My dear Bernard
I don’t know what I stuck into my letter of yesterday instead of the enclosed sheet on the subject of your last sonnet. The fact is that I’m so worn out by work that in the evening — although writing is restful for me — I’m like a broken-down machine, so much has the day in the full sun tired me otherwise. And that’s why I stuck another sheet into your letter instead of this one.
On re-reading yesterday’s sheet — well, I’m sending you it as it is; on re-reading it, it seems legible to me and so I’m sending you it.
Another hard day’s work today.
If you saw my canvases, what would you say about them — you wouldn’t find Cézanne’s almost diffident and conscientious brushstroke there.
But since at present I’m painting the same countryside of La Crau and the Camargue1 — although in a slightly different place – nevertheless, certain colour relationships could remain. What do I know about it — from time to time I couldn’t help thinking of Cézanne, particularly when I realized that his touch is so clumsy in certain studies – disregard the word clumsy — seeing that he probably executed those studies when the mistral was blowing.
Having to deal with the same difficulty half the time, I can explain why Cézanne’s touch is sometimes so sure and sometimes seems awkward. It’s his easel that’s wobbling.
I’ve sometimes worked excessively fast; is that a fault? I can’t help it.
For example I’ve painted a no. 30 canvas — the summer evening2 — at a single sitting.
It’s not possible to rework it; to destroy it — why, because I deliberately went outside to make it, out in the mistral.
Isn’t it rather intensity of thought than calmness of touch that we’re looking for — and in the given circumstances of impulsive work on the spot and from life, is a calm and controlled touch always possible? Well — it seems to me — no more than fencing moves during an attack.  1v:2
I’ve sent your drawing of the brothel3 to my brother, and I’ve asked him to buy something of yours.
If my brother can, he’ll do it, because he knows very well that I must want to have you sell something.
If you wished, I would earmark for an exchange with you the head of a Zouave that I’ve painted.4
But I won’t speak about it unless I can have you sell something at the same time.
That would be in response to your attempt at a brothel. If we executed a brothel together, I’m sure we’d use the study of the Zouave as a character type in it. Ah, if several painters agreed to collaborate on great things.
The art of the future might be able to show us examples of that. The thing is, for the paintings that are needed now there would have to be several of us in order to cope with the material difficulties. Well — alas — we’re not at that point — the art of painting doesn’t move as fast as literature.
Like yesterday, I’m writing to you this time in great haste, really worn out. And at this moment, too, I’m not capable of drawing; the morning in the fields has tired me out completely in that capacity.
The thing is, it’s tiring, the sun down here. I’m also utterly incapable of judging my own work. I can’t see whether the studies are good or bad. I have seven studies of wheatfields,5 unfortunately all of them nothing but landscapes, much against my will. Old gold yellow landscapes — done quick quick quick and in a hurry, like the reaper who is silent under the blazing sun, concentrating on getting the job done.
I tell myself that you may perhaps — be surprised to see how little I love the Bible myself, which I’ve nevertheless often tried to study a little — there is only this kernel, Christ — who, from the point of view of art, seems superior to me — at any rate something other — than Greek, Indian, Egyptian, Persian antiquity, which went so far. Now I say it again — this Christ is more of an artist than the artists — he works in living spirit and flesh, he makes men instead of statues, so….. as a painter I feel good being an ox …. and I admire the bull, the eagle, the man,6 with a veneration — which — will prevent my being a man of ambition.7

Ever yours,

I add about these sonnets8 explanation of what I understand by — their design isn’t really sure of itself:
You moralize at the end.
You tell society that it’s squalid because the whore makes us think of meat, of the market.
Very good, that, the whore is like meat at the butcher’s.
For myself — numbed — I understand, I feel that, I recognize a sensation from my own life, I say: that’s well said.
Because the sonorous rhythm of the colourful words suggests to me the brutal reality of the dive with great intensity.
But the reproofs addressed at the end to ‘society’, a word as hollow as ‘the good Lord’ to me, numbed as I am, no longer have any effect on me.
It isn’t there, I say, and I sink into my numbness again; I forget the poem, at first strong enough to dispel my lethargy.
Is that true or not?
To report the facts, as you do at the beginning, is to wield the lancet like a surgeon explaining anatomy.  2v:4
I listen, meditative and interested; I watch, but if, later, the surgeon-anatomist is going to moralize at me like that, I find that that last tirade doesn’t have the same value as the anatomy demonstration.
To study, to analyze society, that always says more than moralizing.
Nothing would seem more curious to me, however, than to say, for example: ‘see that meat from the market, notice how, all the same, despite everything, it can still be electrified for a moment by the stimulus of a love more refined and unexpected.’
Like the sated caterpillar that no longer eats, that crawls on a wall instead of crawling on a cabbage leaf, this sated female can no longer love, either, even though she goes about it — she seeks, seeks, seeks, does she herself know what for? She’s conscientious, alive, responsive, galvanized, rejuvenated for a moment, but powerless. Yet she still loves — her life’s there, then — make no bones about it — despite the fact that she’s finished and dying as an earthly creature. The butterfly, where does the butterfly emerge, from that sated caterpillar — the cockchafer from that white grub?
Here, by the way, is where I am in terms of studies of old whores ———— I’d also very much like to know roughly what I’m the larva of myself, perhaps.


Br. 1990: 636 | CL: B9
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, Wednesday, 27 June 1888

1. The second sheet of this letter was written a day earlier – Van Gogh says he forgot to enclose it with letter 632.
2. Wheatfield with setting sun (F 465 / JH 1473 [2647]).
4. Zouave (F 423 / JH 1486 [2655]). Bernard never got this painting.
5. These seven studies are Wheatfield with setting sun (F 465 / JH 1473 [2647]), Wheatfield (F 411 / JH 1476 [2649]), Arles seen from the wheatfields (F 545 / JH 1477 [2650]), Wheatfield with sheaves (F 561 / JH 1480 [2651]), Wheatfield with sheaves (F 558 / JH 1481 [2652]), Haystacks (F 425 / JH 1442 [2623]) and Sower with setting sun (F 422 / JH 1470 [2646]). See letter 629, nn. 3 and 4.
[2647] [2649] [2650] [2651] [2652] [2623] [2646]
6. In his Vollard edition of the letters, Bernard felt that he had to correct Van Gogh about the animals symbolizing the evangelists: ‘He ought to have said lion instead of bull, the ox having already been mentioned for Saint Luke, patron of painters, to whom Vincent dedicates himself’ (‘Il eut fallu dire le lion au lieu du taureau, le boeuf étant déjà cité pour Saint Luc, patron des peintres, auquel Vincent se voue.’). See Lettres à Bernard 1911, p. 117. The crux of the passage, however, is not so much iconographical accuracy or completeness as Van Gogh’s view that one must accept one’s humble place in the face of the very great. See also exhib. cat. Chicago 2001, p. 122.
7. Van Gogh is referring here to his earlier remarks about Christ as an artist (letter 632) and about creativity as against sexual activity (letter 628).
8. These were the poems on the back of the drawing Brothel scene [2322]: see letter 630, n. 6. Although Van Gogh calls them ‘sonnets’, strictly speaking they are not.
a. Read: ‘suffisamment forte en premier lieu’.