Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
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Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

La maison de Vincent à Arles (recto); an autograph letter from Vincent to his brother Theo (verso)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
La maison de Vincent à Arles (recto); an autograph letter from Vincent to his brother Theo (verso)
pen and ink on paper
5¼ x 8¼in. (13.4 x 20.6cm.)
Executed in Arles in September 1888
Galerie Tanner, Zurich.
R. Dreher, Brienz, Switzerland, by whom acquired in 1918 and thence by descent to the present owner.
E. Bernard, 'Lettres de Vincent van Gogh à son frère Théodore - Arles, 1887-88-89-90-91', in Mercure de France, no. 45, October 1893, p. 117 (illustrated).
J. Meier-Graefe, Vincent van Gogh, Munich, 1910 (illustrated p. 67 and in subsequent editions, with different pagination, culminating in the seventh edition of 1929, p. 77).
P. Gauguin, 'Vincent van Gogh', in Kunst und Künstler, Vol. VIII, 1910 (illustrated p. 581).
E. Bernard (ed.), Lettres de Vincent van Gogh à Emile Bernard, Paris, 1911 (illustrated pl. XLV).
J.B. de la Faille, L'Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, Catalogue Raisonné - Dessins - Aquarelles - Lithographies, Paris and Brussels, 1928, no. 1453, p. 138 (prov. wrongly cited as N. Dreher; illustrated Vol. II, pl. CLVIII).
J. Leymarie, Van Gogh, Paris, 1953 (illustrated p. 82).
C. Nordenfalk, The Life and Work of Van Gogh, London, 1953 (illustrated pl. 37).
V.W. van Gogh (ed.), The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Vol. III, London, 1958, letter no. 543, p. 56.
J.B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh, His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, no. 1453 (illustrated p. 508).
J. Hulsker, Van Gogh door Van Gogh, Amsterdam, 1973 (illustrated p. 156).
P. Lecaldano, L'opera pittorica completa di Van Gogh, Vol. II, Da Arles a Auvers, Milan, 1977, no. 575B (illustrated p. 212).
J. Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Oxford, 1980, no. 1590 (illustrated p. 364).
R. Pickvance, exh. cat., Van Gogh in Arles, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984 (illustrated p. 176, fig. 47).
V. Merlhès, Correspondance de Paul Gauguin, 1873-1888, Paris, 1984 (illustrated p. 480).
H. van Crimpen & M. Berends-Albert (eds.), De brieven van Vincent van Gogh, Vol. III, SDU Uitgeverij, 'S-Gravenhage, 1990, no. 695 (illustrated p. 1721).
R. Dorn, Décoration. Vincent van Goghs Werkreihe für das Gelbe Haus in Arles, Hildesheim, Zurich & New York, 1990 (illustrated on the front cover).
A. Wofsy (ed.), J.B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh, The Complete Works on Paper, Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. I, San Francisco, 1992, no. 1453, p. 378 (illustrated Vol. II, pl. CLVIII).
I.F. Walther & R. Metzger, Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, Vol. II, Cologne, 1993, p. 422 (illustrated).
J. Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1996, no. 1590, p. 29 (illustrated p. 364).
I.F. Walther & R. Metzger, Vincent van Gogh, The Complete Paintings, Cologne, 2001 (illustrated p. 422).
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Vincent van Gogh, July - August 1924, no. 99.
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Lot Essay

We are grateful to Prof. Ronald Pickvance for his contribution to the cataloguing of La maison de Vincent à Arles as well as the historical essay that follows.

At the beginning of May 1888, Van Gogh wrote from Arles to his brother Theo in Paris that he had just sent a roll of pen-and-ink drawings, among them

'a hasty sketch on yellow paper, a lawn in the square situated at the entrance to the town, with a building in the background something like this. Well, today I've rented the right wing of this building which contains 4 rooms, or rather two with two cabinets. It is painted yellow outside, whitewashed inside, in full sunlight... I'll be sure to make you a better drawing of it than the first sketch... I hope I have landed on my feet this time, you know - yellow outside, white inside, with all the sun, so that I shall see my canvasses in a bright interior - the floor is red brick; outside the garden of the square...' (Letter 480, 1 May 1888).

