My dear Vincent
We’ve satisfied your desire; in a different way, it’s true, but what does it matter, since the result is the same? Our 2 portraits.1 Having no silver white, I used lead white, and it could well happen that the colour becomes darker and heavier.2 And besides, it’s not done exclusively from the point of view of colour. I feel the need to explain what I was trying to do, not that you’re not capable of guessing by yourself, but because I don’t believe that I’ve achieved it in my work. The mask of a thief, badly dressed and powerful like Jean Valjean,3 who has his nobility and inner gentleness. The rutting blood floods the face, and the tones of a fiery smithy, which surround the eyes,  1v:2 suggest the red-hot lava that sets our painters’ souls ablaze. The drawing of the eyes and the nose, like the flowers in Persian carpets, epitomizes an abstract and symbolic art. That girlish little background, with its childish flowers, is there to testify to our artistic virginity. And that Jean Valjean, whom society oppresses, outlawed; with his love, his strength, isn’t he too the image of an Impressionist today? By doing him with my features, you have my individual image, as well as a portrait of us all, poor victims of society, taking our revenge on it by doing good — ah! my dear Vincent, you would have plenty to amuse you,  1v:3 seeing all these painters here, pickled in their mediocrity like gherkins in vinegar. Makes no difference whether they’re fat, long or twisted and warty, they’re still, and will always be, nitwit gherkins. Eugène, just look at him! Eugène, that’s Habert, Habert’s the one who killed Dupuis, you know...4 And his pretty wife and his old mother, and the whole bloody lot! And Eugène paints, writes for the newspapers, travels free in First class, sir. There’s enough there to make you laugh till you cry. Aside from his art, what a lousy existence, and was it worth the trouble that Jesus died for all these lousy buffoons? As an artist, yes;  1r:4 as a reformer, I don’t believe so.5 Our pal Bernard is working and making plans to come to Arles too. Laval, whom you don’t know, but who knows you through your letters and our little bits of gossip, joins us in shaking your hand.


Burning sun who settest all ablaze  
halt thy furious race For a penny
without ado I wish whistle6
to paint thine orange face.  


Br. 1990: 697 | CL: GAC 33
From: Paul Gauguin
To: Vincent van Gogh
Date: Pont-Aven, Monday, 1 October 1888

1. Emile Bernard, Self-portrait with portrait of Gauguin, 1888 (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). Ill. 2261 [2261]; and Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard, ‘Les misérables’, 1888 (W309/W239) (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum). Ill. 2262 [2262]. Van Gogh received the portraits soon afterwards; see letter 696.
[2261] [2262]
2. Lead white has a tendency to darken to black, particularly when it is left unvarnished in a film of oil. See Ashok Roy, Artists’ pigments: a handbook of their history and characteristics. Washington 1993, vol. 2, p. 72, and for nineteenth-century sources, Carlyle 2001, p. 260.
3. Gauguin titled his painting ‘les misérables’ and dedicated it ‘to my friend Vincent’ (à l’ami Vincent). He also described it in a letter to Schuffenecker of 8 October 1888. See Correspondance Gauguin 1984, pp. 248-249.
At the beginning of Victor Hugo’s Les misérables the central character, Jean Valjean, has just been released after serving a term of hard labour. Because of his shabby appearance he is viewed with suspicion and regarded as dangerous. This rejection and exclusion reminds him of the injustice of his prison term and brings his hate to the surface. He turns against the church. Through contact with the bishop, who stands by him in his moral reform, his goodness gradually returns. The desire for vengeance gives way to compassion. Valjean has now become a father to everyone and assumes the care of Cosette, the little daughter of a prostitute. Cf. also letter 333, n. 12.
Merlhès believes that Gauguin derived the inspiration for his self-portrait from Hugo’s descriptions of Jean Valjean’s appearance. The contrast of warm and cool colours in the painting reflects the ‘dualism of light and shade, of good and evil’ (dualisme de l’ombre et de la lumière, du bien et du mal) which defines Jean Valjean’s character and plays an important part in Hugo’s oeuvre. See Merlhès 1989, p. 103.
4. On 29 April 1888 the painters Félix Dupuis and Eugène Habert fought a duel with pistols in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and Dupuis was killed. The incident, which sparked off a national debate about the legality of duelling, received wide coverage in the press. Habert was acquitted by the court in June. See Gauguin lettres 1983, p. 247 (n. 3), and Correspondance Gauguin 1984, pp. 501-502.
5. It is quite conceivable that Gauguin is referring here to the discussions about Christ between Van Gogh and Bernard. In letter 632, which Bernard had shown to Gauguin (see n. 24 to that letter), Van Gogh calls Christ ‘an artist greater than all artists’ (un artiste plus grand que tous les artistes).
6. Changes to the verse were made in a different hand; the final version reads:
‘Burning sun who passest by
halt thy scurvy steed
without sleight-of-hand I’d
paint thy face O chrome two!’
(Soleil ardent qui passe
arrête ton coursier scabreux
je veux sans passe passe
peindre ta face Ô chrome deux!)
According to Cooper, Gauguin wrote the little rhyme himself, and he probably made the changes too. See Gauguin lettres 1983, p. 249 (n. 4). Merlhès does not comment on this question in Correspondance Gauguin 1984 and Merlhès 1989.