My dear Bernard,
You do very well to read the Bible — I start there because I’ve always refrained from recommending it to you.
When reading your many quotations from Moses, from St Luke,1 &c., I can’t help saying to myself — well, well — that’s all he needed. There it is now, full-blown — — — — ... the artist’s neurosis.
Because the study of Christ inevitably brings it on, especially in my case, where it’s complicated by the seasoning of innumerable pipes.
The Bible — that’s Christ, because the Old Testament leads towards that summit; St Paul and the evangelists occupy the other slope of the holy mountain.
How petty that story is! My God, are there only these Jews in the world, then? Who start out by declaring that everything that isn’t themselves is impure?
The other peoples under the great sun over there — the Egyptians, the Indians, the Ethiopians, Babylon, Nineveh. Why didn’t they write their annals with the same care? Still, the study of it is beautiful, and anyway, to be able to read everything would be almost the equivalent of not being able to read at all.
But the consolation of this so saddening Bible, which stirs up our despair and our indignation – thoroughly upsets us, completely outraged2 by its pettiness and its contagious folly – the consolation it contains, like a kernel inside a hard husk, a bitter pulp — is Christ. The figure of Christ has been painted — as I feel it — only by Delacroix and by Rembrandt........ And then Millet has painted.... Christ’s doctrine.3
The rest makes me smile a little — the rest of religious painting — from the religious point of view — not from the painting point of view. And the Italian primitives (Botticelli, say), the Flemish, German primitives (V. Eyck, and Cranach)..... They’re pagans, and only interest me for the same reason that the Greeks do, and Velázquez, and so many other naturalists. Christ — alone — among all the philosophers, magicians, &c. declared eternal life – the endlessness of time, the non-existence of death – to be the principal certainty. The necessity and the raison d’être of serenity and devotion.
Lived serenely as an artist greater than all artists — disdaining marble and clay and paint — working in living flesh.4 I.e. — this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books..... he states it loud and clear.. he made.. living men, immortals.5
That’s serious, you know, especially because it’s the truth.  1v:2
That great artist didn’t make books, either — Christian literature as a whole would certainly infuriate him, and its literary products that could find favour beside Luke’s Gospel, Paul’s epistles — so simple in their hard or warlike form — are few and far between. This great artist — Christ — although he disdained writing books on ideas and feelings — was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word — the parable above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig tree,6 &c.)
And who would dare tell us that he lied, the day when, scornfully predicting the fall of the buildings of the Romans, he stated, ‘heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’7
Those spoken words, which as a prodigal, great lord he didn’t even deign to write down, are one of the highest, the highest summit attained by art, which in them becomes a creative force, a pure creative power.
These reflections, my dear old Bernard — take us a very long way — a very long way — raising us above art itself. They enable us to glimpse — the art of making life, the art of being immortal — alive.
Do they have connections with painting? The patron of painters — St Luke — physician, painter, evangelist — having for his symbol — alas — nothing but the ox — is there to give us hope.8
Nevertheless — our own real life — is humble indeed — our life as painters.
Stagnating under the stupefying yoke of the difficulties of a craft almost impossible to practise on this so hostile planet, on the surface of which ‘love of art makes one lose real love’.9
Since, however, nothing stands in the way — of the supposition that on the other innumerable planets and suns there may also be lines and shapes and colours — we’re still at liberty — to retain a relative serenity as to the possibilities of doing painting in better and changed conditions of existence — an existence changed by a phenomenon perhaps no cleverer and no more surprising than the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly, of the white grub into a cockchafer.
That existence of painter as butterfly would have for its field of action one of the innumerable stars,  2r:3 which, after death, would perhaps be no more unapproachable, inaccessible to us than the black dots that symbolize towns and villages on the map in our earthly life. Science — scientific reasoning — seems to me to be an instrument that will go a very long way in the future.
Because look – it was thought that the earth was flat — that was true — it still is today — from Paris to Asnières,10 for example.
But that didn’t prevent science proving that the earth is above all round. Which nobody disputes nowadays.
Now at present, despite that, we’re still in the position of believing that life is flat and goes from birth to death.
But life too is probably round, and far superior in extent and potentialities to the single hemisphere that’s known to us at present.
Future generations — probably — will enlighten us on this subject that’s so interesting — and then science itself — could — with all due respect — reach conclusions more or less parallel to Christ’s words concerning the other half of existence.
Whatever the case — the fact is that we are painters in real life, and it’s a matter of breathing one’s breath as long as one has breath.11
Ah — E. Delacroix’s beautiful painting — Christ’s boat on the sea of Gennesaret, he — with his pale lemon halo — sleeping, luminous — within the dramatic violet, dark blue, blood-red patch of the group of stunned disciples. On the terrifying emerald sea, rising, rising all the way up to the top of the frame. Ah — the brilliant sketch.12
I would make you some croquis were it not that having drawn and painted for three or four days with a model — a Zouave – I’m exhausted — on the contrary, writing is restful and diverting.
