Van Gogh Museum acquires 1888 letter from Van Gogh and Gauguin to Bernard

Letter (detail) from Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to Emile Bernard, 1st or 2nd November 1888 (letter 716). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Amsterdam, 17th June 2020

At an auction at Drouot in Paris yesterday afternoon, the Vincent van Gogh Foundation acquired a singular letter written by Vincent van Gogh. The letter, which will be added to the Van Gogh Museum collection, was written in 1888 by two of the greatest artists of the 19th century: Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. The two artists take turns to give an account of their stay at the Yellow House in Arles to their artist friend Emile Bernard. During this intense period, Van Gogh and Gauguin lived together and worked tirelessly on their vision of modern art, as well as considering their place in its future. Their artistic dialogue at the time was ceaseless, and was sometimes continued at the brothel, as well as in this letter. This is the only letter that Van Gogh ever wrote together with another artist. The museum considers the letter to be the most significant document written by Van Gogh that was still in private hands. Emilie Gordenker, Director of the Van Gogh Museum: ‘We are delighted and very grateful that the Vincent van Gogh Foundation has made it possible to add such a remarkable letter as this to our collection, especially in these challenging times. The museum would not have been founded or exist today without the Vincent van Gogh Foundation. It is once again thanks to the foundation that we can add a significant new item to the museum’s collection. We always work closely with the foundation, and are thrilled that – thanks to this acquisition – this important letter can be included in our autumn exhibition focusing on Van Gogh’s letters’.

About the letter
Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin wrote the letter (letter 716 in the complete correspondence) in 1888, about a week after Gauguin went to live with Van Gogh at the Yellow House in the South of France, to work closely together as artistic partners. This was the first concrete step towards realising Van Gogh’s dream: to establish a utopian artists’ colony in Arles. Van Gogh was also keen for the artist Emile Bernard to travel south, and sent him detailed descriptions of everything that happened at the house. In this letter, the artists do not waste any words on pleasantries, instead getting straight to the point: the letter is a visionary explanation of their artistic collaboration and the future of modern art.  

While the letter to Bernard is written by both artists, it is also a dialogue between Van Gogh and Gauguin themselves. They took turns to write about their first impressions of the collaboration, but knew that the other artist would also read the letter. The artist friends’ different tones of voice add a psychological depth to the letter, particularly considering the tragic end of the partnership when Vincent cut off his ear during a psychotic episode.


The letter also offers an intriguing insight into how the artists set to work: Van Gogh wrote: ‘Now something that will interest you — we’ve made some excursions in the brothels, and it’s likely that we’ll eventually go there often to work’.


Exhibition ‘Your loving Vincent’. Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters from 9 October 2020 
This autumn, the museum will explore how, alongside being a talented artist, Vincent van Gogh was also an avid letter writer. With at least 875 documents, the Van Gogh Museum is home to the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh’s letters (the complete correspondence of Vincent van Gogh contains some 930 letters and associated documents), but these letters are rarely put on public display due to their fragility. The exhibition ‘Your loving Vincent’. Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters offers visitors the opportunity to view 40 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters alongside iconic artworks such as The Bedroom (1888), The Sower (1888) and The Potato Eaters (1885).

Up until now, the museum collection did not contain any letters written by Van Gogh to Emile Bernard. This latest addition to the Van Gogh Museum collection will go on display for the first time during the upcoming exhibition.

The Turing Foundation also agreed to support the purchase, but it was possible to acquire the letter without requiring this contribution.