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.
which, after death, would perhaps be no more unapproachable, inaccessible to us than the black dots that symbolize towns and villages on the map in our earthly life. Science—scientific reasoning—seems to me to be an instrument that will go a very long way in the future.
Because, look—it was thought that the earth was flat—that was true—it still is today—from Paris to Asnières, for example.
But that didn't prevent science proving that the earth is above all round. Which nobody disputes nowadays.
Now at present, despite that, we're still in the position of believing that life is flat and goes from birth to death.
But life too is probably round, and far superior in extent and potentialities to the single hemisphere that is known to us at present.
Future generations—probably—will enlighten us on this subject that is so interesting—and then science itself—could—with all due respect—reach conclusions more or less parallel to Christ's words concerning the other half of existence.
Whatever the case—the fact is that we are painters in real life, and it's a matter of breathing one's breath as long as one has breath.
Ah—E. DELACROIX'S beautiful painting—Christ's boat on the sea of Gennesaret, he—with his pale lemon halo—sleeping, luminous—within the dramatic violet, dark blue, blood-red patch of the group of stunned disciples. On the terrifying emerald sea, rising, rising all the way up to the top of the frame. Ah—the brilliant sketch.
I would make you some sketches were it not that having drawn and painted for three or four days with a model—a Zouave—I'm exhausted—on the contrary, writing is restful and diverting.
What I've done is bloody ugly: a drawing of the Zouave, seated, a painted sketch of the Zouave against an all-white wall and lastly his portrait against a green door and some orange bricks of a wall. It's harsh and, well, ugly and badly done. However, since that's the real difficulty attacked, it may smooth the way in the future. The figures that I do are almost always detestable in my own eyes, and all the more so in others' eyes—nevertheless, it's the study of the figure that strengthens us the most, if we do it in a different way than we're taught at Monsieur Benjamin Constant's, for example.
© 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.