Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Saint-Rémy, 20 November 1889
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.
Last year, from what Gauguin was telling me, you were doing a painting more or less like this, I imagine. Against a foreground of grass, a figure of a young girl in a blue or white dress, lying full length. Behind that: edge of a beech wood, the ground covered in fallen red leaves, the verdigrised trunks crossing it vertically—I imagine the hair a colorful note in the tone required as complementary to the white dress: black if the clothing was white, orange if the clothing was blue. But anyway, I said to myself, what a simple subject, and how he knows how to create elegance with nothing.
Gauguin spoke to me of another subject, nothing but three trees, thus the effect of orange foliage against blue sky, but still really clearly delineated, well divided, categorically, into planes of contrasting and pure colors—that's the spirit! And when I compare that with that nightmare of a Christ in the Garden of Olives, well, it makes me feel sad, and I herewith ask you again, crying out loud and giving you a good rocket with all the power of my lungs, to please become a little more yourself again.
The Christ Carrying His Cross is atrocious. Are the splashes of color in it harmonious? But I will not let you off the hook for a COMMONPLACE—commonplace, you hear—in the composition. When Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to be led into abstraction, as you know, in a woman rocking a cradle, a dark woman reading novels in a yellow library, and at that time abstraction seemed an attractive route to me. But that's enchanted ground,—my good fellow—and one soon finds oneself up against a wall. I'm not saying that one may not take the risk after a whole manly life of searching, of fighting hand-to-hand with reality, but as far as I'm concerned I do not want to rack my brains over that sort of thing. And the whole year, have fiddled around from life, hardly thinking of impressionism or of this or that. However, once again I'm allowing myself to do stars too big, etc., new setback, and I've enough of that.
So at present am working in the olive trees, seeking the different effects of a gray sky against yellow earth, with dark green note of the foliage; another time the earth and foliage all purplish against yellow sky, then red ocher earth and pink and green sky. See, that interests me more than the so-called abstractions.
© 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.