Letter 14, page 2

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Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 5 August 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.


I myself rather like this anecdote about Giotto—there was a competition for the execution of some painting or other of a Virgin. Lots of proposals were sent to the fine arts authorities of those days. One of these proposals, signed Giotto, was simply—an oval—[sketch] an egg shape—the authorities, intrigued and trusting—entrust the Virgin in question—to Giotto. Whether it's true or not, I don't know, but I rather like the anecdote.

However, let's return to Daumier and to your grandmother. When are you going to show us more of them, studies of that soundness? I urge you to do so, while at the same time in no way belittling your investigations concerning the properties of lines in contrary motion—being not at all indifferent, I hope, to the simultaneous contrasts of lines, of forms. The trouble is, do you see, my dear old Bernard, that Giotto, Cimabue, as well as Holbein and van Eyck, lived in an obeliscal— if you'll pardon the expression—society, layered, architecturally constructed, in which each individual was a stone, all of them holding together and forming a monumental society. I have no doubt that we'll again see an incarnation of this society when the socialists logically build their social edifice—from which they're a fair distance away yet. But you know we're in a state of total laxity and anarchy.

We, artists in love with order and symmetry, isolate ourselves and work to define one single thing.

Puvis knows that very well, and when he, so wise and so just, decided to descend goodnaturedly into the intimacy of our very own epoch, forgetting his Elysian Fields, he made a very fine portrait, the serene old man in his bright, blue interior, reading the novel with a yellow cover—a glass of water beside him, in which a watercolor brush and a rose. And also a society lady, like those the de Goncourts portrayed.


© 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.