The Van Gogh Museum Paid $236,000 for a Revealing Letter by Van Gogh and Gauguin About Their Visits to Brothels

The museum is planning an exhibition of the artist's letters this fall.

Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House (The Street), 1888. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House (The Street), 1888. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam acquired a letter co-written by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin—about visiting brothels in Arles, France—for €210,600 ($236,700) at Drouot in Paris yesterday.

“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,” wrote Van Gogh. “At the moment Gauguin has a canvas in progress of the same night cafe that I also painted, but with figures seen in the brothels. It promises to become a beautiful thing.”

The four-page letter, written in French to artist Émile Bernard, is the only letter Van Gogh ever co-authored with a fellow artist. Dated November 1 and 2, 1888, the letter recounts the pair’s first few days at the Yellow House in Arles. Van Gogh hoped to create a flourishing artist colony there, and the letter was meant to entice Bernard to join them in Provence.

“The letter is a visionary explanation of their artistic collaboration and the future of modern art,” wrote the museum in a statement announcing the acquisition. “The artist friends’ different tones of voice add a psychological depth to the letter, particularly considering the tragic end of the partnership.”

Letter (detail) from Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to Emile Bernard, November 1–2, 1888 (letter 716). Photo courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

Letter (detail) from Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to Emile Bernard. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

By the end of the year—on December 23, 1888, to be exact—the relationship deteriorated and Van Gogh cut off his left ear during a psychotic episode. Legend has it that he gave the severed body part to a prostitute at the brothel, but more recent research suggests the recipient was a girl who worked at a cafe he frequented.

The violent incident, which may have been triggered by a fight over Gauguin’s decision to leave Arles, led to Van Gogh checking himself into Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, the next May. He stayed for just over a year, hoping to treat his mysterious mental illness.

Letter (detail) from Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to Emile Bernard, November 1–2, 1888 (letter 716). Photo courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

Letter (detail) from Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to Emile Bernard. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

The Van Gogh Museum reopened on June 1 after an 11-week closure. It plans to display the Gauguin-Van Gogh letter along with 40 other letters by the latter artist in the exhibition “‘Your Loving Vincent’: Van Gogh’s Greatest Letters,” opening October 9, 2020.

“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 troubling times,” said Van Gogh Museum director Emilie Gordenker. The institution had considered the document the most important letter by the artist still in private hands.


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