My dear old Bernard,
I realize that I’ve forgotten to answer your question as to whether Gauguin is still in Pont-Aven. Yes, he’s still there, and if you feel like writing to him am inclined to believe that it will please him. It’s still likely that he’ll join me here shortly, as soon as either one of us is able to find the travel expenses.
I don’t believe that this question of the Dutchmen,1 which we’re discussing these days, is without interest. It’s quite interesting to consult them when it’s a matter of any kind of virility, originality, naturalism.
In the first place, I must speak to you again about yourself, about two still lifes that you’ve done,2 and about the two portraits of your grandmother.3 Have you ever done better, have you ever been more yourself, and someone?4 Not in my opinion. Profound study of the first thing to come to hand, of the first person to come along, was enough to really create something. Do you know what made me like these 3 or 4 studies so much? That je ne sais quoi of something deliberate, very wise, that je ne sais quoi of something steady and firm and sure of oneself, which they show. You’ve never been closer to Rembrandt, my dear chap, than then. In Rembrandt’s studio, the incomparable sphinx, Vermeer of Delft,5 found this extremely sound technique that hasn’t been surpassed. Which today..... we’re burning... to find. Oh, I know that we’re working and arguing Colour as they did chiaroscuro, value.
What do these differences matter when in the end it’s a question of expressing oneself powerfully?
At present...... you’re examining primitive Italian and German techniques, the symbolic meaning that the Italians’ abstract and mystical drawing may contain. Do so.6  1v:2
I myself rather like this anecdote about Giotto — there was a competition for the execution of some painting or other of a Virgin. Lots of proposals were sent to the fine arts authorities of those days. One of these proposals, signed Giotto, was simply — an oval