The drawing in the letter (fig. 1), done from memory, shows the two wings virtually as separate pavilions, rather than as a unified façade. And the same effect can be seen in another independent drawing (fig. 2), where Van Gogh persists in emphasising the distinctiveness of the two pavilions, even though he is viewing the building directly from nature in the garden at the front of the house. Clearly, with this garden (one of three such gardens in the Place Lamartine) dominating the motif, the Yellow House is literally pushed into the background.

The address of the Yellow House was 2 Place Lamartine. The other pavilion was a grocer's shop. The Place Lamartine lay immediately outside the northern ramparts of the ancient town of Arles. And just beyond it was the railway station, an essential stop on the Paris-Lyon-Marseilles line - the P.L.M. It was the Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine who, as politician in the Chamber of Deputies, persuaded his colleagues in 1842 that without it Arles would suffer catastrophic decline. Once the railway arrived, new buildings were erected nearby, including the northern side of the Place Lamartine. Van Gogh's house was only thirty years old when he leased it in May 1888. The gardens were created in the square in the 1870s. House and gardens would become the essential centre of his life and work.

The house, however, had an air of neglect, having been left empty for some time. Van Gogh had it repainted and cleaned up in early June, thus enabling him to use it as a studio and a store. But lacking any furniture or a bed, he actually slept in the Café de la Gare, run by the Ginoux, from early May to mid-September. The death in July of his art dealer uncle Vincent (1820-88) meant that Theo received a small legacy, and was able to give Vincent 300 francs. In early September, van Gogh furnished the house sufficiently for him to move in on 18 September.

Since early May, he had not made any drawings or paintings of the Yellow House. But its acquisition had spurred him to think of having Gauguin join him to set up a 'Studio of the South', where artists could find refuge from Paris or stay en route to Marseilles or North Africa. Gauguin would be head of the studio; Theo would pay a monthly allowance to both artists, and take a Gauguin painting in exchange; van Gogh had furnished the second bedroom in readiness for Gauguin's arrival. And to impress Gauguin, he undertook to paint as many as thirty 'toiles de 30' (72 x 93cm.) as a 'décoration' for the Yellow House.

Two such canvasses were described in his letter of 29 September to Theo (letter 543). The first was the Starry Night on the Rhône, a motif that he had been pondering since his arrival in Arles. To give Theo a clearer idea he made a drawing of the motif on the same letter paper, with its distinctive small squares, which he would enclose with the letter (fig. 3). He took another sheet of this same letter paper and drew the motif of the Yellow House that he had recently painted (fig. 5). And to accompany the drawing, and to give Theo a fuller picture of the house in the Place Lamartine, he wrote about it at length:

'Also a sketch of a size 30 canvas representing the house and its surroundings in sulphur-colored sunshine, under a sky of pure cobalt. The subject is frightfully difficult; but that is just why I want to conquer it. It's terrific, these houses, yellow in the sun, and the incomparable freshness of the blue. And everywhere the ground is yellow too. I will send you a better drawing of it than this small sketch from memory.
'The house on the left is pink with green shutters, I mean the one in the shadow of the tree. That is the restaurant where I go for dinner every day. My friend the postman lives at the end of the street on the left, between the two railway bridges. The night café I painted is not in the picture, it is to the left of the restaurant.
'Milliet thinks this horrible, but I need not tell you that when he says he cannot understand anyone amusing himself doing such a dull grocer's shop, and such stark, stiff houses with no grace whatever, remember that Zola did a certain boulevard at the beginning of L'Assommoir, and Flaubert a corner of the Quai de la Villette in the midst of the dog days at the beginning of Bouvard et Pécuchet, and neither of them is mouldy yet' (letter 543).

Like the first drawing of the Yellow House that he had done hastily in May, this drawing was also done from memory. (It seems more than probable that van Gogh wrote his letter in the Café de la Gare, chez les Ginoux, rather than in the Yellow House itself where of course the painting would have been.) There are therefore differences from the painting, especially in the figures.

A few days later, van Gogh made another drawing, this time with watercolour (fig. 4), after the painting, and sent it to Theo to give him a clearer idea of the painting itself rather than just the motif (letter 548, circa 9 October 1888).

