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Van Gogh on Art and Artists: Letters to Emile Bernard

Van Gogh on Art and Artists: Letters to Emile Bernard

by Vincent Van Gogh

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These letters, written from 1887 to 1889, are among the most important and relevant sources of insight into van Gogh's life and art. 23 missives, accompanied by reproductions of a number of his major paintings and facsimiles from his letters, radiate their author's impulsiveness, intensity, and mysticism. Chronology. Select Bibliography. Index. 32 full-page


These letters, written from 1887 to 1889, are among the most important and relevant sources of insight into van Gogh's life and art. 23 missives, accompanied by reproductions of a number of his major paintings and facsimiles from his letters, radiate their author's impulsiveness, intensity, and mysticism. Chronology. Select Bibliography. Index. 32 full-page black-and-white illustrations.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Fine Art, History of Art
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Van Gogh on Art and Artists

Letters to Emile Bernard

By Vincent van Gogh, Douglas Lord

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-16611-7



Dear old Bernard,

I feel I owe you an apology for having left you so abruptly the other day. So I do this here without delay. I recommend you to read Tolstoy's russian legends, and I will also get for you the article on Eug[ène] Delacroix which I spoke about.

Personally I went to see Guillaumin all the same, but in the evening: and it occurred to me that perhaps you do not know his address, which is: 13 Quai d'Anjou. As a man, I think Guillaumin is more sure of his ideas than the others, and if all were like him they would produce more good work and have less time or desire to snap at each other.

I persist in believing that you will one day realise, not because I have rammed it down your throat, but because with you too it will become a conviction, I believe that in time you will come to realise that in the studios one not only does not learn much about painting, but not even much in the way of a technique of life: so one is obliged to learn how to live, as well as how to paint, without having recourse to the old tricks and optical illusions of intriguers.

I do not think your self-portrait will be either your last or your best, although as a matter of fact it is terribly you.

Listen now, what I was trying to explain to you the other day amounts roughly to this. In order to avoid generalisations allow me to take an actual example. If you have quarrelled with a painter and as a result you say: "If Signac exhibits in the place where I exhibit, I shall remove my pictures," and if you abuse him, then it seems to me that you are not behaving as well as you might.

For it is better to look at things for a long while and make sure before judging them categorically; reflection often shows us in the case of quarrels, that one side is as much wrong as the other—and that one's adversary has as much justification as one would claim for oneself.

If then you have already decided that Signac and the others who use pointillism quite often produce very beautiful works, instead of disparaging these you must, if you have quarrelled, above all esteem them and talk sympathetically of them.

Otherwise one becomes sectarian, narrow-minded and like those people who have no use for anyone else, believing themselves only to be right.

This applies even to the academicians: take for example a picture by Fantin-Latour, or rather the whole of his work. Well, there's someone who's no revolutionary; but that does not prevent his having that sort of calm and correctness which makes him one of the most independent characters alive.

One more word about the military service which you will be obliged to do. You must concern yourself with that right away. Directly by finding out exactly what can be arranged in such cases to enable you first of all to keep the right to work, to choose your garrison, etc.: but indirectly by taking care of your health. You must not begin in too nervous or anaemic a condition if you really wish to come out of it stronger.

I do not consider it a great misfortune for you that you are bound to go off and be a soldier, but rather a grave trial out of which—if you come through—you will emerge a very great artist.

Do all you can between now and then to get strong, for you will need plenty of vigour. And if you work a lot during that year, I think you might end by having a good stock of pictures, some of which we will try to sell for you, as you will be in need of pocket-money to pay for models.

I will of course do all I can to make a success of what we have begun in the café; but I am afraid the first condition of success is to forget our petty jealousies, only union makes strength. In the common interest it is worth while abandoning the egotistic doctrine: each one for himself.

A hearty handshake,




My dear Bernard,

Having promised to write to you I want to begin by telling you that this countryside seems to me as beautiful as Japan for clarity of atmosphere and gay colour effects. Water forms patches of lovely emerald or rich blue in the landscape, just as we see it in the crape-prints. The pale orange of the sunsets makes the fields appear blue. The sun is a splendid yellow. However, I have still not really seen the countryside in all its habitual summer splendour. The women's costume is pretty, and on Sundays especially, one sees on the boulevards some naive and very happy combinations of colours. And in summer, no doubt, they will become even more gay.

The trouble is that life here is not as cheap as I had hoped, and I have not yet found the way to manage as well as one would at Pont-Aven. I began by paying 5 francs, and am now down to 4 francs a day. One should really speak the local patois and get to like bouillabaisse and aïoli, then one would be certain to find a cheap middle-class pension. Then, if there were several of us one would, I am convinced, obtain better terms still. There might even be a material advantage for several of those artists who love the sun and bright colours to move to the south.

