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.
That great artist didn't make books, either—Christian literature as a whole would certainly infuriate him, and its literary products that could find favor beside Luke's gospel, Paul's epistles—so simple in their hard or warlike form—are few and far between. This great artist—Christ—although he disdained writing books on ideas & feelings—was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word—THE PARABLE above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig-tree, etc.)
And who would dare tell us that he lied, the day when, scornfully predicting the fall of the buildings of the Romans, he stated, "heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away?"
Those spoken words, which as a prodigal, great lord he did not even deign to write down, are one of the highest, the highest summit attained by art, which in them becomes a creative force, a pure creative power.
These reflections, my dear old Bernard—take us a very long way—a very long way—raising us above art itself. They enable us to glimpse—the art of making life, the art of being immortal—alive.
Do they have connections with painting? The patron of painters—St. Luke—physician, painter, evangelist—having for his symbol—alas—nothing but the ox—is there to give us hope.
Nevertheless—our own real life—is humble indeed—our life as painters.
Stagnating under the stupefying yoke of the difficulties of a craft almost impossible to practice on this so hostile planet, on the surface of which "love of art makes one lose real love."
Since, however, nothing stands in the way—of the supposition that on the other innumerable planets and suns there may also be lines and shapes and colors—we are still at liberty—to retain a relative serenity as to the possibilities of doing painting in better and changed conditions of existence— an existence changed by a phenomenon perhaps no cleverer and no more surprising than the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly, of the white grub into a cockchafer.
That existence of painter as butterfly would have for its field of action one of the innumerable stars,
© 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.