My dear Bernard,
I want to do figures, figures and more figures, it’s stronger than me, this series of bipeds from the baby to Socrates1 and from the black-haired woman with white skin to the woman with yellow hair and a sunburnt face the colour of brick.
Meanwhile, I mostly do other things.
Thanks for your letter; this time I’m writing in great haste and really worn out.
I’m very pleased that you’ve joined Gauguin.2
Ah, I do have a new figure all the same,3 which is absolutely a continuation of certain studies of heads done in Holland; I showed you them once, with a painting from that time, potato eaters.4 I wish I could show it to you.  1v:2
Again it’s a study in which colour plays a role that the black and white of a drawing couldn’t convey.
I wanted to send you a very large and very carefully finished drawing of it.
Well — it turned into something entirely different, while still being correct.5
Because once again the colour suggests the scorched air of harvest time at midday in the blistering heat, and without that it’s a different painting. I would dare to believe that you and Gauguin would understand it, but how ugly they’ll find it! You fellows know what a peasant is, how much of the wild animal there is when you come across somebody pure-bred.6
I also have a man unloading a sand boat. That is, there are two boats, purplish pink, in Veronese green water, with yellow-grey sand, wheelbarrows, planks, a little blue and yellow man.  1v:3
All of it seen from the top of a quay overhanging everything in a bird’s-eye view. No sky. It’s just a sketch, or rather, a rough sketch done out in the mistral.7
Next, I’m attempting to do dusty thistles with a great swarm of butterflies swirling above them.8 Oh, the beautiful sun down here in high summer; it beats down on your head and I have no doubt at all that it drives you crazy. Now being that way already, all I do is enjoy it.
I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen paintings of Sunflowers.9
A decoration in which harsh or broken yellows will burst against various blue backgrounds, from the palest Veronese to royal blue, framed with thin laths painted in orange lead.
Sorts of effects of stained-glass windows of a Gothic church.10  1r:4
Ah, my dear pals,11 we crazy ones, let’s anyway enjoy with our eyes, shall we?
Alas, nature gets paid in kind, and our bodies are despicable and sometimes a heavy burden. But since Giotto, a sickly character,12 that’s the way things are.13
Oh, and nevertheless, what delight of the eye and what laughter, the toothless laughter of Rembrandt the old lion, his head covered in a cloth, his palette in his hand.14 How I’d like to spend these present days in Pont-Aven, but anyway, I console myself by reconsidering the sunflowers.
I shake your hand firmly; more soon.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 669 | CL: B15
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, on or about Tuesday, 21 August 1888

1. Van Gogh is referring here to the type of old man he had recorded in his portraits of the postman Joseph Roulin; see letter 652, n. 7. Van Gogh also hoped to paint Roulin’s newborn daughter Marcelle. This passage is probably an allusion to the famous riddle from classical mythology that the sphinx of Thebes posed to Oedipus: ‘What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at midday, and three feet in the evening? Man’.
2. See letter 664, n. 2, for Bernard’s stay in Pont-Aven.
3. Van Gogh is referring to the portrait of a gardener that he had painted about a week before, Patience Escalier (‘The peasant’) (F 443 / JH 1548 [2694]).
4. In Nuenen in the first months of 1885, Van Gogh had drawn and painted dozens of heads of peasants in preparation for what he regarded as his ‘master piece’, The potato eaters (F 82 / JH 764 [2510]).
5. If Van Gogh did send a drawing, it has not survived. The only known drawing after the portrait, Patience Escalier (‘The peasant’) (F 1460 / JH 1549 [2695]), was sent to Theo with letter 663. Bernard probably did, though, get the drawing Patience Escalier (‘The peasant’) (F 1461 / JH 1564), since its provenance goes back to Ambroise Vollard, who bought many works by Van Gogh from Bernard between 1894 and 1905. However, that drawing was made after the second portrait of Escalier (F 444 / JH 1563 [2705]) which dates from later in August (see letter 671) and so cannot be the one referred to here. Pickvance’s theory that that drawing was sent with a letter from Van Gogh to Bernard of about 5 September that is now lost is therefore plausible. See exhib. cat. New York 1984, p. 167.
[2695] [202] [2705]
6. There is a comparable notion about the similarity between a peasant and a wild animal in Sensier’s biography of Millet, which Van Gogh knew well. Writing of Millet’s attempts to depict the ‘type’, Sensier says: ‘He was not at all afraid to make room in his rustic compositions for figures that were rough-looking, whose individual nature was somewhat crude or at least unpolished, with an expression that seems to admit that the human being is not always so very superior to the animal’ (Il ne craignait point de donner place dans ses compositions rustiques à des figures d’un aspect rude, d’une individualité quelque peu grossière ou du moins mal dégrossie, d’une expression qui semble avouer que l’être humain n’est pas toujours prodigieusement au-dessus de l’animal). Sensier 1881, p. 355. Cf. exhib. cat. Paris 1998, p. 50.
Van Gogh wrote ‘race’ without an accent, but he could equally well have meant ‘racé’ (distinguished).
7. Quay with sand barges (F 449 / JH 1558 [2700]). The ‘purplish pink’ in the painting has probably discoloured.
8. This study is not known. It is not Thistles (F 447 / JH 1550 [2696]), which does not have ‘a great swarm of butterflies’. See also letter 659, n. 6. There could be a connection with the drawing Thistles by the roadside (F 1466 / JH 1552), although there is no swarm of butterflies there either.
Dorn identified the study described here as Grass and butterflies (F 460 / JH 1676 [2778]). See Dorn 1999, p. 44 (n. 7). However, there are no thistles in that painting, which Van Tilborgh anyway places in the Paris period. See cat. Amsterdam 2011.
[2696] [2778]
9. In his idea for a decorative scheme Van Gogh may have been influenced in part by Bernard, who had done something similar for his studio. See letter 596, n. 1. Van Gogh worked on his decoration for the studio and other rooms in the Yellow House from mid-August until the end of December 1888, starting with a series of paintings of sunflowers. He bore in mind the possibility that this integrated series (he spoke of an ‘ensemble’ and ‘a whole’) could be shown outside the Yellow House, and considered exhibiting it in the offices of the Revue Indépendante. He bought frames for a number of the paintings, see letter 673, n. 16, and framed the sunflower canvases himself with strips of wood (see letter 776). See Dorn 1990 for a reconstruction of the evolution of the decoration and possible sources of inspiration for it.
10. Here Van Gogh cites one of Bernard’s sources of inspiration in order to lend weight to his argument.
11. This form of address tells us that Van Gogh counted on Bernard’s showing the letter to Gauguin (and possibly other people too). See also letter 632, n. 24.
12. Van Gogh based his description of Giotto as ‘a sickly character’ on Henry Cochin, ‘Boccace d’après ses oeuvres et les témoignages contemporains’, Revue des Deux Mondes, 58 (15 July 1888), 3rd series, vol. 88, pp. 373-413. Cochin described Giotto as ‘ugly and sickly’ (laid et chétif) (p. 378). Cf. also letter 683, n. 18.
13. The sense of this sentence is not entirely clear. It is possible that Van Gogh intended to write ‘ainsi’ (so) instead of ‘ici’ (here), and it is also conceivable that he didn’t finish the sentence.