Among the many drawings that Emile Bernard (1868–1941) sent from Brittany to Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) in Arles in 1888, only one depicts a biblical scene: the Adoration of the Shepherds, from the Gospel According to Luke. This sheet, along with nine other drawings, probably reached Van Gogh on 29 July 1888. The rest of the shipment comprised three brothel drawings, two allegorical scenes and four representations of Breton life. Of these latter four drawings, Corner of a Chapel also has religious connotations.
Until the summer of 1888, with possibly a single exception, Bernard’s repertoire was devoid of religious themes. However, at the end of June 1888, a shift occurred as he suddenly began to explore religious subjects. For a third consecutive spring, Bernard sought out the peace and quiet of the Breton coastal town of Saint-Briac, where he intended to focus on creating a ‘grand tableau’, a goal he had not been able to achieve in the previous two years. This third attempt also resulted in failure, as he struggled to complete an ambitious composition depicting a village procession with numerous figures based on drawings after models. Frustrated by the villagers’ inability to pose and disheartened by the project’s outcome, he referred to it as a ‘travail de chien’ – dog’s work, or sheer drudgery – in a letter to his parents. He had been working for less than four years, yet this setback plunged him into a momentary crisis in which he seemed to have lost direction. Objectives such as working from models, depicting contemporary subjects and creating a ‘grand tableau’ no longer seemed to hold the same significance for Bernard. By mid-June, he even questioned the very purpose of his artistic endeavours, asking Van Gogh: ‘What’s the use of working?’
A shift towards biblical subjects
However, in a letter to his parents a few weeks later, there is no sign of this low point at all. Bernard’s spirits seemed to have lifted, and he was suddenly immersed in work and had never before felt so bold. This renewed self-confidence and energy was fuelled by a new project he had undertaken: decorating two of the walls of a studio space he was allowed to use temporarily with biblical themes. On one wall he painted the Circumcision of Christ, on the other the Adoration of the Shepherds. Bernard had previously painted a mural at the inn where he was staying, on commission from the owner, Mme Lemasson (who also owned the house in which his studio was located). While the technique, therefore, may not have been entirely new to Bernard, the subject matter was all the more so. Indeed, the project was not only at odds with what Bernard had created thus far in terms of subject matter, it also marked a departure from his earlier abandoned ‘grand tableau’: instead of using models for a contemporary village procession, he now relied on his imagination for biblical scenes. Moreover, the fixed nature of the decorations meant that he could not take them with him to Pont-Aven or Paris and, moreover, they were unsellable.
The mural depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds measured 2 by 4 metres and featured no fewer than twenty figures, while the one portraying the Circumcision was slightly smaller but still contained at least as many figures, according to Bernard. He executed the decorations using only three colours of ordinary wall paint: blue, red and white. Bernard was fully aware that his work might be lost (which did happen eventually, likely in the 1960s). Realizing the potential for this loss, he had photographs taken of the scenes, but regrettably neither these photographs nor the building have been preserved.
Two drawings and a photograph
All that remains of Bernard’s mural are a colour photograph capturing a small fragment at the upper right, probably taken just before the building’s demolition , a drawing that may have served as a study for the decoration , and this drawing, which he sent to Van Gogh. The latter work appears to be a variation of the motif, possibly created shortly after he completed the mural. The distinct outlines in the drawing suggest that it might have served as an exploration for a print, indicating that Bernard intended to share his mural with a wider audience through lithographs or etchings. This could clarify why the composition of the drawing he sent to Van Gogh differs so much from the study for the mural. Bernard adapted the drawing to better suit a lithographic stone or an etching plate, making adjustments such as narrowing the representation and removing the trompe l’oeil columns that were initially meant to integrate the mural into the architecture. Mainly, he elaborated the landscape in the background. These alterations notwithstanding, elements in the study sheet and the drawing Bernard sent to Van Gogh are related. For instance, many of the figures can be recognized in both compositions; the groups of figures at the right in particular exhibit many similarities in both drawings. The bearded man standing behind Mary, a recurring figure in both drawings, can also be identified in the photograph of the remaining fragments of the decoration. Although there may have been the idea of creating a print after the mural, as far as is known, it was never realized.
