Letter 19, page 1

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Vincent van Gogh

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


My dear old Bernard.
The consignment Gauguin and you sent arrived at almost the same time as my studies went off. I was delighted, it really warmed my heart to see the two faces again. As for your portrait—you know—I like it very much—I actually like everything that you do, as you know—and perhaps nobody before me has liked what you do as much as I do.

I really urge you to study the portrait; make as many as possible and don't give up—later we'll have to attract the public through portraits—in my view that's where the future lies. But let's not get sidetracked into hypotheses now. Because it's up to us next to thank you for the collection of rough sketches entitled At the brothel.

Bravo! The woman washing herself and the one who says "I'm second to none when it comes to taking it out of a man" are the best, it seems to me. The others are grimacing too much—and most of all, are too vague, too little flesh and bone properly built up.

It doesn't matter; it's already something altogether new and interesting, and the rest, too—at the brothel—yes, that's what needs to be done, and I assure you that I for one almost envy you this bloody good opportunity you have to go in there in uniform. Which those good little women adore. The poem at the end is really beautiful; stands up better than some of the figures. What you want, and what you say you believe, you say well and resonantly.

Write to me when you're going to be in Paris—the thing is that I've already written you a thousand times that my night café is not a brothel, it's a café where night prowlers cease to be night prowlers, since, slumped over tables, they spend the whole night there without prowling at all. Occasionally a whore brings her fellow there. But arriving there one night I came across a little group


© 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.