Arthur Lubow explores Vincent van Gogh’s letters to Émile Bernard, written from 1887 to 1889.
The bulk of van Gogh’s vivid lifetime correspondence—about 800 of his letters survive—was addressed to his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris who supported him financially and emotionally. Those letters, which constitute one of the great literary testaments in art history, are confessional and supplicatory. But in these pages to the younger man, van Gogh adopted an avuncular tone, expounding on his personal philosophy and offering advice on everything from the lessons of the old masters to relations with women: basically, stay away from them. Most important, to no one else did he so directly communicate his artistic opinions.
Just shy of 18 when he met van Gogh in March 1886, Bernard also impressed Paul Gauguin, whom he encountered in Brittany not long afterward. Two summers later, the ambitious Bernard would return to Brittany to paint alongside Gauguin in Pont-Aven. There, deeply influenced by Japanese prints, the two artists jointly developed an approach—using patches of flat color outlined heavily in black—that diverged from the prevailing Impressionism. Although Bernard would live to be 72, painting most of his life, these months would prove to be the high point of his artistic career. Critics today regard him as a minor figure.