Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 26 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.
My dear Bernard,
You do very well to read the Bible—I start there because I've always refrained from recommending it to you.
When reading your many quotations from Moses, from St. Luke, etc., I can't help saying to myself—well, well—that's all he needed. There it is now, full-blown—. . . the artist's neurosis.
Because the study of Christ inevitably brings it on, especially in my case, where it's complicated by the seasoning of innumerable pipes.
The Bible—that's Christ, because the Old Testament leads toward that summit; St. Paul and the evangelists occupy the other slope of the holy mountain.
How petty that story is! My God, are there only these Jews in the world, then? Who start out by declaring that everything that isn't themselves is impure?
The other peoples under the great sun over there—the Egyptians, the Indians, the Ethiopians, Babylon, Nineveh. Why didn't they write their annals with the same care? Still, the study of it is beautiful, and anyway, to be able to read everything would be almost the equivalent of not being able to read at all. But the consolation of this so saddening Bible, which stirs up our despair and our indignation—thoroughly upsets us, completely outraged by its pettiness and its contagious folly the consolation it contains, like a kernel inside a hard husk, a bitter pulp—is Christ. The figure of Christ has been painted—as I feel it—only by Delacroix and by Rembrandt . . . And then Millet has painted . . . Christ's doctrine.
The rest makes me smile a little—the rest of religious painting—from the religious point of view—not from the point of view of painting. And the Italian primitives (Botticelli, say), the Flemish, German primitives (V. Eyck, & Cranach) . . . They're pagans, and only interest me for the same reason as the Greeks do, and Velázquez, and so many other naturalists. Christ—alone—among all the philosophers, magicians, etc., declared eternal life—the endlessness of time, the nonexistence of death—to be the principal certainty. The necessity and the raison d'être of serenity and devotion.
Lived serenely as an artist greater than all artists—disdaining marble and clay and paint—working in LIVING FLESH. I.e.—this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books . . . he states it loud and clear . . . he made . . . LIVING men, immortals.
That's serious, you know, especially because it's the truth.
© 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.