Writing from Arles on August 18, 1888, Vincent van Gogh gave his brother, Theo, a preview of his Portrait of a Peasant. The letter, in which he describes his approach to the painting and the drawing he made after it preserve the artist’s own immediate account of the portrait as he completed it. In the following excerpts from this letter, van Gogh alludes to the artistic and literary precedents that informed his creation, among them the paintings of Millet and Delacroix and Émile Zola’s novels about laborers and rural life in France, Germinal and La Terre. He also mentions his own earlier painting “in clogs,” The Potato Eaters, completed in Nuenen in the Netherlands three years earlier.
My dear Theo,
You’ll shortly make the acquaintance of Mr. Patience Escalier — a sort of man with a hoe, an old Camargue oxherd, who’s now a gardener at a farmstead in the Crau.
Today without fail I'll send you the drawing I made after this painting [illustrated top right]. … The color of this portrait of a peasant isn’t as dark as the Nuenen potato eaters [illustrated bottom right]. … Really it’s a pity that there aren’t more paintings in clogs in Paris. …What a mistake that Parisians haven’t acquired sufficient taste for rough things. … Well, I know that one shouldn’t be discouraged because utopia isn’t coming about. It’s just that I find that what I learned in Paris is fading, and that I’m returning to my ideas that came to me in the country before I knew the Impressionists. And I wouldn’t be very surprised if the Impressionists were soon to find fault with my way of doing things, which was fertilized more by the ideas of Delacroix than by theirs.
Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully.
[But imagine] the terrific man I had to do, in the very furnace of harvest time, deep in the south. Hence the oranges, blazing like red-hot iron, hence the old gold tones, glowing in the darkness.
Ah, my dear brother — and the good folk will see only caricature in this exaggeration. But whatdoes that do to us, we’ve read La Terre and Germinal, and if we paint a peasant we’d like to show that this reading has in some way become part of us. …
This English translation of van Gogh’s letter, written in French, is 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.
The complete letter may be seen online.
Van Gogh, Peasant of the Camargue (Patience Escalier), 1888, brown ink over graphite on paper, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam