Letter 4, page 1

Vincent van Gogh
(1853–1890)

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 19 April 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 old Bernard,
Many thanks for sending your sonnets. For form and sonority I very much like the first one, "Under the sleeping canopies of the gigantic trees." Now for idea and sentiment it's perhaps the last one that I prefer: "For hope has poured its nervousness into my breast," but it seems to me that what you want to evoke isn't stated clearly enough: the certainty that we seem to have and which anyway we can prove, of nothingness, of emptiness, of the treachery of desirable, good, or beautiful things, and despite this knowledge we forever allow ourselves to be deceived by the spell that external life, things outside ourselves, cast over our six senses, as though we knew nothing, and especially not the difference between objective and subjective. And fortunately for us, in that way we remain ignorant and hopeful. Now I also like "In winter, have neither a sou nor a flower," and "Contempt." "Corner of a chapel" and "Drawing by Albrecht Dürer" I find less clear. For example, precisely which drawing by Albrecht Dürer is it? But excellent passages in it nevertheless. "Having come from the blue plains, Made pale by the long miles" is a jolly good rendering of the landscapes bristling with blue rocks between which the roads wind in the backgrounds of Cranach and Van Eyck.

Twisted on his cross in a spiral is a very, very good rendering of the exaggerated thinness of the mystical Christs; why not add to it that the anguished expression of the martyr is like the eye of a brokenhearted cab horse? That way it would be more utterly Parisian, where you see looks like that, either in the drivers of the little carriages or in poets and artists.

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.