Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 27 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.
I have sent your drawing of the brothel to my brother, and I've asked him to buy something of yours.
If my brother can, he'll do it, because he knows very well that I must want to have you sell something.
If you wished, I would earmark for an exchange with you the head of a Zouave that I've painted.
But I won't speak about it unless I can have you sell something at the same time.
That would be in response to your attempt at a brothel. If we executed a brothel together, I'm sure we would use the study of the Zouave as a character type in it. Ah, if several painters agreed to collaborate on great things.
The art of the future might be able to show us examples of that. The thing is, for the paintings that are needed now there would have to be several of us in order to cope with the material difficulties. Well—alas—we're not at that point—the art of painting doesn't move as fast as literature.
Like yesterday, I'm writing to you this time in great haste, really worn out. And at this moment, too, I'm not capable of drawing; the morning in the fields has tired me out completely in that capacity.
The thing is, it's tiring, the sun down here. I'm also utterly incapable of judging my own work. I can't see whether the studies are good or bad. I have seven studies of wheat fields, unfortunately all of them nothing but landscapes, much against my will. Old gold yellow landscapes—done quick quick quick and in a hurry, like the reaper who is silent under the blazing sun, concentrating on getting the job done.
I tell myself that you may perhaps—be surprised to see how little I love the Bible myself, which I have nevertheless often tried to study a little—there is only this kernel, Christ—who, from the point of view of art, seems superior to me—at any rate something other—than Greek, Indian, Egyptian, Persian antiquity, which went so far. Now I say it again—this Christ is more of an artist than the artists—he works in living spirit and flesh, he makes men instead of statues, so . . . as a painter I feel good being an ox . . . and I admire the bull, the eagle, the man, with a veneration— which—will prevent my being a man of ambition.
© 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.