My dear friend Bernard,
Thank you for your letter, and thank you especially for your photos, which give me an idea of your work.1
Incidentally, my brother wrote to me about it the other day, saying that he very much liked the harmoniousness of the colour, a certain nobility in several figures.2
Look, in the adoration of the shepherds, the landscape charms me too much for me to dare to criticize, and nevertheless, it’s too great an impossibility to imagine a birth like that, on the very road, the mother who starts praying instead of giving suck, the fat ecclesiastical bigwigs, kneeling as if in an epileptic fit, God knows how or why they’re there,3 but I myself don’t find it healthy.
Because I adore the true, the possible, were I ever capable of spiritual fervour; so I bow before that study, so powerful that it makes you tremble, by père Millet — peasants carrying to the farmhouse a calf born in the fields.4 Now, my friend — people have felt that from France to America. After that, would you go back to renewing medieval tapestries for us? Truly, is this a sincere conviction? no, you can do better than that, and you know that one has to look for the possible, the logical, the true, even if to some extent you had to forget Parisian things à la Baudelaire. How I prefer Daumier to that gentleman!
An annunciation of what — — — I see figures of angels, elegant, my word, a terrace with two cypresses, which I like very much; there’s an enormous amount of air, of clarity in it....5 but in the end, once this first impression is past, I wonder if it’s a mystification, and these secondary characters no longer tell me anything.
But this is enough for you to understand that I would long to see things of yours again, like the painting of yours that Gauguin has, those Breton women walking in a meadow,6 the arrangement of which is so beautiful, the colour so naively distinguished. Ah, you’re exchanging that for something — must one say the word — something artificial — something affected.  1v:2
Last year, from what Gauguin was telling me, you were doing a painting more or less like this, I imagine.7

Against a foreground of grass, a figure of a young girl in a blue or white dress, lying full length. Behind that: edge of a beech wood, the ground covered in fallen red leaves, the verdigrised trunks crossing it vertically — I imagine the hair a colourful note in the tone required as complementary to the white dress: black if the clothing was white, orange if the clothing was blue. But anyway, I said to myself, what a simple subject, and how he knows how to create elegance with nothing.8
Gauguin spoke to me of another subject, nothing but three trees, thus effect of orange foliage against blue sky, but still really clearly delineated, well divided, categorically, into planes of contrasting and pure colours — that’s the spirit!9

And when I compare that with that nightmare of a Christ in the Garden of Olives,10 well, it makes me feel sad, and I herewith ask you again, crying out loud and giving you a piece of my mind with all the power of my lungs, to please become a little more yourself again.
The Christ carrying his Cross is atrocious.11 Are the splashes of colour in it harmonious? But I won’t let you off the hook for a commonplace — commonplace, you hear — in the composition.
When Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to be led into abstraction, as you know, in a woman rocking a cradle,12 a dark woman reading novels in a yellow library,13 and at that time abstraction seemed an attractive route to me. But that’s enchanted ground,14 — my good fellow — and one soon finds oneself up against a wall. I’m not saying that one may not take the risk after a whole manly life of searching, of fighting hand-to-hand with reality, but as far as I’m concerned I don’t want to rack my brains over that sort of thing. And the whole year, have fiddled around from life, hardly thinking of Impressionism or of this or that.
However, once again I’m allowing myself to do stars too big, &c., new setback, and I’ve enough of that.15
So at present am working in the olive trees, seeking the different effects of a grey sky against yellow earth, with dark green note of the foliage; another time the earth and foliage all purplish against yellow sky, then red ochre earth and pink and green sky.16 See, that interests me more than the so-called abstractions.  1v:3
And if I haven’t written for a long time, it’s because, having to struggle against my illness and to calm my head, I hardly felt like having discussions, and found danger in these abstractions. And by working very calmly, beautiful subjects will come of their own accord; it’s truly first and foremost a question of immersing oneself in reality again, with no plan made in advance, with no Parisian bias. Besides, am very dissatisfied with this year, but perhaps it will prove a solid foundation for the coming one. I’ve let myself become thoroughly imbued with the air of the small mountains and the orchards. With that, I’ll see. My ambition is truly limited to a few clods of earth, some sprouting wheat. An olive grove. A cypress; the latter not easy to do, for example. You who love the primitives, who study them, I ask you why you appear not to know Giotto. Gauguin and I saw a tiny panel of his in Montpellier, the death of some sainted woman or other.17 The expressions in it of pain and ecstasy are human to the point that, 19th century though it may be, you feel you’re in it — and believe you were there, present, so much do you share the emotion. If I saw your actual canvases, I believe the colour could nevertheless excite me. But then you speak of portraits that you’ve done, and have captured precisely; that’s something that will be good, and where you will have been yourself.
