Works Collected by Theo and Vincent van Gogh

Brothel Scenes

Emile Bernard

Discussions about the direction of contemporary art were central to the friendship between Emile Bernard (1868–1941) and Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). They engaged in conversations about sources of inspiration, style and technique, and delved into the subjects their progressive paintings should depict. Prostitution was a major topic, one that they must have discussed frequently during their extensive time together in Paris in 1887. Van Gogh even gave Bernard two of his explicit contemporary nudes ( and ). The subversive nature of this theme, which was at the core of the cultural, social and moral debates of their era, intrigued both artists. It thus infused their works with a distinctly modern charge.

In the exchange of letters and drawings between Bernard and Van Gogh, which commenced after Van Gogh’s departure for Arles on 19 February 1888, prostitution continued to be an important topic of discussion. Regrettably, Bernard’s letters have not been preserved, but almost all the drawings he sent to Van Gogh are now in the Van Gogh Museum. Of these twenty-seven drawings, seventeen feature sex workers. Additionally, two other drawings encompass plays on sexuality in an allegorical way. Furthermore, Bernard included poems he had written about prostitution in three of his letters. Van Gogh reciprocated by sending Bernard fifteen drawings and enlivened some of his letters with accompanying sketches.

Bernard drew inspiration for his prostitution drawings from a variety of sources spanning high and low culture. He incorporated elements from satirical magazine illustrations, folk chansons, Symbolist poetry and naturalist literature. A notable aspect of Bernard’s approach was his experimentation in combining word and image, infusing his drawings with narrative content akin to magazine illustrations. The hasty nature of his sketches suggests that they were not intended as finished works of art but rather as visualizations for artistic discussions. The fact that Bernard sent all these drawings relating to prostitution to Van Gogh indicates that he considered Van Gogh an important participant in the pursuit of innovative art, with prostitution taking centre stage therein. Van Gogh served as a sounding board for Bernard’s interdisciplinary approach to this subject. While we are unable to read Bernard’s commentary on the drawings, Van Gogh’s extensive critique affords insight into the exchange of ideas between the two friends.

This entry deals with all seventeen prostitution drawings and the two allegorical works, as well as the three poems on the subject that Bernard sent to Van Gogh. These works were dispatched in five separate shipments between April and October 1888. Given the significance of these drawings in Bernard’s dialogue with Van Gogh, considerable attention is paid to Van Gogh’s critique throughout this entry. However, before diving into the discussion of each individual work and Van Gogh’s reaction to them, it is important to understand the sources of inspiration that propelled Bernard to make these prostitution drawings.

Vincent van Gogh, Reclining Nude, 1887, oil on canvas, 23.8 × 40.9 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink

Vincent van Gogh, Reclining Nude, 1887, oil on canvas, 23.8 × 40.9 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink

The first prostitution drawings

The fascination with prostitution was not new to the young Bernard, who had been exploring this subject in his drawings since 1885. One of his earlier works, The Dive (Le bourge) (), exemplifies his interest in the theme. During this period, Bernard was studying at Fernand Cormon’s (1845–1924) atelier libre, where he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and Louis Anquetin (1861–1932), among others. They introduced him to Montmartre’s nightlife, where prostitution was prevalent. The clandestine nature of prostitution, particularly with the unregistered sex workers, so called filles insoumises (‘insubordinate women’) who offered their services on the streets, in café-concerts, cabarets and brasseries, captured Bernard’s attention. Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec used the prostitution in Montmartre as a decidedly contemporary theme in their art. In 1886, for instance, Anquetin painted an ambitious studio piece titled Le Mirliton, depicting the interior of the eponymous cabaret, where a sex worker gazes seductively at the viewer and thereby assumes a provocative leading role. Interestingly, Bernard himself served as the model for the figure to the left at the table (). While Toulouse-Lautrec’s references to prostitution were not as explicit then as in his later work of the 1890s, he nevertheless often seized on the subject, as seen, for example, in Artilleryman and Woman ().

