plus incolore et la plus nulle) Fromentin 1902, chapter 7, p. 251.
7. Van Gogh is referring to one of the paintings by Cabat that he had seen years before; L’étang de Ville-d’Avray [1750] (The pond of Ville-d’Avray) and Autumnal evening [1751] (see letters 55, n. 9 and 66, n. 6). Given the comparison with Ruisdael, he appears to mean the former work.
[1750] [1751]
8. Van Gogh may have been prompted to write this by a remark in Les maîtres d’autrefois to the effect that some people worship beauty but deny the truth: ‘denying the truth to kneel before beauty’ (en niant le vrai pour se mettre à genoux devant le beau). See Fromentin 1902, chapter 12, p. 322. Cf. also the Dutch saying: ‘De waarheid heeft een schoon geluid’ (Truth has a beautiful sound) and ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty’, from John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1819).
9. This refers to a sample of paint applied just above it.
10. This is a reference to another paint sample applied below it.
11. After ‘WARM’ Van Gogh crossed out ‘de schaduwtoon’ (the shadow tone).
12. Van Gogh had read about the ‘ton rompu’ (broken tone) and the ‘ton vif’ (strong tone) and ‘les tons voisins’ (neighbouring tones) in Blanc’s essay on Delacroix in Les artistes de mon temps (see Blanc 1876, pp. 65, 69-71). Cf. also the quote cited in letter 494. The ‘ton entier’ (whole tone) is not mentioned there; Blanc writes of ‘two complementaries, of which one is pure and the other broken’ (deux complémentaires, dont l’une est pure et l’autre rompue’) (p. 66).
13. See for the ‘laws of colour’: letter 449, n. 6.
14. Dorn associates this notion with Victor Hugo’s ideas about genius in his book William Shakespeare (see Hugo 1864, pp. 233-234, and exhib. cat. Vienna 1996, pp. 33, 48 (n. 12); cf. also letter 280). In Les artistes de mon temps Blanc talked of Delacroix’s ‘genie lumineux’ (brilliant genius), of ‘Les grands génies’ (the great geniuses) and stated ‘Poëte religieux, Delacroix comprend le génie du christianisme’ (As a religious poet, Delacroix understands the genius of Christianity) (Blanc 1876, pp. 58, 75, 80).
a. Read: ‘Gebrande terra (de) sienna’ (burnt sienna), a reddish-brown earth pigment.
15. On this question Blanc says in Les artistes de mon temps: ‘Thus — when one mixes together blue and orange in equal quantities, the orange being no more orange than the blue is blue — the mixing destroys the two tones and the result is an absolutely colourless grey.’ (Ainsi, lorsqu’on mêle ensemble du bleu et de l’orangé à quantités égales, l’orangé n’étant pas plus orangé, que le bleu n’est bleu, le mélange détruit les deux tons et il en résulte un gris absolument incolore.)
Elsewhere in the book he says that, viewed from close to, ‘Velázquez is not exactly a great colourist, in the sense that he does not have the essential quality of colouring, variety. He is a gourmet who eats hardly anything other than one dish, but who wishes it to be exquisite. On his sober palette the principal tones are silver white and ivory black, and his painting, the basis of which is a delightful grey, would be almost monochrome if he did not revive it, here and there, with some light red motifs, with some touches of a pale blue.’ (Vélazquez n’est pas précisément un grand coloriste, en ce sens qu’il ne possède pas la qualité essentielle au coloris, la variété. C’est un gourmet qui ne mange guère que d’un plat, mais qui le veut exquis. Sur sa sobre palette, les principaux tons sont le blanc d’argent et le noir d’ivoire, et sa peinture, dont un gris délicieux forme la base, serait presque monochrome, s’il ne la réveillait, çà et là, par quelques accessoires d’un rouge léger, par quelques touches d’un bleu évanoui.) See Blanc 1876, pp. 65, 355.