1. The Musée Fabre in Montpellier, a city about 70 km to the west of Arles, housed the collection of Alfred Bruyas. This wealthy collector had become known mainly as the Maecenas of Gustave Courbet. In 1868 Bruyas donated part of his collection to the Musée Fabre, and his bequest followed in 1876. The Bruyas Collection contains 142, principally French, contemporary paintings (including 17 portraits of Bruyas), 48 drawings and 17 bronzes.
Gauguin had visited the Musée Fabre in 1884 and had written about it in his Avant et après: ‘I made, as a young man, a journey to the south, and at Montpellier I visited that famous museum, constructed by and endowed with the entire collection of Mr Bruyas’ (Je fis, jeune homme, un voyage dans le Midi, et à Montpellier je visitai ce fameux musée construit et donné avec toute la collection par M. Brias). After describing the masterpieces on display there, including paintings mentioned by Van Gogh in the present letter, he goes on to say: ‘A good many years later I returned in the company of Vincent to visit the museum again. What a change! Most of the old drawings had disappeared, and everywhere in their place [were] the Acquisitions of the State, 3rd prize. Cabanel and all his school had invaded the museum’ (Bien des années plus tard, je revins en compagnie de Vincent visiter à nouveau ce musée. Quel changement! La plupart des dessins anciens avaient disparu et de toutes parts à leur place, des Acquisitions de l’État, 3e médaille. Cabanel et toute son école avaient envahi le musée). See Gauguin 1923, pp. 221-222.
Following Merlhès, as well as Druick and Zegers, we have placed the visit to Montpellier on Sunday, 16 or Monday, 17 December. The railway journey lasted 2½ to 3 hours, so Van Gogh and Gauguin probably travelled back and forth in one day to avoid paying for a hotel. On Sunday and Monday the museum was open to the public both morning and afternoon, on Thursday only from 9.00 to 11.00. Although Baedeker also says that the museum was open ‘to foreign visitors on other days as well’ (encore les autres jours pour les étrangers), it is less likely that Van Gogh and Gauguin took advantage of this opportunity. See Baedeker 1889-2; Merlhès 1989, pp. 227, 228 (n. 1), and exhib. cat. Chicago 2001, pp. 390 (n. 256), 391 (n. 258, 259, 265).
2. Eugène Delacroix, Alfred Bruyas, 1853 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 76 .
3. Louis Gustave Ricard, Alfred Bruyas (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 1272 .
4. The Musée Fabre had three portraits of Bruyas by Courbet, one dating from 1853, half-length: Alfred Bruyas, or Tableau-Solution, Ill. 732 , and two from 1854, namely Alfred Bruyas, or Bruyas unwell, Ill. 2266 and Alfred Bruyas in profile, Ill. 2267 . Bruyas is also portrayed in Courbet’s Bonjour monsieur Courbet of 1854 (all in Montpellier, Musée Fabre).
5. Alexandre Cabanel, Alfred Bruyas, 1846 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 666 .
6. Thomas Couture, Mr Bruyas, 1850, Ill. 2288 , and Mr Bruyas, 1850 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 2268 .
7. Marcel-Antoine Verdier, Christ crowned with thorns, 1852 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 1401 . Verdier gave Christ the facial features of Bruyas. See cat. Montpellier 1926, p. 240.
8. Octave Tassaert, Bruyas, Ill. 1366 , Bruyas, Ill. 2269 and Bruyas in his home, Ill. 2270 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre).
9. Portraits of Bruyas ‘by others too’ must refer to the three portraits by Auguste Glaize. See cat. Montpellier 1926, pp. 175-176, cat. nos. 575, 576, 579.
10. The museum had nine paintings by Delacroix, and a copy after his self-portrait by Andrieu. See cat. Montpellier 1926, pp. 144-149, cat. nos. 459-468.
11. There were thirteen paintings by Courbet. See cat. Montpellier 1926, pp. 130-136, cat. nos. 420-431, 434.
12. The small panel Van Gogh is referring to is The death and assumption of the Virgin (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 2271 . In those days it was still attributed to Giotto, now to the ‘School of Giotto’. See cat. Montpellier 1926, pp. 21-22, cat. no. 70.
13. Paulus Potter, Cows in the pasture, 1648 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 2272 . See cat. Montpellier 1926, p. 81, cat. no. 267.
The Virgin with the Child and the infant Saint John (Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais, dépôt du Musée du Louvre). Ill. 613 . The attribution is now ‘School of Botticelli’.
15. The Musée Fabre owned three paintings by Théodore Rousseau. See cat. Montpellier 1926, pp. 226-227, cat. nos. 743-745.
16. A reference to the 18th verse of Musset’s poem ‘La nuit de Décembre’ (The night of December):
Where e’er I touched the earth,
Upon my road there came to sit
A poor man dressed all in black
As like to me as were we brothers.
(Partout où j’ai touché la terre,
Sur ma route est venu s’asseoir
Un malheureux vêtu de noir
Qui me ressemblait comme un frère.)
In 1875 Van Gogh had copied this verse, with variations, in a poetry album for Theo. See Pabst 1988, p. 24, and letter 39, n. 3.
