Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 19 June 1888
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.
Instead of going back to Paris, then, stay out in the country, because you need strength to get through this ordeal of going to Africa properly. Now the more blood, and good blood, that you make yourself beforehand, the better, because over there in the heat it's perhaps harder to produce it. Painting and fucking a lot are not compatible; it weakens the brain, and that's what's really damned annoying.
The symbol of Saint Luke, the patron of painters, is, as you know, an ox; we must therefore be as patient as an ox if we wish to labor in the artistic field. But bulls are pretty glad not having to work in the filthy business of painting. But what I wanted to say is this. After the period of melancholy you'll be stronger than before, your health will pick up—and you'll find the surrounding nature so beautiful that you'll have no other desire than to paint. I believe that your poetry will also change, in the same way as your painting. After some eccentric things you have succeeded in making some that have an Egyptian calm and a great simplicity.
How short is the hour
We spend loving—
—It's less than an instant—
—A little more than a dream—:
—Time takes away
That's not Baudelaire, I don't even know who it's by, they're the words of a song in Daudet's Le Nabab, that's where I took it from—but doesn't it say the thing like a real Lady's shrug of her shoulder? These last few days I read Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème; it provides interesting remarks about Japan. At the moment my brother has an exhibition of Claude Monet, I'd very much like to see them. Guy de Maupassant, among others, had been there, and said that from now on he would often revisit the boulevard Montmartre.
I have to go and paint, so I'll finish—I'll probably write to you again before long. I beg a thousand pardons for not having put enough stamps on the letter, and yet I did stamp it at the post office and this isn't the first time that it's happened here, that when in doubt, and asking at the post office itself, I've been misled about the postage.
You can't imagine the carelessness, the nonchalance of the people here. Anyway, you'll see that shortly with your own eyes in Africa. Thanks for your letter, I hope to write to you soon at a moment when I'm in less of a hurry. Handshake,
© 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.