an egg shape — the authorities, intrigued and trusting — entrust the Virgin in question — to Giotto. Whether it’s true or not I don’t know, but I rather like the anecdote.7
However, let’s return to Daumier and to your grandmother. When are you going to show us more of them, studies of that soundness? I urge you to do so, while at the same time in no way belittling your investigations concerning the properties of lines in contrary motion — being not at all indifferent, I hope, to the simultaneous contrasts of lines, of forms.8 The trouble is, do you see, my dear old Bernard, that Giotto, Cimabue, as well as Holbein and Van Eyck, lived in an obeliscal — if you’ll pardon the expression — society, layered, architecturally constructed, in which each individual was a stone, all of them holding together and forming a monumental society. I have no doubt that we’ll again see an incarnation of this society when the socialists logically build their social edifice9 — from which they’re a fair distance away yet. But you know we’re in a state of total laxity and anarchy.
We, artists in love with order and symmetry, isolate ourselves and work to define one single thing.
Puvis knows that very well, and when he, so wise and so just, decided to descend good-naturedly into the intimacy of our very own epoch, forgetting his Elysian Fields, he made a very fine portrait, the serene old man in his bright, blue interior, reading the novel with a yellow cover — a glass of water beside him, in which a watercolour brush and a rose. And also a society lady, like those the De Goncourts portrayed.10  1v:3
The Dutchmen, now, we see them painting things just as they are, apparently without thought, the way Courbet painted his beautiful naked women.
They make portraits, landscapes, still lifes. One could be stupider than that and commit greater follies.
If we don’t know what to do, my dear old Bernard, then let’s do the same as them, if only so as not to allow our scarce mental powers to evaporate in sterile metaphysical meditations that aren’t up to bottling chaos, which is chaotic for the very reason that it won’t fit into any glass of our calibre.
We can — and that’s what those Dutchmen did, desperately clever in the eyes of people wedded to system — we can paint an atom of chaos. A horse, a portrait, your grandmother, apples, a landscape.
Why do you say that Degas has trouble getting a hard-on? Degas lives like a little lawyer, and he doesn’t like women, knowing that if he liked them and fucked them a lot he would become cerebrally ill and hopeless at painting. Degas’s painting is virile and impersonal precisely because he has resigned himself to being personally no more than a little lawyer, with a horror of riotous living. He watches human animals stronger than himself getting a hard-on and fucking, and he paints them well, precisely because he doesn’t make such great claims about getting a hard-on.11
Rubens, ah, there you have it, he was a handsome man and a good fucker,12 Courbet too;13 their health allowed them to drink, eat, fuck.
In your case, my poor dear old Bernard, I already told you last spring.14 Eat well, do your military drill well, don’t fuck too hard; if you don’t fuck too hard, your painting will be all the spunkier for it.  1r:4
Ah, Balzac, that great and powerful artist, already told us very well that for modern artists a certain chastity made them stronger.15
The Dutchmen were married people making children, a beautiful, very beautiful occupation, very natural.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer. I’m not saying that among your new Breton studies there aren’t some virile and strong ones, but I haven’t seen them yet and so wouldn’t be able to talk about them. But — I’ve seen those virile things, the portrait of your grandmother and the still lifes — judging from your drawings I have vague doubts whether these new studies would have the same vigour, just from the virile point of view.16
These studies that I’m talking about first, you see it’s the first swallow of your summertime as an artist. If we want, ourselves, to get a hard-on for our work, we must sometimes resign ourselves to fucking only a little, and for the rest to be, according as our temperament demands, soldiers or monks. The Dutchmen, once again, had morals, and a quiet, calm, well-ordered life.
Delacroix, ah, him — ‘I,’ he said, ‘found painting when I had no teeth nor breath left’.17 And those who saw this famous artist paint said: when Delacroix paints it’s like the lion devouring his piece of flesh.18 He fucked only a little, and had only casual love affairs so as not to filch from the time devoted to his work. If in this letter, on the face of it more incoherent, and taken on its own without its connections to the previous correspondence and above all, friendship, than I should wish — if in this letter you find that I have some anxieties — concerns in any case — for your health, foreseeing the hard ordeal that you’ll have to go through in doing your service, obligatory, alas, — then you will read it correctly. I know that the study of the Dutchmen could only do you good, their works being so virile and so spunky and so healthy.  2r:5
Personally, I find continence is quite good for me. It’s enough for our weak, impressionable artists’ brains to give their essence to the creation of our paintings. Because in thinking, calculating, wearing ourselves out, we expend cerebral activity.
Why exert ourselves in spending all our creative juices when those who pimp for a living and even their simple, well-fed clients work more to the satisfaction of the genital organs of the registered whore19 in this case than we do? The whore in question has my sympathy more than my compassion.
Being exiled, a social outcast, as artists like you and I surely are, ‘outcasts’ too, she is surely therefore our friend and sister. And finding — in this position — of outcast — the same as us — an independence that isn’t without its advantages — all things considered — let’s not adopt a false position by believing we’re serving her through social rehabilitation, which is in any case impractical and would be fatal for her.  2v:6
I’ve just made a portrait of a postman — or rather, two portraits even — Socratic type, no less Socratic for being something of an alcoholic, and with a high colour as a result.20 His wife had just given birth, the good fellow was glowing with satisfaction. He’s a fierce republican, like père Tanguy. Goddamn, what a subject to paint à la Daumier, eh? He was getting too stiff while posing, and that’s why I painted him twice, the second time at a single sitting, on white canvas, background blue, almost white, in the face all the broken tones: yellow, green, purples, pinks, reds, the uniform Prussian blue trimmed with yellow.
Write to me soon if you feel like it; am very encumbered and haven’t yet found time for figure sketches. Handshake.

Yours truly,

Cézanne is as much a respectably married man as the old Dutchmen were. If he has a good hard-on in his work it’s because he’s not overly dissipated through riotous living.


Br. 1990: 659 | CL: B14
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, on or about Sunday, 5 August 1888