What stands out about both Bernard’s The Dive (Le bouge) and Anquetin’s and Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings is their shared cheerful and satirical nature. Their nocturnal scenes, brimming with festivities and entertainment, captured the visual culture of Montmartre’s exuberant and bohemian life. While the inclusion of prostitution could have been a subject for criticism given the inhumane French tolerance policy of the late nineteenth century, which offered sex workers no rights whatsoever, these artists viewed it more as a symptom of society’s underbelly, inseparably linked to Montmartre, and even celebrated it in that context. This perspective was explicitly depicted in satirical magazines originating from Montmartre, like Le Courrier français, which overflowed with caricatural erotic illustrations and brothel scenes, often drenched in tongue-in-cheek irony.

Le Courrier français was a weekly magazine featuring art, satire and entertainment. Modern painters such as Adolphe Willette (1857–1926), Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931) and Ferdinand Lunel (1857–1949) contributed illustrations, for example Lunel’s At the Masked Ball of the Opera (Au bal masqué de l’Opéra) () and Forain’s …?...!!!......... (), lending the publication a strong artistic appeal. The magazine’s provocative images caught the attention of French authorities. Even though press freedom was signed into law in 1881, an addendum prohibiting ‘indecent’ illustrations and texts was introduced in 1882. By consistently pushing the boundaries of acceptability, Le Courrier français fearlessly exposed the hypocrisy of these regulations, earning a reputation as a rebellious provocateur fighting for total freedom of the press. Simultaneously, with its bold and daring illustrations the magazine aimed to stand out amid the numerous other publications on the newsstands. The combination of high artistic quality on the one hand and continuous controversy and recurring scandals on the other meant that avant-garde artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Anquetin and, in their wake, the young Bernard found an inexhaustible source of inspiration in the illustrations of Le Courrier français. They saw the provocative, satirical depictions of eroticism and prostitution as suitable modern subjects for their art. Besides Le Courrier français, publications such as Gil Blas and Le Mirliton were also infused with eroticism, social criticism and humour, much like the many other cultural expressions spawned in Montmartre, such as the cabaret of Le Chat Noir and the chansons of Aristide Bruant (1851–1925).

Toulouse-Lautrec, Anquetin and Bernard approached prostitution as a modern subject for their art, examining it through the satirical lens of Montmartre’s culture, of which Le Courrier français was one of the most significant manifestations. In Bernard’s early brothel drawings, like The Dive (Le bourge), a playful approach is noticeable, in this case through not only the title but also the inclusion of the number ‘69’ above the entrance to the seedy brothel. Bernard wrote the title of the work at the bottom of the image, ruling out any other reading of the scene. He would use this combination of text and image regularly, including in many of the drawings he sent to Van Gogh, demonstrating the influence of magazine illustrations on his style.

The exchange between Van Gogh and Bernard

Bernard’s satirical approach to prostitution remained prevalent in his work, and this same vein of satire is evident in the drawings he sent to Arles in 1888. This not only indicates Bernard’s awareness of Van Gogh’s understanding of humour and appreciation of subtlety but also affirms that the friends had already engaged in discussion about the subject of prostitution in these terms in Paris. Van Gogh himself once drew a sex worker washing herself over a basin on the back of a Paris restaurant menu (). Moreover, he made a drawing of a plump woman walking her dog, with a text underneath referencing Bruant’s chanson A la Villette (). In this way, like Bernard, Van Gogh employed iconographic codes and the caricatural style reminiscent of illustrations found in magazines like Le Courrier francais.

The discourse on prostitution as a modern subject for painting also touched on another pivotal theme in the intellectual exchanges between Bernard and Van Gogh, namely the juxtaposition of working from the imagination versus depicting visible reality. Bernard’s drawings of prostitution were an imaginary synthesis of his impressions from Montmartre and the imagery he encountered in publications like Le Courrier francais. In addition, Bernard drew inspiration from poetry and literature that addressed the theme of prostitution. Popular literary works exploring the subject included La fille Elisa (1877) by Edmond de Goncourt, a novel recounting the tragic fate of a young girl destined to become a sex worker and eventually imprisoned. Another influential publication was La maison Tellier (1881) by Guy de Maupassant, a collection of light-hearted tales set in a Normandy brothel. Above all, Bernard held the greatest admiration for the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, whose poems from the collection Les fleurs du mal (1857) dealt with themes including desire, eroticism and prostitution. The famous poem ‘Lesbos’, for instance, is an allegorical hymn to lust. Bernard acknowledged his indebtedness to Baudelaire by inscribing the poem’s title beneath a quick sketch of a sex worker striking a ‘seductive’ pose ().

