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Preface Introduction Note to the Reader
11 12 14
Vincent van Gogh’s Stay in Auvers-sur-Oise
May 20–July 29, 1890
Paintings and Studies by Vincent van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise
May 20–July 29, 1890
Johanna Bonger’s Legacy
October 4, 1862–September 2, 1925
Chronology Photography Credits Index
292 293 301
more correct to say he sold everything. That is the very essence of his agreement with Theo. The latter sent him money, and Vincent sent him paintings in exchange. These works, as Vincent would constantly repeat, were his brother’s property; they belonged to him because he had paid for them. No other painter of his time was able to make such a bargain. Theo was very well paid, and he could afford to send his brother close to 200 francs per month, a sum that he often supplemented for occasional expenses that arose with such regularity as to lose all “occasional” characteristics. In order to fully understand Vincent’s financial situation, we need to simply compare him to “Postman” Roulin, who was not really a postman, but a warehouse “stockman” or “courier.” It was a modest position, but the 135 francs per month that it paid was enough for him to feed his wife and three children. The discussion of Vincent’s supposed poverty should end with this simple observation. Even if Vincent presented himself in a rather flattering light in his letter to Mr. and Mrs. Ginoux, it remains a fact that he had recently shown his work in Brussels and in Paris, and that the laudatory criticism from Albert Aurier in Le Mercure de France and Isaacson in the Low Countries were starting to make him known among the more enlightened members of the art world. This makes a second well-established myth crumble as well: that van Gogh was misunderstood. How can one be misunderstood if one is completely unknown? How many times does one read that van Gogh’s contemporaries understood nothing of his art, that they held it in contempt, that they roundly rejected it? The few exceptions referred to above, perhaps a dozen paintings or so in all, do not offset the fact that the vast majority of van Gogh’s masterpieces had not been seen by anyone aside from Theo. Most of the lucky few who had the privilege of seeing his work close up, at Theo’s or while they were drying in his studio in Arles or in Saint-Rémy fig. 19 had only good things to say. Even today, with the Internet, it can take five years or more for an artist to become recognized, and this does not shock anyone. Who today is recognized at the age of thirty-seven on an equal footing with the memory that he will leave after his death? So how can we have expected the “public” to give a proper value to masterpieces like Sunflowers in a Vase (fig. 19) or Starry Night over the Rhône (fig. 18) barely eighteen months after their completion? The myth of Vincent van Gogh’s lack of recognition is absurd, and what is more, it presumes with an improbable arrogance that we are better capable of judging his work today than were his ignorant contemporaries, as if we had invented beauty. But what is more, this myth entails the denial of two essential qualities of van Gogh’s paintings: their accessibility and the immediacy of the effects they produce. These qualities, of course, did not take up residence in the paintings after his death.
Paul Gauguin to Vincent Paris June 13, 1890
Do you remember our conversations of old in Arles when it was a question of founding the studio of the tropics. I’m on the point of carrying out this plan, if I obtain a small sum necessary to found the establishment. I’ll then go to Madagascar with a gentle, moneyless tribe that lives from the soil. I have very precise information from various sides. I’ll turn a little earthen and wooden hut into a comfortable house with my ten fingers; I’ll plant all things for food there myself, hens, cows etc . . . and in a short time I’ll have my material life assured there. Those who want to come there later will find all the materials there for working with very few expenses. And the studio of the tropics will perhaps form the St. John the Baptist of the painting of the future, reimmersed there in a more natural, more primitive and above all less putrefied life.