Even if the Japanese are not developing in their own country, it is certain that their art is finding its development in France. At the head of this letter you will find a rough sketch of a subject of which I hope to make something: sailors returning with their sweethearts to the town, whose strange drawbridge stands out in silhouette against an enormous yellow sun. I have another version of the same subject with a group of washerwomen.

Shall be happy to have a word from you telling what you are doing and where you are going.

A hearty handshake for yourself and our friends.

Ever yours, Vincent.



Dear old Bernard,

Thank you for your nice letter and the enclosed sketches of your decoration, which I find very amusing. I regret sometimes that I can't make up my mind to work more at home and from memory. The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must develop and it alone can bring us to the creation of a more exalting and consoling nature than we are shown in a solitary glance at reality—which we perceive as changing, flashing by like lightning.

A star-spangled sky for example, that's a thing I would like to try and do, just as by daylight I shall attempt to paint a green meadow spangled with dandelions. But how can I manage unless I make up my mind to work at home and from imagination? That's a criticism of me, and a credit to you.

At the moment, I am busy with blossoming fruit trees; pink peach blossom, white and yellow pear blossom. I don't keep to any one technique. I dab the colour irregularly on the canvas and leave it at that. Here lumps of thick paint, there bits of canvas left uncovered, elsewhere portions left quite unfinished, new beginnings, coarsenesses: but anyway the result, it seems to me, is alarming and provocative enough to disturb those people who have fixed preconceived ideas about technique. Here, by the way, is a sketch, the entrance to a Provencal orchard with its yellow fence, its screen of black cypresses (against the mistral), its characteristic vegetables of varying greens: yellow salad vegetables, onions, garlic, emerald-green leeks.

While working directly on the spot all the time, I try to secure the essential in the drawing—then I go for the spaces, bounded by contours, either expressed or not, but felt at all events: these I fill with tones equally simplified, so that all that is going to be soil partakes of the same purplish tone, the whole of the sky has a blueish hue and the greens are either definitely blue-greens or yellow-greens, purposely exaggerating in this case the yellow or blue qualities.

Anyway, my dear old friend, there's no attempt at perspective.

As regards my idea of visiting Aix, Marseilles and Tangier, there's no danger at present. If by any chance I do go it will be in search of cheaper lodging. Otherwise I realise only too clearly that even were I to work here the whole of my life I could scarcely record half of what is characteristic of this town alone.

By the way, I have seen some bull-fights in the arena, or rather they were sham fights, considering that the bulls were numerous, and no one fought them. But the crowd was magnificent, a huge multi-coloured mass piled up through two or three tiers of seats, with the effects of sun and shade and the shadow cast by the enormous ring.

I wish you a good journey—a handshake in thought,

Your friend,




Dear old Bernard,

Many thanks for the sonnets you sent me, I like both the form and the music of the first enormously:

Sous les dômes dormeurs des arbres gigantesques.

But for idea and sentiment, it is perhaps the last one which I prefer:

Car l'espoir dans mon sein a versé sa névrose.

But I don't think you express clearly enough what it is you want us to feel: the certainty which one seems to have, and which one can, in any case, prove, of the nothingness, the emptiness, the treachery of the good or beautiful things one desires; and how, despite this knowledge, we allow ourselves to be eternally deceived by the charm cast over our 6 senses by the external world, by things outside ourselves, as though we understood nothing, and especially not the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. Luckily for us, we remain in this way both stupid and full of hope. But I like too:

L'hiver, n'avoir ni sou, ni fleurs,

and Mépris.

Coin de Chapelle and Dessin d'Albert Dürer, I find less clear: which, for example, is the drawing of Albert Dürer exactly? But there are nevertheless excellent passages in it:

Venus des plaines bleues

Blêmis par la longueur des lieues

is an awfully good description of the landscapes bristling with blue rocks and the roads winding their way between them, as in the backgrounds of Cranach and van Eyck.

Tordu sur sa croix en spirale

conveys very well the exaggerated leanness of many a mystic Christ. But why not add that the anguished look of the martyr has some of the same despair which one sees in the eye of a cab-horse; this would make it more truly Parisian, for there one sees that sort of look both in the eyes of invalids in their chairs and in those of poets or artists.

In short it's not yet as good as your painting: but that doesn't matter, it will be in time—you must certainly continue your sonnets. There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing: but, on the contrary, it's as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint it, isn't it? There is the art of lines and colours, but the art of words exists too, and will never be less important.

Here's a fresh orchard, simple enough as a composition: a white tree, a small green tree, a square patch of green, lilac soil, an orange roof, a big blue sky.

I have nine orchards on hand: one white, one pink almost red, one bluish white, one pinkish grey, one green and pink.

I worked one [canvas] to death yesterday, a cherry tree against a blue sky, the young leaf-shoots were gold and orange, the clusters of flowers white, and that against the green-blue of the sky made a glorious show. Today alas there's rain, which prevents my going to have another shot at it.

