My dear Bernard,
Forgive me if I write in great haste; I fear that my letter won’t be at all legible, but I want to reply to you right away.
Do you know that we’ve been very foolish, Gauguin, you and I, in not all going to the same place? But when Gauguin left, I wasn’t yet sure of being able to leave. And when you left, there was that dreadful money for the fare, and the bad news I had to give about the expenses here, which prevented it. If we’d all left for here together it wouldn’t have been so foolish, because the three of us would have done our own housekeeping. And now that I’ve found my bearings a little more, I’m beginning to see the advantages here. For myself, I’m in better health here than in the north — I even work in the wheatfields at midday, in the full heat of the sun, without any shade whatever, and there you are, I revel in it like a cicada. My God, if only I’d known this country at 25, instead of coming here at 35 — in those days I was enthusiastic about grey, or rather, absence of colour. I was always dreaming about Millet, and then I had acquaintances in Holland in the category of painters like Mauve, Israëls.1

Here’s croquis of a sower.2
Large field with clods of ploughed earth, mostly downright violet.
Field of ripe wheat in a yellow ochre tone with a little crimson.
The chrome yellow 1 sky almost as bright as the sun itself, which is chrome yellow 1 with a little white, while the rest of the sky is chrome yellow 1 and 2 mixed, very yellow, then.
The sower’s smock is blue, and his trousers white. Square no. 25 canvas. There are many repetitions of yellow in the earth, neutral tones, resulting from the mixing of violet with yellow, but I could hardly give a damn about the veracity of the colour. Better to make naive almanac pictures — old country almanacs, where hail, snow, rain, fine weather are represented in an utterly primitive way. The way Anquetin got his Harvest so well.3
I don’t hide from you that I don’t detest the countryside — having been brought up there, snatches of memories from past times, yearnings for that infinite of which the Sower, the sheaf, are the symbols, still enchant me as before.4  1v:2
But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind?5 Alas, alas, it’s just as our excellent pal Cyprien says, in ‘En ménage’ by J. K. Huysmans: the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed, but which one doesn’t make.6 But it’s a matter of attacking them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel vis-à-vis the ineffable perfections of nature’s glorious splendours.
But how I’d like to see the study you did at the brothel.7 I reproach myself endlessly for not having done figures here yet.

Here’s another landscape.8 Setting sun? Moonrise? Summer evening, at any rate.
Town violet, star yellow, sky blue-green; the wheatfields have all the tones: old gold, copper, green gold, red gold, yellow gold, green, red and yellow bronze. Square no. 30 canvas.
I painted it out in the mistral. My easel was fixed in the ground with iron pegs, a method that I recommend to you.

You shove the feet of the easel in and then you push a 50-centimetre-long iron peg in beside them. You tie everything together with ropes; that way you can work in the wind.
Here’s what I wanted to say about the white and the black.9 Let’s take the Sower. The painting is divided into two; one half is yellow, the top; the bottom is violet. Well, the white trousers rest the eye and distract it10 just when the excessive simultaneous contrast11 of yellow and violet would annoy it. That’s what I wanted to say.

I know a second lieutenant of Zouaves here called Milliet. I give him drawing lessons — with my perspective frame12 — and he’s beginning to make drawings – my word, I’ve seen a lot worse than that, and he’s eager to learn; has been to Tonkin, &c. He’s leaving for Africa in October.13 If you were in the Zouaves he’d take you with him and would guarantee you a wide margin of relative freedom to paint, provided you helped him a little with his own artistic schemes. Could this be of some use to you? If so, let me know as soon as possible.14

