My dear Theo,
I received De Goncourt’s book yesterday evening. I started reading it right away, and although I’ll obviously have to read it again quietly, I already had a general view of the whole thing by this morning — you can see I’d really been looking forward to it.1 I don’t think he praises Boucher too much. Even if I knew nothing of Boucher but the contrast of these three things, a rich blue (sky), a bronze (male figure) and a mother-of-pearl white (female figure), particularly with the addition of that anecdote about the Duchess of Orleans, I would admit that he is someone in the world of painters. What’s more, he doesn’t praise him too much, because he does come out and say, vulgar — in the way that one can call the paintings of Bouguereau, Perrault &c. vulgar without selling the worthy gentlemen short. Because they lack a certain poignancy and intimacy, don’t they? What’s more he doesn’t praise Boucher too much, to my mind, because I’m not concerned for one moment that De Goncourt would deny the superiority of Rubens, say — Rubens, who was still more productive even than Boucher, no less than him but even more the painter of nude women.2  1v:2
Which in Rubens very often does not detract from the poignancy and intimacy that I mean, particularly not in those portraits of his wives in which he is, or surpasses, himself.
But Chardin.
I’ve often longed to know something about the man. (Watteau was exactly as I thought.)3 Third Estate. Corot-like as far as bonhomie is concerned — with more sadness and adversity in his life.4
It’s a splendid book. La Tour witty and Voltaire-like.5
Pastel is a process I’d really like to know. I’ll do it later, too. If one can paint a head, one must be able to learn it in a few hours.
I greatly enjoyed what he says about Chardin’s technique.6
I’m more and more convinced that the true painters didn’t finish in the sense in which people all too often used finish — that’s to say clear if one stands with one’s nose pressed to it.
The best paintings — precisely the most perfect from a technical point of view —  1v:3 seen from close to are touches of colour next to one another, and create their effect at a certain distance. Rembrandt persisted in this despite all the trouble he had to suffer as a result (the worthy citizens thought Van der Helst much better for the reason that one can also see it close to).7 In that respect, Chardin is as great as Rembrandt. Israëls has something of the same, and for my part I always find Israëls admirable, specifically in his technique.
It would be too good if everyone knew this and thought about it like this, as Bonnemort would say.8 At the same time, to bring this off one has to be able to do a little magic, which costs one dear to learn, and Michelangelo’s gloomy, sarcastic words — my manner is destined to make great fools9 — is also true of those who dare take risks in regard to colour — there, too, it can’t be imitated by the cowards and the dependent.
I believe I’m making progress with the work.
Yesterday evening something happened to me that I’ll tell you as precisely as I can. You know the 3 pollard oaks at the end of the garden at home — I slogged away at them for the 4th time.10 I’d sat in front of them for three days with a canvas the size of that cottage, say, and the peasant cemetery you have.11  1r:4
The thing was the canopies of Havana-coloured leaves — how to model them and get the form, the colour, the tone. Then one evening I took it with me to that acquaintance of mine in Eindhoven, who has quite an elegant drawing room (grey wallpaper — furniture black with gold), where we hung it.12
Well now, never before have I felt such a conviction that I’ll make things that work, that I’ll succeed in calculating my colours such that I have it in my power to create an effect. That was Havana, soft green and white-grey — even pure white straight from the tube. (You see that for my part, even though I talk about dark, I have no prejudice against the other extreme, the utmost extreme even.)
Although the man has money, although he really liked it — I had such a tingle of good spirits when I saw that it worked, that it created a mood as it hung there because of the soft, melancholy peace of that colour combination — that I COULD not sell.
But because it had affected him, I gave it to him, and he accepted it just as I meant it, without many words, that’s to say little other than — ‘the thing’s damned good’.
I don’t yet think so myself — I must first see some more Chardin, Rembrandt, Old Dutch and French fellows and really think things over — because I want to work even more vigorously with rather less paint than I used in this thing, for instance.
Now as to my acquaintance and his opinion of paintings — if someone with a clear, rational mind paints still lifes and works outside day in and day out, even if it’s only for a year, then he may not be an art expert as a result,  2r:5 then he doesn’t yet feel himself to be painter — but — nonetheless sees more coolly than many another. And then there’s also this about him, that his character is not like just anyone’s. For instance, he was originally supposed to have become a clergyman — at a certain moment flatly refused — and — got his way in that, which by no means everyone in Brabant succeeds in doing. And has something generous and loyal about him. This is something Zola once referred to — when in a conversation between Mouret and his school friend, he makes Mouret get serious and say that it has taken him a great deal of effort to overcome that time and its influence in himself, but that he wanted to live and that he was living.13 Many who endeavour to change slip back, don’t get any further than a certain colourless Methodism because they don’t take any measures vigorously enough. But that’s not the case with him; he is a man in his bourgeois world.
