February 1st, 2015
A previously unknown sketch of painter Vincent van Gogh has been found in an album of drawings by his friend Emile Bernard. The album, a collection of the French artist’s sketches cut out of other books and then pasted into a used accounts ledger, has been in the archive of the Bremen Kunsthalle museum in Germany since they bought it from Bernard’s son-in-law in 1970. Even though it’s been in the museum archives for 45 years, the notebook hasn’t been published or even thoroughly researched until now because making heads or tails of it was an immense challenge. A jumbled mixture of 858 works in a variety of styles, techniques and media, the earliest sketch in the scrapbook was done when Bernard was 13 years old, the most recent when he was in his sixties.
The subject of the sketch was identified as Van Gogh by Bremen Kunsthalle curator Dorothee Hansen during research for the upcoming exhibition Emile Bernard: On the Pulse of Modernity (pdf), the first large retrospective of the artist’s work covering all stages of his output and including works by friends, collaborators and contemporaries like Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh.
Bernard’s hasty sketch captures Van Gogh in a Parisian café, probably in Montmartre. He is drinking with two women, most likely prostitutes. Van Gogh has a short beard, moustache and slightly receding hair. Most noticeable are the piercing eyes. The sketch has spontaneity, suggesting that Bernard drew it while they were out for an evening.
Van Gogh has two bottles prominently placed before him, probably of wine (it is possible that one is absinthe and the other the accompanying water, although this was normally served in a carafe). The Dutchman appears to be clutching a glass. Soon after his departure for Arles, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo: “I’m better than in Paris, and if my stomach has become terribly weak that’s a problem I picked up there, probably due mainly to the bad wine, of which I drank too much.”
Hansen identified him from his features which while roughly sketched are still recognizably comparable to van Gogh’s self-portraits. As no photographs of him as adult have survived, those self-portraits are our main visual resource for the Dutch artist’s appearance. The face, hair and intense, unsmiling expression in the sketch are very much in keeping with the self-portraits Vincent van Gogh made in the winter of 1886-7, which is when Hansen believes the sketch was made.
Bernard met Van Gogh in March of 1886 at Atelier Cormon, the Paris studio of painter Fernand Cormon who aimed to prepare his students for acceptance into the annual Paris Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This institution was on its last legs in the 1880s, pummeled by two decades of rejecting Impressionists and avant-garde works. The official Salon with its traditional realism and historical/mythological themes was far behind the times and would close in 1890, but even so cutting edge artists like Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bernard went to Cormon’s school for a while.
Van Gogh and Bernard became good friends. The worked and played together, painting together and hanging out in bars with cheap wine and cheaper women. Other luminaries of the era participated as well. Notes in the ledger indicate there were portraits of two other famous artist friends of Bernard’s — a profile of Pointillist Paul Signac and two caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec — but they were removed and sold privately to collectors before the 1970 sale to the museum. The postcard-sized pen-and-ink sketch of Van Gogh, the wine and the ladies is the only one left in its original context in the scrapbook.
These are a pastel by Toulouse-Lautrec; an oil painting and a sheet of sketches by the Australian artist John Russell; and sketches by Lucien Pissarro, the English artist Horace Livens and the Scottish artist Archibald Hartrick (the latter probably not done from life, but in the 1930s).
The Bernard album will be on display at the Kunsthalle exhibition starting February 7th, but it won’t be opened to the Van Gogh sketch until March 31st. Emile Bernard: On the Pulse of Modernity closes two months later on May 31st, 2015.