The cold and calculating Gauguin, who had been living with his friend Amédée Schuffenecker since February 1890, starts his letter with some unconvincing apologies. He expresses regret at not having written before to his “friend.” He has a new project and is looking for a way to finance it. The van Gogh brothers, for whom he has but little respect, had the virtues of both being financially secure and of admiring his work. Theo had already bought and sold some of his paintings. Vincent still thought of him as an immensely talented painter, displaying a level of foresight that Gauguin did not share. The painter of the Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (fig. 20) plays to Vincent’s every emotion: his love of work on the land, his dreams of a new art, a biblical reference, economy of means, simplicity . . . Before setting out his arguments he brings Vincent back to the time when the two painters dreamed of wider vistas together in Arles, the town Gauguin had fled, never to return, when his friend’s dream turned into a nightmare. The same person who paid more attention to his personal appearance than anyone else now relies on artifice bordering on the ridiculous to present himself in this hypocritical letter as a natural man, seeking to sacrifice himself on the altar of the fine arts, so selfless he can only hope to pave the way for the coming of a Saint John the Baptist of painting . . . Fortunately Vincent was much more clear-sighted than his colleague, and did not seriously consider participating in this project. Vincent had become resigned to his fate, which he does not judge too harshly. He knows he has suffered greatly, but he is just as aware that this suffering was a deliberate choice. A decade previously, when he was still convinced that he should become a pastor or evangelical, suffering had been one of
On May 20, 1890, Vincent van Gogh left Paris, where he had just spent three days with his brother Theo, his sister-in-law Johanna, and little Vincent, his four-month-old godson. He was thirty-seven years old. He was an accomplished artist, who had exhibited his work and was admired by Signac, Monet, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The stipend that he received from his brother provided him with enough material comfort that he did not need to be worried about keeping a roof over his head, about his meals, his paints, or his canvases. He had just spent a year in a sanatorium and had left it feeling cured of the mental illness that had periodically laid him low. Vincent had a specific project in mind. He felt ready to take on the challenge he had set for himself: to paint in the North with a new eye, transformed by two years spent in the burning sun of the Midi. As a precautionary measure, he would stay in a village that was also home to a doctor, Doctor Gachet, who was a friend to painters and had agreed to put his expertise at Vincent’s disposal. Van Gogh would spend seventy days in Auvers-sur-Oise. He would paint almost eighty canvases there before ending his life. This period is often described as a tragic one for Vincent. But today, based on a critical reading of his letters, we can rule out any simplistic image of the painter as tormented. In Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent van Gogh was possessed above all of a furious desire and an absolute need to paint. Not everyone is capable of painting close to eighty paintings in seventy days. Vincent van Gogh managed to do so due to the alignment of several fortuitous circumstances that enables him to develop his work. First of all, it was the result of ten years of daily effort, at once physical, creative, and intellectual. Second, after a year of rest in the sanatorium in Saint-Rémy-deProvence, Vincent was in Olympic form. His physical condition was further enhanced by a powerful motivation: to continue to show his family and his friends in Paris that his art deserved all his energies and all his time, which he wanted to pursue in a village near Paris with its own cultural significance. Finally, Doctor Gachet’s presence afforded him a measure of security, allowing him to take risks as he expanded the limits of painting as a medium, in a state of euphoria made possible by the recent public recognition of his talent. Thus all the pieces were in place for a veritable explosion of production and creativity in Auvers, both resulting from and enabling the method of painting that he had patiently constructed. This method was innovative, even revolutionary: the Dutchman had managed to evolve past the pointillism he had assimilated in Paris in 1886 to achieve a new, modern way of uniting form and color.
Seurat’s pointillism, for example, that Vincent had familiarized himself with in 1887, consists of the juxtaposition of points of color whose relations and proportions combine to create an optical effect. In this technique, form emerges out of a mixture of colors. In Arles, van Gogh often drew with sharpened reeds, which are notably not able to hold much ink. Since the reed could not be used to draw long lines, Vincent juxtaposed short strokes and points to build up forms or to indicate materials. He achieved similar effects using small brushes full of color and placing similarly short strokes or points one next to the other on canvas, with great confidence and without hesitation or subsequent touch-up. Little by little, these strokes became figurative. They became branches, leaves, little tufts applied in a single touch, at once form and color: they signify. In order to realize the chromatic concepts that he calculated well in advance and to avoid mixing colors on his palette, van Gogh had to envision his exact needs in terms of tubes of paint. The results of this method and of this extraordinary drive to work are collected in their entirety in the following pages, with the exception of the drawings. The fame, the success, and the financial value attached to these works is fully justified. They would be equally striking even if van Gogh had only ever painted in Auvers. Almost sixty of the paintings from his stay there can now be found in the greatest museums in the world. Finally, Vincent’s suicide, often considered a tragedy without equal, is not actually so exceptional. Gérard de Nerval, Robert Schumann, Stefan Zweig, Primo Levi, Maria Callas, Ernest Hemingway, Nicolas de Staël, Ian Curtis, Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko, Émile Cioran, Guy Debord . . . the list of artists who have killed themselves is unfortunately a long one. And let us keep in mind that all of Vincent’s work was sold in his lifetime, not just one solitary painting as we so often hear. Vincent sold everything to his patron, dealer, protector, and friend: Theo van Gogh. Peter Knapp
Tuesday, June 3
So much ink has flowed on the subject of Church at Auvers that it has become an icon of Vincent van Gogh’s work— one that is impossible to ignore. The time and place of its execution are incontrovertible, as the painting is described in detail in one of his letters. Even the time of day, in this case early- or mid-afternoon, is indicated by the position of the church’s shadow on the grass. The size of the painting is itself unusual—the work is painted on a larger canvas than any other work from the time in Auvers. Perhaps van Gogh wanted to use it because he judged that it was the most appropriate for this composition.
