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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Let's take the Sower. The painting is divided into two; one half is yellow, the top; the bottom is violet. Well, the white trousers rest the eye and distract it just when the excessive simultaneous contrast of yellow and violet would annoy it. That's what I wanted to say.

Arles, June 27, 1888

I have sometimes worked excessively fast; is that a fault? I can't help it.... Isn't it rather intensity of thought than calmness of touch that we're looking for—and in the given circumstances of impulsive work on the spot and from life, is a calm and controlled touch always possible? Well—it seems to me—no more than fencing moves during an attack.

Bernard had apparently rejected van Gogh's advice to study 17th-century Dutch masters and was instead mistakenly—in van Gogh's opinion—emulating religious paintings of such Italian and Flemish artists as Cimabue, Giotto and van Eyck. Before criticizing his junior colleague, however, van Gogh praised those of Bernard's paintings that he felt approached the standards of artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals.

Arles, c. August 5, 1888

In the first place, I must speak to you again about yourself, about two still lifes that you have done, and about the two portraits of your grandmother. Have you ever done better, have you ever been more yourself, and somebody? Not in my opinion. Profound study of the first thing to come to hand, of the first person to come along, was enough to really create something....

The trouble is, do you see, my dear old Bernard, that Giotto, Cimabue, as well as Holbein and van Eyck, lived in an obeliscal—if you'll pardon the expression—society, layered, architecturally constructed, in which each individual was a stone, all of them holding together and forming a monumental society....But you know we're in a state of total laxity and anarchy.

We, artists in love with order and symmetry, isolate ourselves and work to define one single thing....

The Dutchmen, now, we see them painting things just as they are, apparently without thought....

They make portraits, landscapes, still lifes....


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