To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, between about Thursday, 5 and about Thursday, 26 February 1885.
My dear Theo,
Many thanks for your parcel of L’Illustrations, with which you’ve given me great pleasure. I like all of the various drawings by Renouard, and didn’t know any of them. However — but this isn’t to put you to more trouble, but because I wrote things about it that are perhaps not altogether applicable to the other drawings by him — however, the actual composition by R. that I meant isn’t among them, that No. may be sold out. The breadth in the figure was superb in it — it was an old man and some women and a child, I think, who sat doing nothing in a weaver’s interior where the looms were still.
I hadn’t yet seen anything from Salon 84 in reproduction, and now at least got some idea of a few interesting paintings from the Salon No. Among other things, of that composition by Puvis de Chavannes.
I imagine that the Harpignies with the setting sun must have been magnificent. And the paintings by Feyen-Perrin, of which there are croquis. What also struck me was a figure of a girl by Emile Lévy, Japonaise, and the painting by Beyle, Women burning seaweed, and the one by Collin, Summer, 3 female nudes.
I’m hard at work on painting those heads. I paint during the day and draw in the evening. I’ve already painted at least 30 or so this way, and drawn as many.
With the result that I see a chance, before long I hope, of doing it very differently. I think that it will help me with the figure in general. Today I had a white and black one, against the flesh colour.
And I’m also always looking for blue. As a rule, the peasant figures here are blue. That, in the ripe wheat or against the withered leaves of a beech hedge, so that the hidden nuances of darker and lighter blue are brought alive again and made to speak by contrast with gold tones or reddish brown, is very beautiful, and has struck me here from the first.
The people here instinctively wear the most beautiful blue that I’ve ever seen. It’s coarse linen that they weave themselves, warp black, weft blue, which creates a black and blue striped pattern. When it’s faded and slightly discoloured by wind and weather, it’s an infinitely calm, subtle shade that specifically brings out the flesh colours. In short, blue enough to react with all the colours in which there are hidden orange elements, and faded enough not to clash.
But this is a question of colour, and the question of the form is what matters more to me at the point where I now find myself. Expressing the form — I think — works best with an almost monochrome colour scheme, the tones of which vary chiefly in intensity and in value. For instance, The well by Jules Breton was painted in a single colour, almost. But one does have to study each colour individually in association with its opposite before one can be really sure of being harmonious. I painted a few more studies of our garden when there was snow on it.
The landscape has changed greatly since then — we now have magnificent evening skies of lilac and gold, above the tonal silhouettes of the houses between the masses of the coppices, which are a ruddy colour, above which rise slender black poplars — while the foregrounds are blanched and bleached green, varied by strips of black earth and dry, pale reeds along the sides of the ditches. I see all that, too — I find it as superb as anyone else — but what interests me even more is the proportion of a figure, the division of the oval of a head, and I have no grasp on the rest until I have more mastery of the figure. In short — the figure first — for my part, I can’t understand the rest without it, and it’s the figure that creates the mood. I can understand, though, that there are people like Daubigny and Harpignies and Ruisdael and so many others, who are absolutely and irresistibly carried away by the landscape itself; their work is totally satisfying because they themselves were satisfied by sky and soil and a pool of water and a bush. However, I think what Israëls said about a Dupré is a mighty clever saying — it’s just like a painting of a figure.
Regards, and thanks again for the illustrations.