The year 1887 was transformative for Vincent van Gogh, who was freshly returned to Paris after a 10-year absence from the city. Inspired by a revolutionary artistic movement, Impressionism, he executed a captivating landscape that would become a key example of his radical style.
‘What people demand in art nowadays is something very much alive, with strong colour and great intensity,’ wrote an exhilarated Van Gogh to his sister Wil in the summer of 1887. The cause of the Dutch painter’s excitement was the discovery of a groundbreaking new art movement that had exploded onto the Parisian art scene in the 1870s. ‘In Antwerp I did not even know what the Impressionists were,’ he wrote to a friend. ‘Now I have seen them and though not being one of their club yet I have admired certain Impressionist pictures.’
By 1886, when Van Gogh returned to France to live with his brother Theo, Impressionism was, in fact, in its second phase, with artists like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac endeavouring to bring clarity to the group’s brilliant, but arguably wild, techniques.
Emboldened by the Impressionists’ explorations of light and colour, Van Gogh began working on a series of pictures that art historian Richard Kendall has described as utterly transformative. ‘Between the winter of 1886 and the summer of 1887 Van Gogh effectively crossed the divide into contemporary art,’ Kendall explains.
Out went the earthy tones and studied gravity and in came a series of richly coloured landscapes and still lifes alive with the spontaneity of plein air painting. As he studied the colour theories and gestures promoted by artists like Seurat, his brushstrokes became looser and his palette became brighter. By the late summer of 1887 he had hit upon the revolutionary formula that would become known as Expressionism.
Executed between May and June 1887, Coin de jardin avec papillons marks this crucial turning point in the artist’s career. Painted at a time when experiments in photography were pushing the boundaries of pictorial conventions, it is nature in close-up — a profound departure from the traditional landscape. At its centre, six butterflies dart between the foliage, their wings iridescent spots of white and red. The painting’s high vantage point suggests that Van Gogh simply sat down on a park bench and painted what he saw at his feet — yet the results are anything but myopic.
Interestingly, the park Van Gogh used for Coin de jardin avec papillons was in Asnières, a small Paris suburb on the banks of the Seine, which in the mid-1800s became a popular destination with day-trippers. (Today the town is perhaps most famous as the setting for Seurat’s masterpiece, Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte.) Here, Van Gogh became acquainted with many of the younger group of Impressionists, including Emile Bernard and Signac. They inspired him to adopt some of their experimental techniques, particularly Pointillism, which Van Gogh had first seen at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1886.
‘Pressed closely against me, he walked along, shouting and gesticulating, waving his freshly painted oversize canvas, smearing paint on himself and the passers-by’ — Paul Signac
Yet Van Gogh was never one for structure or rules. Under his brush, Seurat’s neatly ordered dots were wilfully slackened and applied with a furious intensity. What Seurat thought of Van Gogh’s very personal twist on his invention is not known, but it did not seem to bother Signac, who became a friend of Van Gogh’s and was intrigued by his feverish passions.
In later life, Signac would describe a day he spent in Asnières with Van Gogh: ‘We painted on the banks of the river and ate in a country café, and we returned to Paris on foot, through the streets of Saint-Ouen and Clichy. Van Gogh wore a blue zinc worker’s smock and had painted coloured smudges on the sleeves. Pressed closely against me, he walked along, shouting and gesticulating, waving his freshly painted oversize canvas, smearing paint on himself and the passers-by.’
As the summer came to an end, Van Gogh’s attention turned south, toward Arles. Coin de jardin avec papillons anticipates the garden paintings he would make in the asylum at St Rémy in 1888 following a mental breakdown, the butterflies perhaps a fitting metaphor for the fragility of his tragic life.
Originally held in the collections of Theo van Gogh and his descendants, Coin de jardin avec papillons has also belonged to Joseph Reinach, the 19th-century French journalist and politician best known as the public champion of artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus.
On 11 November, this sumptuous painting will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York, as part of 20th Century Week.