Did you know that the De Goncourts made etchings and drawings?14 You mustn’t think I’m being impractical if I decidedly go on trying to encourage you either to draw or to paint. I know you won’t fail. I know if you put your mind to it, the result wouldn’t be petty. And specifically in the trade, specifically as an art expert, it would give you an ascendancy over many others.  2r:6 An ascendancy that one actually does need. I return for a moment to that acquaintance of mine — it’s exactly a year since I saw him for the first time, when I was making that large sketch of a water mill which you possibly know.15 (The colour of that one is just maturing nicely.) Now here’s a description of a study by that acquaintance of mine — some roofs, backs of houses, factory chimneys, dark against an evening sky.16 That evening sky blue, shading at the horizon into a glow, between clouds of a smoky colour with orange, or rather, reddish reflections. The bulk of the houses dark, but still a warm brick colour, a silhouette that has something sombre and threatening about it.
Foreground a vague bit of ground in the twilight, black sand, withered grass, a garden anyway, with a few dismal black apple trunks in it, a small canopy of yellow autumn leaves on them here and there. He made this absolutely entirely of his own accord, but isn’t it a good concept, a real impression, well felt? But one isn’t a painter in a year, nor is that necessary. Only there’s already a good thing running through it, and hope is alive instead of one feeling powerless in front of a wall.
I don’t know how things will go for me from now on. At the moment, when I read about that outstanding devil, that famous La Tour17 2v:7 how real it is, by Jove — and — how well (apart from his terrible avarice)18 that fellow tackled life and — painting. I’ve only just seen Frans Hals — well now, you know how I was full of it, wrote to you at length about it straightaway, about putting things down in one go.19 Well, what a similarity there is between the ideas of La Tour &c. and Frans Hals, when they express life in pastel that one could blow away.20 I don’t know what I’ll do or how things will go for me, but I hope I won’t forget these lessons I’ve been taking recently: in one go, quickly but with absolutely total exertion of everything one may have in the way of spirit and attention.
Nowadays — I like nothing better than working with a brush — drawing with it too — instead of making a design in charcoal. When I ask myself how the old Dutchmen set about it, I come up against the relatively few actual drawings. And how astoundingly they — draw. But — I believe that in most cases they began, they progressed, they ended — with their brush.21
They — didn’t fill in.
A Van Goyen — for instance — I’ve just seen the one of his in the Dupper Collection, an oak tree on a dune  2v:8 in a storm,22 and the Cuyp, view of Dordrecht.23 An astounding technique — but — with nothing and as if of its own accord and beyond the paint24 and — apparently perfectly simple. But — be it in the figure — be it in landscape — how painters have always striven to convince people that a painting is something other than nature in a mirror, something other than imitation, that’s to say re-creation.
I would like to tell you a lot more about what Chardin, in particular, makes me think about colour — and — not making things the local colour. I think it’s splendid: ‘How to surprise — how to define the substance of this toothless mouth with its infinite subtleties. It’s made with nothing more than a few streaks of yellow and a few sweeping strokes of blue!!!25 When I read this, I thought of – Vermeer of Delft. When one sees it from close to, the townscape in The Hague26 is incredible, and done with completely different colours from what one would suppose a few steps away.
Regards, I really wanted to tell you right away how good I think De Goncourt’s book.

Yours truly,


Br. 1990: 542 | CL: 431
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 7 November 1885

2. Van Gogh derives his remarks from the essay on Boucher in L’art du dix-huitième siècle (see Goncourt 1881-1914, vol. 1, pp. 195-314). On the aspects in Boucher’s work: pp. 197-198; on Boucher’s dalliance with the Duchess of Orleans: pp. 206, 223; the word ‘vulgar’ (canaille) appears on p. 239, and the nude women and Rubens are discussed on pp. 210, 217-218. The source for the English translations from the De Goncourt’s book is: Goncourt 1948.
3. Van Gogh is referring here to what it says in the essay on Watteau in L’art du dix-huitième siècle (pp. 1-90).
4. The De Goncourts write that Chardin’s father was a carpenter, not that the painter himself was a member of the Tiers état (the third estate, the (common) people – the term was used under the Ancien Régime to describe the lower classes, the proletariat). They do observe that Chardin portrayed the domestic life and the occupations of working people in the ‘petty bourgeoisie of the time, the strong mother of the third estate’ (petite bourgeoisie du temps, la forte mère du Tiers état) (pp. 121-122). ‘Without education, without the classics, he has, like the poor households that he paints, something of the common people in some respects’ (Sans éducation, sans humanités, il est, comme les ménages pauvres qu’il peint, peuple par certaines côtés) (p. 148).
Chardins ‘bonhomie’ is discussed on pp. 149-150; on the hardships in his life it says that his first wife was sickly, that his work did not sell well and that later in life he was ‘weary, ill, weakened’ (lassé, malade, affaibli) p. 144) – at the end of his life he suffered from kidney stones and was confined to bed with swollen legs (p. 153).
5. The essay on the French portrait painter and pastel artist Maurice Quentin de La Tour: pp. 315-413; the reference to the ‘witty’ painter is on pp. 343-344, and the ‘Voltaire-like’ reference is on pp. 340, 350.
