Van Gogh’s idea of hanging his painting of the Berceuse
in a fishing boat was prompted by what Pierre Loti
writes in Pêcheur d’Islande
(1886) about the custom of fishermen to hang the image of a saint in the saloon: ‘Against a panel at the far end, a Blessed Virgin in ceramic was set on a little shelf, in a place of honour. She was a little antique, these sailors’ patron saint, and painted in a naïve style. But ceramic figures last much longer than real men; and her red and blue robe still had the effect of a very fresh little thing in the midst of all the dark greys of this poor wooden house. She must have listened to many an ardent prayer at moments of great anxiety; two bunches of artificial flowers and a rosary had been nailed at her feet.’ (Contre un panneau du fond, une sainte Vierge en faïence était fixée sur une planchette, à une place d’honneur. Elle était un peu ancienne, la patronne de ces marins, et peint avec un art naïf. Mais les personnages en faïence se conservent beaucoup plus longtemps que les vrais hommes; aussi sa robe rouge et bleue faisait encore l’effet d’une petite chose très fraîche au milieu de tous les gris sombres de cette pauvre maison de bois. Elle avait dû écouter plus d’une ardente prière à des heures d’angoisses; on avait cloué à ses pieds deux bouquets de fleurs artificielles et un chapelet). See Loti 1988, p. 54. Cf. Dorn 1990, pp. 155-156 and Sund 1992, pp. 220-222.
At the end of Loti’s novel, the maternal instincts of the sea are evoked. The sea is compared to a woman rocking a child, when the protagonist, Yann Gaos, drowns and ‘weds’ the sea: ‘Out there, one August night, off the dark mass of Iceland, in the midst of a great sound and fury, his marriage to the sea had been celebrated. To the sea that once had been his nurse; it was she who had rocked his cradle, who had made of him a tall, strong youth – and then she had taken him back, in the glory of his manhood, for herself alone’ (Une nuit d’août, là-bas, au large de la sombre Islande, au milieu d’un grand bruit de fureur, avaient été célébrées ses noces avec la mer. Avec la mer qui autrefois avait été sa nourrice; c’était elle qui l’avait bercé, qui l’avait fait adolescent large et fort, – et ensuite elle l’avait repris, dans sa virilité superbe, pour elle seule). See Loti 1988, p. 294. Cf. Sund 1992, p. 309 (n. 128).
Van Gogh wrote to Theo that he had had ‘intimate conversations’ with Gauguin
about the fishermen of Iceland (see letter 743
). Gauguin knew Loti’s book and presumably also knew of the shipwreck of a Breton fishing boat in 1887, which made it a subject of current interest. Two of the zincographs from his ‘Suite Volpini’, on which he was working in January 1889 (see letter 737
), were based on Pêcheur d’Islande; he gave them the title Tragedies of the sea – Brittany. See Lauren Soth, ‘Gauguin, Van Gogh and the fishermen of Iceland’, The Burlington Magazine
, april 1989, pp. 296-297.
The ‘Horla’ – which Van Gogh also mentions in letter 743
– is derived from the fanciful story of ‘Le Horla
’ by Guy de Maupassant
, which had appeared two years earlier and had supposedly been written under the influence of ether. The story, with its overtones of the occult, is about a man who is convinced that an invisible figure (the Horla) accompanies him everywhere and influences his actions. He becomes more and more paranoid, and all attempts to rid himself of his enemy fail. The story ends with his realization that only death will release him from the Horla.
We assume that the sketch in the space left open after l. 113
, a fish with the word ‘ictus’ inside it, was not made by Van Gogh but by Gauguin
. The same symbol with the word (written, or rather ‘drawn’, in similar fashion) occurs in Gauguin’s watercolour Ictus
of 1889 (Daniel Malingue Collection). For a reproduction, see exhib. cat. Chicago 2001, p. 279. His Carnet
also contains two mentions of ‘ictus’ (Gauguin 1952, pp. 220-221).
Ichthus (Greek for fish) is a well-known symbol of Christ, but there may be an intentional double meaning, prompted by Van Gogh’s account of his mental confusion (Van Gogh spoke of his ‘mental or nervous fever or madness’, in ll. 102-103
). ‘Ictus’ is a ‘sudden manifestation of a morbid condition affecting the nervous system: amnesiac, epileptic ictus’ (manifestation brutale d’un état morbide affectant le système nerveux: ictus amnésique, épileptique) (TLF). This may well have been a conscious play on the words ‘ictus’ (the illness) and ‘ichthus’ (fish/Christ) on Gauguin’s part.