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Preface: Lettres de Vincent van Gogh à Emile Bernard

By Emile Bernard (1911)

I can see him again at Cormon’s, in the afternoon, when the atelier, empty of students, became for him a sort of cell. Seated before an antique plaster cast, he copies the beautiful forms with angelic patience. He wants to seize hold of these contours, these masses, these reliefs. He corrects himself, starts over with passion, erases, and finally wears a hole in his sheet of paper from rubbing it with an eraser. What he does not yet suspect, before this Roman marvel, is that everything in his Dutch nature is an obstacle to the conquest he seeks; and he will find a better avenue, and sooner, in the Impressionists, with their free fantasy, their easy lyricism, than in this calm perfection revealed to serene men of civilizations close to nature and thought.

How quickly Vincent has understood this! And it is here that he leaves Cormon’s, and abandons himself to it. He is not thinking of drawing from the antique any more than of painting--as he used to do under the master he once chose--nude women surrounded by imaginary carpets, odalisques in a misty, dreamy seraglio. But if he is not becoming classic, at least he believes he is becoming French.

By following the Impressionists, by joining their glowing school "we are working at the French Renaissance"--he wrote to his brother, who at his persuasion, exhibited Monet at Boussod’s--and I feel more French than ever in this task; we are in a homeland here." Yet this was true; Vincent was becoming French: he painted Montmartre, its little scraggy gardens; the Moulin de la Galette, its open-air roadhouses; his excursions took him as far afield as Asnières. He became a guest at the Ile de la Grande-Jatte, which Seurat had already made famous with his schematic studies.

Vincent would start out with a large canvas mounted on his back, then divide it up in as many sections as demanded by the motifs he found. In the evening he brought it home filled, and it was like a little portable museum, wherein were culled all the emotions of the day. There were bits of the Seine filled with boats, houses with the blue balancoires; smart bustling restaurants with multicolored blinds, with oleander; corners of abandoned parks or of properties up for sale. A vernal poetry emanated from these fragments seized by the tip of his brush as if stolen from the fleeting hours. I savored their charm all the more because at that time I lived in those places, because they were the objects of my solitary walks, and because they were rendered with the soul that I felt in them. Vincent often came to see me at the wooden atelier built in my parents’ garden in Asnières. It was there that we both set out to do portraits of Tanguy. He even started a portrait of me, but having quarreled with my father, who refused to go along with his advice concerning my future, he grew so angry that he abandoned my portrait and carried off, unfinished, that of Tanguy, flinging it still wet under his arm. Then he left without a backward glance and never set foot in our house again. So I took to frequenting the apartment of the two brothers at 54, rue Lepic.

One evening Vincent said to me, "I’m leaving tomorrow; let’s arrange the atelier in such a way that my brother will feel that I’m still here." He nailed Japanese prints on the walls and put some canvases on easels, leaving others in piles. He rolled up some things for me that I untied; they were of Chinese paintings, one of his finds, rescued from the hands of a junk-shop owner who used them to wrap the merchandise he sold. After this he announced that he was leaving for the Midi, for Arles, and that he hoped I would join him. "For," he said, "the Midi is now where the atelier of the future must be established." I accompanied him as far down as the avenue de Clichy--so well named by him the "little boulevard." I clasped his hands; and it was over forever. I will never see him again, I will never be so close to him again, except when we are joined by death.

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