In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh quit Paris to settle in the Provençal town of Arles. The hope was to escape what he saw as the spiritual malaise of the French capital and enjoy an idyll of beautiful nature instead.
He had become fascinated, one might even say obsessed, by Japanese culture, and envisaged Provence as a utopia that was ‘equivalent to Japan’. He regarded the latter as a pure and ancient land, uncorrupted by bourgeois values.
Van Gogh never visited the Far East, it should be said, but had become swept up by the japoniste style that hit Europe in the second half of the 19th century. In Paris, he spent hours each day poring over — and often purchasing — ukiyo-e woodcut prints in the emporium of Siegfried Bing, France’s chief retailer of Japanese art.
He also very much enjoyed a novel called Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti. Published to popular and critical acclaim at the end of 1887, it tells the story of the marriage between a Japanese woman and a French naval officer stationed in Nagasaki.
The book would go on to inspire Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, as well as four artworks by Van Gogh — one of which is being offered at Christie’s in New York on 1 March, as part of a sale entitled A Family Collection: Works on Paper, Van Gogh to Freud.
In late July 1888, the Dutchman produced the painting La Mousmé. Its name comes from a word coined by Loti to describe young Japanese women such as Kikou-San, his lead female character. (‘Mousmé’ seems to have been Loti’s variation on the Japanese word for daughter, musumé.)
The painting, today found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., depicts a majestically poised young woman wearing a bodice of red and violet stripes and a blue skirt with orange dots. She’s set against a pale background tinted with Veronese green.
The rich and varied colour is central to the success of La Mousmé. Which makes it all the more remarkable that, days after painting it, Van Gogh produced a drawing of the same subject that is perhaps even more impressive. The artist himself certainly thought so, telling his brother Theo in a letter that the canvas lacked the drawing’s ‘clarity of touch’.
The drawing (which is coming to auction) is more closely cropped, with only the sitter’s head and upper body depicted. This allowed Van Gogh to explore in greater detail the ethereal beauty of his enigmatic sitter’s face.
The bold, contrasting colours of the painting are replaced by a plethora of different lines, dots and hatches. These achieve an alternative form of tonal modelling, as compelling as anything offered by pigment.
The background is made up of waves of dots, imbuing the image with a vital, flickering energy, while a series of fine hatchings create subtle light and shadow across the girl’s face. The stripes of her bodice, in turn, are demarcated by long, tramway-like strokes.
The result is a hypnotic dance of marks, which coalesce on paper to form a depiction of this inscrutable young woman.
Who exactly was she? A few theories have been proffered over the years, one being that she was the daughter of a local miller. In her book Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, Bernadette Murphy argues that the model might be Thérèse Mistral, the niece of Van Gogh’s cleaner. Her identity, however, has never been confirmed.
And to a large extent it doesn’t matter, for neither the painting nor the drawing was a portrait. As Vincent told his brother Theo in a letter dated 29 July, he was simply responding to Loti’s novel. ‘If you know what a mousmé is (and you will if you’ve read Madame Chrysanthème), I have just painted one… In this case she is a Provençal girl — about 12 or 14 years old.’
In the summer of 1888, drawing took a more central role in Van Gogh’s practice than before. He duly produced a succession of masterpieces on paper — few, if any, better than La Mousmé. Drawing was no longer just a preparatory part of his creative process but an independent means of expression.
As he told Theo, ‘I believe that at this moment I’m doing the right thing by working chiefly on drawings… there’s hardly ever a misfire.’
Van Gogh did three La Mousmé drawings in all: the one coming to auction and two other, much less finished works (today found in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts).
The work being offered in New York belonged to a group of 12 drawings, in reed pen and ink, that Van Gogh completed in late July and early August 1888. These were all reimaginings of recently executed paintings — other notable examples being The Zouave (now in New York’s Guggenheim Museum) and Portrait of Joseph Roulin (in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles).
Van Gogh sent the dozen drawings as a gift to his friend John Russell in Brittany, in the hope that this might subtly encourage Russell to buy a painting by Paul Gauguin. With the money from that sale, Gauguin — who was also in Brittany at the time — could pay the rail fare to join Van Gogh in Arles.
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The Dutchman’s ploy didn’t actually work, but Gauguin soon managed to find the travel money anyway and moved in with him that October.
Van Gogh was delighted. He had become engrossed by the idea of starting an artistic fraternity in Arles with Gauguin, along the lines of bonze monk communities in Japan — something else he’d keenly read about in Madame Chrysanthème.