Van Gogh with Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh – further letters to E Bernard

TO E. BERNARD.

MY brother wrote to me the other day saying that you intended coming here to have a look at my pictures. From this I gather that you are back, and I am very glad that you should have thought of coming down here to see what I have done. I, for my part, am very keen to see what you have brought back from Pont-Aven. My head is not in a fit state for writing, but I feel so out of it because I have not the least idea what you, Gauguin and the others are doing. I must, however, be patient. I still have about a dozen studies here, which are possibly more to your taste than the others painted in the summer, which my brother must have shown you. Among these studies there is one of an entrance to a quarry: light mauve-coloured rocks on a ruddy soil, such as one very often sees in Japanese drawings. In regard to the drawing and the division of the colours over large surfaces, it bears some relation to your things from Pont-Aven. In these last pictures I show more self-mastery, because while painting I felt much stronger. For instance, there is a canvas about 36 in. by 27½ in. among them of a ploughed field painted in a broken mauve tone, with a background of hills which reach right up to the edge of the frame. Thus it contains nothing save rough ground and rocks with a thistle and dry grasses in one corner; by way of a figure there is a little violet and yellow man. I trust that this will prove to you that I am not yet effete.

Heavens! what a miserable little stretch of country this is! It is all very difficult to render, especially if one wishes to bring out its intimate character, and make it not merely approximately right, but the genuine soil of La Provence. To accomplish this one must work hard, for the qualities to be seized are naturally a little abstract. It is a matter, for instance, of giving the sun and the sky their proper strength, and the scorched and melancholy soil its glow and its subtle scent of thyme.

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The olive trees here are really just what you would like. I have not been lucky with them this year; but I have quite resolved to tackle them again. They are fine silver on orange-coloured or violet-blue ground, beneath the broad blue heavens. I have seen olive trees by certain painters, and by myself as well, which do not give this effect at all. This silver grey is pure Corot, and what is still more important, it has not been painted yet; whereas various artists have already been successful with apple-trees and willows. There are also relatively few pictures of vineyards, which are nevertheless so variegated in their beauty. There is quite enough here to keep me busy.

By-the-bye, there is something which I am very sorry not to have seen at the exhibition—a series of dwellings from all lands, organized I believe by Garnier. Do you think you could give me an idea, or better still, a coloured sketch of a primitive Egyptian house, for you surely must have seen the exhibition. It must be quite simple: a rectangular block on a sort of terrace; but I would give anything to know the colour. I read in a certain article that it was blue, red, and yellow. Did you notice this? Please do not forget to give me details about it…. I for my part know nothing more delightful in the way of architecture than the peasant’s cottage, with its moss-clad thatched roof and its smoke-blackened hearth. As you see, I am very exacting. In an illustrated work I saw a sketch of some old Mexican houses which also seemed to me very primitive and beautiful. Oh, if one could only know all about those times, and could paint the people that lived in those houses, the result might be pictures as beautiful as Millet’s. After all, everything we really know for certain, at present, is to be found in Millet, not perhaps in the colour, but in the character, in the content—that is to say, in something which is animated by a strong faith….

Vincent Van Gogh - Sunset

I trust you will have another look at my pictures when I send my autumn studies in November; if possible, let me know what you have brought with you from Brittany; for I am anxious to know which of your works you yourself think the most highly of. And then I shall quickly reply.

I am at work on a big picture, a quarry. As a matter of fact it is exactly the same theme as that study which I have of yours with the yellow tree. It represents the lower portions of two mighty rocks, with a little spring of water running between them, and in the background there is a third mass of rock which closes in the quarry. Such themes are seductively melancholy, and it is so amusing to paint in thoroughly wild scenes where one has to fix one’s easel deep down in the stones to prevent the wind from blowing everything over.

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1890.