What I’ve done is very ugly: a drawing of the Zouave, seated,13 a painted sketch of the Zouave against an all-white wall14 and lastly his portrait against a green door and some orange bricks of a wall.15 It’s harsh and, well, ugly and badly done. However, since that’s the real difficulty attacked, it may smooth the way in the future. The figures that I do are almost always detestable in my own eyes, and all the more so in others’ eyes — nevertheless, it’s the study of the figure that strengthens us the most, if we do it in a different way than we’re taught at Monsieur Benjamin-Constant’s, for example.16  2v:4
Your letter gave me great pleasure — the CROQUIS IS VERY VERY INTERESTING17 and I do thank you for it — for my part I’ll send you a drawing one of these days — this evening I’m too worn out in that respect; my eyes are tired, even if my brain isn’t.
Listen — do you remember John the Baptist by Puvis?18 I find it marvellous and as much the MAGICIAN19 as Eugène Delacroix.
The passage about John the Baptist that you dug out of the Gospel is absolutely what you saw in it... People pressing around somebody — art thou Christ, art thou Elias?20 As it would be in our day to ask Impressionism or one of its searcher-representatives, ‘have you found it?’21 That’s just it.
At the moment my brother has an exhibition of Claude Monet — 10 paintings done in Antibes from February to May. It seems it’s very beautiful.
Have you ever read the life of Luther? Because Cranach, Dürer, Holbein belong to him — it’s he — his personality — that’s the lofty light of the Middle Ages.22
I like the Sun King no more than you do – extinguisher of light23 it rather seems to me — that Louis XIV — my God, what a pain, in every way, that Methodist Solomon. I don’t like Solomon either, and the Methodists not at all, as well. Solomon seems a hypocritical pagan to me; I really have no respect for his architecture, an imitation of other styles, nor for his writings, which the pagans have done much better.24
Tell me a bit about where you stand as far as your military service is concerned; should I talk to that second lieutenant of Zouaves or not?25 Are you going to Africa or not? In your case, do the years count double in Africa or not? Most of all, see that your blood’s in order — you don’t get very far with anaemia — painting goes slowly — better try to make your constitution as tough as old boots, a constitution to make old bones — better live like a monk who goes to the brothel once a fortnight — I do that, it’s not very poetical — but anyway — I feel that my duty is to subordinate my life to painting.
If I was in the Louvre with you, I’d really like to see the primitives with you.
In the Louvre, I still return with great love to the Dutch, Rembrandt first and foremost — Rembrandt whom I once studied so thoroughly — then Potter, for example — who makes — on a no. 4 or no. 6 panel, a white stallion alone in a meadow, a stallion neighing, and with a hard-on — forlorn under a sky brewing up a thunderstorm – heartbroken in the tender green immensity of a wet meadow26 — ah well, there are wonderful things in the old Dutchmen having no connection with anything at all. Handshake, and thank you again for your letter and for your croquis.

Ever yours,

The sonnets are going well27 — i.e. — the colour in them is good — the design isn’t as strong, less sure of itself, rather; the conception’s still hesitant, I don’t know how to put it — its moral purpose isn’t clear.


Br. 1990: 635 | CL: B8
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, Tuesday, 26 June 1888

1. References to the book of Exodus and the Gospel of St Luke.
2. Van Gogh wrote either ‘outre’ or ‘autre’, but neither reading is entirely clear. The version printed here corresponds with the one in Lettres à Bernard 1911, p. 109. The alternative would be: ‘Mais la consolation ... nous navre pour de bon tout autre par ...’ (But the consolation ... thorougly spoils everything else for us by ...).
3. Van Gogh is thinking here in the first place of Delacroix’s painting Christ asleep during the tempest [61], which he mentions later in the letter. The works by Rembrandt he must have had in mind would have been the print Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane [1883] (see letter 148) and the painting The pilgrims at Emmaus [1710] (see letter 34). In saying that Millet painted the doctrine of Christ, he means that Millet’s work expresses the values that Christ preached, such as love of one’s fellow man, humility and simplicity.
[61] [1883] [1710]
4. Whether he knew it or not, Van Gogh’s ideas tied in with the Renaissance view that Christ was an artist, with visual artists in their turn being compared to him. See Kris and Kurz 1979, esp. pp. 64-86 (‘Deus artifex – Divino artista’), and Greer 2000.
6. For the parable of the sower and the seed see Matt. 13:3-23, Mark 4:3-29 and Luke 8:5-15; and for that of the fig-tree Matt. 21:19-22, Mark 11:12-26 and Luke 13:6-9.
7. Matt. 24:35. The prediction about the destruction of the buildings is in Matt. 24:2.
8. St Luke was also associated with Van Gogh’s ideal of collaboration among artists; see letter 643.
9. In one of his earlier letters Van Gogh attributed this saying to Jean Richepin; see letter 572, n. 2. The precise source has not been identified.