I saw a brothel here on Sunday—not counting the other days—a spacious room, whitewashed but with a bluish tinge—like a village school. Fifty or more military men in red and civilians in black, their faces a splendid yellow or orange (there's such colour in the faces here!), the women in sky-blue, in vermillion, everything that's most pure and most garish. The whole in a yellow light. A good deal less dismal than similar institutions in Paris.

Depression isn't in the air down here.

At the moment, I am still being very good and keeping quiet, as I must first of all deal with that stomach trouble whose happy victim I am: after that I shall have a grand time, for I aspire to share some of the immortality of the great Tartarin de Tarascon.

I was very interested to hear that you intend spending your military service in Algeria. It's perfect, and jolly far from being a misfortune. I congratulate you really; anyway we will meet in Marseilles.

You'll see then how happy it'll make you to see the blue here, and to feel the sun.

I have a balcony now for studio.

I certainly mean to go and paint the sea around Marseilles, I don't at all long for the grey North Sea. If you see Gauguin, greet him kindly from me. I have to write to him just now.

Don't despair my dear Bernard, and above all don't get depressed old man, because with your talent, your stay in Algeria will make a thoroughly good, real artist of you. You too will become a southerner. If I have any advice to give you it is to fortify yourself: yes, eat sensibly for at least a year in advance. Start now in fact, because it's no good arriving here with your stomach out of order and your blood in a poor state.

That's the condition I was in and although I'm on the mend now, the process is slow and I regret not having been a bit more careful beforehand. But in such a damnable winter as the last, there was nothing to be done, it was unnatural.

Get your blood in good condition then beforehand: it's difficult to do anything about it here, with the bad food, but once one is well it's less difficult than in Paris to remain so.

Write to me soon, always the same address: Restaurant Carrel, Arles.

A handshake, Yours, Vincent.



My dear Bernard,

I have just received your last letter. You are quite right to see that these negresses were heart-rending; and quite right too not to believe it was innocent.

I have just read a book—not good and not well written either—about the Marquesas Islands, but very moving in its account of the extermination of a whole native tribe, admittedly a man-eating tribe inasmuch as let us say about once a month somebody got eaten—and what's that?

So the whites, true Christians, etc.... in order to put an end to such barbarianism (?)which was really very mild, could find no better way than to wipe out both the man-eating natives and the tribe with which they used to fight the battles (which were calculated to provide both sides with the necessary prisoners to be eaten).

Then they annexed the two Isles, and now what gloom!

These tattooed tribes, negroes, Indians, all of them are either disappearing or degenerating. And the dreadful white man with his bottle of alcohol, his money and his pox—when will they have seen enough of him? The dreadful white man: hypocritical, greedy, sterile.

And those savages were so gentle, so loving.

You are quite right to think of Gauguin. There's great poetry in his pictures of negresses: everything he does has something gentle, heartrending, astonishing. People don't understand him yet; and he's very upset he doesn't sell, like other real poets.

I would have written to you before old man, only I had several things on hand. First of all I've sent off a first batch of studies to my brother.

Secondly I've been having trouble with my health.

Thirdly I've rented a house, painted yellow outside, whitewashed within and standing full in the sun (four rooms).

On top of that I've started some new studies. And in the evening I was often too worn out to write. That's why my answer has been delayed.

Your sonnet about the women of the streets has some good stuff in it: but it does not quite come off, the ending is banal. A "sublime woman ..." I don't know what you mean by that: and nor do you in this case. Then there's

Dans le clan des vieux et des jeunes maraude Ceux qu'elle emmènera coucher le soir, très tard.

[or] something like that, it's not characteristic at all, for the women of our boulevard—the little one—usually sleep alone at night, as they have five or six customers during the day or in the evening and très tard it's that carnivorous worthy their maquereau who comes and fetches them home, but they don't sleep together (except occasionally). A woman who's worn out usually goes to bed alone and sleeps like a log.

But if you change 2 or 3 lines it'll be all right.

What have you been painting recently? As to me I've done a still life with a blue enamelled iron coffee pot, a royal blue cup and saucer, a milk jug checkered pale cobalt and white, a cup with a pattern in blue and orange on a white ground, a blue majolica jug decorated with flowers and foliage in greens, browns and pinks. All that on a blue tablecloth, against a yellow background; there are also two oranges and three lemons among this crockery.


Excerpted from Van Gogh on Art and Artists by Vincent van Gogh, Douglas Lord. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Although his works fetch record-breaking prices at modern auctions, Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) sold only a single painting in his lifetime. The artist labored in obscurity, creating hundreds of paintings and more than 1,000 drawings in the 10-year period before his suicide. His posthumous fame grew quickly, and his influence on Expressionism, Fauvism, and other branches of modern art is beyond calculation.

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