Baudelaire’s imaginary worlds prompted Bernard to mine his own imagination for his prostitution drawings. Although Van Gogh admired this in Bernard, he himself needed more solid ground under his feet. His own work was necessarily rooted in reality. Bernard’s invented, satirical brothel scenes failed to inspire him to depict similar imaginary scenes on paper. His Parisian effigies of a sex worker (see and ) were painted from models, and he hoped to produce any future brothel scenes from reality as well.

Emile Bernard, Lesbos, sketch from the album A Painter’s Childhood (L’enfance d’un peintre) (p. 104), c. 1887, pen and ink on paper, Kunsthalle Bremen – Der Kunstverein in Bremen

Emile Bernard, Lesbos, sketch from the album A Painter’s Childhood (L’enfance d’un peintre) (p. 104), c. 1887, pen and ink on paper, Kunsthalle Bremen – Der Kunstverein in Bremen

The first two shipments: Paris and Brothel Scene

Paris and Brothel Scene are the first known drawings that Bernard sent to Van Gogh. He dispatched Paris shortly after his arrival in Saint-Briac on 25 April 1888, commencing his third consecutive summer in Brittany. Brothel Scene followed two months later. In Paris, Bernard portrayed street prostitution utilizing the well-established trope of a woman standing beneath a streetlamp. In the art and literature of the late nineteenth century, the lanterns illuminating the boulevards at night symbolized the underworld that thrived in darkness. The dimly lit boulevards were perceived as the domain of sex workers, who stepped into the literal and metaphorical light beneath the lanterns. With the ironic inscription ‘Paris’ at the lower left of the scene, Bernard jokingly labelled street prostitution as a fitting metaphor for the city as a whole. With schematically rendered street fronts, solid contours, abrupt cropping and a tilted perspective reminiscent of Japanese prints, Bernard depicted the boulevard de Clichy, the central hub of Montmartre. The background of the composition features factory chimneys belonging to the nearby industrial suburbs of Clichy and Levallois, serving as a visual reference and indicating that we are looking west.

In Brothel Scene, Bernard depicted a moment in which a sex worker seduces a customer in the salon of a brothel, while the owner of the establishment (the madame) looks on with approval. On the salon’s back wall is a picture of Eve in Paradise, a nod to the ‘fall’ that is about to occur. To emphasize the drawing’s light-hearted intent, Bernard added a note at the bottom of the sheet: ‘To my friend Vincent, this silly sketch’ (‘À mon ami Vincent ce croquis bête’). The scene depicted in the drawing is comparable to a painted brothel scene Bernard may have produced in the same period, titled Interior of a Brothel (), a painting about which Bernard wrote to Van Gogh. Both works delve into the theme of customers being seduced by sex workers. The painting differs from the drawing mainly in terms of the ingenious composition, which infuses the scene with heightened tension and dynamic energy. In contrast, the drawing lacks this sense of tension and is rather flat.

Both Paris and Brothel Scene were made on a sheet of wove paper measuring approximately 31 by 20 cm. These dimensions correspond to the size of the sketchbooks that Bernard consistently used from 1886 onwards. These sheets must have come from the same type of sketchbook, as is evident from the torn edge along one of the long sides. Bernard drew the works in black ink, some of which he applied with a brush to depict the woman’s clothes and hair in Paris. In the case of Brothel Scene, he used watercolour to fill in certain passages, adding a few lines in black ink for the finishing touches.

