Before his tragic death, Vincent van Gogh wrote numerous letters to his fellow artists, family members and friends. 820 of these compelling pieces of writing still exist today, 265 of which are included in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters published by Yale in late 2014. These letters provide an unparalleled insight into the mind of one of the most celebrated and popular artists of all time, a mind which was both ingenious and tortured. From this correspondence we can begin to understand Van Gogh more clearly, with the writings revealing the artists’s closest relationships, his dearest passions and the long yearning to be recognised for the artistic revolutionary that he truly was.
To celebrate this publication, we have decided to share a series of letters from Ever Yours, each published on the date which the original was first written. Today we have decided to share a correspondence between Van Gogh and the writer and artist Émile Bernard. Click here for a previous letter published last month, and look out for more in the future!
My dear old Bernard,
Many thanks for sending your sonnets. For form and sonority I very much like the first one, ‘Under the sleeping canopies of the gigantic trees’. Now for idea and sentiment it’s perhaps the last one that I prefer: ‘For hope has poured its neurosis into my breast’, but it seems to me that what you want to evoke isn’t stated clearly enough: the certainty that we seem to have and which anyway we can prove, of nothingness, of emptiness, of the treachery of desirable, good or beautiful things, and despite this knowledge we forever allow ourselves to be deceived by the spell that external life, things outside ourselves, cast over our 6 senses, as though we knew nothing, and especially not the difference between objective and subjective. And fortunately for us, in that way we remain ignorant and hopeful. Now I also like ‘In winter, have neither a sou nor a flower’, and Contempt. Corner of a chapel and Drawing by Albrecht Dürer I find less clear; for example, precisely which drawing by Albrecht Dürer is it? But excellent passages in it nevertheless. ‘Having come from the blue plains, Made pale by the long miles’ is a jolly good rendering of the landscapes bristling with blue rocks between which the roads wind in the backgrounds of Cranach and Van Eyck.
Twisted on his cross in a spiral is a very, very good rendering of the exaggerated thinness of the mystical Christs; why not add to it that the anguished expression of the martyr is like the eye of a broken-hearted cab horse? That way it would be more utterly Parisian, where you see looks like that, either in the pensioners of the little carriages, or in poets and artists. But all in all it’s not as good as your painting yet. Never mind. It’ll come, and you must certainly continue doing sonnets.
‘There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don’t you think, it’s as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing.’
There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don’t you think, it’s as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing. There’s the art of lines and colours, but there’s the art of words that will last just the same.
Here’s a new orchard, quite simple in composition; a white tree, a small green tree, a square corner of greenery —a lilac field, an orange roof, a big blue sky. Have nine orchards on the go; one white, one pink, one almost red pink, one white and blue, one pink and grey, one green and pink.
I worked one to death yesterday, of a cherry tree against blue sky, the young shoots of the leaves were orange and gold, the clusters of flowers white. That, against the blue green of the sky, was darned glorious. Unfortunately there’s rain today, which prevents me from going back on the attack.
Saw a brothel here on Sunday (not to mention the other days), a large room tinged with a bluish limewash —like a village school —a good fifty or so red soldiers and black civilians, with faces of a magnificent yellow or orange (what tones in the faces down here), the women in sky-blue, in vermilion, everything that’s of the purest and gaudiest. All of it in yellow light. Far less gloomy than the establishments of the same kind in Paris. Spleen isn’t in the air down here. At present I’m still keeping very quiet and very calm, because first I have to get over a stomach ailment of which I’m the happy owner, but afterwards I’ll have to make a lot of noise, because I aspire to share the renown of the immortal Tartarin de Tarascon.
It interested me enormously that you intend spending your time in Algeria. That’s perfect, and a hell of a long way from being a misfortune. Truly, I congratulate you on it. We’ll see each other in Marseille in any case.
You’ll find that you’ll enjoy seeing the blue down here, and feeling the sun.
I now have a terrace for a studio.
I really intend to go and do seascapes too, in Marseille, and I don’t pine here for the grey sea of the north. If you see Gauguin, greet him warmly for me; I must write to him in a moment.
My dear old Bernard, don’t despair and above all, don’t be downhearted, my good fellow, because with your talent and your stay in Algeria, you’ll be a hell of a good artist. True —you’ll be a southerner too. If I have a piece of advice to give you, it’s to build yourself up by eating healthy and simple things for a year beforehand, yes. Starting now. Because it’s better not to come here with a ruined stomach or spoiled blood. That was the case with me, and although I’m recovering, I’m recovering slowly, and I regret not having been a little more prudent beforehand. But who can do anything in a bloody winter like this one, because it was a preternatural winter. So see that your blood’s good beforehand; with the bad food here it’s difficult to regain that, but once you’re healthy it’s less difficult to stay that way than in Paris.
Write to me soon, still same address, Restaurant Carrel, Arles. Handshake.
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