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Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait: Three Quarters to the Right (detail), 1887
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam



By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 28 SEPTEMBER 2007—In addition to being a giant of the French Impressionist movement, Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) was also a prolific letter-writer, and some 800 letters of the hundreds that he wrote to fellow artists, friends and his brother, Theo, are still in existence. While they tell the story of his moving and eventful life and reveal the wealth of ideas behind his art, none of them give the least indication that he was out of his mind. They prove, rather, the contrary.

Of all these letters, those written to the French painter, Emile Bernard (1868–1941), who was only 20 in 1888, are of particular importance as they were a spontaneous exchange of ideas between two artists from 1887 to 1889, when van Gogh was working in Arles in the South of France. Moreover, they show clearly that van Gogh, the son of a vicar, was not the mad, unworldly genius he has often been made out to be. It is too often forgotten that Cézanne, Renoir and Monet were also accused of being "mad", a fashionable term in the late 19th century for those whose works disconcerted and disturbed.

By nature, Vincent van Gogh tended to reason and moralise, being a man with a rational approach to the questions he asked both as a painter and as a human being. A man of bewildering contrasts, vacillating between depression and exultation from an early age, he is vividly present in Painted with Words, a collection of 22 letters that the Dutch painter wrote to Emile Bernard, the majority of which have been in private hands and not seen for over 70 years. No one can fail to be totally and completely absorbed by this magnificent book produced by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker, the editors of the Van Gogh Letters project at the Van Gogh Museum, in collaboration with The Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

Three versions of the letters have been published. First, there is the photograph of the original, frequently illustrated with sketches of the artist's current work, followed by an excellent English translation, and finally an edited French transcription as the original often proves difficult to read, but again this has been done with great care. Van Gogh's style of writing has been closely followed and left uncorrected.

Seventeenth century Dutch painting, contemporary art, reflections about religion and society side by side with encouraging comments on Bernard's work and his everyday life in Arles, where van Gogh laments that he "cannot live as cheaply" as he'd hoped are some of the main themes running through the correspondence. But the most moving passages come from the lucid descriptions of his own work, where he writes about how he will "try to paint a green meadow studded with dandelions". He writes of his nine orchards in progress, one white, one pink, one almost red pink, one white and blue, one pink and gray, one green and pink. In other letters, he describes the still life paintings he was working on, one of them being the "lemons in a basket against a yellow background". In a detailed letter from June, 1888 he tried to look critically at his paintings, writing about how he was utterly incapable of judging his own work. "I can't see whether the studies are good or bad." The letters burst with life to such an extent that one feels like replying by return of post!

This was of course, the most creative period of his life during which he painted nearly two hundred canvases, not counting those which were destroyed or lost. Many of his greatest works, when the force of his colour was at its height were completed here. It was where, in one of his letters, he tried the effect of a more intense blue in the sky. It is the period of his explosive, dazzling sunflowers and the vineyards in "green, purple, yellow with mauve bunches of grapes, with black and orange tinted branches". It was in Arles he painted such masterpieces as The Bedroom and Starry Night, while Irises and Still-life with Iris were completed at nearby Saint-Rémy in May, 1889 and 1889 respectively. All the letters attest not only to his love of the unique light and colours of Provence, but also provide insight into his artistic struggles shortly before he committed suicide.

Van Gogh: The Bedroom (1888)
Oil on canvas - 72 x 90 cms
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

To use Emile Bernard 's words, "one would find the whole of Vincent van Gogh, pulsating with life, in this correspondence. Vincent's struggle, his spirit and his life were all there". After reading them, Bernard continued, "no one could doubt his sincerity, his character, or his originality; he is as much himself in them, as in his countless canvases". Yet neither paintings nor writings sold in his lifetime.* Ironically, in January 1910, it was Emile Bernard who sold the publication rights of these letters over a period of 6 years for 2000 francs, but kept the originals until at least 1926.

Last but not least, the book also contains superb reproductions of many of his lesser known paintings dating from the period, an amazing number of which come from private collections as well as from museums throughout the U.S. and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. They are accompanied by a selection of works by Emile Bernard, also belonging to this period.

Painted with Words is an exceptional work which brings van Gogh, the painter, writer and human being heart-rendingly close, showing that van Gogh's madness was that of a passionate genius whose paintings did not sell, whose doctors did not understand his illness, and who was insulted and cast out by a society whom he did not flatter.

*Van Gogh sold only one work, Red Vineyard in his lifetime, just 5 months before his death at the age of thirty-seven.


Vincent Van Gogh, Painted with Words: The Letters to Emile Bernard 
Written by Leo Jansen, Hans Luitjen, Nienke Bakker and The Van Gogh Museum
Rizzoli (September 2007)
Hardcover: 384 pages
ISBN-10: 0847829936
ISBN-13: 978-0847829934

"Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh's Letters to Émile Bernard" opens today at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York. On view through 6 January 2008, the exhibtion features letters van Gogh wrote to Bernard as well as twenty-two paintings, drawings and watercolors that the two artists discussed or exchanged .

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at

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