My dear Bernard,
You do very well to be reading the Bible. I begin with that,
because I have always refrained from advising you to do so. As
I read the many sayings of Moses, Luke, etc., I couldn't help
thinking, you know, that's all he needs - and now it has come
to pass…the artistic neurosis. For that is what the
study of Christ inevitably leads to, especially in my case,
where it is aggravated by the smoking of innumerable pipes.
The Bible is Christ, for the Old Testament leads to that
culmination. Paul and the evangelists stand on the other slope
of the holy mountain.
How small-minded the old story really is! My God! Does the
world consist solely of Jews, who declare from the very start
that all those who are different from them are impure?
Why didn't the other nations under the great sun over there,
the Egyptians, the Indians, the Ethiopians, Babylon and
Nineveh, record their annals with the same care? Well, anyway,
the study of it is beautiful, and, after all, being able to
read everything would be tantamount to not being able to read
But the consolation of that deeply saddening Bible, which
arouses our despair and indignation, which seriously offends us
and thoroughly confuses us with its pettiness and infectious
foolishness - the consolation it contains like a stone inside a
hard rind and bitter pulp, is Christ.
Only Delacroix and Rembrandt have painted the face of Christ
in such a way that I can feel him…and then Millet
painted…the teachings of Christ.
The rest rather makes me laugh, the rest of religious
painting - from the religious point of view, not from the point
of view of painting. And the Italian primitives - Botticelli,
or let's say the Flemish primitives, Van Eyck, the German,
Cranach - they are no more than heathens who only interest me
for the same reason as do the Greeks, Velásquez and so
many other naturalists.
Christ alone, of all the philosophers, magicians, etc., has
affirmed eternal life as the most important certainty, the
infinity of time, the futility of death, the necessity and
purpose of serenity and devotion. He lived serenely, as an
artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and
clay and paint, working in the living flesh. In other words,
this peerless artist, scarcely conceivable with the blunt
instrument of our modern, nervous and obtuse brains, made
neither statues nor paintings nor books. He maintained in no
uncertain terms that he made…living men,
That is a profoundly serious matter, the more so as it is
Nor did this great artist write books. Christian literature
as a whole would undoubtedly have aroused his ire, and includes
very few literary works beyond Luke's Gospel or Paul's epistles
- so simple in their austere and militant form - that would
have found favour in his eyes.
This great artist - Christ - although he did not concern
himself with writing books on ideas (sensations), felt
considerably less disdain for the spoken word, and for parables
in particular (what a sower, what a harvest, what a fig tree!
And who would dare claim that he lied on that day when,
scornfully predicting the destruction of Rome, he said,
“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not
These spoken words - which, like a prodigal grand seigneur,
he did not even deign to write down - form one of the
pinnacles, the highest pinnacle, reached by art, which at that
point becomes creative force, pure creative force.
These thoughts, Bernard, dear friend, lead us far, very far,
afield, they raise us above art itself. They give us a glimpse
of the art of life-creation, the art of being immortal and
alive. They are bound up with painting. The patron saint of
painters - Luke, physician, painter, evangelist - who has as a
symbol, alas, nothing more than an ox, gives us hope.
Yet our own life is a modest one indeed, our life as
painters, languishing under the back-breaking yoke of the
problems of a calling that is almost too hard to practise on
this ungrateful planet, where “love of art drives out
However, since nothing confutes the assumption that lines
and forms and colours exist on innumerable other planets and
suns as well, we are at liberty to feel fairly serene about the
possibilities of painting in a better and different existence,
an existence altered by a phenomenon that is perhaps no more
ingenious and no more surprising than the transformation of a
caterpillar into a butterfly or of a grub into a maybug.
The existence of a painter-butterfly would be played out on
the countless celestial bodies which, after death, should be no
more inaccessible to us than the black dots on maps that
symbolize towns and villages are in our earthly lives.
Science - scientific reasoning - strikes me as being an
instru-ment that will go a very long way in the future.
For look: people used to think that the earth was flat. That
was true, and still is today, of, say, Paris to
But that does not alter the fact that science demonstrates
that the earth as a whole is round, something nobody nowadays
For all that, people still persist in thinking that life
is flat and runs from birth to death.
But life, too, is probably round, and much greater in scope
and possibilities than the hemisphere we now know.
Future generations will probably be able to enlighten us on
this very interesting subject, and then science itself - with
all due respect - may reach conclusions that are more or less
in keeping with Christ's sayings about the other half of our
Be that as it may, the fact is that we are painters in real
life, and it's a matter of continuing to draw breath while one
has breath left in one's body.
Oh, what a beautiful picture that is by Eug. Delacroix,
Christ in the Boat on the Sea of Gennesaret! He - with his pale
lemon-yellow aureole, sleeping, luminous in the dramatic
purple, dark-blue, blood-red patch of the group of bewildered
disciples - on that terrible emerald-green sea, rising, rising,
right to the top of the frame. Ah, what an inspired conception!
What I've been doing looks very ugly - a drawing of a seated
Zouave, a painted sketch of the Zouave
against a completely white wall, and finally
his portrait against a green door and some orange bricks in a
wall. It is harsh, and taking it all in all,
ugly and unsuccessful. Yet, because I was tackling a real
difficulty with it, it may pave the way for the future.
Nearly all the figures I do look abominable in my own eyes,
let alone the eyes of others. Yet the study of the figure is
the most useful of all, provided one does it in a different way
from that taught at, for instance, Monsieur Benjamin
Your letter pleased me very much, the sketch 1 is
very, very interesting, and I thank you very much for it. One
of these days I shall be sending you a drawing of mine.
Tell me, do you remember the John the Baptist by Puvis? I
find it staggeringly beautiful and as magical as Eugene
The passage about John the Baptist you tracked down in the
Gospel means exactly what you have read in it… people
crowding round a man: “Are you the Christ? Are you
Elias?” As would happen today if you were to ask of
impressionism or of one of its questing representatives,
“Have you found it yet?” Exactly the same.
My brother is holding an exhibition of Claude Monets, 10
paintings done in Antibes from February to May, apparently it's
all very beautiful.
Have you ever read the life of Luther? Because Cranach,
Dürer, Holbein belong with him. He - his personality - is
the shining light of the Middle Ages.
I don't like the Sun King any more than you do - that Louis
XIV was rather a killjoy, it seems to me - my God, what an
utter bore that Methodist Solomon was. I don't like Solomon
either and Methodists not at all. Solomon strikes me as a
hypocritical heathen. I have really no respect for his
architecture, an imitation of other styles, and none at all for
his writings, for the heathens have done better.
Do tell me how things are going with your military service.
Do you want me to speak to that second lieutenant in the
Zouaves or not? Are you going to Africa or not? Do the years in
Africa count double in your case or not? Try to make sure above
all that your blood is all right - anaemia doesn't get you very
far and your painting slows right down. You must try to acquire
an iron constitution, a constitution that will allow you to
grow old, you ought to live like a monk who goes to the brothel
every two weeks - that's what I do myself, it isn't very
poetic, but I feel it's my duty to subordinate my life to
With a handshake, and once again thanks for your letter and
Ever yours, Vincent
P.S. The sonnets are doing well - that is to say, their
colour is fine; the drawing is less strong, or rather less
sure, the drawing is still hesitant - I don't know how to
express it - their moral purpose is not clear.
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Emile Bernard. Written 23 June 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number B08.
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