My dear old Bernard,
More and more it seems to me that the paintings that ought to be made, the paintings that are necessary, indispensable for painting today to be fully itself and to rise to a level equivalent to the serene peaks achieved by the Greek sculptors, the German musicians,1 the French writers of novels,2 exceed the power of an isolated individual, and will therefore probably be created by groups of men combining to carry out a shared idea.
One has a superb orchestration of colours3 and lacks ideas.
The other overflows with new, harrowing or charming conceptions, but is unable to express them in a way that’s sufficiently sonorous, given the timidity of a limited palette.
Very good reason to regret the lack of an esprit de corps among artists, who criticize each other, persecute each other, while fortunately not succeeding in cancelling each other out.
You’ll say that this whole argument is a banality. So be it — but the thing itself — the existence of a Renaissance — that fact is certainly not a banality.  1v:2
A technical question. Do give me your opinion in next letter.
I’m going to put the black and the white boldly on my palette just the way the colourman sells them to us, and use them as they are.
When — and note that I’m talking about the simplification of colour in the Japanese manner — when I see in a green park with pink paths a gentleman who’s dressed in black, and a justice of the peace by profession (the Arab Jew in Daudet’s Tartarin calls this honourable official shustish of the beace),4 who’s reading L’Intransigeant.
Above him and the park a sky of a simple cobalt.
Then why not paint the said shustish of the beace with simple bone black and L’Intransigeant with simple, very harsh white?
Because the Japanese disregards reflection, placing his solid tints one beside the other — characteristic lines naively marking off movements or shapes.5
In another category of ideas, when you compose a colour motif expressing, for example, a yellow evening sky —  1v:3
The harsh, hard white of a white wall against the sky can be expressed, at a pinch and in a strange way, by harsh white and by that same white softened by a neutral tone. Because the sky itself colours it with a delicate lilac hue.

Again, in this very naive landscape, which is meant to show us a hut, whitewashed overall (the roof, too), situated in an orange field, of course, because the sky in the south and the blue Mediterranean produce an orange that is all the more intense the higher in tint the range of blues —
The black note of the door, of the window panes, of the little cross on the rooftop, creates a simultaneous contrast6 of white and black

just as pleasing to the eye as that of the blue with the orange.7
To take a more entertaining subject, let’s imagine a woman dressed in a black and white checked dress, in the same primitive landscape of a blue sky and an orange earth — that would be quite amusing to see, I imagine. In fact, in Arles they often do wear white and black checks.8
In short, black and white are colours too, or rather, in many cases may be considered colours, since their simultaneous contrast is as sharp as that of green and red, for example.  1r:4
The Japanese use it too, by the way — they express a young girl’s matt and pale complexion, and its sharp contrast with her black hair wonderfully well with white paper and 4 strokes of the pen. Not to mention their black thorn-bushes, studded with a thousand white flowers.
I’ve finally seen the Mediterranean, which you’ll probably cross before me. Spent a week in Saintes-Maries, and to get there crossed the Camargue in a diligence, with vineyards, heaths, fields as flat as Holland. There, at Saintes-Maries, there were girls who made one think of Cimabue and Giotto: slim, straight, a little sad and mystical.9 On the completely flat, sandy beach, little green, red, blue boats, so pretty in shape and colour that one thought of flowers; one man boards them, these boats hardly go on the high sea — they dash off when there’s no wind and come back to land if there’s a bit too much. It appears that Gauguin is still ill. I’m quite curious to know what you’ve done lately; I’m still doing landscapes, croquis enclosed.10 I’d very much like to see Africa too, but I hardly make any firm plans for the future, it will depend on circumstances. What I’d like to know is the effect of a more intense blue in the sky. Fromentin and Gérôme11 see the earth in the south as colourless, and a whole lot of people saw it that way. My God, yes, if you take dry sand in your hand and if you look at it closely. Water, too, air, too, considered this way, are colourless. No blue without yellow and without orange, and if you do blue, then do yellow and orange as well, surely. Ah well, you’ll tell me that I write you nothing but banalities. Handshake in thought.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 625 | CL: B6
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, on or about Thursday, 7 June 1888

1. Van Gogh would have been thinking first and foremost of Richard Wagner; he was in the middle of reading a book about him. Probably Camille Benoit’s Richard Wagner, musiciens, poètes et philosophes (see letter 621, n. 7).
2. Van Gogh added ‘de romans’ (of novels) later.
3. Van Gogh had previously written of ‘symphonies of colour’, possibly deriving the notion from Charles Blanc. See letter 537, n. 7. His reading about Wagner may well also have influenced his choice of words: ‘what an artist – one like that in painting, now that would be something’ (quel artiste – un comme ca dans la peinture, voila ce qui serait chic) (letter 621).
5. This characterization of Japanese prints likewise applies to the Cloisonnism developed by Bernard and Anquetin. See letter 620, nn. 11 and 12.
6. See letter 536, n. 28, for the concept ‘contraste simultané’.
7. These descriptions tie in with the paintings Cottages in Saintes-Maries (F 419 / JH 1465 [2643]) and Row of cottages in Saintes-Maries (F 420 / JH 1462 [2640]).
[2643] [2640]
8. No obvious examples of the fabrics Van Gogh describes have been found. He may have been referring to the summer clothing worn on feast days – a dress of black cotton or satin worn beneath a skirt of violet lace. The underlying dark colour could be seen through the delicate open weave of the lace, creating the optical effect of a checked dress. With thanks to Dominique Séréna of the Museon Arlaten in Arles.
9. This passage prompted Bernard to write to his parents: ‘Vincent has written to me. He likes it in Arles, recently he has been in the Camargue where he saw the Mystique girls, which made him think of Cimabuë and Giotto. He is a lad with a very broad, but overly independent, artistic temperament, and a deeply scientific side to him, despite that I still hope to see him come back with some great stuff. He grasps things quickly and in short has a well-developed artistic side (which is so rare!).’ (Vincent m’écrit. Il se plaît beaucoup à Arles, il est allé ces derniers temps en Camargue où il a vu des filles Mystiques, qui l’ont fait penser à Cimabuë et Giotto. C’est un garçon d’un tempérament artistique très large, mais trop indépendant, d’un côté scientifique approfondi, malgré cela je ne désespère pas de le voir revenir avec de fort bonnes choses. Il a la compréhension facile et en somme a le côté artiste très développé (cela est si rare!).) See Harscoët-Maire 1997, p. 174.
10. These scratches of landscapes are the enclosed sketches Row of cottages in Saintes-Maries (F - / JH 1463), Fishing boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries (F - / JH 1461), Fishing boats at sea, Landscape with the edge of a road and Farmhouse in a wheatfield (all three F - / JH 1464). They are after the following paintings: Row of cottages in Saintes-Maries (F 420 / JH 1462 [2640]), Fishing boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries (F 413 / JH 1460 [2638]), Fishing boats at sea (F 417 / JH 1453 [2633]), Landscape with the edge of a road (F 567 / JH 1419 [2604]) and Farmhouse in a wheatfield (F 408 / JH 1417 [2603]). Van Gogh also sent the sketch Still life with coffee pot (F - / JH 1428) after the painting Still life with coffee pot (F 410 / JH 1426 [2609]).
[2640] [2638] [2633] [2604] [2603] [2609]
11. Fromentin had painted in Algeria; Gérôme in Turkey, Greece and Egypt.