Collected by Theo and Vincent van Gogh

Fragment of a Venus (recto), Figures in a Street (verso)

Emile Bernard

Emile Bernard (1868–1941) drew on both sides of this sheet. On one side he captured a colourful street scene, while on the other side is one-quarter of a study of a sculpture. The original sheet was torn in four, and the whereabouts of the other three parts of the drawing are unknown. Bernard made this black chalk study of a sculpture during his time at the atelier libre of Fernand Cormon (1845–1924) in Paris. This studio provided a space for aspiring artists to learn how to draw and paint from plaster replicas of classical sculptures, as well as from life models. Bernard was admitted in October 1884, at the age of sixteen, and trained there until February 1886.

The leg depicted in Bernard’s drawing belongs to a plaster cast of a torso of Venus that was among the practice objects found in Cormon’s atelier. It can be identified by the battered raised leg, which was reinforced with a large clump of unworked material . Bernard drew the standing leg of the plaster model, with the reinforcement visible to the right of the leg.

When Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) joined Cormon’s atelier in March 1886, he also drew this plaster model. He created several drawings showcasing the sculpture from different angles. In some of his sketches he omitted the reinforcement of the supporting leg, but he included it more often than not. This can be observed in Venus and Venus in a Top Hat . The plaster cast can also be detected behind the male torso in the right background in one of the photographs taken of the atelier and Cormon’s pupils . Van Gogh’s Fragment of a Venus is the drawing that most closely resembles Bernard’s study.

Fernand Cormon’s atelier libre, with a plaster cast in the right background, c. 1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Tralbaut Archive)

Fernand Cormon’s atelier libre, with a plaster cast in the right background, c. 1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Tralbaut Archive)

Unlike Van Gogh, only a few of Bernard’s sketches from his time in the atelier have survived. In the album titled L’enfance d’un peintre, in which Bernard compiled many of his sketches from 1882–89 later in life, only a single academic drawing can be found. It is possible that Bernard’s dissatisfaction with Cormon’s teaching methods, which he disclosed in later articles, may explain the scarcity of surviving sketches. For Bernard, the true value of the atelier libre lay in the friendships he forged there, particularly with Louis Anquetin (1861–1932) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901). Known for their free-spirited nature, these artists introduced Bernard to the world of independent modern art by taking him to impressionist exhibitions and lively entertainment venues in Montmartre.

A compelling contrast

Bernard’s exposure to this modern approach to art, which he could not learn at the atelier, was truly transformative. Following the example of Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec, he began to experiment with impressionist brushwork and complementary colour contrasts. Moreover, he developed a freer drawing style in his chalk and charcoal studies. As a result, a distinct contrast emerged between the works he produced in the atelier and those he created outside it. In fact, the front and back of this particular sheet serve as a compelling illustration of Bernard’s departure from the academic tradition and his pursuit of modern art. He tore the study sheet, on which he had drawn the volumes of a torso of Venus following academic rules, into four smaller parts, as mentioned above. On the back of one of these quarters, he swiftly made a drawing characterized by vibrant colour, spontaneity and a sense of modernism.

Bernard established the composition with just a few lines of light brown chalk and then deftly coloured the street, the building on the left and the sky in yellow and blue tones. No black is used in this drawing, nor is there any rigorous rendering of volume. Instead, it presents a colourful snapshot evocation of daily life in Paris. In the left foreground, a man wearing a top hat is depicted as a dark blue silhouette, creating the impression that he is lit from behind. Bernard frequently experimented with rendering figures as silhouettes, as is evident in several drawings found in L’enfance d’un peintre , as well as the painting Fisherman and Boat. It is possible that he drew inspiration for this from the shadow theatre shows at Le Chat Noir, the popular cabaret he doubtless visited with Toulouse-Lautrec and Anquetin. Further back, beyond the man, Bernard depicted a woman wearing a hat, and the green strokes in the background suggest a row of trees. Directly in front of them, Bernard used thick blue chalk to represent a structure, possibly a carriage. He employed yellow to suggest windows in this blue area, although they are not clearly visible.

Emile Bernard, Sketch of two figures in a landscape, from the album L’enfance d’un peintre (p. 30), c. 1885, charcoal on paper Kunsthalle Bremen – Der Kunstverein in Bremen

Emile Bernard, Sketch of two figures in a landscape, from the album L’enfance d’un peintre (p. 30), c. 1885, charcoal on paper, Kunsthalle Bremen – Der Kunstverein in Bremen

Strict boundaries

A drawing so spontaneously conceived and emphatically focused on colour could not have been shown at Cormon’s atelier. Fellow trainee François Gauzi (1862–1933) wrote the following about this distinction: ‘At Cormon’s atelier, the influence of the impressionists remained discreet; the pupils who were subject to it were content to draw, saving their research for the studies carried out at home, unbeknown to the boss.’ Finally, after a year and a half at the atelier libre, Bernard decided to break this unwritten rule by applying red and green paint to a brown sail that served as a background for the models. Archibald Standish Hartrick (1864–1950), a fellow student there, described in his memoirs what transpired when Cormon entered the atelier: ‘Cormon came around one morning, as usual, to find Bernard painting the old brown sail that served for a background to the model, in alternate streaks of vermilion and vert veronese. On asking the youth what he was doing, Bernard replied, “that he saw it that way.” Thereupon Cormon announced that if that was the case he had better go and see things that way somewhere else.’

After being dismissed by Cormon, Bernard persisted in his endeavour to draw and paint the world as he saw it. Despite being a very cursory sketch, Street Scene serves as evidence of Bernard’s evolution into a modern artist. He signed the drawing and gave it to his friend Vincent van Gogh, likely intending to share his later artistic experiments with him. At the same time, the fragment of the study of the torso of Venus on the back served as a memento of the atelier where they met, shortly thereafter embarking on their collaborative journey to innovate and renew art together.

Joost van der Hoeven
November 2023


Joost van der Hoeven, ‘Emile Bernard, Fragment of a Venus (recto), Figures in a Street (verso), c. 1886’, catalogue entry in Contemporaries of Van Gogh 1: Works Collected by Theo and Vincent, Joost van der Hoeven (ed.), Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 2023.

This contribution is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA licence.

Download catalogue entry

Emile Bernard - Fragment of a Venus, Figures in a Street (484 KB) (current version)