One reason for working is that canvases are worth money. You’ll tell me that first of all this reason is very prosaic, then that you doubt that it’s true. But it’s true. A reason for not working is that in the meantime canvases and paints only cost us money. Drawings, though, don’t cost us much.
Gauguin’s bored too in Pont-Aven; complains about isolation, like you. If you went to see him — but I have no idea if he’ll stay there, and am inclined to think that he intends to go to Paris. He said that he thought you would have come to Pont-Aven.
My God, if all three of us were here! You’ll tell me it’s too far away. Fine, but in winter — because here one can work outside all year round. That’s my reason for loving this part of the world, not having to dread the cold so much, which by preventing my blood from circulating prevents me from thinking, from doing anything at all. You can judge that for yourself when you’re a soldier. Your melancholy will go away, which may darned well come from the fact that you have too little blood — or tainted blood, which I don’t think, however. It’s that bloody filthy Paris wine and the filthy fat of the steaks that do that to you — dear God, I had come to a state in which my own blood was no longer working at all, but literally not at all, as they say. But after 4 weeks down here it got moving again, but, my dear pal, at that same time I had an attack of melancholy like yours, from which I would have suffered as much as you were it not that I welcomed it with great pleasure as a sign that I was going to recover — which happened too.  2v:4
Instead of going back to Paris, then, stay out in the country, because you need strength to get through this ordeal of going to Africa properly. Now the more blood, and good blood, that you make yourself beforehand, the better, because over there in the heat it’s perhaps harder to produce it. Painting and fucking a lot aren’t compatible; it weakens the brain, and that’s what’s really damned annoying.15
The symbol of Saint Luke, the patron of painters, is, as you know, an ox; we must therefore be as patient as an ox16 if we wish to labour in the artistic field. But bulls are pretty glad not having to work in the filthy business of painting. But what I wanted to say is this. After the period of melancholy you’ll be stronger17 than before, your health will pick up — and you’ll find the surrounding nature so beautiful that you’ll have no other desire than to do painting. I believe that your poetry will also change, in the same way as in your painting. After some eccentric things you have succeeded in making some that have an Egyptian calm and a great simplicity.

  ‘How short is the hour That’s not Baudelaire,18 I don’t even know who it’s by, they’re the words of a song in Daudet’s Le Nabab,19 that’s where I took it from — but doesn’t it say the thing like a real Lady’s shrug of her shoulder?
  We spend loving —
It’s less than an instant —
A little more than a dream — :
Time takes away
Our spell.
These last few days I read Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème; it provides interesting remarks about Japan.20 At the moment my brother has an exhibition of Claude Monet, I’d very much like to see them. Guy de Maupassant21, among others, had been there, and said that from now on he would often revisit boulevard Montmartre.
I have to go and paint, so I’ll finish — I’ll probably write to you again before long. I beg a thousand pardons for not having put enough stamps on the letter; and yet I did stamp it at the post office and this isn’t the first time that it’s happened here, that when in doubt, and asking at the post office itself, I’ve been misled about the postage.
You can’t imagine the carelessness, the nonchalance of the people here. Anyway, you’ll see that shortly with your own eyes in Africa. Thanks for your letter, I hope to write to you soon at a moment when I’m in less of a hurry. Handshake.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 630 | CL: B7
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, on or about Tuesday, 19 June 1888

