My Dear Theo:

. . . . Let’s talk of something else – I have a model at last – a Zouave – a boy with a small face, a bull neck, and the eye of a tiger, and I began with one portrait, and began again with another; the half-length I did of him was horribly harsh, in a blue uniform, the blue of enamel saucepans, with braids of a faded reddish-orange, and two yellow stars on his breast, an ordinary blue, and very hard to do. That bronzed, feline head of his with a red cap, I placed it against a green door and the orange bricks of a wall. So it’s a savage combination of incongruous tones, not easy to manage. The study I made of it seems to me very harsh, but all the same I’d like always to be working on vulgar, even loud portraits like this. It teaches me something, and above all that is what I want of my work. The second portrait will be full length, sitting against a white wall.

Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (21 June 1888)

For Dave Bonta, on the tenth anniversary of
Via Negativa.

I began, began again
with half-length, harsh
in enamel saucepans

that bronzed feline against
the orange bricks of
a wall

so a savage nation of tones
I made. it seems
harsh, vulgar, loud —

traits like his.

teach me something
full length — sit against
a white wall


Van Gogh’s Der Zuave, the half-length referred to in van Gogh’s letter.


  1. Sharp tribute: gift of a Swiss Army Knife.

    Fabulous last stanza. Why will no one come to rest against a white wall?

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