Monday, December 10, 2012

Historic Van Gogh-Gauguin Letter Estimated $470,000 - $670,000 At Christie's

by Stephen J. Gertz

An astounding autograph letter co-written and signed by Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to a third party discussing each other, their work together, paintings in progress, thoughts on a painter's association, and, amusingly, their exploration of the brothels of Arles, is being offered by Christie's-Paris in their Pierre Berès A Livre Ouvert sale on December 12, 2012.

It is estimated to sell for $470,000 - $670,000.

Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer; this is no. 716, found in the definitive, six-volume Vincent Van Gogh - The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, a massive project begun in 1994 under the aegis of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and published in 2009.

Though undated and without location, internal evidence points to it being written on Thursday the 1st or Friday the 2d of November 1888 and posted from Arles.

Van Gogh fled Paris in early 1888 and sought refuge in Arles. After repeated requests, Gauguin joined him on October 23d; they shared the four rooms that Van Gogh had rented at 2, Place Lamartine, the Yellow House. The letter was written a week after Gauguin's arrival.

Written to French painter and writer Emile  Bernard (1868-1941), in English translation it reads in full:

My dear old Bernard,

We’ve done a great deal of work these past few days, and in the meantime I’ve read Zola’s Le rêve,1 so I’ve hardly had time to write.

Gauguin interests me greatly as a man — greatly. For a long time it has seemed to me that in our filthy job as painters we have the greatest need of people with the hands and stomach of a labourer. More natural tastes — more amorous and benevolent temperaments — than the decadent and exhausted Parisian man-about-town.

Now here, without the slightest doubt, we’re in the presence of an unspoiled creature with the instincts of a wild beast. With Gauguin, blood and sex have the edge over ambition. But enough of that, you’ve seen him close at hand longer than I have, just wanted to tell you first impressions in a few words.

Next, I don’t think it will astonish you greatly if I tell you that our discussions are tending to deal with the terrific subject of an association of certain painters. Ought or may this association have a commercial character, yes or no? We haven’t reached any result yet, and haven’t so much as set foot on a new continent yet. Now I, who have a presentiment of a new world, who certainly believe in the possibility of a great renaissance of art. Who believe that this new art will have the tropics for its homeland.

It seems to me that we ourselves are serving only as intermediaries. And that it will only be a subsequent generation that will succeed in living in peace. Anyway, all that, our duties and our possibilities for action could become clearer to us only through actual experience.

I was a little surprised not yet to have received the studies that you promised in exchange for mine. 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. At the moment Gauguin has a canvas in progress of the same  night café that I also painted, but with figures seen in the brothels. It promises to become a beautiful thing.

I’ve made two studies of falling leaves in an avenue of poplars, and a third study of the whole of this avenue, entirely yellow.

I declare I don’t understand why I don’t do figure studies,6 while theoretically it’s sometimes so difficult for me to imagine the painting of the future as anything other than a new series of powerful portraitists, simple and comprehensible to the whole of the general public. Anyway, perhaps I’ll soon get down to doing brothels.

I’ll leave a page for Gauguin, who will probably also write to you, and I shake your hand firmly in thought.

Ever yours,

Milliet the 2nd lieut. Zouaves has left for Africa, and would be very glad if you were to write to him one of these days.

[Continued by Gauguin]

You will indeed do well to write him what your intentions are, so that he could take steps beforehand to  prepare the way for you.

Mr Milliet, second lieutenant of Zouaves, Guelma, Africa.

Don’t listen to Vincent; as you know, he’s prone to admire and ditto to be indulgent. His idea about the future of a new generation in the tropics seems absolutely right to me as a painter, and I still intend going back there when I find the funds. A little bit of luck, who knows?

Vincent has done two studies of falling leaves in an avenue, which are in my room and which you would like very much. On very coarse, but very good sacking.

Send news of yourself and of all the pals.


