My dear old Bernard,
A thousand thanks for sending your drawings;1 I very much like the avenue of plane trees beside the sea, with two women chatting in the foreground and the promenaders.2 Also

  the woman under the apple tree3
  the woman with the parasol4

then the four drawings of nude women, especially the one washing herself, a grey effect embellished with black, white, yellow, brown. It’s charming.5
Ah... Rembrandt.... all admiration for Baudelaire aside — I venture to assume, especially on the basis of those verses.... that he knew more or less nothing about Rembrandt.6 I’ve just found and bought here a little etching after Rembrandt, a study of a nude man, realistic and simple; he’s standing, leaning against a door or column in a dark interior. A ray of light from above skims his down-turned face and the bushy red hair.7
You’d think it a Degas for the body, true and felt in its animality.
But see, have you ever looked closely at ‘the ox’ or the interior of a butcher’s shop in the Louvre?8 You haven’t looked closely at them, and Baudelaire infinitely less so.  1v:2
It would be a treat for me to spend a morning with you in the Dutch gallery. All that is barely describable. But in front of the paintings I could show you marvels and miracles that are the reason that, for me, the primitives really don’t have my admiration first and foremost and most directly.9
But there you are; I’m so far from eccentric. A Greek statue, a peasant by Millet, a Dutch portrait, a nude woman by Courbet or Degas, these calm and modelled perfections are the reason that many other things, the primitives as well as the Japanese, seem to me.... like writing with a pen;10 they interest me infinitely.. but something complete, a perfection, makes the infinite tangible to us.
And to enjoy such a thing is like coitus, the moment of the infinite.
For instance, do you know a painter called Vermeer, who, for example, painted a very beautiful Dutch lady, pregnant? This strange painter’s palette is blue, lemon yellow, pearl grey, black, white.11 Of course, in his few paintings12 there are, if it comes to it, all the riches of a complete palette, but the arrangement of lemon yellow, pale blue, pearl grey is as characteristic of him as the black, white, grey, pink is of Velázquez.
Anyway, I know, Rembrandt and the Dutch are scattered around museums and collections, and it’s not very easy to form an idea of them if you only know the Louvre.  1v:3
However, it’s Frenchmen, C. Blanc, Thoré, Fromentin,13 certain others, who have written better than the Dutch on that art.
Those Dutchmen had scarcely any imagination or fantasy, but great taste and the art of arrangement; they didn’t paint Jesus Christs, the Good Lord and others. Rembrandt though – indeed, but he’s the only one (and there are relatively few biblical subjects in his oeuvre),14 he’s the only one who, as an exception, did Christs, &c.
And in his case, they hardly resemble anything by other religious painters; it’s a metaphysical magic.
So, Rembrandt painted angels — he makes a portrait of himself as an old man, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap — first, painting from life in a mirror15 — he dreams, dreams, and his brush begins his own portrait again, but from memory, and its expression becomes sadder and more saddening; he dreams, dreams on, and why or how I do not know, but just as Socrates and Mohammed had a familiar genie,16 Rembrandt, behind this old man who bears a resemblance to himself, paints a supernatural angel with a Da Vinci smile.17
I’m showing you a painter who dreams and who paints from the imagination, and I started off by claiming that the character of the Dutch is that they invent nothing, that they have neither imagination nor fantasy.
Am I illogical? No. Rembrandt invented nothing, and that angel and that strange Christ; it’s — that he knew them, felt them there.
Delacroix paints a Christ using an unexpected light lemon note, this colourful and luminous note in the painting being what the ineffable strangeness and charm of a star is in a corner of the firmament.18
Rembrandt works with values in the same way as Delacroix with colours.
Now, there’s a gulf between the method of Delacroix and Rembrandt and that of all the rest of religious painting.
I’ll write to you again soon. This to thank you for your drawings, which give me enormous pleasure. Have just finished portrait of young girl of 12, brown eyes, black hair and eyebrows, flesh yellow grey, the background white, strongly tinged with veronese, jacket blood-red with violet stripes, skirt blue with large orange spots, an oleander flower in her sweet little hand.19
I’m so worn out from it that I hardly have a head for writing.20 More soon, and again, many thanks.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 651 | CL: B12
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, Sunday, 29 July 1888

1. As we learn from Vincent’s next letter to Theo (650), Bernard sent ten drawings. Seven of them are referred to below; the other three are Breton woman in a chapel, Breton woman and Lubricity. Ill. 2193 [2193], 2945 [2945], 2195 [2195]. All ten come from the Van Gogh brothers’ collection (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). See also Roskill 1970, pp. 219-220.
[2193] [2945] [2195]
2. Emile Bernard, Lane in Brittany with figures. Ill. 2196 [2196].
3. Emile Bernard, Breton woman in an orchard. Ill. 2197 [2197].
4. Emile Bernard, Breton woman with an umbrella. Ill. 2198 [2198].
5. The batch included five drawings of nude women. Van Gogh says in letter 651 that he did not like Lubricity [2195] as much as the others, so that could not be the one he is talking about here. The four drawings he is referring to are Women bathing and the brothel scenes Female nude seated on a bed, Female nude reclining on a bed and A woman washing herself, the latter being the one Van Gogh calls ‘the one washing herself’. Ill. 2199 [2199], 2200 [2200], 2201 [2201], 2202 [2202].
[2195] [2199] [2200] [2201] [2202]
6. Emile Bernard added an annotation in his 1911 edition of the letters which is worth including here (in that edition it was placed with the next letter, which at the time preceded the present one, and Van Gogh criticizes Baudelaire in both letters): ‘All this prompted by an admiring quotation on my part of the beautiful quatrain from Phares, by Charles Baudelaire:

Rembrandt – sad hospital filled full with murmurings,
Decorated only with a great crucifix
Where the tearful prayer exhales from the filth,
And brusquely traversed by a ray of winter.