The varying thickness of the black ink lines in these drawings indicates that Bernard worked with reed pens. Reed pens are crafted from reed stems, with the point of the pen cut in a specific manner. By varying the sharpness of these points, an artist can control the thickness of the line produced. It is quite possible that Bernard acquired knowledge of this technique from Van Gogh during his time in Paris. Having studied the drawing manual Guide pratique pour les différents genres de dessin (1873) by the painter Armand Théophile Cassagne (1823–1907), Van Gogh knew how to fashion reed pens. Although he did not use this technique in Paris, he enthusiastically embraced it upon his arrival in Arles. In Cassagne’s guide, Van Gogh likely read that the most suitable reeds were found in the south of France, and he must have discussed this with Bernard prior to heading in that direction. This may have been the reason why Bernard went in search of reeds with which to make pens while sojourning in Brittany. Bernard’s use of the reed pen illustrates how the exchange of ideas between him and Van Gogh encompassed not only artistic subject matter but also the craft involved in being an artist. It is worth noting that Bernard employed a reed pen for all the other prostitution drawings he sent to Van Gogh as well.

Van Gogh admired both Paris and Brothel Scene, expressing his fondness for them in his letters to Bernard. He described Paris as ‘really pretty’, and about Brothel Scene he wrote: ‘the CROQUIS IS VERY VERY INTERESTING’, emphasizing his appreciation of Bernard’s satirical and anecdotal drawings. He sent the drawings to his brother Theo (1857–1891), requesting that Brothel Scene be hung in the Paris flat alongside Bernard’s painting The Acrobats (Les saltimbanques) (1887). Additionally, Van Gogh believed that Theo should acquire a painting by Bernard in response to this drawing, although this ultimately did not happen. Furthermore, Brothel Scene served as a catalyst for Van Gogh to start sending individual drawings to Bernard himself. One of them was The Zouave (), about which Van Gogh wrote: ‘If we executed a brothel together, I’m sure we’d use the study of the Zouave as a character type in it.’

Both Paris and Brothel Scene were accompanied by poems written by Bernard (see Appendix 1 and Appendix 2) that were thematically linked to the subject matter. They were penned in the spirit of Baudelaire, whose poetry had spurred Bernard’s own poetic endeavours since at least 1887. The poem belonging to Paris was titled ‘La prostitution’ and was sent as a loose sheet along with the drawing. It began with a satirical reflection on street prostitution in general but concluded with a thought on the possibility of the righteousness behind the supposed immorality of the sex worker. This might have been inspired by Baudelaire’s seminal essay ‘Le peintre de la vie moderne’ (1863), in which he argued that the sex worker possessed a certain hidden beauty. While Bernard’s emphasis differed, the link between prostitution and beauty likely derived from the poet. As mentioned, Bernard wrote a poem on the back of the sheet of Brothel Scene as well (). This time, his verses constituted an explicit indictment of a depraved system that victimizes women, reducing them to mere flesh. Bernard had previously explored this theme in a large virtuoso drawing of a brothel with the Baudelairean title The Hour of the Flesh (L’heure de la viande) (). It is difficult to reconcile the serious tone of this poem with the satirical drawing on the front of the sheet – a flirtatious croquis bête depicting a sex worker seducing a customer.

Despite drawing inspiration from Baudelaire’s poems, Bernard’s attempts to capture the striking allegorical qualities that permeated the celebrated poet’s work fell short. Unlike Baudelaire’s poetry, which is a metaphor-shrouded celebration of society’s underbelly, Bernard’s two poems come off as literal, critical and moralistic in nature. This approach garnered criticism from Van Gogh, who found fault with the concluding lines of the poem ‘La prostitution’, referring to them as ‘banal’. Van Gogh’s critique likely stemmed from Bernard’s reliance on a literary and clichéd portrayal of a ‘sublime’ woman hidden in the guise of a sex worker in the last stanza. For him, Bernard’s poem lacked the authenticity of personal observations, instead leaning too heavily on literature and poetry. Consequently, Van Gogh found the wistful ending implausible: ‘A “sublime” woman, I don’t know what you mean by that, nor do you in this case.’

In the poem on the back of Brothel Scene, Van Gogh observed a lack of analytical or allegorical distance from the subject matter. He felt that Bernard was taking a stand against a society that allowed prostitution, which in his view was not the task of the modern artist. In a letter to Bernard, he wrote: ‘To report the facts […] is to wield the lancet like a surgeon explaining anatomy. I listen, meditative and interested; I watch, but if, later, the surgeon-anatomist is going to moralise at me like that, I find that that last tirade doesn’t have the same value as the anatomy demonstration. To study, to analyse society, that always says more than moralising.’

