During his period in Arles, van Gogh wrote frequently to his friends and family in Paris. In the following passages from letters he sent to his brother, Theo, and to fellow artist Émile Bernard in the weeks leading up to and just after he painted Portrait of a Peasant, van Gogh reflects on portraiture, color, and the peasant as subject.
As for me, I’ll work, and here and there some of my work will last — but what Claude Monet is in landscape, the same thing in figure painting — who’s going to do that? Yet like me you must feel it’s in the air. … But the painter of the future is a colorist such as there hasn’t been before.
—Vincent van Gogh to Theo, May 4, 1888
I’m trying to make you see the great simple thing, the painting of humanity, let’s rather say of a whole republic, through the simple medium of the portrait.
—Vincent van Gogh to Émile Bernard, July 30, 1888
The change that I’m going to try to make in my paintings will be to do more figures. In short, it’s the only thing in painting that moves me deeply and that gives me a sense of the infinite.
—Vincent van Gogh to Theo, July 31, 1888
Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully.
—Vincent van Gogh to Theo, August 18, 1888
Because once again the color suggests the scorched air of harvest time at midday in the blistering heat, and without that it’s a different painting. I would dare to believe that you and Gauguin would understand it, but how ugly they’ll find it! You fellows know what a peasant is, how much of the wild animal there is when you come across somebody pure-bred.
—Vincent van Gogh to Émile Bernard, August 21, 1888
I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations.
—Vincent van Gogh to Theo, September 3, 1888
Additional excerpts from the August 18 letter to Theo, which van Gogh wrote as he was completing the Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), are included online.
The English translations of van Gogh’s letters quoted above are from Vincent van Gogh — The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, in association with the Huygens Institute, The Hague, published by Thames & Hudson, London, in association with the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute, in 2009.