To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 2 May 1885.
My dear Theo,
I received your letter this afternoon, and wanted to reply to it straightaway. I’m longing to get an idea of the Salon, particularly of the painting by Roll.
It doesn’t surprise me that Durand-Ruel, say, haven’t yet taken notice of the drawings. And I would even prefer that Portier didn’t exaggerate in finding them good (at least, I feel I can do it better), because I’m just changing again, and in such a way that I find the earlier things hesitant.
I think you’ll see what I mean from the painting of the potato eaters.
I think that Portier will understand it. It’s very dark, though, and in the white, for instance, white has hardly been used at all but simply the neutral colour that occurs if one mixes red, blue, yellow together — say vermilion, Paris blue and Naples yellow. So this colour in itself is a fairly dark grey, but it looks white in the painting. I’ll tell you why I do this. The subject here is a grey interior, lit by a small lamp.
The drab linen tablecloth, the smoke-stained wall, the dusty caps in which the women have worked on the land — all these, when you look at them through your eyelashes, prove to be very dark grey in the light of the lamp, and the lamp, although being a red gold glow, is even lighter — and by a long way — than that white. Now the flesh tones — I know that on a superficial examination, that is if you don’t think it through, they look like what people call flesh colour.
I did paint them that way at the beginning of the painting — some yellow ochre, red ochre and white, for example.
But that was much too light and certainly didn’t do.
What was to be done? — I had finished all the heads and even finished them with great care — but I quickly repainted them without mercy, and the colour they’re painted now is something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course.
While I was doing it I thought again about what has so rightly been said of Millet’s peasants — ‘His peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow’. A phrase I can’t help thinking of whenever I see them at work, outside as well as indoors. I’m certain that if you were to ask Millet, Daubigny, Corot to paint a snowy landscape without using white — they would do it and the snow would appear white in their paintings.
What you say about the lithograph, that the effect is woolly, I think so too, and it isn’t my own fault, in so far as the lithographer insisted that it wouldn’t print properly because I’d left virtually no white on the stone. On his advice I then bit out light areas. If I had just printed it as the drawing was, it would have been generally darker but wouldn’t have lacked cohesion. And there would still have been atmosphere between the planes.
Still, what should I do with the painting? It’s as big as last year’s woman spinning. I’ve got it in the cottage again to do more things to it from life. I believe I’ll finish it though — in a manner of speaking — for I myself will actually never think my own work finished or ready.
I can make a smaller version of it or a drawing, though, if you would rather have that, for I feel the thing in such a way that I can literally dream it. Can you not understand that the thing I scribble down here was superb? When I went to the cottage this evening I found the folk eating their meal by the light of the little window instead of under the lamp.
Oh, it was astonishingly beautiful. The colour was also singular — you remember those heads painted against the window — the effect was like that, only darker still. So that the two women and the interior were almost exactly the same colour as dark green soap. But the figure of the man on the left was just lit by light coming in from a door further along. Thus head and hands became the colour of, say, a 10-centime piece, that is, dull copper. And his smock the most delicate faded blue possible, where the light caught it.
When you write again, please tell me what you want me to do with the painting. Obviously we must make sure Portier gets something new. But I could just as well paint it again half size, say, for him, and send this larger one to Antwerp, say.
As regards the light paintings of the present day, I’ve seen so few of them in recent years. But I’ve thought a great deal about the question. Corot, Millet, Daubigny, Israëls, Dupré, others — also paint light paintings — that is, one can see into all the corners and depths etc. — however deep the spectrum may be.
But not one of them — the above-mentioned — are people who literally paint the local tone; they follow the spectrum they start with — carry through their own idea — in colour and tone and drawing. And that their lights are generally fairly dark greys — in themselves — which look light in the painting by contrast — that’s a truth that you have the opportunity to observe every day.
Well, regards. You understand, I do not say that Millet doesn’t use any white when he paints snow, but maintain that, if they’d ever wanted to, and deliberately, he and the other tonists could have done that in the same way as Delacroix says of Paul Veronese — that he painted white, blonde, nude women with a colour that in itself is very like dirt from the street.
With a handshake.
I think that you’ll certainly see in the painting that I have my own way of looking, but that it nonetheless links up with others — certain Belgians, for instance.
Scandalous that they rejected Josephson’s painting. But why don’t the rejected ones band together to do something themselves? Unity is strength.