Vincent van Gogh most likely met Emile Bernard in 1886 at Fernand Cormon’s studio where they both studied under the well known portrait painter, or perhaps they met a short time later at Père Tanguy’s shop. Bernard was just 18 years old when he and Van Gogh, 15 years his senior, became friends yet Bernard had already developed his own artistic style.
Bernard was dismissed from Cormon’s studio due to his artistic opinions. He sought his own artistic direction as he walked away from Impressionism as well as the Neo-Impressionism of Seurat and Signac, though he did experiment with pointillism for a short period. By 1887, Bernard had come to an artistic style which included simple flat forms clearly outlined by dark contours, a style which is typically referred to as cloisonnism. Around the same time Van Gogh had developed a more synthetic style. The development of these styles no doubt comes from the artists’ appreciation of Japanese art which had become popular in Paris during that time.
Van Gogh was greatly influenced by Japanese art and there’s no doubt that he did his best to influence his friends enthusiasm of the subject as well. In a letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote about a visit to Bing’s attic saying,
“I learned there myself, and I made Anquetin and Bernard learn there too.”
Van Gogh had created an exhibition of Japanese works and wrote to Theo saying,
“The exhibition of prints that I had at the Tambourin influenced Anquetin and Bernard a good deal”
As much as Van Gogh influenced Bernard, Bernard influenced Van Gogh as well. Van Gogh’s work showed signs of simplification which was perhaps due to Bernard’s influence. Van Gogh’s Italian Woman is an example of this. The figure is placed in front on an abstract yellow background rather than a more cluttered background as seen in the portrait Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin in which we see chairs and stools in the background.
Van Gogh’s relationship with Bernard was maintained by mail. Van Gogh wrote numerous letters to Bernard including one about his stay in Saintes-Maries. In one of the letters he even light heartedly mentioned his mental state,
“It is possible that these great geniuses are only madmen, and that one must be mad oneself to have boundless faith in them and a boundless admiration for them. If this is true, I should prefer my insanity to the sanity of the others.”
Van Gogh and Bernard also exchanged paintings and drawings with each other. Bernard sent Van Gogh a drawing of a brothel scene and Van Gogh sent Bernard an exact copy of a portrait of the Zouave that he was currently working on. Van Gogh sent another 6 small drawings to his friend in a letter and a few days later sent another nine. Bernard responded with a letter containing ten of his own sketches.
Van Gogh’s relationship with Bernard was clearly important to him and he had such regard for his young friend that he expressed himself openly in his letters.
Olive orchards were a favorite theme of Van Gogh’s and Paul Gauguin had created a painting of Christ in the garden of olives as had Bernard. Van Gogh approved of Gauguin’s creation however gave a very critical response to Bernard’s work in a letter on November 20, 1889. Following this letter there were no more letters from Van Gogh to Bernard.
The respect and concern the friends shared was not completely lost. Bernard was also a writer and created poetry as well as articles concerning modern art. Following Van Gogh’s death he honored his friend with a number of articles including the first published biography on Vincent van Gogh.