Arles: Then and now – Van Gogh’s Yellow House

In May 1888 Vincent Van Gogh rented four rooms at 2 Place Lamartine, in a town called Arles in the south of France. This would come to be known as the Yellow House. The rooms were on the right wing of the nearest building in the painting. The two ground floor rooms were used for a studio and a kitchen. The upstairs corner room was the guest room for Gauguin, while the one next to it (with one shutter closed) was Van Gogh’s bedroom – the one later painted with the chair and pipe. At a later point, he rented two more rooms upstairs at the back of the house. On 16 September 1888 Vincent wrote to his sister Wilhelmina describing the house, and his contentment at finding a place where he felt he could think and paint:

“My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter outside with raw green shutters; it stands in the full sunlight on a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it the intensely blue sky. There I can live and breathe, think and paint.”
Letter Vincent Van Gogh to his sister Wilhelmina dated 16 Sept 1888 letter W07

Yellow House - Arles

Yellow House – Arles (detail)

The painting was done in September 1888 and was originally called The Street – we were there in October a couple of years ago and found the light similar to that discovered by Van Gogh. I could see why the place attracted him – for the light and the colours – and especially the sky which is emphasised by the brightly painted buildings of the town.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo on 28 September, about this painting among others:

“…Also a sketch of a 30 square canvas representing the house and its setting under a sulphur sun under a pure cobalt sky. The theme is a hard one! But that is exactly why I want to conquer it. Because it is fantastic, these yellow houses in the sun and also the incomparable freshness of the blue. All the ground is yellow too. I will soon send you a better drawing of it than this sketch out of my head.

The house on the left is pink with green shutters. It’s the one that is shaded by a tree. This is the restaurant where I go to dine every day. My friend the factor is at the end of the street on the left, between the two bridges of the railroad. The night café that I painted is not in the picture, it is on the left of the restaurant.”

– Letter to Theo (543) dated 28 September 1888

When he wrote the letter, Vincent was 35 years old, and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin would live at the house for nine weeks from the end of October 1888. The night cafe is actually across the Place Lamartine, through the Town Gate and up the street on the square where the Roman Forum once stood.

The square is still there – complete with its plane trees and oleanders, but the house was badly damaged when it was accidentally bombed by the Allies on 25 June 1944 as they were targeting the railway bridge across the Rhône during the liberation of Arles – and the house was demolished shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, the four-storey building behind survives to this day, along with the railway bridges in the background. The bridges are easily recognised from Van Gogh’s depiction of them. The nearer bridge (with the steam train depicted in Van Gogh’s painting) is for the local line, while the further bridge (with square supports) is for the Paris and Lyon lines. The street running through beneath the bridges is Rue Montmajour.

Van Gogh’s observation and drafting skills are evident in his painting – the two railway bridges are easily identifiable today, as is the building that stood behind the Yellow House. The inclusion of a train on the bridge also evokes the message of his desire for Gauguin to visit, and to suggest that the railway network kept him connected with his brother Theo, as well as to the rest of the Paris art scene. Trains at that point in history were symbols of modernity and progress, and showed how the world was shrinking and becoming more intertwined. Arles was no longer a distant outpost, but part of a networked France.

Yellow House - Arles

The site of the Yellow House today in Arles

The house was just two minutes’ walk from the site where he painted the ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’. Today, if you turn around from where this photo was taken you will find a modern ‘Monoprix’ supermarket and a roundabout (formerly a park) – so if you are looking for the location, just look for the Monoprix first and it is just across the intersection.

By looking at a place through the eyes of a painter almost 130 years ago, we can see the changes and continuities in the landscape, and gain a sense of the presence of history wherever we travel. And in the process, perhaps we can begin to develop a language of seeing and a way of thinking about the cultures we encounter and how this, in turn, says something to us about our own culture.

The Yellow House painting currently hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Melbourne – Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition

The view through the water wall at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia is reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting. The light refracts in strange ways and distorts the image of the people and the traffic outside. I was here to see the exhibition: Van Gogh and the Seasons, so the image I captured as I entered the gallery was remarkably appropriate.

Water wall NGV

Life often seems to run in cycles or circles, just as the seasons return in sequence year after year. This exhibition links Van Gogh’s life’s work to the seasons. Nature was something of a preoccupation since the Romantic movement, and the exhibition begins with etchings and prints from other artists showing how they were representing the seasons, nature and farm workers. Then we encounter a series of Japanese prints which seem to be echoed in Van Gogh’s style where he painted with heavy outlines and filled in the forms.

Autumn/Fall

In October 1884, Van Gogh painted Avenue of Poplars in Autumn at Nuenen in the Netherlands. The sombre mood of the autumn trees is reflected by the lone woman walking the otherwise deserted road, dressed in mourning clothes. The shadows of the trees seem to reach for her as she seems about to cross a threshold marking her exit from the farm or village.

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June/July of that year describing his approach to painting the different light of the seasons:

“…I think Summer is not easy to express; generally, at least often, a summer effect is either impossible or ugly, at least I think so, but then, as opposition, there is twilight…

Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.”

