My dear comrade Bernard,
I don't have the slightest doubt that you'll admit that
neither you nor I can have a complete idea of Velásquez
and Goya, of what they were as men and as painters, for neither
of us has seen Spain, their country, and so many beautiful
things which are still left in the South. But what one knows of
them is already something nevertheless.
Of course as for the people of the North, Rembrandt first of
all, it is highly desirable, when judging these painters, to
know their work as a whole as well as their country, and also
the somewhat intimate and concise history of the period and of
the customs of the old country.
I emphatically repeat that neither Baudelaire nor you has a
sufficiently clear idea of Rembrandt.
As for you, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to spend
a long time looking at the great and minor Dutchmen before
forming a fixed opinion. It is not merely a question of gems,
but a question of selecting marvels among the marvels.
And then there is not a little paste among the diamonds.
So, as for me, who have been studying the school of my
country for twenty years now, I shouldn't even answer if it
were being discussed, because in general I hear too much talk
which is beside the point, when the painters of the North are
So that my only answer to you is, Bah! look a little closer
than that; it will truly repay your trouble a thousandfold.
But if I disagreed with you, for instance, about these
subjects, I should confidently expect you to grant that I was
right later on. But what pains me so terribly in the Louvre is
to see their Rembrandts going to ruin and the idiots of the
administration letting so many beautiful pictures decay. So the
annoying yellow tone of certain Rembrandts is the result of
deterioration from moisture or some other causes; in some cases
I could point it out to you with a wet finger.
It is as difficult to say what Rembrandt's colour is as it
is to give a name to Velásquez' grey. For want of a
better name one might call it “Rembrandt gold.” And
this is what they have done, but it is pretty vague.
Coming to France as a foreigner, I, perhaps better than
Frenchmen born and bred, have felt Delacroix and Zola, and my
sincere and wholehearted admiration for them is boundless.
Since I had a somewhat complete notion of Rembrandt, one,
Delacroix, got his results by colours, the other, Rembrandt, by
tonal values, but they are on a par. [In his haste Vincent must
have left part of this sentence out, but his meaning is clear
In their quality as painters of a society, of a nature in
its entirety, Zola and Balzac produce rare artistic emotions in
those who love them, just because they embrace the whole of the
epoch they depict.
When Delacroix paints humanity, life in general, instead of
an epoch, he belongs no less to the same family of universal
I very much like the last words of, I think, Silvestre, who
ended a masterly article in this way: “Thus died - almost
smiling - Delacroix, a painter of a noble race, who had a sun
in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart, who turned from
the warriors to the saints, from the saints to the lovers, from
the lovers to the tigers, and from the tigers to the
And then Millet, the painter of a whole race and the
environment it lives in.
It is possible that these great geniuses are only madmen,
and that one must be mad oneself to have boundless faith in
them and a boundless admiration for them. If this is true, I
should prefer my insanity to the sanity of the others. Perhaps
the most direct road is to approach Rembrandt indirectly. Let's
talk about Frans Hals. He never painted Christs, annunciations
to the shepherds, angels, crucifixions or resurrections; he
never painted nude, voluptuous and bestial women.
He did portraits, and nothing, nothing else.
Portraits of soldiers, gatherings of officers, portraits of
magistrates assembled to debate the affairs of the republic,
portraits of matrons with pink or yellow skins, wearing white
caps and dressed in wool and black satin, discussing the budget
of an orphanage or an almshouse. He painted the portraits of
middle-class men in their homes: the man, the woman, the child.
He painted the drunken toper, an old fishwife in a mood of
witch-like hilarity, the pretty gypsy whore, babies in their
diapers, the dashing, self-indulgent nobleman with his
mustache, top boots and spurs He painted himself, together with
his wife, young, deeply in love, on a bench on a lawn, after
the first wedding night. He painted vagabonds and laughing
urchins, he painted musicians and he painted a fat cook.
He does not know greater things than that; but it is
certainly worth as much as Dante's Paradise and the
Michelangelos and the Raphaels and even the Greeks. It is as
beautiful as Zola, healthier as well as merrier, but as true to
life, because his epoch was healthier and less dismal.
And now what is Rembrandt?
The same thing absolutely: a painter of portraits.
One must first of all have a healthy, broad, clear notion of
these two brilliant Dutchmen, equal in value, before going any
further into the subject. When we have understood this
thoroughly - this whole glorious republic, depicted by these
two prolific portraitists, reconstructed in bold outlines -
then we still keep a very large margin for landscapes, domestic
scenes, animals, philosophical subjects.
But I implore you, follow this straightforward reasoning
carefully, for I am doing my best to present it to you in a
very, very simple way.
Hammer into your head that master Frans Hals, that painter
of all kinds of portraits, of a whole gallant, live, immortal
republic. Hammer into your head the no less great and universal
master painter of portraits of the Dutch republic: Rembrandt
Harmensz [son of Harmen] van Rijn, that broad-minded
naturalistic man, as healthy as Hals himself. And then we see
issuing from this source, Rembrandt, a line of direct and true
pupils: Vermeer of Delft, Fabritius, Nicholaes Maes, Pieter de
Hooch, Bol, and those whom he influenced: Potter, Ruysdael,
Ostade, Terborch. I mention Fabritius here although we know
only two canvases of his, and I don't mention a lot of good
painters, and especially not the paste among these diamonds,
that paste so solidly crammed into the vulgar French
Am I very incomprehensible, my dear comrade Bernard? I am
just trying to make you see the great simple thing: the
painting of humanity, or rather of a whole republic, by the
simple means of portraiture. This first and foremost. When
later on - in the case of Rembrandt - we happen to meet with
mysticism, with Christs, with nude women, then it is very
interesting but it is not the main thing. Let Baudelaire hold
his tongue in this domain; his words are sonorous but then
Let us take Baudelaire for what he is, a modern poet, just
as Musset is another, but let him stop being a nuisance when we
are speaking about painting. 1 I don't like your
drawing “Lechery” as much as the others. I like
“The Tree,” however; it is very smart.
Sincerely yours, Vincent
[Footnote by Bernard] All this was provoked by my
quoting with admiration the quatrain from Charles
Rembrandt triste hôpital tout rempli de murmures
Et d'un grand crucifix décoré seulement,
D'où la priére en pleurs s'exhale des
Et d'un rayon d'hiver traverse brusquement.
[Rembrandt - sad hospital filled full of murmurs
And decorated only with a great crucifix
Where the tearful prayer breathes out of the filth
And brusquely traversed by a wintry ray.]
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Emile Bernard. Written c. 25 July 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number B13.
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