Letter 9, page 3

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Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, Arles, 27 June 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 add about these sonnets explanation of what I understand by—their design is not really sure of itself:

You moralize at the end.

You tell society that it is squalid because the whore makes us think of meat, of the market.

Very good, that, the whore is like meat at the butcher's.

For myself—numbed—I understand, I feel that, I recognize a sensation from my own life, I say: that's well said.

Because the sonorous rhythm of the colorful words suggests to me the brutal reality of the dive with great intensity.

But the reproofs addressed at the end to "society." As for me, numbed, hollow words like "the good Lord" no longer have any effect on me.

It isn't there, I say, and I sink into my numbness again; I forget the poem, at first strong enough to dispel my lethargy.

Is that true or not?

To report the facts, as you do at the beginning, is to wield the lancet like a surgeon explaining anatomy.


© 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.