Furthermore, Van Gogh believed that as artists they were not in a position to show mercy towards the sex worker from a lofty standpoint. Instead of merely feeling compassion with a moralizing attitude, he expressed a sense of identification with the sex worker. ‘The whore in question has my sympathy more than my compassion. Being exiled, a social outcast, as artists like you and I surely are, “outcasts” too, she is surely therefore our friend and sister. And finding – in this position – of outcast – the same as us – an independence that isn’t without its advantages – all things considered – let’s not adopt a false position by believing we’re serving her through social rehabilitation, which is in any case impractical and would be fatal for her.’ Van Gogh stressed that the modern artist needed to engage with the sex worker from a position of equality in order to describe or paint her authentically. After all, both the artist and the sex worker were challenging the bourgeois norms and values of society, and although they faced scorn for doing so, therein lay a certain heroism.

With his admiration for the Paris and Brothel Scene drawings on the one hand, and his disapproval of the accompanying poems on the other, Van Gogh made it evident where he drew his boundary in the discussion. While he appreciated the anecdotal and satirical depictions of prostitution, he disagreed with the artist expressing overly moralistic viewpoints about the subject matter.

The third shipment: Brothel Scenes and Allegorical Drawings

The third shipment of drawings, received by Van Gogh on 29 July 1888, consisted of ten drawings encompassing various subjects. Among them were three sheets depicting a sex worker alone in her room: Female Nude Reclining on a Bed, A Woman Washing Herself and Female Nude on a Bed. This package also included the two drawings by Bernard that alluded allegorically to sexuality: Lustfulness (Lubricité) and Women Bathing. All five drawings were done on the same type of wove paper as Paris and Brothel Scene, indicating that they came from the same sketchbook. Bernard once again applied his ink lines with a reed pen.

In addition to the vigorous and powerful lines that characterized Bernard’s drawings, he brought life to them through his ingenious use of a limited palette in watercolour. This is clear to see in his Female Nude Reclining on a Bed. By mixing the watercolour with different amounts of water or even a little black ink, he achieved a wide range of tonal variations within the same colour. He also placed several layers on top of each other or added shading with pen and ink after the watercolour had dried. For Female Nude Reclining on a Bed, Bernard used only two hues of watercolour apart from the black ink; however, his skilful handling of dilution, layering and shading enhanced the contrast and dynamics of the composition.

Van Gogh commended the three brothel drawings by Bernard, albeit in a somewhat reserved manner. He deemed the drawing A Woman Washing Herself ‘charming’. However, in a letter to Theo, Van Gogh’s enthusiasm was more evident as he went on to describe the same drawing as ‘Rembrandtesque’: high praise indeed. Van Gogh held Rembrandt in high regard, considering him one of the most important painters in the history of art due to his sincerity and realism, among other qualities. This comparison is noteworthy, especially considering the discussions about Bernard’s poems and Van Gogh’s criticism regarding a lack of observation. A Woman Washing Herself, Female Nude Reclining on a Bed and Female Nude on a Bed appear more lifelike and less anecdotal compared to works like Paris or Brothel Scene. Bernard depicted the nudity of his subjects realistically rather than idealistically. All three drawings will have prompted Van Gogh to make the reference to Rembrandt. The intimate portrayal of a sex worker, depicted alone in her room, may have evoked associations with Rembrandt for Van Gogh, who often praised the master for capturing intimacy in his paintings. Furthermore, Bernard’s drawings share a sense of intimacy with the explicit monotypes of sex workers by Edgar Degas (1834–1917), such as Reading after the Bath (La toilette, lecture après le bain) (fig. 15). Unlike Degas, however, Bernard did not work directly from a model but rather relied on his imagination and the works of other artists. After all, he created them in the small village of Saint-Briac in Brittany, where there were likely no brothels.