10. Asnières lies to the north of Paris and was where Bernard’s parents lived. Van Gogh would have cited this place, rather than anywhere else, as an example because he and Bernard painted there together in 1887.
11. There is a good chance that Van Gogh is ringing the changes here on what Silvestre said about Delacroix – ‘neither teeth nor breath’ – which he quotes on several occasions; see letter 557, n. 6.
12. Eugène Delacroix, Christ asleep during the tempest, c. 1853 (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Ill. 61 [61]. It is clear that this is the version of the painting he is referring to (Delacroix painted several) from the fact that elsewhere Vincent writes that he and Theo had seen it at the commercial exhibition of John Saulnier’s collection (letter 676, n. 15).
The phrase ‘the terrifying emerald sea’ echoes what Paul Mantz had written about the painting in his article ‘La collection John Saulnier’ in Le Temps of Thursday 3 June 1886: ‘We did not know, before seeing this picture, that it was possible to achieve so terrifying an effect with blue’ (Nous ne savions pas, avant d’avoir vu ce tableau, qu’il fût possible d’arriver à un effet aussi terrible avec du bleu). Van Gogh paraphrased Mantz’s words in letter 676 to Theo.
13. Seated Zouave (F 1443 / JH 1485 [2654]).
14. Seated Zouave (F 424 / JH 1488 [2657]).
15. Zouave (F 423 / JH 1486 [2655]).
16. Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant had a studio in the Impasse Hélène in Montmartre. See Milner 1988, pp. 22-23.
18. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1869 (Birmingham, The University of Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts). Ill. 317 [317]. Van Gogh had seen the painting at an exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s (20 November-20 December 1887), at the time when he and Bernard were going around together in Paris. See exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1994-1, pp. 127-129, cat. no. 57.
19. Van Gogh had earlier applied the term ‘magician’ to Rembrandt. He had borrowed it from Michelet, L’amour. See letter 534, n. 16.
20. John the Baptist bearing witness is in John 1:19-34. The quotation is from John 1:20-25.
21. Biblical; possibly an allusion to 1 Kings 21:20.
22. Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein were Protestant artists in the circle around Martin Luther.
Bernard wrote to Andries Bonger about this passage on 31 December 1892: ‘What do you think of this idea, for example: Luther is the great light of the Middle Ages. Luther in the Middle Ages and an assertion of that kind, that could damage Vincent... Should such things be included? Tell me frankly what you think.’ (Que pensez vous par exemple de cette idée: Luther c’est la grande lumière du moyen-age. Luther au moyen age et une telle assertion cela pourrait nuire a Vincent... faut il mettre ces choses? Dites moi franchement votre avis) (Amsterdam, RPK, inv. no. F 735). Bernard evidently wanted to protect Van Gogh from his supposed errors or exaggerations and consequently replaced Van Gogh’s ‘Middle Ages’ with ‘the Renaissance’ in the Mercure version. In the Vollard edition he opted for a different solution: there he reproduced the passage correctly, but noted that he did not share Van Gogh’s views (see n. 23).
23. Although Bernard evidently shared Van Gogh’s opinion of King Louis xiv at the time, he later noted against this passage (and the one about Luther): ‘so many ideas that I do not share, despite my great friendship for Vincent’ (‘autant d’idées que je ne partage pas, malgré ma grande amitié pour Vincent’). See Lettres à Bernard 1911, p. 113.
24. A reference to the glorious Temple of Solomon on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. The biblical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs are attributed to Solomon, the third king of Israel, who reigned from 993 to 953 BC.
Van Gogh’s characterization of Louis xiv and Solomon, the fact that he speaks of them in the same breath, and his disapproval of Solomon’s writings display remarkable parallels with some passages in Ernest Renan’s ‘Règne de Salomon’. Strangely enough, though, to the best of our knowledge that article was first published in Revue des Deux Mondes 58 (1 August 1888), 3rd series, vol. 88, pp. 536-570 (esp. 539-540, 547, 565), in other words two months after Van Gogh wrote his letter. However, it is not impossible that the passages in question had previously appeared in some other publication.
Van Gogh writes ‘quel emmerdeur en tout, cet espèce de Salomon méthodiste’. Gauguin used precisely the same word, ‘quel emmerdeur de Salomon’, in a letter to Emile Schuffenecker dated to the last ten days of August 1888, so Bernard must have shown him Van Gogh’s letters. See Correspondance Gauguin 1984, pp. 216, 498-499 (n. 272) and Merlhès 1989, pp. 87-89.
26. Paulus Potter, The piebald horse, 1653 (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Ill. 469 [469]. The animal is not as aroused as Van Gogh makes out; it evidently amused him to lay it on a bit thick for Bernard. Potter’s painting measures 41 x 30 cm, so is the size of a no. 6 canvas.
a. Read: ‘quoi que ce soit’.
27. Here he is referring to the poems on the back of the drawing Brothel scene [2322], see letter 630, n. 6. He discussed them at greater length in the postscript to letter 633, which was actually intended for the present letter.