In mid-September 1888, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) asked Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Emile Bernard (1868–1941) – both then staying in Brittany, in the artists’ village of Pont-Aven – to paint portraits of each other to exchange for paintings of his. With this request, Van Gogh unwittingly put a strain on the relations between his French friends. After all, the young Bernard was so much in awe of the older painter – his senior by twenty years – that he felt incapable of painting a portrait that could measure up to anything Gauguin might produce. As Vincent wrote to his brother Theo: ‘His [Bernard’s] letter is full of veneration for Gauguin’s talent – he says that he finds him so great an artist that it almost frightens him, and he finds everything that he, Bernard, does, bad in comparison with Gauguin.’ So Bernard refused to portray Gauguin: he did not feel up to the task; it was as simple as that.
Van Gogh’s initial indignation
Van Gogh was very disappointed by this news, and he told Bernard so in no uncertain terms: ‘but what surprises me a little is to hear you say, “Oh, no way of doing Gauguin’s portrait!” Why no way? That’s all rubbish.’ This outburst may have been prompted by Van Gogh’s feeling that Gauguin and Bernard were not making good use of their time together. He thought it only natural for artist friends to seize the opportunity to paint from a model simply by posing for one another. Alone in Arles and frustrated by the lack of models, Van Gogh no doubt felt very lonely. Having portraits of Gauguin and Bernard on the wall might alleviate his solitude. Disgruntled, he wrote to Bernard: ‘Here you have portraitists, living for so long side by side and they don’t agree on posing for each other and they’ll separate without having portrayed each other.’ Van Gogh was certain that he would welcome any opportunity to paint portraits of Gauguin or Bernard. The only result of such resolve, however, was a small portrait of Gauguin, whom he timidly portrayed diagonally from the back .
Van Gogh tried to lend weight to his plea for an exchange of paintings by referring to a practice said to be common among Japanese artists: ‘For a long time I’ve been touched by the fact that Japanese artists very often made exchanges among themselves. It clearly proves that they liked one another and stuck together, and that there was a certain harmony among them and that they did indeed live a kind of brotherly life, in a natural way and not in the midst of intrigues. The more we resemble them in that respect, the better it will be for us.’ Van Gogh was willing to send Bernard quite a few of his recently painted ‘studies’, but he expected something substantial in return. Portraits of the friends he missed so much would therefore be very welcome, but Bernard’s initial refusal dashed his hopes of an exchange.
Self-portraits instead of portraits of one another
Van Gogh was therefore surprised to receive a letter on 1 October 1888 informing him that Bernard and Gauguin had painted self-portraits, each of which included a small, schematic portrait of the other. When the portraits arrived on 4 or 5 October, Van Gogh was disappointed by Gauguin’s self-portrait but very positive about Bernard’s. He wrote to Theo: ‘but I myself like Bernard’s very much, it’s nothing but an idea of a painter, some cursory tones, some blackish lines, but it’s as stylish as real, real Manet’.
Van Gogh praised the portrait for its simplicity and directness, which he thought typical of the portraiture of Edouard Manet (1832–1883). Portraits by Manet that Van Gogh could have seen at the 1873 Salon, such as Le Bon Bock , did in fact possess these qualities. In that portrayal of a drinker, Manet placed his model in front of a uniform background, just as Bernard portrayed himself against a backdrop of monochrome blue. In addition, the model in Manet’s portrait is depicted in a very direct way, in an apparently simple and spontaneous technique, which Van Gogh also recognized in the self-portrait of Bernard. Of particular importance to Van Gogh were the ‘blackish lines’ (traits noiratres). Manet was known to be very skilled at painting in black tones. Although it is evident that Bernard’s style differed from Manet’s, Van Gogh detected this characteristic of Manet’s style in Bernard’s self-portrait, which does in fact display thick, deep blue, nearly black lines.
Bernard painted these broad, dark blue lines as the finishing touch over previous layers of paint to accentuate the contours. This choice defined the painting, giving it a naïve and cloisonné-like appearance. Close observation of these lines shows that the dark blue occasionally blends with the lighter colours of Bernard’s face and hat, which means that those paint layers were not yet completely dry when he added the finishing touches. This points to a rapid manner of working, which distinguishes Bernard’s canvas from Gauguin’s meticulously executed self-portrait.
For these works Bernard and Gauguin used the same canvas, with the same measurements and the same ground. To the cotton canvas they applied a very thin layer of ground consisting of chalk, plaster and animal glue. Bernard and Gauguin knew that this canvas and the type of ground they used would promote the absorption of oil from the oil paint, which was essential for the matte surface they were striving to create. Bernard then applied a sketch of his composition to the thin ground layer with a fine brush and diluted dark blue paint. X-radiographs of the portrait show that the background initially included two different rectangular shapes, which have been painted over. In the end Bernard decided to paint the schematic portrait of Gauguin and the Japanese print in the lower right corner over the light blue paint layer before it was at all dry. As a result, the light blue shines through both passages. Interestingly, he placed Gauguin in the middle of the composition – perhaps as a token of esteem for the older ‘head’ of the school of Pont-Aven – whereas Gauguin stuck Bernard at the right edge of his self-portrait. All in all, it seems that Bernard struggled with the design of this composition.