In addition to the comparison with Rembrandt, Van Gogh also drew a parallel between A Woman Washing Herself and the work of Francisco Goya (1746–1828). While this could have been because of the unabashed realism in his portraits, Van Gogh never wrote about the Spanish painter in those terms. Instead, he praised Goya for his masterful use of black. The abundant use of black ink to indicate shadows in A Woman Washing Herself might have reminded Van Gogh of Goya in this respect.

The drawings Lustfulness (Lubricité) and Women Bathing, which Bernard sent with the 29 July shipment, were less to Van Gogh’s liking. He wrote: ‘I don’t like your drawing Lubricity as much as the others.’ He described Women Bathing to Theo as ‘a very strange landscape with figures’. In general, Van Gogh mentioned that of the drawings in the shipment, ‘there are 3 of them that are in the style of Redon; the enthusiasm that he has for that I don’t much share myself.’ Lustfulness (Lubricité) and Women Bathing probably belonged to this group. Both were produced in the vein of Le Courrier francais. However, they did not appeal to Van Gogh. Lustfulness (Lubricité) can be interpreted as a not particularly subtle reference to female lust and the male sexual organ. As for Women Bathing, the poses of the figures used by Bernard evoke associations with sin or shame. For example, the woman looking in her mirror in the background refers to vanity, and the pose of the woman on the left alludes to Eve’s fall from grace. The other two women cover their sexual organs, either by holding a hand in front, like Venus, or by turning their back to the viewer. Bernard expressly forbade Van Gogh to show these drawings to anyone else; his friend, however, could have cared less and immediately forwarded them to Theo.

The fourth shipment of sketches: a two-sided sketch on stationery

The eighth sheet in the group of prostitution sketches arrived by mail around 25 September 1888. Drawn on both sides, this small sheet of vergé paper was bought as stationery from Au Printemps. The department store’s watermark is clearly visible on the paper, and the sheet is folded like a letter, probably before Bernard drew on it. The front side of the sheet features two rapidly executed sketches of sex workers: one working on the street, the other in a room. As in Paris, Bernard used a streetlamp as a symbol of street prostitution. On the verso, Bernard presented a brothel scene set in a salon. For all the sketches, Bernard wrote satirical texts in a Parisian argot, aligning the drawings with cultural expressions of Montmartre. For instance, accompanying the drawing of the sex worker on the street, he wrote: ‘love is forty cents and dirty water in a basin’ (‘l’amour c’est quarante sous et l’eau sale dans une cuvette’), alluding to the sex worker’s shattered illusions in a clichéd manner, analogous to Goncourt’s novel La fille Elisa. Above the drawing of the sex worker in her room, Bernard wrote ‘ptit. boul’, referencing ‘Le petit boulevard’, the term Van Gogh had coined to designate Montmartre.

The last shipment: ‘Au bordel’

In early October 1888, Bernard concluded his series of brothel drawings with a uniform set of eleven drawings depicting life in and around the brothel. The eleven sheets of wove paper, measuring approximately 40.5 × 26.5 cm, are all torn from the same cahier. Bernard gathered them together and created a title page double the size of the separate drawings, by removing it from the middle of his cahier. On the front, he wrote in a tone of boys among themselves ‘To (my) friend Vincent, these silly sketches’ (À l’ami Vincent ces croquis stupides’). Inside, he included his third and final poem on prostitution for Van Gogh (see Appendix 3). Although the drawings may appear to have been executed hastily, Bernard skilfully used a limited palette of watercolours to elevate them beyond mere scratches. However, having received handfuls of sketchy drawings, Van Gogh instead insisted on something ‘fairly worked up’; Bernard apparently refused to oblige him.

