1. The ‘Dutch painters’ had already been mentioned in letters 643, 649 and 651.
2. See letter 600, n. 16, for Bernard’s Still life: the blue coffeepot [2179] and Still life: earthenware pot and apples [567].
[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.)
18. Van Gogh knew this quotation from Jean Gigoux, Causeries sur les artistes de mon temps: see letter 526, n. 5.
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]