Letter 13, page 3

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Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 30 July 1888

About this exhibition: 

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.


Possible that these great geniuses are no more than loonies, and that to have faith and boundless admiration for them you'd have to be a loony too. That may well be—I would prefer my madness to other people's wisdom.

To go to Rembrandt indirectly is perhaps the most direct route. Let's talk about Frans Hals. Never did he paint Christs, annunciations to shepherds, angels or crucifixions and resurrections; never did he paint voluptuous and bestial naked women.

He painted portraits; nothing nothing nothing but that.

Portraits of soldiers, gatherings of officers, portraits of magistrates assembled for the business of the republic, portraits of matrons with pink or yellow skin, wearing white bonnets, dressed in wool and black satin, discussing the budget of an orphanage or an almshouse; he did portraits of good citizens with their families, the man, his wife, his child; he painted the sozzled drinker, the old fishwife full of a witch's mirth, the beautiful gypsy whore, babies in swaddling clothes, the gallant, bon vivant gentleman, mustachioed, booted and spurred; he painted himself and his wife as young lovers on a turf bench in a garden, after their first wedding night. He painted guttersnipes and laughing urchins, he painted musicians and he painted a fat cook.

He doesn't know much more than that, but it's———————well worth Dante's Paradise and the Michelangelos and Raphaels and even the Greeks. It's beautiful like Zola, and healthier and more cheerful, but just as alive, because his epoch was healthier and less sad. Now what is Rembrandt? The same thing entirely—a painter of portraits. That's the healthy, broad, clear idea that one must have first of all of the two eminent Dutchmen, who are on a par, before going into the subject more deeply.


© 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.