The caption on the title page indicated that Bernard had also chosen a satirical approach for the last brothel drawings he would send to Van Gogh. Combining word and image – as he had done with the stationery, but which had essentially been customary for him from his first brothel drawings in 1885 – Bernard added text to underscore the satirical intent of his drawings. By employing argot and wordplay, Bernard made it clear that his drawings belonged to the Montmartrois tradition of humorous and caricatural depictions of prostitution that mocked social conventions. Due to the large number of scenes, At the Brothel (Au bordel) essentially functions as the culmination of Bernard’s prostitution drawings inspired by Le Courrier francais, in which he played with various satirical topoi. For example, in No One Can Pull a Man’s Strings as Well as Me (Y en a pas deux comme moi pour travailler un homme) Bernard explored the stereotypical image of the self-assured sex worker who knows how to manipulate men. In At Fifteen I Could Only Feel Disgust for Life, because I Had Lost All My Illusions (A quinze ans j’dois dégoûter de la vie parce que j’avais perdu toutes mes illusions), he parodied the clichéd narrative of a young woman sinking deeper into misery à la Goncourt and Emile Zola (1840–1902). The series also included some drawings depicting uncomfortable and intimate scenes that take place within the confines of the brothel room, such as This is the Tomb of My Dreams (Vla l’tombeau de mes rêves), where both the sex worker and her client examine the contents of her basin. It is worth noting that the composition of the drawing You Have to Finish Where You Start (Il faut finir par oú l’on commence) is strikingly similar to Van Gogh’s drawing of a sex worker washing herself over a basin. Bernard undoubtedly knew the drawing and made several quick sketches studying the motif ().

Van Gogh expressed both praise and criticism of the series. He particularly admired the sheets No One Can Pull a Man’s Strings as Well as Me (Y en a pas deux comme moi pour travailler un homme) and One Must End Where One Begins (Il faut finir par oú l’on commence). This time the poem Bernard had written to accompany the series withstood Van Gogh’s critical reading. More than the previous two poems, it was both a celebration and an apt allegorical characterization of prostitution, with Bernard making no personal judgement on the subject. Van Gogh therefore found it ‘really beautiful’. He did, however, have some reservations regarding the execution of the figures in the other drawings. He felt that they were ‘too vague, too little flesh and bone properly built up’. Despite this critique, Van Gogh appreciated the concept and purpose underlying the drawings: ‘It doesn’t matter; it’s already something altogether new and interesting, and the rest, too – at the brothel – yes, that’s what needs to be done.’

Vincent van Gogh, The Brothel (Le Lupanar), 1888, oil on canvas, 33 × 41 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Vincent van Gogh, The Brothel (Le Lupanar), 1888, oil on canvas, 33 × 41 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Although Van Gogh had a strong desire to paint brothels, he faced a significant challenge: his own insecurity when it came to painting from his imagination. Owing to financial constraints, he could not afford to hire sex workers from the brothel in Arles to pose for him, making imagination essential if he wished to capture such scenes. Eventually, Bernard’s incessant supply of imaginary brothel drawings spurred Van Gogh to attempt painting comparable scenes from the imagination twice. In the first painting, which is unknown today, Van Gogh depicted a night café where sex workers cater to their patrons. The second imaginary painting portrays an anecdotal, flirtatious interaction between a sex worker and a customer in the parlour of a brothel . Van Gogh drew inspiration almost entirely from Bernard’s Brothel Scene (the drawing Van Gogh received on 23 June), as well as Anquetin’s Le Mirliton (see ). However, Van Gogh kept this second attempt hidden from Bernard, possibly because he was dissatisfied with the result.

After Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) joined Van Gogh in Arles, the two artists made several ‘forays’ into brothels together. Van Gogh saw this as an opportunity to finally paint a brothel scene based on real-life observation. However, his plans to work in the brothels never came to fruition. Gauguin, on the other hand, used the experience of the visit to paint an imaginary brothel scene afterwards, thus confronting Van Gogh in the same way Bernard had done previously. The brothel thus again became a backdrop that highlighted Van Gogh’s inability to paint from imagination. This limitation hindered his progress in exploring the subject further, which likely left him frustrated. Discussions between Gauguin and Van Gogh about painting from imagination versus painting from reality often escalated into heated arguments. As for his friends’ imaginary brothel scenes, Van Gogh would never become more than a commentator.

Joost van der Hoeven
January 2024


Joost van der Hoeven, ‘Brothel Scenes by Emile Bernard’, catalogue entry in Contemporaries of Van Gogh 1: Works Collected by Theo and Vincent, Joost van der Hoeven (ed.), Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 2024.

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

Download catalogue entry

Emile Bernard - Brothel Scenes (pdf, 1.3 mb) (current version)