My dear friend Gauguin,
Thanks for your letter.1 Left behind alone on board my little yellow house — as it was perhaps my duty to be the last to remain here anyway — I’m not a little plagued by the friends’ departure.
Roulin has had his transfer to Marseille and has just left. It has been touching to see him these last days with little Marcelle, when he made her laugh and bounce on his knees.
His transfer necessitates his separation from his family, and you won’t be surprised that as a result the man you and I simultaneously nicknamed ‘the passer-by’ one evening had a very heavy heart. Now so did I, witnessing that and other heart-breaking things.
His voice as he sang for his child took on a strange timbre in which there was a hint of a woman rocking a cradle or a distressed wet-nurse, and then another sound of bronze, like a clarion from France.
Now I feel remorse at having perhaps, I who so insisted that you should stay here to await events and gave you so many good reasons for doing so, now I feel remorse at having indeed perhaps prompted your departure — unless, however, that departure was premeditated beforehand? And that then it was perhaps up to me to show that I still had the right to be kept frankly au courant.2  1v:2
Whatever the case, I hope we like each other enough to be able to begin again if need be, if penury, alas ever-present for us artists without capital, should necessitate such a measure.
You talk to me in your letter about a canvas of mine, the sunflowers with a yellow background3 — to say that it would give you some pleasure to receive it. I don’t think that you’ve made a bad choice – if Jeannin has the peony, Quost the hollyhock, I indeed, before others, have taken the sunflower.
I think that I’ll begin by returning what belongs to you, making it plain that it’s my intention, after what has happened, to contest categorically your right to the canvas in question. But as I commend your intelligence in the choice of that canvas I’ll make an effort to paint two of them, exactly the same. In which case it might be done once and for all and thus settled amicably,  2r:3 so that you could have your own all the same.
Today I made a fresh start on the canvas I had painted of Mrs Roulin, the one which had remained in a vague state as regards the hands because of my accident.4 As an arrangement of colours: the reds moving through to pure oranges, intensifying even more in the flesh tones up to the chromes, passing into the pinks and marrying with the olive and Veronese greens. As an Impressionist arrangement of colours, I’ve never devised anything better.
And I believe that if one placed this canvas just as it is in a boat, even one of Icelandic fishermen, there would be some who would feel the lullaby in it.5 Ah! my dear friend, to make of painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has been before us... a consolatory art for distressed hearts!6 There are as yet only a few who feel it as you and I do!!!  2v:4
My brother understands you well, and when he tells me that you’re a kind of unfortunate like me, then that indeed proves that he understands us.
I’ll send you your things, but at times weakness overcomes me again, and then I can’t even make the gesture of sending you back your things. I’ll pluck up the courage in a few days. And the ‘fencing masks and gloves’ (make the very least possible use of less childish engines of war), those terrible engines of war will wait until then.7 I now write to you very calmly, but I haven’t yet been able to pack up all the rest.
In my mental or nervous fever or madness, I don’t know quite what to say or how to name it, my thoughts sailed over many seas. I even dreamed of the Dutch ghost ship8 and the Horla,9 and it seems that I sang then, I who can’t sing on other occasions, to be precise an old wet-nurse’s song while thinking of what the cradle-rocker sang as she rocked the sailors and whom I had sought in an arrangement of colours before falling ill.10 Not knowing the music of Berlioz. A heartfelt handshake.

Ever yours,

It will please me greatly if you write to me again before long. Have you read Tartarin11 in full by now? The imagination of the south creates pals, doesn’t it, and between us we always have friendship.

Have you yet read and re-read Uncle Tom’s cabin by Beecher Stowe?12 It’s perhaps not very well written in the literary sense. Have you read Germinie Lacerteux13 yet?


Br. 1990: 743 | CL: GAC VG/PG
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Paul Gauguin
Date: Arles, Monday, 21 January 1889

1. This was letter 737.
2. Gauguin was considering returning to Paris around mid-December 1888, but changed his mind and decided to stay. See letter 724, n. 1.
3. Sunflowers in a vase (F 454 / JH 1562 [2704]).
4. Augustine Roulin (‘La berceuse’) (F 508 / JH 1671 [2775]). See Hoermann Lister 2001, p. 72.
A short while later Van Gogh made repetitions of both Sunflowers in a vase (F 456 / JH 1561 [2703]) and Sunflowers in a vase (F 454 / JH 1562 [2704]), which had been hanging in Gauguin's room, in order to make an exchange (see letters 743 and 745).
[2775] [2703] [2704]
5. 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.
6. The fact that Van Gogh mentions Berlioz and Wagner in the same sentence could be connected with the book he had read about Wagner (see letter 621, n. 7), which included an article by Wagner on Berlioz. The article ‘L’Amour dans la musique’ (Love in music), which Van Gogh talks about in letter 686, also mentions Berlioz a number of times.
7. Regarding the sending back of Gauguin’s things, see letter 737, n. 3.
8. One of the legends about phantom ships is that of the seventeenth-century ship The Flying Dutchman, which drifts across the oceans against the wind, its blood-red sails raised. The legend occurs frequently in Dutch literature, and was also known through Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (1843).
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. For Daudet’s Tartarin de Tarascon and Tartarin sur les Alpes, see letter 583, n. 9. Cf. letter 736, in which Van Gogh compares Gauguin to a character in Tartarin.