Bernard’s signature and his dedication to Van Gogh – in which the spelling of ‘copaing’ (‘pal’) jokingly refers to the dialect of Provence – were also clearly applied wet-in-wet. For his own portrait, Bernard left a reserve in the blue, which can be gleaned from the unpainted edges of the ground layer that appear in several places along the contours of his figure, such as the right-hand edge of the hat’s brim.
Even though Bernard seems to have been unsure about certain parts of his composition, the fact that a number of passages were painted wet-in-wet indicates that he worked rather quickly. His relatively spontaneous manner of painting resembles Van Gogh’s more than Gauguin’s. This might explain Van Gogh’s preference for the self-portrait of the younger painter. Still, he did not go into detail when he complimented Bernard personally on his portrait: ‘As for your portrait – you know – I like it very much – actually I like everything that you do, as you know – and perhaps nobody before me has liked what you do as much as I do.’
Simplifying the scene
Van Gogh had become well acquainted with the ‘naïve’, ‘primitive’ style that had increasingly come to characterize Bernard’s work in 1888. The large number of drawings that the artists exchanged that year allowed them to keep close track of each other’s developments. Inspired not only by medieval tapestries and stained glass but also by Japanese prints, Bernard sought to simplify the line, form and colour in his work. He did this by reducing his subject to its essence, or, as he himself expressed it: ‘One must simplify the scene to make sense of it.’ Bernard had done exactly this with himself in this simple, unpretentious self-portrait. Van Gogh therefore saw the work as ‘nothing but an idea of a painter’.
The Japanese print in the lower right corner is an addition that can be seen primarily as a gesture: as Bernard reaching out to Van Gogh. After all, Japanese prints played an important role in the relations between these two artists. As Bernard later wrote in his preface to the 1911 edition of the correspondence between Van Gogh and himself, they had ‘come up with this project to draw the same way one writes and with the same facility that a Hokusai or an Utamaro had. We were, one must admit, devotees of Japanese imagery.’ Van Gogh and Bernard fell under the spell of Japanese prints after Van Gogh’s purchase in the winter of 1886–87 of more than 600 woodcuts from the print dealer Siegfried Bing. Van Gogh’s reason for this acquisition was originally commercial, since he hoped to make a profit by reselling the prints individually. The sale exhibition he organized at the Café Le Tambourin ended in failure, and he was stuck with a large quantity of prints. In later articles Bernard wrote that the apartment Vincent shared with Theo was completely littered with Japanese prints. Bernard saw how Van Gogh had decorated the background of Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887, Musée Rodin, Paris) with Japanese prints and was probably aware of Van Gogh’s direct copies after the work of Eisen and Hiroshige. He received a number of Japanese prints from Van Gogh’s collection as a gift or in exchange for paintings. Just before Vincent left Paris, the two friends apparently filled the walls of his studio with Japanese prints so that Theo would think he was still around. In Van Gogh’s first letter to Bernard from Arles, Japan and Japanese prints were the first things he mentioned.
In short, Bernard understood the importance of Japanese prints to Van Gogh and their friendship, and so he probably used one of the prints he had received from his friend in the self-portrait he made for him. The gradual transition from yellow to red in the horizon, the image of a billowing sail and the inclusion of a red cartouche all indicate that Bernard used an example by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). Van Gogh had a large number of prints by this artist and he may well have given a few to Bernard. Hiroshige’s numerous series of prints depicting the fifty-three stations on the Tōkaidō road contain at least three sheets that correspond to Bernard’s depiction: Arai: View of the Mile-and-a-Half Sea Ferry , Arai: The Checkpoint and Kuwana: The Ferries of Shichiri . It must be borne in mind, however, that Bernard moved the red cartouche, which is to be found at the upper right in all these works, to the upper left corner of the print, perhaps in order to preserve this characteristic element of the print and to feature it in his own work.
No matter which print served as the source, it was a meaningful gesture on the part of Bernard to incorporate in his self-portrait a print that he had probably received from Van Gogh, not only because his relationship with Van Gogh was inextricably tied to Japanese prints but also because examples of such art had contributed to the cloisonné-like style in which Bernard painted his self-portrait.
In contrast to Gauguin, who received a self-portrait in exchange for his own self-portrait, Bernard received a river view, Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges . Perhaps Bernard did not receive a self-portrait of Van Gogh because he already had one: in Paris, he had exchanged a portrait he had painted of his grandmother for Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait (1887, Detroit Institute of Arts). In any case, Van Gogh had no other self-portraits available at that time. The dedication to Bernard in the lower right corner of Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges is almost completely faded, as is also the case with the dedication on the self-portrait that Van Gogh had intended for Gauguin.
Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin is the last painting that Van Gogh received from Bernard; after this trade, their exchange of works came to a halt. Even though Bernard wrote repeatedly about Van Gogh after his friend’s death in 1890, he never said a word about the self-portrait. Bernard’s later accounts of the months he spent with Gauguin in Pont-Aven in 1888 were, without exception, dominated by the notorious discussion about what in his view was the unjust honour later accorded to Gauguin as the ‘inventor’ of symbolism in painting, and thus he unfortunately never recorded his recollections of this self-portrait. Bernard did write, however, about the Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges in a letter to his father in 1900: ‘I cherish it as a souvenir of friendship as much as of painting.’ As a tribute to Van Gogh, he included the work – in mirror image – in the background of another self-portrait, which he made in 1892.
Joost van der Hoeven