Letters from Vincent

Never-before-exhibited correspondence from van Gogh to a protégé displays a thoughtful exacting side of the artist

Van Gogh painted this portrait of himself, dressed as a bourgeois, in Paris, where he stayed with his brother Theo and continued to hone his painting skills. Van Gogh's brief flirtation with the separate, dappled brushstrokes of pointillism is evident in this early effort, which is one of his best paintings from 1887. (Self-Portrait: Three Quarters to the Right)(Van Gogh Museum)
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The image of Vincent van Gogh daubing paint onto canvas to record the ecstatic visions of his untutored mind is so entrenched that perhaps no amount of contradictory evidence can dislodge it. But in an unusual exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City (until January 6), a different van Gogh emerges—a cultivated artist who discoursed knowledgeably about the novels of Zola and Balzac, the paintings in Paris' Louvre and Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, and the color theories of artists Eugéne Delacroix and Paul Signac. The show is organized around a small group of letters that van Gogh wrote from 1887 to 1889, toward the end of his life, during his most creative period. In the letters, he explained the thinking behind his unorthodox use of color and evoked his dream of an artistic fellowship that might inaugurate a modern Renaissance.

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Van Gogh was writing to Émile Bernard, a painter 15 years his junior whom he had befriended in Paris a couple of years before leaving for Provence in early 1888. Of the 22 letters that he is known to have sent Bernard, all but two—one is lost, the other is held in a private collection—are on display at the Morgan, along with some of the paintings that the two artists were then producing and debating. This is the first time the letters have been exhibited. (Unfortunately, Bernard's letters in return are lost.) The bulk of van Gogh's vivid lifetime correspondence—about 800 of his letters survive—was addressed to his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris who supported him financially and emotionally. Those letters, which constitute one of the great literary testaments in art history, are confessional and supplicatory. But in these pages to the younger man, van Gogh adopted an avuncular tone, expounding on his personal philosophy and offering advice on everything from the lessons of the old masters to relations with women: basically, stay away from them. Most important, to no one else did he so directly communicate his artistic opinions.

Just shy of 18 when he met van Gogh in March 1886, Bernard also impressed Paul Gauguin, whom he encountered in Brittany not long afterward. Two summers later, the ambitious Bernard would return to Brittany to paint alongside Gauguin in Pont-Aven. There, deeply influenced by Japanese prints, the two artists jointly developed an approach—using patches of flat color outlined heavily in black—that diverged from the prevailing Impressionism. Although Bernard would live to be 72, painting most of his life, these months would prove to be the high point of his artistic career. Critics today regard him as a minor figure.

In the Provençal town of Arles, where he settled in late February of 1888, van Gogh, also, was pursuing a path away from Impressionism. At first, he applauded the efforts of Bernard and Gauguin and urged them to join him in the building he would immortalize on canvas as the Yellow House. (Gauguin would come for two months later that year; Bernard would not.) There were serious differences between them, however. Exacerbated by van Gogh's emotional instability, the disagreements would later strain the friendships severely.

Arles, c. April 12, 1888 My dear old Bernard, ....I sometimes regret that I can't decide to work more at home and from the imagination. Certainly—imagination is a capacity that must be developed, and only that enables us to create a more exalting and consoling nature than what just a glance at reality (which we perceive changing, passing quickly like lightning) allows us to perceive.

A starry sky, for example, well—it's a thing that I should like to try to do, just as in the daytime I'll try to paint a green meadow studded with dandelions.

But how to arrive at that unless I decide to work at home and from the imagination? This, then, to criticize myself and to praise you.

At present I am busy with the fruit trees in blossom: pink peach trees, yellow-white pear trees.

I follow no system of brushwork at all, I hit the canvas with irregular strokes, which I leave as they are, impastos, uncovered spots of canvas—corners here and there left inevitably unfinished—reworkings, roughnesses....

Here's a sketch, by the way, the entrance to a Provençal orchard with its yellow reed fences, with its shelter (against the mistral), black cypresses, with its typical vegetables of various greens, yellow lettuces, onions and garlic and emerald leeks.


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