The fundamental and sudden shift that Bernard underwent in creating these biblical scenes is associated with his encounter with the poet and art critic Albert Aurier (1865–1892), who lived with his mother and sister in nearby Saint-Enogat (Dinard) in 1888. In his memoirs, Bernard describes how Aurier visited Saint-Briac to see the murals he had painted for Mme Lemasson. The two went on long walks and discussed poetry and art. A few years later, Aurier would publish his ground-breaking essay on symbolism in visual art, wherein he argued that an artwork should be a material representation of an idea, rather than an illusory representation of reality. According to Aurier, a simple visual language was most suitable for this purpose, as it prevents the viewer from being distracted by trompe l’oeil. Aurier found examples of this in ‘primitive’ medieval painting, which is predominantly religious in nature.
Aurier’s ideas undoubtedly found fertile ground in Bernard’s mind. After all, since 1886, he had spent quite a lot of time in Brittany, embracing the ‘primitive’ way of life as a recurring theme in his work. Yet it was only after meeting Aurier that Bernard’s interest shifted towards the region’s religious medieval heritage. Looking back, he wrote in his memoirs that through his experiences there, ‘little by little, I became once again a man of the Middle Ages.’ His fascination with medieval art expanded to Flemish, German and Italian ‘primitives’, including Jan van Eyck (1390–1441), Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) and Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510). The influence of the traditional images d’Epinal (Epinal prints), with their naive style, also became a source of inspiration for Bernard . Originally produced in Epinal, in the Vosges, these prints were characterized by a simple pictorial idiom and a limited colour palette. They were eminently affordable and immensely popular.
The drawing Bernard sent to Van Gogh reflects his interest in religious medieval heritage, not only in its biblical subject but also because of the economical lineation, the ‘naive’ rendering of fabrics and the simplified, caricatured portrayal of faces. These characteristics might have been influenced by Bernard’s observations of Gothic stained-glass windows, such as those in the Basilique Saint-Sauveur in nearby Dinan. The fact that the drawing appears to have been conceived as a print was possibly also prompted by the omnipresent images d’Epinal. The limited use of colour in these prints could also have served as an example for Bernard, since, as mentioned, he used only three colours for the final mural (see ).
Further down the path of biblical scenes
Bernard’s satisfaction with his biblical murals and drawings opened the way to further explore this direction. In 1889, he revisited the theme of the Adoration of the Shepherds twice. First, he made a woodcut of the scene, which he later coloured in with watercolour . By employing this rudimentary technique, he forced himself to work with simplified forms to impart a medieval aesthetic to his biblical representation. Additionally, he painted the same scene as part of a larger series of biblical paintings, depicting various evangelical episodes . Over the subsequent years, Bernard continued producing biblical representations in a variety of media. One notable example is his involvement with the magazine L’Ymagier, for which he provided a substantial number of biblical prints between 1894 and 1896 . Throughout these works, the influence of medieval visual culture and the images d’Epinal remained prominent in shaping Bernard’s artistic expressions.
Bernard’s faith resurrected
From his 1888 stay in Brittany, religion not only began to play an important role in Bernard’s art, it also began to impact his personal life profoundly. Bernard was no stranger to the Church; he had lived with his devout grandmother in Lille for long periods during his childhood and attended a Catholic school. Although his faith had receded into the background in the early years of his artistic journey, from 1888 his belief resurfaced with renewed intensity. In hindsight, Bernard wrote: ‘Brittany had turned me back into a Catholic ready to fight for the Church.’ An excerpt from an 1891 letter by Annie Bonger-van der Linden, the wife of the collector of Bernard’s work Andries Bonger (1861–1936), illustrates the form Bernard’s devotion had taken: ‘Bernard visited us yesterday. [...] He arrived, calm and stately, his hair longer than ever, also shabbier than ever, wearing old, much too large glacé leather gloves, clutching an old, antiquated missal at his chest. He went to mass at Notre-Dame. I hope this religious mania will not last long.’
