Van Gogh letters on display at the Morgan

NEW YORK – Twenty letters from Vincent van Gogh to the artist and poet Emile Bernard are the subject of an exhibition on view at the Morgan Library & Museum from Sept. 28 through Jan. 6, 2008.

“Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Emile Bernard” offers a rare look at the life and creative process of van Gogh through the letters written to his friend and colleague. Also in the exhibition are 22 paintings, drawings and watercolors that the two artists discussed or exchanged.

Comprised of missives and artwork from the peak of van Gogh’s creativity, while he was living in the south of France (1888–1889), the exhibition explores the role correspondence played in how van Gogh thought about his work and communicated his progress to his contemporaries.

After meeting in Paris in 1886, van Gogh and Bernard embarked upon a close friendship, and in 1887 began a two-year correspondence that spanned the final years of van Gogh’s brilliant, but troubled life prior to his suicide in 1890. Van Gogh’s letters to Bernard illuminate the many ways in which the artists inspired and encouraged one another. The Dutch artist took on the role of an older, wiser brother to Bernard, praising or criticizing his paintings, drawings and poems.

Bernard became a friend and confidant to van Gogh, who was living alone in Arles. The letters also chronicle van Gogh’s own struggles, as he frequently solicited Bernard’s advice or opinion on artistic issues.

“Painted with Words” is the first exhibition to address the pivotal role Bernard’s friendship played while the Dutch artist was living in Arles. Writing to a fellow artist, van Gogh freely conveyed his thoughts about life and art in an open and expressive manner. The letters touch on a broad range of topics – from the philosophical to the mundane, from the amusing to the explicit. In a letter from Arles dated June 19, 1888, van Gogh wrote, “I am in better health here than in the north – I even work in the wheat fields at midday, in the full heat of the sun, without any shade whatever, and there you are, I revel in it like a cicada.”

In the same letter, he went on to describe a vision of what would later become one of his most iconic subjects, Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888), now in the collection of Musee d’Orsay, Paris:

“But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind? Alas, alas, it’s just as our excellent pal Cyprien says, in En menage by J. K. Huysmans: “The most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed, but which one doesn’t make. But it’s a matter of attacking them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel vis-a-vis the ineffable perfections of nature’s glorious splendours.”

Both artists’ letters included sketches to provide an idea of their work in progress. Van Gogh’s contained studies related to The Sower (1888), The Langlois Bridge (1888), Cottages at Saintes-Maries (1888), Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries (1888), and View of Arles at Sunset (1888). In a letter written just as he had begun work on View of Arles at Sunset, van Gogh wrote:

“Here’s another landscape. Setting sun? Moonrise? Summer evening, at any rate. Town violet, star yellow, sky blue-green; the wheat fields have all the tones: old gold, copper, green gold, red gold, yellow gold, green, red, and yellow bronze. Square no. 30 canvas.”

Along with the letter, the exhibition includes the sketch and the full-scale “repetition,” or drawing replicating a painted composition, that van Gogh sent to Bernard after finishing the painting. Such repetitions allowed van Gogh to experiment with translating painted works into graphic form. As independent works of art, they are among the artist’s most accomplished works on paper.

A symposium devoted to the relationship between the artists, and Bernard’s role in establishing the legend of van Gogh, is scheduled for Sept. 29. Panelists will include Morgan exhibition curator, Jennifer Tonkovich, and catalogue authors Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker of the Van Gogh Museum.

For more information, call 212-685-0008 or visit