My dear old Bernard.
Thanks for your letter, but what surprises me a little is to hear you say, ‘Oh, no way of doing Gauguin’s portrait!’1 Why no way? That’s all rubbish. But I’m not pressing the point, and so we categorically won’t mention that exchange any more. So even Gauguin, for his own part, hasn’t even thought of doing yours. Here you have portraitists, living for so long side by side and they don’t agree on posing for each other and they’ll separate without having portrayed each other. Well! I’m not pressing the point. And I repeat, there’s no longer a question of an exchange.
So I really hope to do your portrait and Gauguin’s myself one day, the first time we get together. Which is bound to happen.  1v:2
One of these days I’m going to do the portrait of that second lieutenant of Zouaves whom I’ve spoken to you about, who’s now on the point of leaving for Africa.2
Why haven’t you replied to me about your plans regarding your military service?
Now let’s talk a little about what you say, that you’re thinking of coming to spend the winter in Arles.3 I’ve deliberately set myself up here in such a way as to be able to fit someone in if necessary. If Gauguin comes, however.4 He still hasn’t categorically said no, in any case.
But even if I could put you up, I don’t see that you could feed yourself well here for less than 3 francs a day. And I’d prefer to say 4 francs. Naturally, in the case of being broke, we could make many meals cheaply at the studio, certainly we could save that way; all the same, living here, I tell you, comes a bit dearer than in Pont-Aven, where I believe you’re paying, aren’t you, only 2.50 francs a day, and that’s for everything. Lodging included.  1v:3
And what if the thing that would tempt you the most — painting in the brothels — which is certainly excellent — couldn’t after all be done here for free? Wait for that until you have your uniform, then; here and elsewhere, soldiers can do a whole lot of things in it for free. I, for example — it’s true that I’ve just done that study of a night café5 — but that, although it’s a house of assignation, and from time to time you see a whore sitting there at a table with her fellow — I myself, I say, I haven’t yet been able to do a brothel as such, precisely because it would cost me more money than I’m forced to have, to do it reasonably well and seriously. And because I refrain from beginning it before I feel sufficiently sure, as far as the wallet goes, of being able to complete that painting properly. Now, all right. We’d drink some glasses of beer in there, we’d meet people there; we’d work half from the imagination, half with a model.6 And if we wanted to, I’m not saying that it might not be possible to do it. But I for one,  1r:4 I’m not in any hurry for anything, now. Projects so often fall through, and the best calculations you make; while by taking advantage of chance, and working from day to day without bias, you do a whole lot of unforeseen things.
So in no way can I encourage you to come here with the express purpose – excellent, without any doubt — of doing brothels. I repeat, once you’re a soldier, you’ll have a splendid opportunity for that, and in your own interest you would perhaps do well to wait until you have your uniform.
But, my dear old Bernard, I want to be very clear and plain in saying to you, do come and spend your time in Africa. The south will delight you and make you a great artist; Gauguin himself owes his superiority to the south.7 I’ve been looking at the stronger sun down here for months and months now. And the result is that, from the point of view of colour, what remains more than anything for me, having gained the experience, is Delacroix and Monticelli, those painters who nowadays are wrongly said to be pure romantics, people of exaggerated imagination. But anyway, do you see, the south, that was done so drily by Gérôme and Fromentin, is from this place on essentially a region whose intimate charm could only be interpreted by a colourist’s colour. I hope that you’ll write to me again soon. I daren’t take it upon myself to encourage just anyone to come here; if somebody comes of his own accord, well, that’s his business, but as far as advising the thing, I’ll never do it. For myself, I’m staying here, and naturally it would please me greatly if you were to spend the winter here. Handshake.

Ever yours,


Br. 1990: 688 | CL: B16
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, between Wednesday, 19 and Tuesday, 25 September 1888

1. A letter from Van Gogh to Gauguin and Bernard, written between the preceding letter and this one, has been lost; see letter 680, n. 4.
2. Milliet the Zouave was introduced to Bernard in letter 628.
3. Van Gogh suspected that Bernard’s plan to come to Arles was a ‘whim’, so in letter 682 he advised Theo not to offer Bernard, who was perhaps thinking of taking Gauguin’s place, any sort of contract.
4. It would appear that Van Gogh did not finish this sentence. After ‘pourtant’ he originally wrote: ‘ou si un autre viendrait a sa place’ (‘or if someone else were to come in his place’), but then crossed it out.
5. This study, which Van Gogh painted at the beginning of September, and which, judging by his choice of words, he must have mentioned in the lost letter, was The night café (F 463 / JH 1575 [2711]).
6. This passage reflects the ideas of Bernard and Gauguin, who were constantly urging Van Gogh to work from memory and the imagination. He followed their advice to the extent of undertaking a few experiments.
7. Van Gogh is referring to Gauguin’s stay in tropical Martinique between May and October 1887.