Avenue of poplars in Autumn

His Autumn Landscape at Dusk painted a year later is more nuanced in his treatment of light. He wrote to his brother of his admiration for those who can paint darkness while observing that even in the lowest light there are still hints of things going on to maintain interest in the mystery:

“…it’s perhaps not superfluous to point out how one of the most beautiful things by the painters of this century has been the painting of darkness that is still colour.” – Van Gogh letters 21 Apr 1885

I found myself drawn into this painting, led by the path and the leading lines of the trees into the pool of orange and yellow that indicated the last fading light of sunset, following the footsteps of the woman returning to the village. I have learned a lot about photographic composition by noting the devices used by painters through the centuries. Here the horizon is placed about one-third from the bottom, and the path one-third from the left. The subject woman is backlit, providing an outline of her form which helps to draw us on in her direction.

Autumn Landscape at Dusk

These two paintings of Autumn – each with a path through the trees and a lone woman – illustrate that, on revisiting the subject, Van Gogh had developed further in his style, and produced arguably a stronger painting as a result. Here, in the second painting, he tantalises us with hints of things happening in the darkness – darkness that is still colour. And in Van Gogh’s life, even at his darkest hours, there was still some light, some colour.

But the cycles of life, like the seasons, never quite return the same. It is less a like a circle; more like a spiral. Some call this the hermeneutic spiral, in which we seem to return, yet we have moved on in our lives; we are older, we know more, we have more experience. It is one reason that people often return to a place they have travelled to, and in that return, the place is subtly different, or our approach to it is different. And we notice different things from the last time.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus talks about this process when he says that we cannot step into the same river twice – time, like the waters of a river, moves on. Our experience of a place is altered by the very fact of seeing it again – we see it with fresh eyes.

Winter

The 1880s were a time of transition for art, and the growing fashion in the Netherlands – notably the Hague School – was focussed on outdoor painting and capturing a mood rather than bright colour. I loved the simplicity captured in this sketch of a woman digging in the snow. A few lines were sufficient to convey the back-breaking work and the stoic determination to maintain a meagre living in the depths of winter.

Woman with a fork in a Winter landscape

The sketch below is called: Sketch of miners in the snow: Winter and was one of a couple of “small rough sketches” he sent to Theo. It certainly didn’t look too rough to me!

Sketch of miners in the snow

Spring

I loved Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of the View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as it depicts a town quite similar to several towns we passed through on our Camino in Spain. The town here is about 50kms from Arles in the south of France – and in those days it was a five-hour horse coach ride to reach it. The town is in the Carmargue region, famous for its marshes and particular breed of horses. The town is on the Mediterranean. This visit served to cement his decision to stay in the south of France. I found the painting interesting for four reasons: Firstly, the bold use of monolithic blocks of colour – and the towns in that area actually do strike you like that. Secondly, the composition with the horizon on the Golden mean. Thirdly the cool-warm contrast between the rooflines and the sky and between the town and the blue-purple of the rows of flax plants and possibly grape vines in the foreground. Fourthly, I looked closely at the brush strokes and found that it appears that Van Gogh was left-handed – although there are no direct references to that, and Cezanne himself depicted Van Gogh with a brush in his right hand. But if you look closely at the brush strokes on the flax rows, they appear to be flicking up from right to left, rather than the other way round. I saw similar right-to-left markings in the way he cross-hatched his trees in other drawings.

View of Saintes Maries de la mer

Summer

In the summer of 1888, when Van Gogh had moved to Arles for one of his most productive periods, he painted a series on wheatfields and haystacks. This Farmhouse in Provence shows something of the intensity of light that he was able to capture. In this period he often mixed the colours straight on the canvas, giving the paint a vibrancy as the pigments are mostly unmixed, so they almost shine with their own light.

Farmhouse in Provence

And yes the local stone actually does have a pinkish hue – it is a volcanic rock used in many of the local buildings in that area. I am constantly amazed by the accuracy of Van Gogh’s eye for light and for accurate drafting. In many cases you can go to the same spot and easily identify the same buildings today – I did a series of ‘then and now’ photos in Arles that I’ll discuss in a later post. Of the flowers, Van Gogh wrote:

“I know very well that not a single flower was drawn, that they’re just little licks of colour, red, yellow, orange, green. blue, violet, but the impression of those colours against one another is nonetheless there in the painting as it is in nature.” – letter Van Gogh to his sister Willemien 31 Jul 1888

One of the most striking paintings is A Wheatfield with Cypresses which contrasts the golden wheat with the deep green of the cypress trees – planted as a wind break against the strong dry Mistral wind that blows off the mountains – and then the blue of the distant hills. This one was painted in September 1889 at Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh stayed at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum. This painting, so full of life and vigour, was painted just a year before his suicide. Somehow, in the turbulence of the clouds and waving cypress trees he depicts something of the turbulence and violence of the Mistral wind and perhaps reflects something of the turbulence in his mind at that time.

A Wheatfield with Cypresses

So Van Gogh’s life, like our own can be seen like the cycle of the seasons. Travel too, can be seen in this light – and like Heraclitus says – we never truly return to the same place.

The same is also true of our return home after we have travelled. Suddenly, we see our own place in a new light, we notice new things about it, and perhaps question or seek to change things in light of our travel. There may be no place like home, but there is especially no place like home when we have informed our experience of it through mindful travel.

I travelled to Melbourne quite specifically to see this exhibition – and was not disappointed – even having seen the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and several of his works in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Many of the paintings displayed were from private collections and this would be one of the very few public showings. With around 60 works it is well worth seeing. The Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, runs until 9 July this year.

[NB: I was fortunate that since most of the paintings had come from French museums, hand-held non-commercial photography was permitted – so the photos I’ve included here are ones I’ve taken at the exhibition.]

 

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