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Rare letter detailing Van Gogh and Gauguin's brothel visits sells for $237K at auction

Updated 17th June 2020
This picture shows a letter co-written by Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh and French painter Paul Gauguin on the eve of its auction sale at Drouot auction house in Paris on June 15, 2020. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images)
Credit: Chrstophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images
Rare letter detailing Van Gogh and Gauguin's brothel visits sells for $237K at auction
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
The only known letter to have been jointly written by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, in which the former details the pair's visits to French brothels, sold for more than 210,000 euros ($237,000) at a Paris auction on Tuesday.
Addressed to fellow painter Émile Bernard, another key figure in the Post-Impressionist movement, the letter was handwritten by the two artists across four pages. It was composed in November 1888, shortly after Van Gogh produced some of his best-known works, including "Bedroom in Arles," "Van Gogh's Chair" and much of his celebrated "Sunflowers" series.
The correspondence was penned in the French city of Arles, where the Dutch painter had been staying since February of that year. At the time of writing, he had recently been joined by Gauguin, who he had first met in Paris two years earlier.
"Bedroom in Arles" (1888) by Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
"Bedroom in Arles" (1888) by Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Credit: Fine Art/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
Their message begins with Van Gogh's impressions of Gauguin, in which he describes his friend as an "unspoiled creature with the instincts of a wild beast."
"With Gauguin, blood and sex have the edge over ambition," he wrote, before recounting some of the pair's recent painting trips.
"We've made some excursions in the brothels, and it's likely that we'll eventually go there often to work," he continued. "At the moment Gauguin has a canvas in progress of the same night cafe that I also painted, but with figures seen in the brothels. It promises to become a beautiful thing."
Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin's letter to Émile Bernard (November 1888)
Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin's letter to Émile Bernard (November 1888) Credit: Drouot Estimations
Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin's letter to Émile Bernard (November 1888)
Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin's letter to Émile Bernard (November 1888) Credit: Drouot Estimations
Van Gogh also discusses his intention to create a new artists' association, as well as referencing pictorial studies he was exchanging with the recipient, Bernard. Gauguin then continues with a shorter message on the third and fourth pages. "Don't listen to Vincent," he wrote, "as you know, he's prone to admire and ditto to be indulgent."

Man of letters

Van Gogh was known to regularly visit brothels throughout his life, and the artist even delivered his severed ear to one following his infamous act of self-mutilation -- an episode that effectively ended his friendship with Gauguin. As well as depicting scenes from inside the establishments, the Dutch painter completed portraits of various prostitutes including Sien Hoornik, a seamstress with whom he had a relationship in the early 1880s.
The letter pictured at Drouot auction house in Paris shortly before the sale.
The letter pictured at Drouot auction house in Paris shortly before the sale. Credit: Chrstophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images
There are over 900 surviving letters written by, or to, Van Gogh, though the majority are between the artist and his brother Theo. Art historians have used this correspondence to better understand the painter's troubled life, as he often used the medium to discuss personal matters, from financial troubles to literary influences.
In a sale catalog, French auction house Drouot Estimations wrote that, despite the letter's "fragility," the item is "exceptional for the extraordinary meeting of two immense painters but also for the lucidity and the certainty that their painting will revolutionize the art of future generations."
Tuesday's sale also featured other correspondence written by Gauguin, including letters to both his wife and an unknown lover. Elsewhere, one of painter Marc Chagall's illustrated notebooks smashed estimates to sell for over 191,000 euros ($216,000), with sketches and letters by the likes of Modigliani, Renoir, Cêzanne and Picasso also put up for sale.