On an afternoon in mid-October 1889, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) set up his easel in a recently tilled field in the environs of Saint-Rémy de Provence and painted the 12th-century Romanesque chapel at the entrance to the former Augustinian monastery of Saint Paul de Mausole. The wings of the sprawling edifice had been converted into a private hospital for the mentally ill, directed by Dr. Théophile Peyron.
Van Gogh had been a patient in the asylum since early May. ‘I’m ploughing on like a man possessed, more than ever I have a pent-up fury for work,’ he had written to his brother Theo just one month earlier. ‘I think that this will contribute to curing me.’
The setting was one he had treated numerous times through the barred window in his room: an enclosed field, bathed in sunlight each morning. Unlike his previous canvases, however, which had been rendered indoors, he painted this view of the chapel en plein air, an asylum attendant keeping watch on the artist while he worked.
This was a momentous development. Van Gogh had been restricted to the asylum rooms since experiencing a seizure in July; even when permitted, he was too perturbed to spend time in the enclosed hospital gardens. Among the scores of landscapes that Van Gogh painted in Saint-Rémy, Vue de l'asile is the only canvas that shows the buildings of Saint Paul not from within or along its walls, but from the outside looking in.
Although unable to recall the episode on his own, Van Gogh was well aware of the dire events of December 1888 that had led to his institutionalisation at Saint Paul. Following a violent argument with the artist Paul Gauguin, with whom he had lived in the so-called ‘Yellow House’ in Arles, Van Gogh had had a catastrophic seizure that led him to shear off part of his own right ear. A second ‘attack’ — as the artist called such episodes — struck him a month later; it became clear that he could not live on his own.
At Saint Paul Van Gogh was allowed to continue painting, and was accorded use of a second room for a studio. He did well in his first two months at the asylum, and was allowed to visit Arles on an escorted visit to collect some of the paintings he had left behind.
But in July, while painting the entrance to one of the cavernous quarries near the asylum, the artist suffered a relapse. ‘I’ll send you the canvas, which I nevertheless finished,’ he wrote to Theo in August. Following the episode Dr. Peyron confined the artist to his room, denying him access to the studio, convinced that the very act of painting had instigated the seizure.
Through Theo, Van Gogh hoped to persuade the doctor to relent. ‘You can imagine that I’m very deeply distressed that the attacks have recurred when I was already beginning to hope that it wouldn’t recur. You’ll perhaps do well to write a line to Dr. Peyron to say that working on my paintings is quite necessary to me for my recovery,’ he wrote.
At the end of August, Dr. Peyron allowed Van Gogh to again take up his paints and brushes. The artist began by touching up some canvases from earlier in the summer, then turned to paint Laboureur dans un champ, a portrait of a ploughman tilling the field. In late September, increasingly confident about his improving condition, he began to work outdoors, painting the trees within the hospital park and gardens. By 8 October he had completed a half-dozen canvases of this kind.
‘There are moments when nature is superb, autumnal effects glorious in colour… things that make you quite melancholy not to be able to render them,’ Van Gogh wrote to Theo
It was probably soon afterwards that he painted Vue de l’asile. He worked quickly to capture the transitional half-light, knowing that he must soon head back inside. ‘There are moments when nature is superb, autumnal effects glorious in colour, green skies contrasting with yellow, orange, green vegetation, earth in all shades of violet,’ Van Gogh wrote to Theo in October 1889. ‘Things that make you quite melancholy not to be able to render them.’
In this period, Van Gogh also practiced greater control over his brushwork. ‘I had more control over myself in these latest studies, because my state of health had firmed up,’ he told the painter Émile Bernard in October.
Van Gogh is believed to have included Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy in the group of studies he dispatched to Theo in December 1889. Having seen the painting in the landmark 1905 Van Gogh retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Paul Cassirer, a leading German gallerist, placed it in his own travelling exhibition. On view in Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin, this show alerted the German public, art critics, historians and contemporary painters alike to the achievements of an artist who was rapidly attaining legendary status. In 1907, Cassirer acquired the painting from Theo’s widow.
Some 56 years later, the art dealer Francis Taylor purchased Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy at auction in London on behalf of his daughter Elizabeth, the Hollywood actress whose most famous film — the epic Cleopatra, co-starring Richard Burton — would premier just two months later. The painting remained in the living room of her Bel Air home until her death in 2011.
On 15 May, Vue de l’asile will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York.