Van Gogh and Gauguin to Emile Bernard
My dear old Bernard,
We’ve done a great deal of work these past few days, and in the meantime I’ve read Zola’s Le rêve,1 so I’ve hardly had time to write.
Gauguin interests me greatly as a man — greatly. For a long time it has seemed to me that in our filthy job as painters we have the greatest need of people with the hands and stomach of a labourer. More natural tastes — more amorous and benevolent temperaments — than the decadent and exhausted Parisian man-about-town.
Now here, without the slightest doubt, we’re in the presence of an unspoiled creature with the instincts of a wild beast. With Gauguin, blood and sex have the edge over ambition. But enough of that, you’ve seen him close at hand longer than I have, just wanted to tell you first impressions in a few words.
Next, I don’t think it will astonish you greatly if I tell you that our discussions are tending to deal with the terrific subject of an association of certain painters. 1v:2 Ought or may this association have a commercial character, yes or no? We haven’t reached any result yet, and haven’t so much as set foot on a new continent yet. Now I, who have a presentiment of a new world, who certainly believe in the possibility of a great renaissance of art. Who believe that this new art will have the tropics for its homeland.2
It seems to me that we ourselves are serving only as intermediaries. And that it will only be a subsequent generation that will succeed in living in peace. Anyway, all that, our duties and our possibilities for action could become clearer to us only through actual experience.
I was a little surprised not yet to have received the studies that you promised in exchange for mine.3
Now something that will interest you — we’ve made some excursions in the brothels, and it’s likely that we’ll eventually go there often to work. At the moment Gauguin has a canvas in progress of the same 1v:3 night café that I also painted, but with figures seen in the brothels.4 It promises to become a beautiful thing.
I’ve made two studies of falling leaves in an avenue of poplars, and a third study of the whole of this avenue, entirely yellow.5
I declare I don’t understand why I don’t do figure studies,6 while theoretically it’s sometimes so difficult for me to imagine the painting of the future as anything other than a new series of powerful portraitists, simple and comprehensible to the whole of the general public. Anyway, perhaps I’ll soon get down to doing brothels.
I’ll leave a page for Gauguin, who will probably also write to you, and I shake your hand firmly in thought.
Milliet the 2nd lieut. Zouaves has left for Africa, and would be very glad if you were to write to him one of these days.
[Continued by Paul Gauguin]
You will indeed do well to write him what your intentions are, so that he could take steps beforehand to 1r:4 prepare the way for you.Mr Milliet, second lieutenant of Zouaves, Guelma, Africa.
Don’t listen to Vincent; as you know, he’s prone to admire and ditto to be indulgent. His idea about the future of a new generation in the tropics seems absolutely right to me as a painter, and I still intend going back there when I find the funds.7 A little bit of luck, who knows?
Vincent has done two studies of falling leaves in an avenue, which are in my room and which you would like very much. On very coarse, but very good sacking.8
Send news of yourself and of all the pals.
1. Le rêve (The dream) (1888), Emile Zola’s most recent novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, was published on 11 October 1888. It is the story of the orphan Angélique Marie, who spends her time embroidering the lives of saints and dreaming of a knight in shining armour. He appears in the person of Félicien. At the height of her happiness, however, after the nuptial mass, she dies in her husband’s arms. Losing touch with reality and coping with disillusion, including disappointments with catastrophic outcomes, are recurring themes in Zola’s work.
2. Aurier reworked this passage in his article ‘Les isolés: Vincent van Gogh’, which appeared in the Mercure de France of January 1890, to provide the following characterization of Van Gogh: ‘a dreamer, an exalted believer, a devourer of beautiful Utopias, who lives on ideas and illusions. For a long time he has taken delight in imagining a renovation of art made possible through a displacement of civilization: an art of tropical regions.’
3. Van Gogh used the plural, so apparently Bernard had told him that he had taken two works from Van Gogh’s consignment, in which case he must have chosen two of the following three works: ‘Red sunset’, Garden with flowers (F 578 / JH 1538 ), and an unidentified work (see letter 698, n. 1).
4. Paul Gauguin, Night café, Arles, 1888 (W318/W305) (Moscow, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts). Ill. 2240 . Van Gogh’s painting of the Café de la Gare is The night café (F 463 / JH 1575 ).
5. The two studies of falling leaves are The Alyscamps (‘Leaf-fall’) (F 486 / JH 1620 ) and The Alyscamps (‘Leaf-fall’) (F 487 / JH 1621 ). Van Gogh describes the location in letter 717.The ‘entirely yellow’ study is probably The Alyscamps (F 568 / JH 1622 ). It could also be The Alyscamps (F 569 / JH 1623), although there the yellow is less dominant.
7. Gauguin had lived with Laval on Martinique from May to November 1887; in Arles he was making plans to return to the tropics. He finally left for Tahiti on 1 April 1891.
8. Soon after arriving in Arles, Gauguin bought 20 metres of ‘very strong canvas’, as Vincent informed Theo in letter 717. It was coarse jute, which Van Gogh and Gauguin divided equally and worked on almost exclusively until they ran out of it in December.