6. Several passages are devoted to Chardin’s astonishing technique, particularly his use of colour. The comparison with Rembrandt – which Van Gogh also makes – occurs repeatedly, as does his comment that works of art have to be seen from a distance. The De Goncourts say of Chardin’s works: ‘look at them carefully, from a little way off, and soon the flowers will stand out from the canvas’ (regardez-les attentivement, d’un peu loin, et bientôt les fleurs se lèvent de la toile) (pp. 106-108, 117, 126-127, 146-147, 157-158; quotation on p. 107).
7. This notion derives from what E.J.T. Thoré (under the pseudonym W. Bürger) had written in his Musées de la Hollande, in which he contrasted Rembrandt’s work with that of Bartholomeus van der Helst; to him the realism of the latter represented ‘the common view’: ‘in contrast, Van der Helst’s way of looking at things is more general or more vulgar, which is the same thing. It is more in line with the common view of the masses. The scene depicted in The Banquet would come across the same, or almost the same, to everyone’ (La manière de voir de van der Helst, au contraire, est plus générale, ou plus vulgaire, c’est le même mot. Elle s’accorde mieux avec le sens commun à la foule. La scène du Banquet apparaîtrait ainsi, ou à peu près, à tout le monde) (see Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 1, p. 38).
8. In Zola’s novel Germinal the simple Bonnemort, an old man who has lived all his life in and around the mines, says: If we always ate bread, that would be too much of a good thing!’ (Si l’on mangeait toujours du pain, ça serait trop beau!) See Zola 1960-1967, vol. 3, p. 1141.
a. Read: ‘Om het bovendien zo uit te voeren’ (moreover to carry it off like this).
9. Van Gogh may have taken this remark by Michelangelo from Eugène Emmanuel Amaury-Duval, who observed: ‘Michel-Ange disait: “Mon style est destiné à faire de grands sots”.’ See L’atelier d’Ingres; souvenirs par Amaury-Duval. Paris 1878, p. 287.
10. Autumn landscape with four trees (F 44 / JH 962 [2540]). It measures 69 x 87.8 cm. By ‘the 4th time’ Van Gogh must mean that he had worked on it in four sessions.
11. Vincent had sent Theo the paintings The cottage (F 83 / JH 777 [2513]) and The old church tower at Nuenen (‘The peasants’ churchyard’) (F 84 / JH 772 [2512]): see letters 506 and 507. They measure 65.7 x 79.3 cm and 65 x 80 cm respectively.
[2513] [2512]
b. Means: ‘kruinen’ (canopies).
12. The friend is Anton Kerssemakers. He described the painting and recalled the events when Van Gogh gave it to him: Verzamelde brieven 1973, vol. 3, p. 97.
c. Means: ‘kalmer’ (more coolly).
13. Van Gogh again refers to the conversation between Mouret and his friend Vallagnosc in Au bonheur des dames, which he had quoted in letter 464. During this conversation Mouret becomes ‘grave’, after he had said, among other things, that he had lived, despite his problems: ‘I have never lived so much... it’s the shortest hours in which one dies of suffering!... I’m broken, I can’t go on; it doesn’t matter, you won’t believe how much I love life! (Jamais je n’ai tant vécu... ce sont les heures les plus courtes, celles où l’on meurt de souffrance! ... Je suis brisé, je n’en peux plus; n’importe, tu ne sauras croire combien j’aime la vie!) (see Zola 1960-1967, chapter 11, pp. 696-697).
14. Jules de Goncourt was the etcher and watercolourist of the two. Van Gogh may already have borrowed Philippe Burty’s Maîtres et petits maîtres (1877) (cf. letter 542). In it, in the essay ‘Les eaux-forts de Jules de Goncourt’ it says that Edmond ‘was also a painter when it suited him’ (fut peintre aussi à son moment) (see Burty 1877, pp. 333-357 (quotation on p. 341)).
15. Water mill at Gennep (F 125 / JH 525 [2490]).
16. This painting by Kerssemakers is not known.
17. In the essay on La Tour in L’art du dix-huitième siècle the authors describe him as ‘diabolical’ (see Goncourt 1881-1914, vol. 1, p. 352).
18. The De Goncourts held forth about La Tour’s greed (‘the painter is grasping’ (le peintre est avide)) on the basis of a number of anecdotes about the exorbitant prices he sometimes asked (pp. 347 ff.).
19. After his visit to the Rijksmuseum, where he had studied Hals’s loose brushwork, Van Gogh wrote about it in letters 534 and 535.
20. The De Goncourts describe pastel as ‘volatile’ (p. 326) and ‘fragile paint’ (p. 372) and they say of the vitality of La Tour’s work: ‘it’s no longer art, it’s life’ (ce n’est plus de l’art, c’est la vie) (p. 358).
21. This had been a point of discussion as early as August 1883: ‘But now I don’t give a rap if the drawing is erased, and I always do them directly with the brush, and enough form comes into it to make the study useful’ (letter 370).
24. See for the expression ‘beyond the paint’: letter 439, n. 3.
25. Van Gogh skipped two phrases and added three exclamation marks and the italics (cf. Goncourt 1881-1914, vol. 1, p. 147).
26. See for Jan Vermeer of Delft, View of Delft [2162]: letter 538, n. 9, where the work is also cited as an argument.