With that I have a larger painting of the village church—an effect in which the building appears purplish against a sky of a deep and simple blue of pure cobalt, the stained-glass windows look like ultramarine blue patches, the roof is violet and in part orange. In the foreground a little flowery greenery and some sunny pink sand. It’s again almost the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower and the cemetery. Only now the color is probably more expressive, more sumptuous.
Church at Auvers - oil on canvas, 94 x 74.5 cm - Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Doctor Gachet - oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm - private collection
Tuesday, June 3
I’ve done the portrait of Mr. Gachet with an expression of melancholy which might often appear to be a grimace to those looking at the canvas. And yet that’s what should be painted, because then one can realize, compared to the calm ancient portraits, how much expression there is in our present-day heads, and passion and something like a warning shout. Sad but gentle but clear and intelligent, that’s how many portraits should be done, that would still have a certain effect on people at times. There are modern heads that one will go on looking at for a long time, that one will perhaps regret a hundred years afterwards. If I were ten years younger, with what I know now, how much ambition I would have for working on that. In the given conditions I can’t do very much, I neither frequent nor would know how to frequent sufficiently the sort of people I would like to influence. I do hope to do your portrait one day.
Bank of the Oise at Auvers - oil on canvas, 73.3 x 93.7 cm - Detroit Institute of Arts
Bank of the Oise at Auvers stands apart from the series of works from Auvers in more than one way. First of all, its subject is an unusual choice for van Gogh during this period. It is the only painting that deals with polite society in any way. The scene it shows, a fishing excursion, could have taken place some Sunday afternoon. The figures it contains recall Marguerite Gachet (p. 175) and the young girl portrayed in the middle of the fields (p. 179), but all these women really have in common with the others is to be wearing a hat and a white dress, which was hardly unusual for the time. The brightly painted skiffs enable combinations of complementary colors. The yellow boat in the foreground reinforces the blue of the second boat, and the green of the third brings out the red of the fourth. The painting is simply composed, with a horizon two-thirds of the way up. The space occupied by the Oise counterbalances this horizon’s height by extending across the lower third of the painting. The skiffs are arranged in a fan-like manner. The last one is equipped with a sail and is painted bright red, drawing the eye to the background and giving depth to the painting. As is often the case, what appears simple in van Gogh is in fact the result of meticulous work and very balanced framing. The painting is not mentioned in the correspondence.
Child with Orange - oil on canvas, 51 x 50 cm - private collection
Child with Orange is inseparable from van Gogh’s deep convictions about his brother’s living conditions and the welfare of his family. Little Vincent, named in honor of his uncle, had experienced health problems in June. Theo’s wife Jo had difficulties breastfeeding the child. In order to compensate for the shortage of mother’s milk, Theo had arranged for a donkey to be brought to the house several times a day, at regular intervals. This situation scandalized Vincent, who was convinced that a stay in the country, along with the effects of country air, would stimulate his sister-in-law’s lactation. In his letters, the painter repeatedly expressed his concerns for his little nephew and his desire to see him grow up in a healthy, fortifying environment. The portrait he made of a young blonde child with rosy cheeks, a broad smile, and a peaceful expression, surrounded by flowers, was no doubt intended to lend support to his arguments. The red in the child’s cheeks is heightened by the dominant green tones of the background, and the color of the orange completes the balance between the flowers, her hair, and her blue dress. The fruit is a symbol of health, of the bounty of nature and of fair weather. It sits in the firm grip of chubby little hands. A few yellow flowers in the foreground give depth to the ensemble.
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