1. Van Gogh regarded Israëls’s work as the counterpart of Millet’s. Nothing is known about any contacts between Van Gogh and Israëls, although they very probably met when Vincent was working in the Goupil gallery in The Hague (in July 1883 he quoted something Israëls said; see letter 361). Israëls sold much of his work through Goupil.
2. The letter sketch Sower with setting sun (F - / JH 1472) was done after the painting of the same name (F 422 / JH 1470 [2646]). Van Gogh described and sketched it at an earlier stage; he worked on it again soon afterwards (see letter 634).
3. Louis Anquetin, The harvest (The mower at noon), 1887 (private collection). Ill. 508 [508]. Bernard described it as one of Anquetin’s ‘Japanese abstractions’ (abstractions Japonaises), and regarded it as one of the first experiments with Cloisonnism. The painting hung in the exhibition staged by Van Gogh in Restaurant du Chalet, and in the offices of the Revue Indépendante in January 1888. See Bernard 1994, vol. 1, pp. 64, 241, and letter 575, n. 9. Van Gogh’s Arles seen from the wheatfields (F 545 / JH 1477 [2650]) followed the lead set by Anquetin’s painting.
Van Gogh likens Anquetin’s painting to ‘naive almanac pictures – old country almanacs’. Edouard Dujardin had made a similar link between Anquetin’s work and the ‘images d’Epinal’ (cheap, coloured, popular prints) in his article in La Revue Indépendante to which Van Gogh referred in letter 620.
[508] [2650]
4. Van Gogh is referring here to his Nuenen period from late 1883 to late 1885, when he tried to express the symbolism of the countryside and peasant life.
5. Van Gogh had written to Bernard about this subject before (see letter 596).
6. In Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel En ménage (1881), the character Cyprien remarks: ‘– And what about the paintings? – The painter scratched his beard with his long fingers. The paintings, pah, he said, it’s sometimes good to muse about those you will never do, in bed, of an evening, when you’re not asleep!’ (– Alors les tableaux? – Le peintre se frotta la barbe de ses longs doigts. Les tableaux, peuh, dit-il, c’est quelquefois bon de songer à ceux qu’on ne fera jamais, au lit, le soir, quand on ne dort pas!) (see 3rd ed. Paris 1881, chapter 16, p. 346). The novel is set in an artistic milieu, and revolves around a broken marriage, the day-to-day worries of an old bachelor, the loneliness of the search for love, the need for a woman – in short the desolateness of life. Cf. Sund 1992, p. 253 (n. 27).
7. Bernard sent him a drawing of a brothel soon afterwards, which Vincent sent on to Theo, saying: ‘it’s probable that he has a more finished painted study of it’ (letter 630). Bernard’s drawing Brothel scene [2322] (see letter 630, n. 4) was thus probably based on that study of a brothel. However, no such painted version is known today.
8. The letter sketch Wheatfield with setting sun (F - / JH 1474) is after the painting of the same name F 465 / JH 1473 [2647].
9. This is a subject that Van Gogh had raised in his previous letter to Bernard (622), who had presumably asked him to explain it in more detail.
10. This form of words is similar to that used by Charles Blanc in his Grammaire des arts du dessin when he wrote that, when using bold colours, white can serve ‘to rest the eye, to refresh it, by moderating the dazzling brilliance of the whole spectacle’ (à reposer l’oeil, à le rafraîchir, en modérant l’éblouissant éclat du spectacle entier). See Blanc 1870, p. 609. Van Gogh later made the trousers blue.
11. See letter 536, n. 28 for the concept of simultaneous contrast.
12. For Van Gogh’s knowledge and use of a perspective frame, see letter 235, n. 10.
13. Paul Eugène Milliet was due to leave for Guelma in Algeria on 1 November 1888. Cf. letters 714 and 716.
14. Van Gogh drew a box around ll. 85-93.
a. Read: ‘ici’.
15. Van Gogh was preoccupied with the relationship between social or artistic ambitions and creativity on the one hand, and sexual activity and procreation on the other. He admired men who were very active sexually or who had families, but believed that he himself had to forgo these benefits in the interests of his art.
16. The notion that a painter had to have the patience of an ox was based on a saying (unsourced) of Gustave Doré’s, as we learn from letter 400.
17. Van Gogh originally wrote ‘plus boeuf’ (more of an ox) after ‘seras’.
18. Van Gogh mentions the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire because he knew that he was an important figure for Bernard, with his aspiration to become a poet. Bernard’s veneration of Baudelaire, which Van Gogh did not share, is very apparent in his correspondence with his mother, who also wrote poetry. With thanks to Fred Leeman.
19. Taken from Alphonse Daudet, Le Nabab (chapter 22), where it is described as ‘a melancholy Lied’ (un lied mélancolique). Van Gogh writes ‘un instant’ where Daudet has ‘un moment’. Daudet took the lines from a poem by Armand Silvestre that Jules Massenet set to music in his cycle Poème d’avril (1866). See Daudet 1986-1994, vol. 2, pp. 804, 1395.
20. Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème (1888) is set in Nagasaki. A French officer marries the Japanese Kikou-san, or Madame Chrysanthème. In reality the marriage is a paid, temporary concubinage. The Frenchman has no real feelings of love for her; it is more a question of his amazement at how doll-like she is. Loti describes the setting and the customs. The underlying message is that it is difficult for Europeans to penetrate the mysterious closed nature and morals of the Japanese, or the artificial refinement of objects.
Van Gogh probably read an illustrated version that he borrowed from Milliet. The way in which he portrayed himself in Self-portrait (F 476 / JH 1581 [2715]) could derive from an illustration of bonzes in the edition of Madame Chrysanthème published in Paris in 1888 by Calmann-Lévy. See Kōdera 1990, p. 56. It emerges from letter 718 that Milliet gave Gauguin this copy of the book in November 1888 in exchange for a drawing.
21. Theo had written to tell Vincent about his meeting with Guy de Maupassant. See letter 625, n. 7.
b. Read: ‘ayant un doute’.