Here’s description of a canvas that I have in front of me at the moment. A view of the garden of the asylum where I am, on the right a grey terrace, a section of house, some rosebushes that have lost their flowers; on the left, the earth of the garden — red ochre — earth burnt by the sun, covered in fallen pine twigs. This edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red ochre trunks and branches, with green foliage saddened by a mixture of black. These tall trees stand out against an evening sky streaked with violet against a yellow background. High up, the yellow turns to pink, turns to green. A wall — red ochre again — blocks the view, and there’s nothing above it but a violet and yellow ochre hill. Now, the first tree is an enormous trunk, but struck by lightning and sawn off. A side branch thrusts up very high, however, and falls down again in an avalanche of dark green twigs.
This dark giant — like a proud man brought low — contrasts, when seen as the character of a living being, with the pale smile of the last rose on the bush, which is fading in front of him. Under the trees, empty stone benches, dark box. The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun — the last glimmer — exalts the dark ochre to orange — small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks.18 You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’.19 And what’s more, the motif of the great tree struck by lightning, the sickly green and pink smile of the last flower of autumn, confirms this idea. Another canvas depicts a sun rising over a field of new wheat. Receding lines of the furrows run high up on the canvas, towards a wall and a range of lilac hills. The field is violet and green-yellow. The white sun is surrounded by a large yellow aureole.20 In it, in contrast to the other canvas, I have tried to express calm, a great peace.  1r:4
I’m speaking to you of these two canvases, and especially the first, to remind you that in order to give an impression of anxiety, you can try to do it without heading straight for the historical garden of Gethsemane; in order to offer a consoling and gentle subject it isn’t necessary to depict the figures from the Sermon on the Mount21 — ah — it is — no doubt — wise, right, to be moved by the Bible, but modern reality has such a hold over us that even when trying abstractly to reconstruct ancient times in our thoughts — just at that very moment the petty events of our lives tear us away from these meditations and our own adventures throw us forcibly into personal sensations: joy, boredom, suffering, anger or smiling. The Bible — the Bible — Millet was brought up on it from his childhood, used to read only that book and yet never, or almost never, did biblical paintings.22 Corot did a Garden of Olives with Christ and the star of Bethlehem: sublime.23 In his work you feel Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles too, sometimes, as well as the Gospels, but how sober and always giving due weight to modern, possible sensations common to us all. But, you’ll say, Delacroix — yes, Delacroix — but then you’d have to study in a very different way, yes, study history before putting things in their place like that.
So, they’re a setback, my dear fellow, your biblical paintings, but... there are few who make mistakes like that, and it’s an error, but your return from it will be, I dare to say, astonishing, and it’s by making mistakes that one sometimes finds the way. Look, avenge yourself by painting your garden as it is, or anything you like. In any case, it’s good to look for what’s distinguished, what’s noble in figures, and your studies represent an effort that’s been made, and so something other than wasted time.
To know how to divide a canvas into large, tangled planes like that, to find contrasting lines and forms — that’s technique — trickery, if you like, but anyway, it means you’re learning your craft more thoroughly, and that’s good. No matter how hateful and cumbersome painting may be in the times in which we live, the person who has chosen this craft, if he nevertheless practises it with zeal, is a man of duty, both sound and loyal. Society sometimes makes existence very hard for us, and from that too comes our impotence and the imperfection of our works. I believe that Gauguin himself suffers greatly from it, too, and cannot develop as he yet has it in him to do.
