Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 26 June 1888, Letter 8, page 1
Thaw Collection, given in honor of Charles E. Pierce, Jr., 2007
My dear Bernard,
You do very well to read the Bible—I start there because I've always refrained from recommending
it to you.
When reading your many quotations from Moses, from St. Luke, etc., I can't help saying to
myself—well, well—that's all he needed. There it is now, full-blown—. . . the artist's neurosis.
Because the study of Christ inevitably brings it on, especially in my case, where it's complicated
by the seasoning of innumerable pipes.
The Bible—that's Christ, because the Old Testament leads toward that summit; St. Paul and the
evangelists occupy the other slope of the holy mountain.
How petty that story is! My God, are there only these Jews in the world, then? Who start out by
declaring that everything that isn't themselves is impure?
The other peoples under the great sun over there—the Egyptians, the Indians, the Ethiopians,
Babylon, Nineveh. Why didn't they write their annals with the same care? Still, the study of it is
beautiful, and anyway, to be able to read everything would be almost the equivalent of not being
able to read at all. But the consolation of this so saddening Bible, which stirs up our despair and
our indignation—thoroughly upsets us, completely outraged by its pettiness and its contagious
folly the consolation it contains, like a kernel inside a hard husk, a bitter pulp—is Christ. The
figure of Christ has been painted—as I feel it—only by Delacroix and by Rembrandt . . . And then
Millet has painted . . . Christ's doctrine.
The rest makes me smile a little—the rest of religious painting—from the religious point of
view—not from the point of view of painting. And the Italian primitives (Botticelli, say), the Flemish,
German primitives (V. Eyck, & Cranach) . . . They're pagans, and only interest me for the same
reason as the Greeks do, and Velázquez, and so many other naturalists. Christ—alone—among all
the philosophers, magicians, etc., declared eternal life—the endlessness of time, the nonexistence of
death—to be the principal certainty. The necessity and the raison d'être of serenity and devotion.
Lived serenely as an artist greater than all artists—disdaining marble and clay and paint—working
in LIVING FLESH. I.e.—this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument
of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books . . .
he states it loud and clear . . . he made . . . LIVING men, immortals.
That's serious, you know, especially because it's the truth.
© 2007 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam