‘What I’m most passionate about, much much more than all the rest of my profession – is the portrait, the modern portrait… I would like to do portraits which would look like apparitions to people a century later. So I don’t try to do us by photographic resemblance but by our passionate expressions…’
Vincent van Gogh
‘Drawing is the root of everything’
Vincent van Gogh
‘In painting figures, he finds the highest expression of his art’
Theo van Gogh
‘The reed-pen drawings of finished paintings Van Gogh sent from Arles to Emile Bernard, John Russell, and Theo are at least as exquisite as the oils they announced. They are ingenious in their graphic vocabulary, bold in syntax, and subtly varied in style to suit to recipient or the message’
Towards the end of June 1888, the harvest in Arles was curtailed suddenly by torrential rain. Vincent van Gogh, who had been engrossed in an intense painting campaign capturing vistas of the golden wheat fields, including the famed Le Semeur (La Faille, no. 422, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), was suddenly confined to his studio in the Yellow House. As a result, he turned to the figure as inspiration, painting two oils and a drawing of a French-Algerian soldier, known as the Zouave (La Faille, nos. 423, 424, 1443). By the end of the week, as the rain still poured, he was converted, ‘the figure interests me much more than the landscape,’ he wrote to his brother, Theo. ‘To do studies of figures, to attempt them and to learn would still after all be the shortest route for me to do something of value’ (Letter 630, in L. Jansen, H. Luijten and N. Bakker, eds., Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, vol. 4, London, 2009, p. 150).
Enlivened by his return to this subject, around a month later, Van Gogh embarked upon a new portrait, this time painting a majestically poised young, dark haired Provençale girl in a vivid red and violet striped bodice with a spotted skirt, a branch of oleander in her hand. La Mousmé (La Faille, no. 431; 1888, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) as this painting is known, was the second major figure that the artist painted in Arles, and it was to this important work that the artist quickly returned when he executed the present La Mousmé shortly after.
Belonging to a small group of radical reed pen drawings that the artist created after paintings during this summer, including the Guggenheim’s Le Zouave (La Faille, no. 1482a) and the Getty Museum’s Joseph Roulin (La Faille, no. 1458), La Mousmé ranks among the greatest works on paper of the artist’s career. Technically innovative with an astonishingly diverse and perceptive range of strokes, lines, and dots, this portrait captures the very essence of its sitter; her pure, delicate youth and beauty rendered ethereal and timeless. Encapsulating the various preoccupations of Van Gogh’s art at this defining moment of his career – his pursuit of the modern portrait, his quest to realise the influence of Japonisme, as well as developing his graphic output – this exquisite portrait was, he wrote, along with the other portraits he had recently created, ‘the only thing…that moves me deeply and that gives me a sense of the infinite. More than the rest’ (Letter 652, ibid., p. 204).
While La Mousmé likely depicts a local Arlésienne girl, her image in the present work, as well as the painting, was inspired by a popular novel of the period, Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème (1887), which told the autobiographical story of a naval officer who married a Japanese woman while stationed in the country. Japan, its art and culture, was never far from Van Gogh’s mind at this time, and it was the figure of Loti’s mousmé – the term for a young, unmarried Japanese woman – that inspired Van Gogh to create both the oil and subsequently the present work, as the artist explained to Theo on 29 July: ‘Now, if you know what a mousmé is (you’ll know when you’ve read Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème), I’ve just painted one. It took me my whole week, I wasn’t able to do anything else, having been not too well again. That’s what annoys me, if I’d been well I’d have knocked off some more landscapes in between times. But in order to finish off my mousmé I had to save my mental powers. A mousmé is a Japanese girl – Provençale in this case – aged between 12 and 14. That makes 2 figures, the Zouave (2 versions), and her, that I have’ (Letter 650, ibid., p. 199).
Not long after he had completed the oil, which depicted the mousmé much as she is described in Loti’s novel, Van Gogh moved swiftly to create the present work. Far from a direct repeat or copy of the painting, here he pursued a different pictorial path, depicting his model in bust length, which allowed him to explore the inscrutable expression and youthful beauty of his enigmatic sitter’s face. He enlarged her lips and eyes, capturing a spectacular level of detail – her dark eyelashes, for example, are rendered with the finest, delicate black lines – as if entranced by the calm poise and solemnity of her expression. The contrasting, experimental colours of the oil portrait are replaced by a plethora of different lines and dots which he employed to achieve an alternate form of tonal modelling, this variety of strokes offering him a palette of pictorial possibility that is as compelling as pigment.
Two other, less finished drawings of this subject also exist, both of which were executed at around the same time: La Mousmé sitting in an armchair (La Faille, no. 1504; Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), which was supposedly sent to the artist’s friend Emile Bernard in August, and includes a margin of colour notes, as well as another sketch-like pen and ink drawing on checked letter paper that later appeared pasted into Paul Gauguin’s manuscript Noa Noa, and annotated at the upper right: du regretté Vincent van Gogh (La Faille, no. 1722; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). It is thought that Van Gogh sent this drawing to Gauguin at the end of July, shortly after he had completed the oil.
Van Gogh’s return to a subject that he had just painted in oil was in fact part of a larger drawing campaign that he had begun in the summer of this year. Drawing had once again come to the fore of the artist’s work a few months after his move to Arles from Paris in February 1888. Having long been a central component of his oeuvre, it was here that his mastery of the medium took flight, as he created an astounding succession of masterpieces on paper such as the present work. Indeed, it was in Arles that the artist completely revolutionized this practice – moving it from its traditional role as a preparatory or initial part of the creative process, to become an independent, autonomous means of expression.
Thanks to his obsession with Japonisme, which had led not only to his acquisition of a great number of Japanese woodcut prints, known as ukiyo-e, but had also been one of the leading motivations for his move to the south of France, Van Gogh had a deep understanding both of the handling of these works – rendered with bold, expressive calligraphic strokes that hover and dance to create both object and spatial setting – as well as the flattened perspective with which the compositions were constructed. These formal qualities found their way to the forefront of Van Gogh’s Arles output, enabling him to conceive a new and wholly distinct graphic style and to draw with the speed that he regarded as central to Japanese artists’ approach. ‘Not only in their material, but also in their making,’ Colta Ives has written, ‘Van Gogh’s drawings seemed to bypass linearity altogether, offering images that appeared to have been fully formed somewhere else before landing on paper – an effect more akin to printing than to drawing’ (C. Ives, ‘Out of Line: How Van Gogh Made his Mark,’ in Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, exh. cat., Amsterdam and New York, 2005, p. 17).
There were also practical reasons for Van Gogh’s adoption of drawing in Arles. In April, Theo, Van Gogh’s greatest confidant but also his primary means of financial support, was having difficulties with Boussod and Valadon, where he worked, even considering moving to America. As a result, Van Gogh decided to focus on drawing as a way of saving on costly paint supplies, conscious also of retaining all the materials he could for the much longed for arrival of Gauguin that would take place in the autumn. A happy consequence of his renewed embrace of working on paper was a reduction of the pressure he felt when attempting to paint, allowing him to create more freely, ‘I wish paint was as little of a worry to work with as pen and paper. I often pass up a painted study for fear of wasting the colour. With paper, whether it’s a letter I’m writing or a drawing I’m working on, there’s never a misfire’ (Letter 638, op. cit., p. 139).
After his triumphant Montmajour drawings at the beginning of July – panoramic scenes of the rolling plains of Provence stretching before him, the light, heat and natural rhythms of the landscape transformed into trembling lines, strokes and dots – in the middle of the month Van Gogh embarked upon a new drawing campaign. Seeking to take stock of his recent canvases, he decided to do a number of drawings after these paintings, sending a selection to Bernard, Theo, and his friend, the Australian artist, John Russell. Van Gogh sent drawings to each recipient with a different purpose in mind: for Bernard, a fellow artist, the aim was to exchange ideas via visual examples of what he had been working on; for Theo, as a means of sharing his progress. With Russell, Van Gogh hoped that his gift of twelve drawings would dispose him favourably towards buying one of Gauguin’s pictures – the end goal being that this would provide the funds for the artist to travel to Arles and begin Van Gogh’s much longed for ‘studio of the south’.
La Mousmé was one of the twelve drawings after paintings that Van Gogh sent to Russell (La Faille nos. 1427, 1430a, 1433, 1449, 1454, 1458, 1482a, 1486, 1489-90, 1502a, 1503). It was created alongside two other important reed pen drawings of this set: Le Zouave (no. 1482a) and Joseph Roulin (no. 1458), the postman whom Van Gogh had begun to depict at the end of July. In addition, he included two seascapes, four harvest scenes and two garden scenes, presenting a concise and distilled summary of the great outpouring of masterpieces that defined this seminal summer in Arles. With a shared refinement and increased stylization, this series saw Van Gogh reimagine and occasionally, revise his painted subjects in graphic form. In some cases, the artist believed he had improved upon their oil predecessors. ‘I believe that all these ideas are good,’ he wrote to Theo on 8 August, after he had sent off his offering to Russell, ‘but the painted studies lack clarity of touch. One more reason why I felt the need to draw them’ (Letter 657, ibid., p. 220).
One of main stylistic traits of this group is Van Gogh’s use of the dot in his work on paper. Derived, or perhaps inspired by the Pointillists, this stroke takes on a life of its own in Van Gogh’s work, used both in juxtaposition and collaboration with linear strokes. In La Mousmé, myriad dots are employed to describe the background, the constant ebb and flow of these rapidly made marks creating not only a sense of compositional space, but imbuing the portrait with the same sense of vital, flickering energy as the Veronese green and white background as its oil counterpart. This technique was also used in the modelling of the model’s face, this time rendered more carefully, combined with fine hatchings that create the light and shadow that falls across her face. The stripes of her bodice have been forcefully demarcated with long, more instinctive, ‘tramway-like’ strokes – an illustration of just how versatile the reed pen was – that stand in bold contrast to the waves of dots of the background, all of which serves to charge this portrait with a powerful sense of expression. Hypnotic in its swirling surface of dancing, delicate strokes, this portrait opens up an astral universe of marks that coalesce to create the timeless image of this part real, part imagined woman. Indeed, upon discovering the expressive potential that this array of marks could conjure, as well as the creative possibility that opened up in transforming his bold palette and loaded brush into graphic form, it was then, ‘perhaps intuitively, that he proceeded to reinvent his practice of painting. The impulses that charged his pen simply took over when he loaded his brush so that he delivered paint to canvas in dynamic, graphic strokes’ (C. Ives, op. cit., 2005, p. 18).
The poignant wartime provenance of La Mousmé brings an added dimension to its story. The drawing had been a gift from the German banker Mr Kurt Hirschland to his wife, Henriette, in the 1920s. The Hirschland family were part of the long-established and philanthropic banking family in Essen, and were also pre-eminent art collectors. In 1935 due to the increasingly difficult situation under the Nazi regime, Kurt and Henriette fled Essen for Amsterdam, where the drawing hung on the living room wall of their home at 26 Johannes Vermeerstraat. Henriette lived there until 1939 when she left for Canada. The Van Gogh was entrusted, along with a Sisley and Renoir, to family associates for safe-keeping, but when their position was likewise imperiled following the outbreak of war, it was left with a neighbour. Amidst this continued turbulent context La Mousmé went to the Stedelijk Museum in 1943. The drawing was restituted to the Hirschland family in 1956 and was enjoyed again in the family home in New York for many years, before being acquired from them by the family of the present owner in 1983.