Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, June 1888
Recto: Fishing boats on the beach
Thaw Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library
Van Gogh deeply felt the need for a lively dialogue and collaboration among artists. He argued that for modern art to rival, for example, the accomplishments of ancient Greek sculptors, artists should work collectively on a shared idea, since the "paintings that ought to be made . . . exceed the power of an isolated individual." Included in this letter is a sketch of a still life with a blue enameled coffeepot. Bernard would have recognized it as an homage to his own painting made six months earlier while the two artists were in Paris. The sketch of the street in Saintes-Maries documents his freshly painted canvas, with copious notations of the pairs of complementary colors he employed.
Upon his return from an intensely productive journey to the seaside town of Saintes-Maries, van Gogh sent this letter with a sheet of sketches enclosed to Bernard. The care he took with the drawings shows that he was eager to communicate the excitement of his work resulting from the trip. Inspired by the vibrant and constantly changing colors of the Mediterrenean, he described the beached fishing boats as being "so pretty in shape and color that one thought of flowers." He included a quick sketch of the boats along with outlines of another seascape, and two landscapes he was working on. In the letter he continued to discuss his theories about color and the use of black and white, adding a sketch of a woman in a black and white checked dress to emphasize the need to use such pigments boldly. He then jotted down a small sketch of one of the local cottages that became the subject for several drawings and paintings.
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.