Discussions about religion in modern painting
While Van Gogh did not explicitly mention Bernard’s drawing of the Adoration of the Shepherds after receiving it, his letters to the younger artist do suggest that religion and medieval influences in modern art were topics of discussion. On 26 June 1888, Van Gogh wrote to Bernard: ‘You would do very well to read the Bible.’ This was around the time Bernard began his wall decoration project, and presumably he had shared his plans with Van Gogh. At that time, Van Gogh had no inkling of the extent to which Bernard’s religious reorientation would develop.
Van Gogh himself found comfort in the Bible, and, according to him, it triggered the ‘artist’s neurosis’, by which he probably meant an intense focus on art. However, he also informed Bernard that in his view, studying the Bible was distinct from using biblical subjects for contemporary painting. Van Gogh believed that no one had managed to enhance the words and creations of Christ through their paintings, apart from a handful of artists, including Rembrandt (1606–1669), Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) and Jean-François Millet (1814–1875): to him, the works of these masters were already perfect. No further additions were needed. Even the Flemish, German and Italian ‘primitives’ such as Van Eyck, Cranach and Botticelli, whom Bernard had begun to study so intensively after meeting Aurier, Van Gogh dismissed as ‘pagans’ whose art had little to offer ‘from a religious point of view’.
As an alternative to Bernard’s interest in the religious art of the ‘primitives’, Van Gogh proposed Dutch painting of the seventeenth century as a source of inspiration. The art of this period focused on depicting secular, everyday subjects. Van Gogh remarked: ‘Those Dutchmen had scarcely any imagination or fantasy, but great taste and the art of arrangement; they didn’t paint Jesus Christ, the Good Lord and others.’ He intended to demonstrate to Bernard that he need not necessarily rely on the Bible for subjects in his paintings. To bolster his argument, Van Gogh cited Bernard’s earlier, non-religious works, such as portraits of his grandmother and still-life paintings. ‘Profound study of the first thing to come to hand, of the first person to come along, was enough to really create something.’ By writing the word ‘create’ (créer) in italics, he sought to draw a parallel with Christ.
Conversely, discussions about biblical subjects did inspire Van Gogh to make two attempts at painting Christ in the Garden of Olives. However, he ultimately destroyed both works. Upon reflection, he preferred to paint olive groves in his immediate surroundings, as they were, instead of using them as a backdrop for a biblical scene. Gauguin too was inspired by Bernard and introduced religious influences into his work, as is evident in his famous Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (1888, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh). However, unlike Bernard, Gauguin was not particularly drawn to biblical scenes. Instead, he used religious imagery primarily as a means of expressing his own inner thoughts and feelings, such as in Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach), in which he portrayed himself as a suffering Christ figure.
Despite Van Gogh’s efforts to dissuade him, Bernard remained committed to his exploration of biblical subjects, which had become entrenched in his repertoire. In November 1889, he sent Van Gogh six photographs of his new biblical paintings, including the Adoration of the Shepherds (see ). Van Gogh increasingly felt that this new direction was a waste of Bernard’s true talent, and in a letter to his sister Willemien (1862–1941), he described the subjects of the paintings as ‘bizarre […] and highly open to criticism’. Responding to the pictures, he wrote to Bernard: ‘So, they’re a setback, my dear fellow, your biblical paintings, but … there are few who make mistakes like that, and it’s an error, but your return from it will be, I dare to say, astonishing.’ Whether Van Gogh truly held hope for Bernard’s artistic redirection is a moot point: these lines were penned in his last letter to Bernard.
Joost van der Hoeven