My dear Bernard,
I’ve just received your last letter – you’re quite right to see that those negresses1 were heart-rending – you’re quite right not to find it innocent.
I’ve just read a book — not beautiful and not well written, by the way — on the Marquesas Islands,2 but very heart-rending in its description of the extermination of an entire tribe of natives — cannibals in the sense that let’s say an individual was eaten once a month, and what of that?
The whites, very Christian, etc., to put an end to this barbarity? really not very savage...., could think of nothing better than to exterminate both the tribe of cannibal natives and the tribe with which the former was at war (in order to obtain the requisite edible prisoners of war on both sides). Then the two islands were annexed, and did they become dismal!!! Those tattooed races, those negroes, those Indians, everything, everything, everything disappears or is corrupted. And the frightful white man, with his bottle of alcohol, his wallet and his pox, when will we have seen enough of him! The frightful white man, with his hypocrisy, his greed and his sterility! And those savages were so gentle and so loving.  1v:2
Ah, you do darned well to think of Gauguin – they’re high poetry, his negresses — and everything his hand makes has a sweet, heart-rending, astonishing character. People don’t understand him yet, and he suffers greatly from not selling, like other true poets.3
My dear pal, I would have written to you sooner, only have had quite a few things on my hands; I’ve sent a first batch of studies to my brother is one, I’ve had trouble with my health is two, and three is that I’ve rented a house painted yellow outside, whitewashed inside, in the full sun (4 rooms).4
With all that, new studies on the go. And in the evening I was often too numbed to write.
That’s why my reply was delayed.
Listen, the sonnet about the women of the boulevard has some good things, but it isn’t there yet — the end’s banal.
A ‘sublime’ woman, I don’t know what you mean by that, nor do you in this case.

‘Hunting among the clan of old and young
Those whom she’ll take to bed late at night’.5

Something like that — it’s not characteristic, because  1v:3 the women of our boulevard — le petit6 — usually sleep alone at night because they screw 5 or 6 times during the day or the evening and — late at night it’s that honourable carnivore, their pimp, who comes to collect them and take them home, yes, but he doesn’t sleep with them (only rarely). The worn-out and haggard woman usually goes to bed alone, and sleeps a leaden sleep. But with two or 3 lines redone, it’ll be there.
What have you painted now? I myself have done a still life with — a coffee pot in blue enamelled iron — a royal blue cup and saucer, a milk jug with pale cobalt and white checks, a cup with orange and blue designs on a white background, a blue majolica jug with green, brown, pink flowers and foliage, all of it on a blue tablecloth against a yellow background. With these pieces of crockery, 2 oranges and three lemons.7 It’s thus a variation of blues enlivened by a series of yellows ranging all the way to orange.
Then I have another still life, some lemons in a basket against a yellow background.8  1r:4
Then a view of Arles — of the town you see only a few red roofs and a tower, the rest’s hidden by the foliage of fig-trees, &c.
All that far off in the background and a narrow strip of blue sky above. The town is surrounded by vast meadows decked with innumerable buttercups — a yellow sea. These meadows are intersected in the foreground by a ditch full of purple irises.9 They cut the grass while I was painting, so it’s only a study and not a finished painting, which I intended to make of it. But what a subject — eh — that sea of yellow flowers with a line of purple irises, and in the background the neat little town of pretty women. Then two studies of roadsides — afterwards — done out in the mistral.10
If you weren’t expecting my reply right away I’d make croquis. Courage, good luck, handshake. I’m worn out this evening.
I’ll write to you again one of these days, more at my ease.