When Gauguin was at Arles I allowed myself, as you know, to be led into working from imagination, and I painted a woman in black reading a novel. At that time I thought that working from imagination was very delightful. But, my dear friend, it is an enchanted land, and suddenly one finds oneself confronted with an insurmountable wall. Maybe after a life spent in manly effort and endeavour, and after a hard struggle shoulder to shoulder with nature, one might venture to try it; but for the present I shall not crack my brains over it, and I have slaved all the year round painting from nature, and thinking neither of impressionism nor anything else. And yet, in spite of it all, I let myself go again, but it only resulted in another failure, and I have had enough of it. For the time being, therefore, I am working at the olive trees, and trying to seize the various effects of the gray sky over the yellow ground, together with the black and green note of the foliage, or of the deep violet ground and foliage against a yellow sky, or again, of the yellow-red ground against a pale green and pink sky. After all, these things interest me more than the abstractions referred to above. If I have not written for so long, it is because I had no wish to enter into any discussion, and scented a danger in all this reflection, inasmuch as I must guard against my illness and keep my head calm. By dint of quiet and steady work, the subjects will come of their own accord. The chief thing is to strengthen one’s self entirely through reality, without any pre-conceived plan and without any watchword hailing from Paris. By-the-bye, I am very dissatisfied with this year’s work; maybe, however, it will prove a sound foundation for what is to come. I have allowed myself to be completely saturated with the air of the hills and of the orchards; time will show what this has done for me. The whole of my ambition is at present concentrated upon a little handful of earth, sprouting corn, an olive garden, a cypress (the latter, by the way, not easy to paint).

Here is the description of a picture which now lies before me (a view in the park belonging to the Hospital for Nervous Diseases of which I am now an inmate): to the right, a grey terrace, a piece of wall and a few faded rose-trees, to the left the park ground (English red) the soil of which is scorched by the sun and covered with pine-needles. The edge of the park is planted with tall pine-trees, the trunks and branches of which are English red, and the green of which is all the more vivid for having a touch of black. These trees stand out against the evening sky, the yellow ground of which is streaked with violet stripes. Higher up the yellow shades off into pink and then into green. A low wall, also English red, obstructs the view and is overtowered only at one spot by a little violet and yellow-ochre hill. The first tree has a gigantic trunk which has been struck and split by lightning; one side branch alone still projects high up into the air, and lets showers of dark green needles fall down. This gloomy giant—a vanquished hero—which one can regard as a living being, is a strange contrast to the pale smile of a belated rose that is fading away on a rose bush right opposite. Under the pines there are some lovely stone seats and dark box-trees. The sky produces yellow reflections—after a shower—in a pool of water. In a ray of sunshine—the last reflection—the dark yellow ochre is intensified to a glowing orange. Dark figures steal in and out between the tree trunks. You can well imagine that this combination of red ochre, of green bedimmed with grey, and of black lines, defining the forms, may help to call forth that feeling of fright which often seizes many of my fellow-sufferers. And the theme of the great tree struck by lightning, and the sickly smile of that last autumn bloom in green and pink, enhanced this effect. Another picture represents a sunrise over a field of young corn, the converging lines of the furrows rise in the picture as far as a wall and a row of mauve-coloured hills—the field is violet and yellow-green. The glaring white sun is encircled by a large yellow halo. In this picture, I tried, as a contrast to the other, to express repose and perfect peace. I have described these two pictures to you, in order to show you that one can give the impression of fear, without going direct to the historical Gethsemane, and that one can paint a comforting and gentle subject without depicting the chief actors in the Sermon on the Mount. It is unquestionably a good and proper thing to seek inspiration in the Bible, but modern reality has taken such possession of us that even if we try to divorce ourselves from it, in order to revive the old memory of former days, the incidents of our life tear us from such considerations, and our individual experiences again fill us with personal sensations of joy, vexation, suffering, anger or laughter. Heavens! the Bible! Millet was brought up on it entirely in his childhood, and read nothing else; and yet he never, or scarcely ever painted real Biblical subjects.

Corot painted Christ in an olive grove with the shepherds’ star, and it was sublime; in his works one feels the spirit of Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus and Sophocles and often of the Gospels; but only discreetly suggested; for modern sensations, which are possible and common to us all, always preponderate. Even if painting be detestable and much too full of hardships nowadays, he who in spite of all chooses this craft must on that very account be a man full of devotion and firmness. Society so often makes our life very hard indeed, and that is the cause of our shortcomings and of the imperfection of our work…. I suffer very much from having absolutely no models; but on the other hand there are some beautiful landscape subjects here.

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Have you seen a study of mine of a small reaper, a yellow cornfield and a golden sun? Although I did not solve it, I at least attacked the infernal question of yellow in this picture. I speak of the study painted in impasto, which I did direct from nature, not from the copy, which is painted in diagonal brush-strokes and in which the effect is very much weakened. I wanted to paint it in pure cadmium.

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