Paul Gauguin

The late Pierre Berès (1913-2008) was more than a collector. He was "The King of  French booksellers," as the New York Times' obituary noted, towering over the rare and antiquarian book trade in Europe for seventy-five years until his death at age ninety-five. He was also a legendary figure in the world of art. He began as an autograph collector but soon shifted his attention  to books. His meteoric rise in the world of rare bookselling was fueled by acquiring collections of financially unstable French aristocrats and American millionaires during the Depression.

He was "a man renowned for his taste and connoisseurship, his vast financial resources and his ruthlessness in the pursuit of the rare and the beautiful" (NY Times obit). “I do not seek, I find,” he once cryptically declared about his preternatural ability to ferret-out scarce and desirable rare books from their hiding places.

"Rivals found him unscrupulous. In one celebrated instance he advertised in his own catalog some choice specimens that happened to belong to a competitor. When a client expressed interest, Mr. Berès told him to wait while he fetched the required volumes from his warehouse. Instead he raced to his competitor’s shop, bought the books and resold them" (Op cit, NY Times). If he was, at times, a scoundrel, he was the most elegant, charming, polished and sophisticated rascal to ever grace the rare book trade, in which scamps and scalawags can still be found but none with such savoir faire and cultivation. He was a consummate gentleman who seduced everyone he came into contact with and knew how to entertain them, routinely inviting buyers and sellers to his apartment on the Avenue de Foch for lunches and dinners after leaving them goggle-eyed at the literary and art treasures he displayed in glass cases and on the walls of his living room.

"Pierre Berès was a living legend on an international scale [and] also a character from a detective story: firstly because of his detective's flair and daring, secondly because of the mystery in which he liked to shroud his own persona, and lastly because of the subtlety of his business strategies that led him to store some of his finds and his cellars to mature - sometimes as long as a half-century - like one would store fine wine" (Françoise Choay).

This letter was one of his prize possessions, marrying his two great loves, art and manuscripts. It is, arguably, Van Gogh's most significant letter, written at a key point in his career and about his most significant - certainly his most famous - relationship beyond that with his brother, Theo.

In an article, Les isolés: Vincent van Gogh, which appeared in the January 1890 issue of the Mercure de France and incorporated a passage from this letter, French writer and art critic, Gabriel-Albert Aurier (1865-1892), wrote of Van Gogh, "[he is] a dreamer, an exalted believer, a devourer of beautiful Utopias, who lives on ideas and illusions. For a long time he has taken delight in imagining a renovation of art made possible through a displacement of civilization: an art of tropical regions."

The two living side-by-side with incompatible temperaments, the atmosphere at chez Van Gogh soon turned tropical and Van Gogh and Gauguin's relationship began to wilt, Gauguin's domineering arrogance pushing Van Gogh over the edge. On December 23 1888 - less than two months after this letter was written -  a frustrated Van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor but in panic fled to a local brothel. While there, he cut off his left ear, wrapped it in newspaper and presented it to Rachel, one of the brothel's prostitutes, asking her to "keep this object carefully." He staggered home, where Gauguin later found him lying unconscious with his head covered in blood.

On January 2, 1889, a week after the incident, Van Gogh wrote to Theo from the Civil Hospital in Arles, letter no. 728:

My dear Theo,

In order to reassure you completely on my account I’m writing you these few words in the office of Mr Rey, the house physician, whom you saw yourself. I’ll stay here at the hospital for another few days — then I dare plan to return home very calmly.1 Now I ask just one thing of you, not to worry, for that would cause me one worry too many.

Now let’s talk about our friend Gauguin, did I terrify him? In short, why doesn’t he give me a sign of life? He must have left with you.

Besides, he needed to see Paris again, and perhaps he’ll feel more at home in Paris than here. Tell Gauguin to write to me, and that I’m still thinking of him.

Good handshake, I’ve read and re-read your letter about the meeting with the Bongers. It’s perfect. As for me, I’m content to remain as I am. Once again, good handshake to you and Gauguin.

Ever yours,


Bygones be bygones...

The Van Gogh-Gauguin letter, in the original French and English translation with footnotes, can be found here.

Images courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.

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