My dear old Bernard,
Many thanks for sending your sonnets.1 For form and sonority I very much like the first one, ‘Under the sleeping canopies of the gigantic trees’. Now for idea and sentiment it’s perhaps the last one that I prefer: ‘For hope has poured its neurosis into my breast’, but it seems to me that what you want to evoke isn’t stated clearly enough: the certainty that we seem to have and which anyway we can prove, of nothingness, of emptiness, of the treachery of desirable, good or beautiful things, and despite this knowledge we forever allow ourselves to be deceived by the spell that external life, things outside ourselves, cast over our 6 senses, as though we knew nothing, and especially not the difference between objective and subjective. And fortunately for us, in that way we remain ignorant and hopeful. Now I also like ‘In winter, have neither a sou nor a flower’, and Contempt. Corner of a chapel and Drawing by Albrecht Dürer I find less clear; for example, precisely which drawing by Albrecht Dürer is it? But excellent passages in it nevertheless. ‘Having come from the blue plains, Made pale by the long miles’ is a jolly good rendering of the landscapes bristling with blue rocks between which the roads wind in the backgrounds of Cranach and Van Eyck.
Twisted on his cross in a spiral is a very, very good rendering of the exaggerated thinness of the mystical Christs; why not add to it that the anguished expression of the martyr is like the eye of a broken-hearted cab horse?2 That way it would be more utterly Parisian, where you see looks like that, either in the pensioners of the little carriages, or in poets and artists.  1v:2 But all in all it’s not as good as your painting yet. Never mind. It’ll come, and you must certainly continue doing sonnets.
There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don’t you think, it’s as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing. There’s the art of lines and colours, but there’s the art of words that will last just the same.3

Here’s a new orchard, quite simple in composition; a white tree, a small green tree, a square corner of greenery — a lilac field, an orange roof, a big blue sky.4 Have nine orchards on the go; one white, one pink, one almost red pink, one white and blue, one pink and grey, one green and pink.5
I worked one to death yesterday, of a cherry tree against blue sky, the young shoots of the leaves were orange and gold, the clusters of flowers white. That, against the blue green of the sky, was darned glorious. Unfortunately there’s rain today, which prevents me from going back on the attack.  1v:3
Saw a brothel here on Sunday (not to mention the other days), a large room tinged with a bluish limewash — like a village school — a good fifty or so red soldiers and black civilians, with faces of a magnificent yellow or orange (what tones in the faces down here), the women in sky-blue, in vermilion, everything that’s of the purest and gaudiest. All of it in yellow light. Far less gloomy than the establishments of the same kind in Paris. Spleen isn’t in the air down here. At present I’m still keeping very quiet and very calm, because first I have to get over a stomach ailment of which I’m the happy owner, but afterwards I’ll have to make a lot of noise, because I aspire to share the renown of the immortal Tartarin de Tarascon.6
It interested me enormously that you intend spending your time in Algeria. That’s perfect, and a hell of a long way from being a misfortune. Truly, I congratulate you on it. We’ll see each other in Marseille in any case.
You’ll find that you’ll enjoy seeing the blue down here, and feeling the sun.
I now have a terrace for a studio.7  1r:4
I really intend to go and do seascapes too, in Marseille, and I don’t pine here for the grey sea of the north. If you see Gauguin, greet him warmly for me; I must write to him in a moment.8
My dear old Bernard, don’t despair and above all, don’t be downhearted, my good fellow, because with your talent and your stay in Algeria, you’ll be a hell of a good artist. True — you’ll be a southerner too. If I have a piece of advice to give you, it’s to build yourself up by eating healthy and simple things for a year beforehand, yes. Starting now. Because it’s better not to come here with a ruined stomach or spoiled blood. That was the case with me, and although I’m recovering, I’m recovering slowly, and I regret not having been a little more prudent beforehand. But who can do anything in a bloody winter like this one, because it was a preternatural winter. So see that your blood’s good beforehand; with the bad food here it’s difficult to regain that, but once you’re healthy it’s less difficult to stay that way than in Paris.
Write to me soon, still same address, Restaurant Carrel, Arles. Handshake.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 601 | CL: B4
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, Thursday, 19 April 1888

1. The only one of these sonnets now known is ‘L’hiver’ (see n. 2).

In winter, have neither a sou nor a flower,
To freeze under the roof, on the sixth floor;
To drown your pillow in your tears
While crying that you suffer and you love.

Never to see her: as you burn,
To long for her with love’s keenest desire,
Resigned to decent stratagems
To bring the problem to an end.

To stay within doors, closely penned up, alone;
To waste, to die, to turn a deathly pale,
Or see the snow, that dismal sign,

Cast o’er the earth a shroud;
To muse that it’s for you, perhaps…
– ’Twere better had you not been born.


(L’hiver, n’avoir ni sou, ni fleurs,
Glacer sous le toit, au sixième;
Noyer son oreiller de pleurs
En criant qu’on souffre et qu’on aime.

Ne la voir jamais: plein d’ardeurs
La désirer d’amour extrême,
Et se résoudre à des pudeurs
Pour la conclusion du problème.

