Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 12 April 1888
Orchard surrounded by cypresses
Thaw Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library
The first paragraph of this letter addresses a central issue of debate between van Gogh, Bernard, and Gauguin. Bernard and Gauguin favored working from the imagination, producing what they called abstractions, while van Gogh felt a pressing need to work directly from nature, which presented its own obstacles. Van Gogh mused about painting outdoors after sundown, "A starry sky, for example, well—it's a thing that I should like to try to do. . . . But how to arrive at that unless I decide to work at home and from the imagination?" Seven months later van Gogh depicted his first evening sky, and the following year he produced his nocturnal masterpiece, Starry Night, now in the Museum of Modern Art.
In order to communicate essential information about his use of color, van Gogh described at length the pigments he used and their intended effect. Here he wrote of his recent paintings of fruit trees in blossom, proud of his unconventional brushwork—the impasto for which he is famed—and idiosyncratic use of color. Satisfied with his departure from convention, van Gogh assumed that "the result is sufficiently worrying and annoying not to please people with preconceived ideas about technique." He then quarter turned the sheet and quickly drafted a sketch after his first version of a painting of a Provençal orchard. He subsequently produced the second canvas, exhibited nearby.
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.
© 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.