1. The ‘Dutch painters’ had already been mentioned in letters 643, 649 and 651.
[2179] [567]
3. Emile Bernard, Bernard’s grandmother, 1887 (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). Ill. 2212 [2212]. Bernard gave this painting to Van Gogh in Paris in exchange for a self-portrait (see letter 704). The second painting is Bernard’s grandmother, 1887 (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts). Ill. 2213 [2213].
[2212] [2213]
4. Van Gogh may have taken this expression – that one must try to become ‘someone’ – from Edmond de Goncourt’s foreword to his novel Chérie (1884): see letter 550, n. 12.
5. Van Gogh took this passage about Rembrandt’s influence on Vermeer from E.J.T. Thoré (writing under the pseudonym of W. Bürger), Musées de la Hollande, who said of Vermeer: ‘The sphinx again!’ (Encore le sphinx). And when giving ‘the biography of the sphinx’ (la biographie du sphinx) wrote: ‘He comes from Rembrandt ... The boldness of the pure tones which are combined with virtuoso gradations of chiaroscuro, the deep sincerity of the expressions, the firm placing of the impasto in the light areas, the transparent scumbles in the shadows, it was Rembrandt who taught those secrets.’ (Il sort de chez Rembrandt ... L’audace des tons francs combinés avec des dégradations prodigieuses de clair-obscur, la sincérité profonde des expressions, la pose de la pâte ferme dans les lumières, les frottis transparents dans les ombres, c’était Rembrandt qui enseignait ces secrets-là). See Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 2, pp. 67, 79-80.
6. Van Gogh added the passage ‘Actuellement ... Faites’ (At present ... Do so) in the bottom margin later.
7. The story is known as ‘Giotto’s O’, and originated in Giorgio Vasari’s Vite (Vita di Giotto). The pope was looking for someone to paint scenes in St Peter’s, and various artists had submitted work for approval. Giotto, though, displayed his mastery by drawing a perfect circle freehand. This stunning evidence of his skill resulted in his being summoned to Rome, where he was awarded prestigious commissions. See Vasari 1822, vol. 1, pp. 75-78. The tale is also recounted in Karel van Mander, Het Schilder-boeck. Haarlem 1604, fol. 96v.
8. Originally Van Gogh wrote ‘des angles droites’ (right angles). See letter 536, n. 28, for the concept of simultaneous contrast. It played an important part in the colour theory of the Neo-Impressionists, and Bernard and Anquetin applied it to lines and forms. They were searching for a natural language of contrasting lines and forms that expressed religiosity of their own accord, and they drew their inspiration from primitive woodcuts and stained glass.
9. Van Gogh believed in Hippolyte Taine’s view that true art was spawned by the society that produced it. Here Van Gogh accuses Bernard of trying to produce art that belongs centuries in the past while he is living in an age of industrialization and urbanization in which the relationships between the ranks and classes was changing.
10. The two portraits by Puvis de Chavannes are Portrait of a man (Eugène Benon), 1882 (private collection) and Portrait of a woman (Maria Cantacuzène), 1883 (Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts). Ill. 320 [320] and Ill. 2214 [2214]. Van Gogh saw them in Paris at the Exposition de tableaux, pastels, dessins par M. Puvis de Chavannes, at Durand-Ruel’s from 20 November - 20 December 1887. See exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1994-1, pp. 171-177, cat. nos. 89, 92.
Van Gogh was mistaken about the flowers in Benon’s portrait. They are chrysanthemums, not roses, and they are lying on the table.
[320] [2214]
11. Edgar Degas was a bachelor, and Van Gogh showed on several occasions that he respected the fact that Degas adapted his way of life to fit his task as an artist. Cf. Kendall 1999, pp. 38-39.
12. Van Gogh may have deduced that Rubens was virile and sexually active from the fact that in 1630, at the age of 53, he married the 16-year-old Hélène Fourment, by whom he had five children in seven years. He made several paintings of his young wife in seductive poses. See De Dijn 2002, p. 208.
13. Van Gogh could have read about Courbet’s sex life in Théophile Silvestre’s Histoire des artistes vivants français et étrangers. Etudes d’après nature (1853). It quotes Courbet’s saying: ‘A man cannot restrict himself to a single woman if he wishes to know woman’ (L’homme ne peut s’en tenir à une seule femme s’il veut connaître la femme); see Silvestre, Histoire, p. 247.
14. Van Gogh had written about the importance of eating properly in letter 599, and in letter 628 he had pointed out to Bernard that ‘painting and fucking a lot aren’t compatible’.
15. That an artist should love in moderation and should guard against the constraining influence that marriage can have on his calling (‘Artists should never marry’ (Les artistes ne devraient jamais se marier)), is a recurring refrain in Balzac’s work, notably in La cousine Bette and Illusions perdues. See Wingfield Scott 1936, pp. 50-55 (quotation on p. 54).
16. Van Gogh must be referring to the drawings Bernard had sent, which are mentioned in letters 649 and 651.
17. For Delacroix’s ‘no teeth nor breath’ (ni dents, ni souffle), taken from Silvestre’s Histoire des artistes vivants français et étrangers (see letter 557, n. 6.)
19. The registered prostitute (fille soumise) was tied to her establishment, worked under the supervision of a madam, and was given routine medical checks. A ‘fille insoumise’ was a prostitute working unregulated on the streets. See Thomson 2005, p. 206.
20. The first of these two portraits is Joseph Roulin (F 432 / JH 1522 [2672]), the second is Joseph Roulin (F 433 / JH 1524 [2673]). See letter 662. See letter 652, n. 7, for the comparison of Roulin with Socrates.
[2672] [2673]