Letter 21, page 1

Vincent van Gogh
(1853–1890)

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 8 October 1888

About this exhibition: 

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.

Translation: 

My dear friend Bernard,
The other day my brother wrote to me that you were going to come to see my canvases; so I know that you're back, and I'm very pleased that you thought of going to see what I've done.

For my part, I'm extremely curious to know what you have brought back from Pont-Aven.

I hardly have a head for writing, but I feel a great emptiness in no longer being at all up to date with what Gauguin, you and others are doing. But I really must have patience. I have another dozen studies here, which will probably be more to your taste than the ones from this summer that my brother will have shown you.

Among these studies there is an entrance to a quarry, pale lilac rocks in reddish earth, as in certain Japanese drawings. In terms of design and the division of color into large planes, it's quite closely related to what you're doing in Pont-Aven.

I had more control over myself in these latest studies, because my state of health had firmed up. So there's also a no. 30 canvas with broken lilac plowed fields and a background of mountains that go all the way up the canvas; so nothing but rough ground and rocks, with a thistle and dry grass in a corner, and a little violet and yellow man. That will prove, I hope, that I haven't yet gone soft.

Dear God, this is a pretty awful little part of the world, everything's hard to do here, to disentangle its intimate character, and so that it's not something vaguely true, but the true soil of Provence. So to achieve that, you have to toil hard. And so it naturally becomes a little abstract. Because it will be a question of giving strength and brilliance to the sun and the blue sky, and to the scorched and often so melancholy fields their delicate scent of thyme. The olive trees down here, my good fellow, they'd suit your book; I haven't been fortunate this year in making a success of them, but I'll go back to it, that's my intention. It's silver against orangish or purplish earth, under the great blue sky. Well now, I've seen some by certain painters, and by myself, which didn't render the thing at all. Those silver grays are like Corot first of all, and that, above all, hasn't been done yet—while several artists have been successful with apple-trees, for example, and willows.

Credits: 

© 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.