I myself suffer in that I’m utterly without models. On the other hand, there are beautiful sites here. Have just done 5 no. 30 canvases of the olive trees. And if I still stay here it’s because my health is recovering greatly. What I’m making is harsh, dry, but it’s because I’m trying to reinvigorate myself by means of rather arduous work, and would fear that abstractions would make me soft. Have you seen a study of mine with a little reaper? A field of yellow wheat and a yellow sun.24 It isn’t there yet — but in it I’ve again attacked this devil of a question of yellow. I’m talking about the one that’s impastoed and done on the spot, not about the repetition with hatching, in which the effect is weaker. I wanted to do it in pure sulphur. I’d have plenty more things to tell you — but although I write today that my mind is somewhat stronger, previously I was afraid of overheating it before I was cured. In thought a very warm handshake, to Anquetin too, to other friends if you see them, and believe me

Ever yours,

No need to tell you that I regret, for you as well as for your father, that he didn’t approve of your spending the season with Gauguin. The latter wrote to me that for reasons of health your service has been postponed for a year.25 Thank you anyway for the description of the Egyptian house.26 I would still have liked to know if it was larger or smaller than a cottage back home — the size relative to the human figure, in short. I was looking for information about the colouring in particular.


Br. 1990: 824 | CL: B21
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Emile Bernard
Date: Arles, on or about Tuesday, 26 November 1889

1. It is apparent from letter 827 that Bernard had sent six photographs of recent paintings, four of which Van Gogh discusses in the present letter (see nn. 3, 5, 10 and 11 below). Van Gogh probably also received a photograph of Bernard’s Deposition from the cross, 1889-1890 (private collection; see Luthi 1982, p. 44, cat. no. 267).
2. Theo had written about Bernard’s paintings The annunciation [2309] and Christ in the Garden of Olives [2]. See letter 819.
[2309] [2]
3. Van Gogh must have received a photograph of The adoration of the shepherds , 1889 (private collection), which Bernard had recently painted. Ill. 2308 [2308]. See Luthi 1982, pp. 36-37, cat. no. 217. An unpublished inventory, drawn up by Bernard in 1895, reveals that the work dates from 1889. With thanks to Fred Leeman.
4. This refers to the painted sketch for Millet’s painting Birth of the calf, c. 1864, which Van Gogh must have seen at the retrospective exhibition of Millet’s work in Paris in 1887. This first, unfinished version (ill. 1170 [1170]) was well known through the engraving that Maxime François Antoine Lalanne made after it for the catalogue of the Alfred Saucède sale in 1879 (Lugt 1938-1987, no. 38966).
6. For Bernard’s Breton women in the meadow [2236], see letter 712, n. 4. Bernard himself claimed that this work had influenced Gauguin: ‘This is the canvas of which I once spoke in the Mercure de France, ‘Breton women in the meadow’, in my article Histoire de l’Ecole dite de Pont-Aven, and which brought about such a change in technique and assumptions in Gauguin. In 1888 he had exchanged it with me for a painting of his of the same size, and had taken it to Arles, where Vincent saw it and made a copy of it’ (Lettres à Bernard 1911, p. 144). Van Gogh made the copy in watercolour in December 1888: Breton women in the meadow (after Emile Bernard) (F 1422 / JH 1654 [2761]).
[2236] [2761]
7. The letter sketch is based on the description (and presumably an accompanying sketch) that Gauguin gave in the autumn of 1888 of Bernard’s painting Madeleine in the Bois d’Amour, 1888 (Paris, Musée d’Orsay). Ill. 2299 [2299].
8. Here Bernard placed another footnote: ‘The exactitude of the description shows how much Gauguin had appreciated the painting’ (Lettres à Bernard 1911, p. 144).
9. The letter sketch is based on the description (and presumably an accompanying sketch) that Gauguin gave in the autumn of 1888 of Bernard’s painting Red poplars, 1887 (private collection). Ill. 2300 [2300].
