My dear Theo,
You’ll receive a number of impressions of the lithograph by the same post.1
Do give Mr Portier as many of them as he might want. And I enclose herewith a letter to him, which will seem to you — I think — rather long and consequently impractical. But I thought about it that what had to be said can’t be compressed into fewer words, and precisely what matters here is to give him reasons for his own instinctive feelings.
And anyway, what I write to him, I also say to you.
There’s a school — I believe — of — Impressionists. But I don’t know much about it.2 I do know, though, who the original and actual people are around whom — as around an axle — the peasant and landscape painters will revolve. Delacroix, Millet, Corot and the rest. This is — in my own feeling — not correctly expressed.  1v:2
I mean — (rather than people) there are rules or principles or basic values for both drawing and colour — which one — proves to arrive at — when one finds something true.
As regards drawing — for instance, that question of drawing figures from the circle — that is, based on the fundamental oval planes, which the ancient Greeks already felt and which will continue to be until the end of the world.3
As regards colour — those eternal questions — what, for instance, was the first question that Corot addressed to Français when Français (who already had a reputation) asked Corot (who didn’t yet have a reputation, or only a negative or fairly bad one) when he (F.) came to Corot to ask things — What is a broken tone? What is a neutral tone?4 Which one can point out better on the palette than put into words.  1v:3
What I want to assure Portier of in this letter is my — faith — precisely in Eugène Delacroix and those old people.
And at the same time, since, for instance, the painting I’m working on5 is different from lamplights by Dou6 or Van Schendel7 — it’s perhaps not superfluous to point out how one of the most beautiful things by the painters of this century has been the painting of darkness that is still colour. Anyway — just read my letter and you’ll see that it isn’t incomprehensible. And — that it — is about SOMETHING. And that something is a question that just came into my mind when I was painting.
I hope that the painting of those potato eaters will progress a bit. Besides that, am also working on a red sunset.8 To paint peasant life one has to be master of such an enormous number of things.
But on the other hand — I know of nothing that one works on with such peace, in the sense of peace of mind, even when one has a great struggle in material things.  1r:4
Moving is causing me some considerable concern these days, because it’s never straightforward. All the same, it will have to happen, if not now then later, anyway, and in the long run it’s better to be in one’s own place, that’s for sure.
To change the subject. How rightly it was said of Millet’s figures — his peasant seems to be painted with the soil he sows!9 How accurate and true that is. And how much it comes down to knowing how to make on the palette those colours that one cannot name and of which everything — fundamentally — actually consists. Perhaps — I dare say certainly — the questions of colours, and specifically broken — and — neutral — colours, will preoccupy you once more.
To my mind, one hears people in the art trade speak of them so vaguely and arbitrarily.
And among the painters themselves, too, for that matter.
Last week I saw at an acquaintance’s10 a decidedly clever, realistic study of the head of an old woman by someone who’s directly or indirectly a pupil of the Hague School. But both in drawing and in colour a certain hesitancy, a certain narrow-mindedness, much more — it seemed to me — than one discerns when one sees an old Blommers or Mauve or Maris.11 And this phenomenon is threatening to become more and more general. When people conceive of realism in the sense of literal truth — namely precise drawing and local colour. There’s something other than that.12 Well, regards — with a handshake.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 499 | CL: 402
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, Tuesday, 21 April 1885

1. The lithograph The potato eaters (F 1661 / JH 737 [2135]).
2. Van Gogh remained ignorant of Impressionism for a long time: see letter 288, n. 4.
3. A paraphrase of the quotation from Gigoux’s Causeries sur les artistes de mon temps which Van Gogh quoted in letter 494.
4. This anecdote derives from Dumesnil 1875: see letter 419, n. 8.
5. The new version of The potato eaters (F 82 / JH 764 [2510]).
6. Gerard Dou, known for his paintings with candlelit and lamplit effects, used strong chiaroscuro effects from the sixteen-fifties onwards in scenes of this type, like his Night school, c. 1623-1665 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum).
7. Petrus van Schendel painted small interiors with effects of candlelight and moonlight, which clearly reveal the influence of Gerard Dou.
8. This may be Landscape with sunset (F 191 / JH 762 [2509]), although the sky is more orange than red.
9. This sentence derives from something said by Théophile Gautier which Van Gogh found in Sensier, La vie et l’oeuvre de J.F. Millet: ‘There is something imposing and stylish about this figure with its violent gesture, and proudly run-down bearing, which seems to be painted with the very soil which he sows’ (Il y a du grandiose et du style dans cette figure au geste violent, à la tournure fièrement délabrée, et qui semble peinte avec la terre qu’il ensemence) (Sensier 1881, p. 127). Quoted again in letter 499, 500, 505 and 506.
10. Anton Kerssemakers, with whom Van Gogh was in touch in this period.
12. There is an echo here of what Emile Zola had written in ‘Les réalistes du Salon’ (Mon Salon): ‘I have no time for realism, in the sense that the word has no clear meaning for me ... that all I ask of the artist is to be personal and powerful’ (Je me moque du réalisme, en ce sens que ce mot ne représente rien de bien précis pour moi ... que je demande uniquement à l’artiste d’être personnel et puissant), and: ‘Therefore no more realism than anything else. Truth, if you like, and life, but above all, different flesh and different hearts interpreting nature in different ways. The definition of a work of art can only be as follows: A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.’ (Donc pas plus de réalisme que d’autre chose. De la vérité, si l’on veut, de la vie, mais surtout des chairs et des coeurs différents interprétant différemment la nature. La définition d’une oeuvre d’art ne saurait être autre chose que celle-ci: Une oeuvre d’art est un coin de la création vu à travers un tempérament.) Zola 1966-1970, vol. 12, pp. 807-810. Van Gogh alluded to this sentence on other occasions: see letter 361, n. 9.