"Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin," Vincent van Gogh
"Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin," Vincent van Gogh
My dear comrade Bernard,
I see I forgot to answer your question as to whether Gauguin
is still in Pont-Aven. Yes, he is still there, and if you
should like to write to him, I am inclined to think he will be
pleased. He has been staying there till now, but he will
probably join me here before long, as soon as he himself or
both of us can get the money for the journey.
I don't believe that this question of the Dutch painters,
which we are discussing at the moment, is without interest. As
soon as virility, originality, naturalism of whatever kind come
into question, it is very interesting to consult them. But I
must speak to you again first of all about yourself, the two
still lifes you have done and the two portraits of your
grandmother. Have you ever done anything better than that, and
have you ever been more yourself and a personality? I
think not. The profound study of the first thing which came to
hand, of the first person who came along was enough to
create really. Do you know why I like these three or
four studies so much? Because of that unknown quality of
deliberateness, of great wisdom, that inexpressible quality of
being steady and firm and self-assured of which they give
evidence. You have never been closer to Rembrandt, old fellow,
than in these studies.
But what do these differences matter, when the great thing
after all is to express oneself strongly?
At present you are studying the methods of the Italian and
German primitives, the symbolic significance which the abstract
mystical drawing of the Italians may contain. Go
ahead. I myself rather like that anecdote about
Giotto. There was a contest for painting some picture or other
representing a Virgin. A lot of cartoons were submitted to the
Administration of Fine Arts of the time. One of these cartoons,
signed Giotto, was simply an oval, an egg shape. The
Administration, perplexed - and confident - entrusted the
Virgin in question to Giotto. I don't know whether it is true
or not, but I like that anecdote quite a lot.
However, let us return to Daumier and your grandmother.
When are you going to show us studies of such vigorous
soundness again? I urgently invite you to do it, although I
most certainly do not despise your researches relating to the
property of lines in opposite motion - as I am not at all
indifferent, I hope, to the simultaneous contrasts of lines,
forms. The trouble is - you see, my dear comrade Bernard - that
Giotto and Cimabue, as well as Holbein and Van Dyck, lived in
an obeliscal - excuse the word - solidly framed society,
architecturally constructed, in which each individual was a
stone, and all the stones clung together, forming a monumental
society. When the socialists construct their logical social
edifice - which they are still pretty far from doing - I am
sure mankind will see a reincarnation of this society. But, you
know, we are in the midst of downright laisser-aller and
anarchy. We artists, who love order and symmetry, isolate
ourselves and are working to define only one thing.
Puvis [de Chavannes] knows this all right, and when he, so
just and so wise - forgetting his Elysian Fields - was so good
as to descend amiably into the intimacy of our time, he painted
a fine portrait indeed: the serene old man in the clear light
of his blue interior, reading a novel with a yellow cover -
beside him a glass of water with a watercolour brush and a rose
in it. Also a fashionable lady, as de Goncourts have depicted
Now we see that the Dutch paint things just as they are,
apparently without reasoning, just as Courbet painted his
beautiful nude women. They painted portraits, landscapes,
still lifes. Well, one can be stupider than that, and commit
If we don't know what to do, my dear comrade Bernard, then
let's do as they did if only not to let our rare intellectual
power evaporate in sterile metaphysical meditations which
cannot possibly put the chaos into a goblet, as chaos is
chaotic for the very reason that it contains no glass of our
We can - and this was done by these Dutchmen who are so
desperately naughty in the eyes of people with a system - we
can paint an atom of the chaos, a horse, a portrait, your
grandmother, apples, a landscape.
Why do you say Degas is impotently flabby? Degas lives like
a small lawyer - and does not like women, for he knows that if
he loved them and fucked them often, he, intellectually
diseased, would become insipid as a painter.
Degas's painting is virile and impersonal for the very
reason that he has resigned himself to be nothing personally
but a small lawyer with a horror of going on a spree. He looks
on while the human animals, stronger than himself get excited
and fuck, and he paints them well, exactly because he doesn't
have the pretension to get excited himself.
Reubens! Ah, that one! he was a handsome man and a
good fucker, Courbet too. Their health permitted them to drink,
eat, fuck … As for you, my poor dear comrade Bernard, I
already told you in the spring: eat a lot, do your military
exercises well, don't fuck too much; when you do this your
painting will be all the more spermatic.
Ah! Balzac, that great and powerful artist, has rightly told
us that relative chastity fortifies the modern artist. The
Dutchmen were married men and begot children, a
fine, very fine craftsmanship, and deeply rooted in nature.
One swallow does not make a summer. I don't say that among
your new Breton studies there are none which are virile and
sound; I have not seen them yet, so I could not possibly
discuss them. But what I have seen were those virile things:
the portrait of your grandmother, those still lifes. But
judging from your drawings, I have vague misgivings that your
new studies will not have the same vigor, exactly in point of
Those studies, which I am speaking about first, are the
first swallow of your artistic spring.
If we want to be really potent males in our work, we must
sometimes resign ourselves to not fuck much, and for the rest
be monks or soldiers, according to the needs of our
temperament. The Dutch, once more, had peaceful habits and a
peaceful life, calm, well regulated.
Delacroix - ah! that man! -“I found,” he says,
“my style of painting when I had neither teeth nor breath
left!” - and those who saw this famous artist paint said,
“When Delacroix paints, it is like a lion devouring his
piece [of meat].”
He did not fuck much, and only had easy love affairs, so as
not to curtail the time devoted to his work.
If you discover in this letter, which seems more incoherent
than I should have liked it to be, considered by itself in
relation to your correspondence and especially to the
friendship which preceded it - if you discover in this letter
some uneasiness - or at any rate solicitude - about your
health, with a view to the severe trial you will have to
undergo when you do your military service - obligatory, alas! -
then you will read it correctly. I know that the study of the
Dutch painters can only do you good, for their works are so
virile, so full of male potency, so healthy. Personally I feel
that continence is good for me, that it is enough for our weak,
impressionable artists' brains to give their essence to the
creation of our pictures. For when we reflect, calculate,
exhaust ourselves, we spend cerebral energy.
Why exert ourselves to pour out all our creative sap where
the well-fed professional pimps and ordinary fools do better
in the matter of satisfying the genital organs of the whore,
who is in this case more submissive than we are ourselves?
The whore in question has more of my sympathy than my
Being a creature exiled, outcast from society, like you and
me who are artists, she is certainly our friend and sister.
And in this condition of being an outcast she finds - just
as we ourselves do - an independence which is not without its
advantages after all, when you come to think of it. So let's
beware of assuming an erroneous attitude by believing that we
can do her a service by means of a social rehabilitation which
for that matter is hardly practicable and would be fatal to
I have just done a portrait of a postman,
or rather even two portraits. A Socratic type, none the less
Socratic for being somewhat addicted to liquor and having a
high colour as a result. His wife had just had a child, and the
fellow was aglow with satisfaction. He is a terrible
republican, like old Tanguy. God damn it! what a motif to paint
in the manner of Daumier, eh!
He kept himself too stiff when posing, which is why I
painted him twice, the second time at a single sitting. A blue, nearly
white background on the white canvas,
all the broken tones in the face - yellows, greens, violets,
pinks, reds. The uniform Prussian blue, with yellow
Write me soon if you feel like it, I am overburdened with
work, and haven't found time yet for figure sketches. A
Yours sincerely, Vincent
PS. Cézanne is a respectable married man just like
the old Dutchmen; if there is plenty of male potency in his
work it is because he does not let it evaporate in
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Emile Bernard. Written c. 4 August 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number B14.
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