In all these representations of the Yellow House, van Gogh has made a deliberate decision regarding the motif. It was clearly impossible to give a satisfactory representation of the house if he tried to paint it from the gardens of the square. It would have been obscured by nature. He therefore chose to move outside the gardens and set up his easel in the road, thus enabling him to concentrate on the building and its neighbours. Interestingly, the viewpoint corresponds to some degree to a postcard view, dating from around 1900 (fig. 6), where the same lampost and the curving pavement can be detected but where the perspectival thrust is greater.

Although hastily done on letter paper and also drawn from memory, the graphic marks that van Gogh used epitomise the drawing style that he forged in Arles. He evolved a system of marks, varying from dots to energetic dashes, combining strong linearity with more abstract planes, often with a strong overriding logic. What he achieved on large sheets of Whatman paper he transferred to the few square centimetres of this letter-drawing. Interestingly, his neighbour's grocery shop carried the sign of 'Comestibles', visible here and in the watercolour, but not in the painting. In all previous reproductions of the drawing, a blob of ink towards the lower left occurred, possibly legible as an old Arlésienne crossing the street. Restoration at an unspecified date has removed it.

As for the fragment of a letter on the verso, its place in van Gogh's correspondence can be precisely pinpointed. One has to remember that Theo died six months after Vincent, so the one person able to order, edit, and comment upon his brother's letters was no longer there. Moreover, it appears that envelopes were discarded, so that there was a danger of parts of letters being mixed up with others. And the correct sequence and accurate dating of the letters were also at risk (only very, very rarely did Vincent himself date his letters from Arles). This is precisely what happened to letter 543. It 'lost' its two drawings, as we have seen; but as a kind of recompense, it gained, in all the printed editions of the letters, a further four pages, doubling its length, and giving it at least a signed letter.

But as I pointed out in 1984 in Van Gogh in Arles (p. 260), those last four pages actually belong to a slightly earlier letter (letter 541a). We were therefore left with an unsigned letter of four pages. Before writing letter 543, van Gogh had made the two drawings of the Starry Night on the Rhone and the Yellow House, while during the writing of this letter to Theo he received a letter from Gauguin, causing him to interrupt this letter and reply to Gauguin (that reply is lost). He then continued his letter to Theo, but found that he had run out of paper. He tried to overcome this by writing in a small crowded way at the bottom of pages 1 and 4. What he wrote was as follows:

'It is no easier, I am convinced, to make a good picture than it is to find a diamond or a pearl: it means taking trouble, and you risk your life for it as a dealer or an artist. Then once you have some good stones, you must never doubt yourself again, but boldly fix your price and stick to it. Meanwhile, however... but still this thought encourages me to work, even while I naturally still suffer at having to spend money. But this idea of the pearl came to me in the midst of my suffering, and I should not be surprised if it did you good, too, during periods of discouragement. There are as few good pictures as good diamonds' (letter 543).

But this was insufficient for his needs. So he was forced to turn over the drawing of the Yellow House and complete his letter there. And the first sentences of this fifth page clearly follow on from what he had just written:

'And doing business with good gems has absolutely nothing dishonest about it. One can believe in oneself when one sees that the thing one is selling is good. Now, however, if people like paste and this is pleasurable to them and since they demand it, good, one can have it in the shop, but this does not suffice to make one feel good about oneself with the good pictures, yet one can feel oneself and be firm since it is a pure fallacy that there is as much of it as one wants.'

Since 1928, when de la Faille published his first catalogue raisonné of Van Gogh's paintings and drawings, one sentence from this fifth page has been known:

'J'ai son portrait maintenant avec le kepi rouge sur fond emeraude et dans ce fond les armes de son regiment le croissant et une étoile à 5 pointes.' (see fig. 7)

However, we can now add the small drawing that Van Gogh made of the crescent moon and five-pointed star to illustrate his point.

And the reference to the 'pains in the leg' which Theo has complained of were already mentioned by Vincent at the very beginning of the letter: 'It isn't cheering news that the pains in your leg have come back...' This fifth page therefore must belong to the previous four pages, not only completing this letter in this unusual manner, but also providing it, at the end, with Vincent's signature.

Prof. Ronald Pickvance, May 2003


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