My dear Theo,
I’ve just received Germinal, which I started on immediately. I’ve read 50 pages of it — which I think splendid. I also walked there once.1  1v:2
Here’s a croquis of a head that I just brought back.2 You received the same one in the last studies I sent, the largest one among them, but painted smoothly.3
This time I haven’t smoothed out the brushstroke, and besides the colour is very different too. I haven’t yet made a head that’s so much painted with the soil,4 and more will certainly follow now.
If all goes well — if I earn rather more so that I can travel more — well then I’ll also, I hope, paint the miners’ heads sometime. However, I’ll keep working until I’m absolutely and utterly sure of my case — such that I’m working even faster than now and will also be able to bring home 30 or so studies in the space of a month, say.
I don’t know whether we’ll earn money, but if it’s just enough to work a tremendous amount then I’m content; doing what one wants is what matters.
Yes, we must do the miners one day!  1v:3
What did Portier say about the potato eaters?5 I know myself that there are flaws in it; all the same, precisely because I see that the heads I’m doing now are becoming more powerful, I dare assert that the potato eaters will also hold up in association with subsequent paintings.
Last year I was often desperate about colour, but now I’m working much more confidently. You must just write and tell me what you think best; whether I should keep the work I’m doing now for Antwerp or that I send it to you and Portier as soon as possible. Because it’s all the same to me. I have 7 heads6 and 1 watercolour7 ready now, so I could make another small consignment. Regards, thanks again for Germinal, I’m still reading it as I write. It’s splendid.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 506 | CL: 409
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, on or about Thursday, 28 May 1885

1. In letter 502 Vincent had asked Theo to send Zola’s novel, something that Theo had evidently previously said he would do. Germinal is set primarily in and around the fictional North French mining village of Montsou, which supposedly lies some 10 km from Marchiennes. This district is not far from the Borinage. Van Gogh went on long walks in the area when he lived there, and probably saw this setting during his trip to Courrières (letter 158), which is only about 20 km from Marchiennes. Reading this book must have encouraged Van Gogh to start painting miners’ heads (see later in the letter).
2. The letter sketch Head of a woman (Gordina de Groot) (F - / JH 784) was made after the painting of the same name (F 141 / JH 783 [2515]).
3. Head of a woman (Gordina de Groot) (F 140 / JH 745 [2508]). The painting, which measures 47.5 x 35.5 cm, must have been part of the consignment referred to in letter 501.
4. Van Gogh borrowed the expression ‘peint avec la terre’ from Sensier, La vie et l’oeuvre de J.F. Millet: see letter 495, n. 9.
5. Portier had meanwhile seen the work, but remarkably Theo had not yet written to tell Vincent about it. On 19 May 1885 he did, however, tell his mother: ‘So Vincent has moved, it will be strange for him and you mustn’t think that this was altogether what he wished. I’m longing for a letter from him, partly to know if he received mine. Several people saw his work, either at my place or Mr Portier’s and the painters, in particular, think it’s very promising. Some of them find a great deal of beauty in it, precisely because his characters are so true, for it is after all a certain truth that among the peasant men and women in Brabant one finds many more on whose faces the harsh lines of hard work and of poverty too are expressed than one finds pretty little faces among them. As far as sales are concerned, even well known painters are not finding it easy at the moment. So it is that much harder to sell something by an unknown who has only been working for a few years. Still, it will happen’ (FR b901).
6. It is not possible to identify exactly which heads he means here. F 140 / JH 745 [2508] referred to earlier in the letter must have been one of them, as probably was Head of a man (F 163 / JH 687 [2495]) and possibly Head of a woman (F 388r / JH 782 [2514]); see letter 502, n. 5.
[2508] [2495] [2514]
7. The watercolour Sale of building scrap (F 1230 / JH 770 [2511]); see letter 502.