(Tout ceci provoqué par une citation admirative de ma part du beau quatrain des Phares, de Charles Baudelaire:

Rembrandt triste hôpital tout rempli de murmures
Et d’un grand crucifix décoré seulement,
D’où la prière en pleurs s’exhale des ordures
Et d’un rayon d’hiver traversé brusquement.)

See Lettres à Bernard 1911, p. 99. The famous poem praising several artists is from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857).
7. There is a good chance that Van Gogh bought Eugène Gaujean’s etching Christ at the column. This print after an oil sketch attributed to Rembrandt (now in Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum; Bredius 1969, no. 591), was included in Catalogue des tableaux anciens de toutes les écoles composant la très importante collection de M. Le Baron de Beurnonville. Paris 1881, lot 435, facing p. 264. Ill. 2203 [2203]. The print was in the Van Gogh estate (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). Van Gogh may have known that Christ has red hair in the painting.
8. Rembrandt, The slaughtered ox, 1655 (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Ill. 347 [347].
9. Bernard defended the style of the primitives, as is clear from his introduction to the 1911 edition, where he speaks of ‘my preoccupations with the methods of the Italian and German primitives; with the symbolic meaning of line and colour, which preoccupied me, and which Van Gogh disapproved of, putting to me the contrasting case of Dutch naturalism’ (mes préoccupations des procédés italiens et allemands primitifs; du sens symbolique de la ligne et de la couleur, qui me préoccupait, et que Van Gogh désapprouvait en m’opposant le naturalisme hollandais). See Lettres à Bernard 1911, p. 35.
10. Here Van Gogh associates writing with drawing (and painting). He regarded it as an ideal to make drawing as automatic and as natural a means of expression as writing was for him.
11. Jan Vermeer of Delft, Woman in blue reading a letter, c. 1663-1664 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Ill. 445 [445].
12. There are currently some 35 known paintings by Vermeer. In his Musées de la Hollande, the writer and critic E.J.T. Thoré (writing under the pseudonym of W. Bürger), who was an important source for Van Gogh’s taste and art-historical knowledge, thought that there were two or three dozen Vermeers. See Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 2, p. 88.
13. Charles Blanc wrote about Dutch art mainly in his Ecole Hollandaise (1861), which is part of the series Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles (Paris 1861-1876). See n. 12 for Thoré, who described collections in the Netherlands. Eugène Fromentin wrote Les maîtres d’autrefois (1876), a survey of old Dutch and Flemish masters; see letter 450, n. 3.
14. Contrary to what Van Gogh asserts, biblical scenes make up an important part of Rembrandt’s oeuvre. In a footnote to this remark in the 1911 edition Bernard wrote: ‘Strange assertion!… The Pilgrims of Emmaus or the Good Samaritan, not much in Rembrandt’s oeuvre!…’ (Etrange assertion!... Les Pèlerins d’Emmaüs ou le Bon Samaritain, peu de chose dans l’oeuvre de Rembrandt!...). See Lettres à Bernard 1911, p. 107. For Rembrandt’s Christ figure see also letter 632, n. 3.
15. Given the virtually identical wording in letter 665 (‘the toothless laughter of Rembrandt the old lion, his head covered in a cloth, his palette in his hand’), likewise written to Bernard, who was familiar with the collection in the Louvre, it is most likely that he is talking about Self-portrait at the easel, 1660? (Paris, Musée du Louvre), Ill. 1608 [1608], although Van Gogh may also have had in mind Self-portrait as Zeuxis, c. 1669 (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum). Ill. 377 [377].
Van Gogh’s description contains echoes of Fromentin’s, where he remarks in Les maîtres d’autrefois that in difficult times Rembrandt depicted himself in ‘graver, more modest, more veracious garb ... in dark garments with a handkerchief around his head, his face saddened, wrinkled, emaciated, his palette in his rugged hands’ (tenues plus graves, plus modestes, plus véridiques … en vestes sobres, avec un mouchoir en serre-tête, le visage attristé, ridé, macéré, la palette entre ses rudes mains) (see Fromentin 1902, chapter 16, p. 399).
[1608] [377]
16. After ‘familier’ Van Gogh deleted the words ‘ainsi qu’Ingres’ (as did Ingres).
17. Here Van Gogh is imagining the creation of Rembrandt’s The evangelist Matthew inspired by an angel, 1661 (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Ill. 371 [371].
18. Van Gogh was probably thinking of Delacroix’s Christ asleep during the tempest [61], which he had also written about in letter 632.
19. Mousmé (F 431 / JH 1519 [2671]).
20. Read: ‘à l’écriture’. Van Gogh actually wrote ‘ecritures’, which means ‘the Scriptures’. The mistake can possibly be put down to the weariness he mentions here.