In 1887 Vincent met Émile Bernard with Signac at the paint dealer “Père” Tanguy. Van Gogh saw Cézanne’s paintings for the first time in this shop. Its owner was such a picturesque person that Vincent immediately began painting portraits of Père Tanguy, Madame Tanguy and their friends. Van Gogh had placed great hope in these portraits, thinking in this manner he would be able to generate orders in Paris. Like many other artists, his hope was not justified.
His portraits were fine and expressive, but lacked even a hint of the lustre sought by customers. What’s more, the artist’s manner of painting seemed strange, careless and non-professional. This type of painting remained limited to portraits of close friends and self-portraits. Since painting his own portrait, the middle-aged Dutchman with the ill-fitting felt hat regarded the world with suspicion and caution (Self-Portrait with Felt Hat). The brown brushstrokes of paint in his beard alternated with red and green, and the hat shone against the background of the dark green through oblong dark green brushstrokes – Signac’s lessons had not been wasted!
Before that, in November 1886, Vincent van Gogh had met Gauguin, who had come back to Paris from Brittany. Vincent succumbed to the Parisian craze for Japanese art. He frequently visited the Bing gallery which specialised in Eastern art, buying Japanese engravings and even exhibiting them in Tambourin during the period of his friendship with Segatori. Using oil, Vincent copied Hiroshige’s landscapes and figures in Japanese clothes. On one hand, these copies are evidence of his admiration of the Japanese. On the other, these studies applied the Japanese system of perspective to European landscapes.
Living in a new environment as restless as Paris was not easy for Vincent, who was of a nervous and unbalanced nature. His feeble physical health could not take the experience of Paris. It was even more difficult for his brother Theo. “Life at home is nearly intolerable”, he wrote to the sister, “Nobody wants to visit any more because each visit ends in a scene; besides that he is so sloppy our apartment has taken on a repulsive look”. Even so, Theo had resolutely decided to continue backing his brother; he believed in his talent and his great future. However, it had become clear to everybody that Vincent could no longer live such a life. In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh went to Provence. Later, from Arles, he wrote to Theo: “All the same, Paris is an odd city: you have to die to survive and only when you’re half dead can you do something.”
He immediately began to paint and draw small studies to become accustomed to the new environment. He produced the small, characteristic details of Provencal nature: stones, squat pines hardened by local winds, gnarly olive trees or wide panoramas: ploughed meadows and fields on parallel, horizontal planes that stretched into the distance. Van Gogh’s early Dutch drawings already distinguished themselves by their remarkable expression.
Presently, his schoolboy shyness had disappeared – his hand became firm, his stroke assured. – Instead of a student’s washed-tint shading, he was using small, dispersed strokes he’d got from the pointillists. Each of Van Gogh’s Provencal drawings constitutes a work of art on its own, surpassing the minor role of preparation for a future composition.
In Provence’s unique nature, Vincent was meticulously choosy in what amounted to his new conception of new painting. This is why there are no depictions of Arles in his works. Van Gogh did not draw the majestic Roman arenas that capture the imagination of everyone visiting the city. He had no interest in the Medieval heritage of which the people of Arles were so justifiably proud.
The only aspect he would use in his painting was the crowd of the bullfight (Arena in Arles). He made quite an impressionistic, fragmentary composition, with figures of spectators turning in various directions and cut off by the edges of the canvas, and barely perceptible in the background were the silhouettes of the bulls. He was much more attracted by the fields of wheat under the harsh sun of Provence. He painted them in the open air, suffering from the burning sun, sometimes to the limit of his physical strength. In the past, when he had lived in Holland, he had been fond of Millet’s “Sower”.
The Provencal landscape had once again aroused in him a desire to turn to this theme by placing peasant figures in the fields; the symbolical meaning was found in the motif itself: the golden fields symbolised the world’s invaluable riches created by Man. In his painting the important element was colour, which should give the picture symbolic meaning. Van Gogh struggled with different variations of this painting for more than a month. “Yesterday and today I worked on ‘Sower’ which I have completely finished,” he wrote Theo in mid summer. “The sky is yellow and green, the ground violet and orange”. (The Sower (after Millet)). Later, he had to recognise The Sower as a failure. Although he aspired to working with nature, working without it suited him better.
All the same, the path to painting from imagination lay in nature, which was so rich in Provence that it left Van Gogh no opportunity to preserve even an instant. Vincent tirelessly drew and painted the blossoming fields, gipsy tilt carts, gardens, olive groves, vineyards and streets of Arles. Finally, he discovered the Mediterranean sea; the old fishing port Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer was near Arles, and Vincent went there to spend a few days. He painted fishing boats on the high sea (Fishing Boats at Sea) and beached on the sand (Fishing Boats on the Beach). At times these motifs again evoked memories of the Japanese engravings. Van Gogh had already painted the sea in Holland, and now water had become one of his preferred motifs for colour…
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