Gauguin included the last two lines in an adapted version in his letter to Schuffenecker of about 20 December 1888, in which he wrote the following about his painting Human miseries: ‘It is a woman. With both hands under her chin she is not thinking of very much, but feels consolation on this piece of earth (nothing but earth), flooded by the red triangle of the sun in the vines. And a woman dressed in black passes by, looking at her like a sister.’ (C’est une femme. Les deux mains sous le menton elle pense à peu de chose, mais sent la consolation sur cette terre (rien que la terre) que le soleil inonde dans les vignes avec son triangle rouge. Et une femme habillée de noir passe, qui la regarde comme une soeur.) See Correspondance Gauguin 1984, pp. 306, 527-528 (n. 320); cf. also exhib. cat. Chicago 2001, p. 194.
17. It is not known which bookshop in Paris this refers to.
18. Van Gogh is referring to a lithograph after Tasso in the Hospital of St Anne in Ferrara (see letter 673). Adolphe Mouilleron made one in 1844 (in reverse). Ill. 2273 . See Johnson 1981-1989, vol. 1, p. 92, cat. no. 106.
19. Delacroix, Aline, the mulatto woman, 1821 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 72 . Gauguin had made the painting The mulatto woman, copy after Delacroix (W158/W27) after this work. See Wildenstein 2001, pp. 186-187, cat. no. 158.
20. Delacroix, The odalisques, better known as Algerian women in their apartments, 1847-1849 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 74 .
21. Delacroix, Daniel in the lions’ den, c. 1849-1850 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 67 .
22. Courbet, Female bathers, 1853 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 729 .
23. Courbet, The sleeping spinner, 1853 (Montpellier, Musée Fabre). Ill. 730 .
24. The museum owned seventeen bronzes and three watercolours by Antoine-Louis Barye. See cat. Montpellier 1926, p. 266, cat. nos. 878-894, and Jean Claparède, Montpellier, Musée Fabre. Dessins de la collection Alfred Bruyas. Paris 1962, cat. nos. 11-13.
25. It was Jules Michelet who called Rembrandt a ‘magician’ (see letter 534, n. 16). Fromentin spoke of Rembrandt in Les maîtres d’autrefois – possibly in imitation of Théophile Gautier – as a ‘visionary’ and ‘miracle-worker’ (see Fromentin 1902, pp. 391, 367, and Thoré 1858-1860, vol. 1, p. 201, who quotes Gautier from Le Moniteur Universel).
26. For the portrait Young man with a walking stick , which is no longer considered a Rembrandt, see letter 536, n. 9. Gauguin, too, later referred to the painting in Avant et après as ‘Rembrandt’s portrait of a traveller’ (le portrait du voyageur de Rembrandt). See Gauguin 1923, p. 183.
27. For Rembrandt’s Jan Six, reading in front of the window and Jan Six , see letter 47, nn. 8 and 9. Vincent had also held up the latter portrait as an example in letter 615 to Theo.
28. Judging by this passage, Gauguin’s recovery was accompanied by an improvement in the atmosphere in the Yellow House. Gauguin retracted his earlier resolution to return to Paris (see letter 724, n. 1) in a letter that must have been enclosed with the present one (as emerges from the closing lines of the quotation): ‘Please consider my trip to Paris as something imaginary and therefore the letter that I wrote you as a bad dream ... We have been to Montpellier and Vincent is writing you his impressions.’ (Veuillez considérer mon voyage à Paris comme une chose imaginaire et par conséquent la lettre que je vous ai écrite comme un mauvais rêve ... Nous avons été à Montpellier et Vincent vous écrit ses impressions.’ See Correspondance Gauguin 1984, pp. 301-302.
On 22 December Gauguin wrote to Schuffenecker, telling him why he had decided to stay in Arles after all: ‘You await me with open arms, I thank you for that, but unfortunately I am not coming yet. My situation here is difficult; I owe Van Gogh and Vincent a great deal and despite some disagreement I cannot hold it against an excellent soul who is ill, who suffers, and asks for me. Do you remember the life of Edgar Poe, who became an alcoholic as a result of grief and a nervous state? One day I shall explain it fully. In any case I am staying here, but my departure will always be at the back of my mind.’ (Vous m’attendez à bras ouverts, je vous en remercie mais malheureusement je ne viens pas encore. Ma situation ici est pénible; je dois beaucoup à Van Gog et Vincent et malgré quelque discorde je ne puis en vouloir à un coeur excellent qui est malade qui souffre et me demande. Rappelez-vous de la vie d’Edgar Poë qui par suite de chagrins, d’état nerveux était devenu alcoolique. Un jour je vous expliquerai à fond. En tous cas je reste ici, mais mon départ sera toujours à l’état latent.) See Merlhès 1989, p. 238.
29. Since late 1886 Theo had been dealing in the work of Degas. It emerges from a number of undated letters written by Degas to Theo (FR b1145-1152) that they kept in touch and that Theo visited Degas in his studio. See also Thomson in exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1999, p. 107, and Kendall 1999, p. 38.
Theo had probably written something about Degas to Vincent that was similar to what he wrote to his sister Willemien on 6 December 1888: ‘Degas is terribly pleased with Gauguin’s work. So much so that he even wants to go to Arles to visit him. “They are the happy ones!” says Degas, speaking of Vincent and Gauguin, “that is life”. I don’t need to tell you what that means, coming from the great Degas, who himself understands life in its fullness’ (FR b916).