10. For Bernard’s Christ in the Garden of Olives, see letter 819, n. 4. Bernard also sent a photograph of this painting to Gauguin, who, unlike Van Gogh, reacted positively: ‘the Christ seems to me not only better, but even more beautiful. Overall, the canvas breathes a purposefulness, an imaginative style that I find quite amazing. The disproportionate length of the figure at prayer is very bold and adds to its movement. You were right to exaggerate it, at least one doesn’t think of the model, or of that bloody reality. The soldiers well arranged. In the photograph you can see a head of Judas that vaguely resembles me. Rest assured, I don’t see anything wrong in it’. See Gauguin lettres 1946, p. 178.
Bernard told Gauguin about the criticism voiced by Van Gogh in this letter. Gauguin reacted in a letter written to Bernard in late 1889: ‘Vincent wrote much the same to me, that we were becoming affected etc... I replied to him!’ (Vincent m’a écrit à peu près la même chose qu’à vous; que nous allions au maniéré etc... Je lui ai répondu!) See Gauguin lettres 1946, p. 194 (incorrectly dated to June 1890. See also exhib. cat. Washington 1988, p. 128, n. 3).
11. Emile Bernard’s Christ meeting his mother (private collection). Ill. 2301 [2301]. It does not date from 1891, as stated by Luthi, but from 1889 (with thanks to Fred Leeman).
12. While Gauguin was in Arles, Van Gogh had started the first version of La berceuse (F 508 / JH 1671 [2775]), which he finished in January 1889. See Hoermann Lister 2001.
13. Woman reading a novel (F 497 / JH 1632 [2748]).
14. Possibly an allusion to Bunyan; see letter 407, n. 4.
15. Van Gogh seems to be referring to Starry night (F 612 / JH 1731 [2801]), which he had made in June of that year. When mentioning the work in earlier letters, however, he was not so negative about it; he even defended it to Theo (see letters 813 and 816).
a. Read: ‘vert foncé’.
16. A little later in the letter Van Gogh says that he has five no. 30 canvases of olive groves. These were Olive trees (F 710 / JH 1856 [2870]), Olive grove (F 707 / JH 1857 [2871]), Olive trees (F 708 / JH 1855 [2869]), Olive grove (F 586 / JH 1854 [2868]) and Women picking olives (F 654 / JH 1868 [2878]). See exhib. cat. Dallas 2021, p. 132 (n. 8).
[2870] [2871] [2869] [2868] [2878]
b. Read: ‘ce qu’on appelle des abstractions’.
17. In December 1888 Van Gogh and Gauguin had travelled to Montpellier to visit the Musée Fabre. The ‘tiny panel’ Van Gogh refers to is The death and assumption of the Virgin (now no longer attributed to Giotto). See letter 726, n. 12.
18. The canvas Van Gogh describes in such detail is The garden of the asylum. There are two variants, F 660 / JH 1849 [2865] and F 659 / JH 1850 [2866]; the one referred to here is probably the second one. See Hendriks and Van Tilborgh 2001, pp. 154-156.
[2865] [2866]
19. This characteristic expression has always been read wrongly as ‘noir-rouge’, and is often cited as such. The expression ‘voir rouge’ (which is easily legible in the manuscript) is still current and means ‘to be in a state of violent psychological or emotional agitation’ (TLF).
20. Wheatfield at sunrise (F 737 / JH 1862 [2874]).
21. Van Gogh cites this merely as an example; as far as we know, Bernard did not paint the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
22. According to Sensier, it was the Bible that Millet ‘considered the painters’ book, the book in which the most moving paintings are found in imposing forms’. Sensier 1881, p. 66.
23. For Corot’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, see letter 34, n. 2.
24. The Reaper (F 617 / JH 1753 [2813]) was at Theo’s in Paris, as was the repetition of it, Reaper (F 618 / JH 1773 [2828]), which Van Gogh mentions below.
[2813] [2828]
25. Gauguin had written about Bernard’s father and the deferred military service in letter 817.
26. Van Gogh had requested this information in letter 809.