Rester chez-soi, bien claustré, seul;
Maigrir, mourir, devenir blême...
Ou voir la neige, sombre emblême,

Jeter sur la terre un linceul;
Songer qu’il est pour soi, peut-être...
– Mieux aurait valu ne pas naître.


See Bernard 1898, p. 36.
3. In a letter to his parents of 26 April 1888 Bernard wrote that he had found Van Gogh’s letter on his arrival in Saint-Briac on Wednesday, 25 April. He used his reaction as an argument for pursuing his poetic ambitions. ‘On arriving I found a very interesting letter from Vincent which I read and re-read to divert myself, because with the wind that’s blowing, the rain and the cold, the countryside, although very wild, is still really dreary.
Vincent congratulates me on my decision about Algeria, and tells me that he will perhaps also go to see me there himself. He advises me to build myself up before going for my service, which I also believe very necessary, although my constitution is not as strong as it looks.
In short, he’s a very good friend, very sincere, and all his southern exuberance expresses itself (in a northerner) in a deep sincerity. But (there’s always a but), he blows up too quickly over unimportant things.
He has spoken to me a lot about the lines of verse I sent him, and says, “it’s not as good as your painting, but you must definitely continue with sonnets. There are many pals who think it’s bad to write. Well! I say that it’s just as interesting to paint with words as with a brush. So continue”’. (En arrivant j’ai trouvé une lettre de Vincent très intéressante que j’ai lue et relue pour me distraire car avec le vent qu’il fait, la pluie et le froid, le pays quoique très sauvage est encore bien triste.
Vincent me félicite de ma décision pour l’Algérie et me dit que lui-même ira peut-être aussi pour m’y voir. Il me donne le conseil de me fortifier avant d’aller au service, ce que je crois aussi très nécessaire quoique je sois d’une constitution moins gaillarde que j’en ai l’air.
C’est en somme un très bon ami, très sincère et toute son exubérance méridionale se traduit (en homme du nord) par une profonde sincérité. Seulement, (il y a toujours un seulement), il s’emporte trop vite pour des choses insignificantes.
Il m’a parlé beaucoup des vers que je lui ai envoyés et me dit “ce n’est pas si bien que ta peinture, mais il faut sûrement continuer les sonnets. Il y a beaucoup de copains qui croient qu’écrire est mauvais. Eh bien! Moi je dis qu’il est aussi intéressant de peindre avec la parole qu’avec le pinceau. Continue donc”). See Harscoët-Maire 1997, pp. 162-163. According to Gauguin, one of Van Gogh’s favourite sayings was ‘stone will perish, the word will remain’ (la pierre périra, la parole restera). See Pickvance 1992, p. 133.
4. The letter sketch – Vincent also sent one to Theo (letter 600) – is based on Orchard with pear trees in blossom (F 406 / JH 1399 [2594]).
5. In letter 597 to Theo, written about a week earlier, Vincent gave more details about his series of nine orchards. They were The pink orchard (F 555 / JH 1380 [2578]), Pink peach trees (F 404 / JH 1391 [2588]), The white orchard (F 403 / JH 1378 [2576]), Small pear tree in blossom (F 405 / JH 1394 [2590]), Orchard with apricot trees in blossom (F 553 / JH 1387 [2585]), Orchard with apricot trees in blossom (F 556 / JH 1383 [2581]), Orchard bordered by cypresses (F 513 / JH 1389 [2587]), Orchard with peach trees in blossom (F 551 / JH 1396 [2591]) and probably Orchard (F 552 / JH 1381 [2579]) or a study of a cherry tree. Van Gogh had meanwhile spoiled that one, as he writes a little later in the letter, so the ninth work here must be his new painting, Orchard with pear trees in blossom (F 406 / JH 1399 [2594]), or Orchard (F 552 / JH 1381 [2579]). In letter 600 to Theo written the next day he refers to ten orchards.
[2578] [2588] [2576] [2590] [2585] [2581] [2587] [2591] [2579] [2594] [2579]
a. This should be read as ‘coi’ (quiet). The slip of the pen may have been due to the context; ‘coït’ means ‘intercourse’.
6. ‘Make a lot of noise’ (Faire beaucoup de bruit) is an allusion to the Provençal battle-cry that features several times in Alphonse Daudet’s Tartarin sur les Alpes (1885). It first appears in chapter 7: ‘That terrible war-cry in the Tarascon dialect: “Fen dé brut!...let’s make a noise…”.’ (‘Ce terrible cri de guerre en patois tarasconnais: “Fen dé brut!... faisons du bruit...”’). See Daudet 1986-1994, vol. 3, pp. 614 (quotation); 626 (chapter 8) and 635 (chapter 10). See for Tartarin: letter 583, n. 9.
7. The covered roof terrace that Van Gogh used as a studio and where he dried his paintings (letter 600) was that of Hotel-Restaurant Carrel (see letter 577, n. 4).
8. Gaugiun was in Pont-Aven in Brittany; cf. also letter 596, n. 3.