Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 5 August 1888
Painted with Words is a compelling look at Vincent van Gogh's correspondence to his young colleague Émile Bernard between 1887 and 1889. Van Gogh's words and sketches reveal his thoughts about art and life and communicate his groundbreaking work in Arles to his fellow painter.
Van Gogh's letters to Bernard reveal the tenor of their relationship. Van Gogh assumed the role of an older, wiser brother, offering praise or criticism of Bernard's paintings, drawings, and poems. At the same time the letters chronicle van Gogh's own struggles, as he reached his artistic maturity in isolation in Arles and St. Rémy. Throughout the letters are no less than twelve sketches by van Gogh meant to provide Bernard with an idea of his work in progress, including studies related to the paintings The Langlois Bridge, Houses at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries, The Sower, and View of Arles at Sunset.
The Dutchmen, now, we see them painting things just as they are, apparently without thought, the way Courbet painted his beautiful naked women.
They make portraits, landscapes, still lifes. One could be stupider than that and commit greater follies.
If we do not know what to do, my dear old Bernard, then let's do the same as they, if only so as not to allow our scarce mental powers to evaporate in sterile metaphysical meditations that aren't up to bottling chaos, which is chaotic for the very reason that it won't fit into any glass of our caliber.
We can—and that's what those Dutchmen did, desperately clever in the eyes of people wedded to system—we can paint an atom of chaos. A horse, a portrait, your grandmother, apples, a landscape.
Why do you say that Degas has trouble getting a hard-on? Degas lives like a little lawyer, and he doesn't like women, knowing that if he liked them and fucked them a lot he would become cerebrally ill and hopeless at painting. Degas's painting is virile and impersonal precisely because he has resigned himself to being personally no more than a little lawyer, with a horror of riotous living. He watches human animals stronger than himself getting a hard-on and fucking, and he paints them well, precisely because he doesn't make such great claims about getting a hard-on.
Rubens, ah, there you have it, he was a handsome man and a good fucker, Courbet too; their health allowed them to drink, eat, fuck.
In your case, my poor dear old Bernard, I already told you last spring. Eat well, do your military drill well, don't fuck too hard; if you don't fuck too hard, your painting will be all the spunkier for it.
© 2007 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Major support for Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh's Letters to Émile Bernard and its accompanying catalogue was provided by the International Music and Art Foundation. Generous support was also provided by the Robert Lehman Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.