P.S. The croquis of the woman in the last letter but one is really pretty.11

My address:
Place Lamartine 2


Br. 1990: 614 | CL: B5
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, on or about Tuesday, 22 May 1888

1. It emerges later in the letter that Van Gogh is talking about the negresses in the paintings that Paul Gauguin had painted in Martinique between May and October 1887. Bernard certainly knew the two works that Theo and Vincent had in their collection: On the shore of the Lake, Martinique [100] (see letter 576, n. 2) and Among the mangoes, 1887 (W250/W224), Ill. 107 [107] (both Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). Bernard had seen these works at the brothers’ apartment as we learn from his 1904 article ‘Concernant Paul Gauguin’, in which he gives a detailed description of Among the mangoes and remarks: ‘This work, with its qualities of style and colour, with its characteristic drawing, is the best that Gauguin painted during that period’ (Cette oeuvre par ses qualités de style et de couleur, par son dessin caractéristique, est la meilleure que Gauguin ait peinte à cette époque.) See Bernard 1994, vol. 1, p. 77.
[100] [107]
2. The Marquesas are in French Polynesia (Oceania), and have been French colonies since 1842. We have been unable to discover which book Van Gogh means here. Merlhès suggested that it was Max Radiguet, Les derniers sauvages. Souvenirs de l’occupation française aux îles Marquises: 1842-1859 (1861). See Merlhès 1989, p. 189 (n. 3). However, the events described by Van Gogh are not found in that book. The conflict he is referring to was probably the war that took place between the islands of Hivaoa and Tahuata at the time the French assumed power there.
3. Theo had paid Gauguin 400 francs for Among the mangoes [107]: see Gauguin lettres 1983, p. 33.
4. See for the Yellow House: letter 602, n. 3.
5. This is a reference to and quotation from the poem ‘La Prostitution’ by Emile Bernard, who wrote in his 1911 publication: ‘It will perhaps not be without interest that I publish here the sonnet criticized by Vincent, not for the sake of my lines, which are bad, but because of his opinion itself:

To Vincent

Prostitution sallies forth, her face all paint and rouge;
Along the brightly lit boulevard she prowls
Hunting among the clan of old and young,
Those whom she’ll take to bed, tonight, very late.

In beauty though she be no match for Aude,
Her charms are not a jot the less, because
What’s beauty, if the female’s hot
And of love’s arts has perfect mastery?

My friend, let’s go attend her dismal rites,
I love her shameless nakedness by candle-light;
Let’s go, and strip her of her bodice and her hose.

And when we’ve set her, naked, on our lap,
When paint and rouge are gone, what stranger
May emerge, who’s more sublime… who knows?

October 1887.

I add the date in order to excuse these follies.’

(Il ne sera pas sans intérêt peut-être que je publie ici le sonnet critiqué par Vincent, non à cause de mes vers, qui sont mauvais, mais à cause de son opinion même:

la prostitution
A Vincent.

La Prostitution sort couverte de fard,
Le long du boulevard lumineux elle rôde
Et dans le clan des vieux et des jeunes maraude
Ceux qu’elle emmènera coucher ce soir, très tard.

Certes, si sa beauté n’est exquise comme Aude
Elle n’en est pas moins très séduisante, car
Qu’importe la beauté si la femelle est chaude
Et connaît cet amour dont elle-même est l’art!

Allons tous deux, ami, vers sa funèbre orgie,
J’aime sa nudité flambant sous la bougie;
Allons pour lui ravir ses bas et son corset.

Et, quand sur nos genoux nous l’aurons mise nue,
Que le fard tombera, quelque femme inconnue
Surgira, qui sera plus sublime... qui sait?

Octobre 1887.

Je mets la date pour excuser ces folies)
See Lettres à Bernard 1911, pp. 84-85. Cf. exhib. cat. New Brunswick 1988, p. 23.
6. See for the painters of the ‘Petit Boulevard’: letter 584, n. 6.
7. Still life with coffee pot (F 410 / JH 1426 [2609]). Van Gogh sent Bernard a sketch of this painting with his next letter (622).
8. Basket of lemons (F 384 / JH 1425 [2608]).
9. View of Arles with irises in the foreground (F 409 / JH 1416 [2602]).
10. Farmhouse in a wheatfield (F 408 / JH 1417 [2603]) and Landscape with the edge of a road (F 567 / JH 1419 [2604]). The mistral blew on 11 and 12 May (Météo-France).
[2603] [2604]
11. This was probably the drawing Girl in a Paris street [2182]: see letter 602, n. 20.