“I have a View of the Rhône—the Trinquetaille iron bridge, where the sky and the river are the color of absinthe—the quays a lilac tone, the people leaning on the parapet almost black, the iron bridge an intense blue—with a bright orange note in the blue background and an intense Veronese green note” (Letter 634 in L. Jansen, H. Luijten and N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., 2009, p. 158). This is how Vincent van Gogh described Le pont de Trinquetaille, a radical work painted during a moment of extraordinary productivity in Arles in June 1888.
…I came to the south and threw myself into work for a thousand reasons…To want to see another light, to believe that looking at nature under a brighter sky can give us a more accurate idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wanting, finally, to see the stronger sun…”
The landscapes that Van Gogh painted throughout his fifteen-month stay in Arles are among the greatest of his tragically short yet prolific career. Inspired by the brilliant Provençal light and living amid the natural rhythms and ever changing seasons of the rural French landscape, it was here that Van Gogh’s work underwent a radical transformation as he produced one modern masterpiece after another. It is from this pivotal moment, “the zenith, the climax, the greatest flowering of Van Gogh's decade of artistic activity,” according to Ronald Pickvance, that the artist created many of his finest landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and works on paper (Van Gogh in Arles, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984,p. 11).
With its bold composition and expressive palette, Le pont de Trinquetaille epitomizes Van Gogh’s mature style that emerged during this seminal period. The vivid yellow-green “absinthe” shade of the river and sky lend the composition an unearthly beauty, casting the figures that populate the scene into dark, silhouetted shadow. Along with this bold, expressive palette, applied with dynamic, impastoed brushstrokes, the perspectival devices and compositional construction of this scene were likely inspired by the Japanese prints that Van Gogh greatly admired at this time.
Van Gogh had journeyed from Paris to Arles in February 1888. His reasons for moving were far from solely practical: he had the express desire to find a utopia, a Promised Land in which to discover a “Japan of the south.” Over the course of the spring, Van Gogh depicted various aspects of his new home—blossoming fruit orchards, the Langlois Bridge, and the Mediterranean seascapes at nearby Saintes-Maries, for example—but it was in June, when the annual harvest began, that his imagination truly took flight. Now installed in the Yellow House, he immersed himself in the depiction of this rural ritual, working with an impassioned energy as he captured the golden corn and wheatfields stretching beneath dazzling blue skies, occasionally including the farmers in works, in particular Le Semeur (De la Faille, no. 422; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo). Works such as Les meules en Provence, La récolte à La Crau and Soir d’été (De la Faille, no. 425, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; no. 412, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; and no. 465, Kunst Museum Winterthur) were all part of this creative outpouring.
One subject that captured Van Gogh’s attention amid his depiction of the harvest in June was the subject of the present work: the Trinquetaille Bridge. Situated not far from the Yellow House, this imposing iron railway bridge, opened in 1875, connected Arles with its suburb Trinquetaille on the opposite bank of the Rhône River. Van Gogh had depicted this local landmark seen far in the distance in a reed-pen and ink drawing, Vue du Rhône, executed in April (De la Faille no. 1472; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich). A few months later, in September, he returned again to this panoramic vista in his iconic La nuit étoilée (De la Faille, no. 474; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). He painted the bridge itself later in the year, on 13 October, this time selecting a much closer viewpoint of it on the opposite side of the embankment (De la Faille, no. 481; Private collection).
Along with the harvest series, Le pont de Trinquetaille marked the beginning of this great surge of fervent creativity, which Jan Hulsker has called Van Gogh’s “Great Period” of the summer of 1888. “Seldom before had he produced so many real masterpieces in such a short space of time,” he described, “and it is even more amazing to see how many works he made in these three months. Counting only the pictures that can be accurately dated from his letters to Theo, Wil and Bernard, we come to an astonishing total of 35 paintings and 37 drawings for June, July and August 1888, which means an average of three paintings and four drawings a week” (J. Hulsker, op. cit., 1996, p. 356).
On Sunday 17 June, Van Gogh first mentioned the present work in a letter his friend, the Australian artist John Peter Russell, “We have harvest time here at present and I am always in the fields. And when I sit down to write I am so abstracted by recollections of what I have seen that I leave the letter… instead of continuing the letter I began to draw on the very paper the head of a little girl [The Mudlark, De la Faille, no. 1507a; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York] I saw this afternoon whilst I was painting a view of the river with a greenish yellow sky” (Letter 627 in L. Jansen, H. Luijten and N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., 2009, p. 133).
Le pont de Trinquetaille shows the Rhône from Arles, with the river’s curving embankment disappearing into the distance. This scene allowed Van Gogh to regard and depict the inhabitants of Arles. Amid several other figures who fill the bank, a girl walks towards the viewer, her head lowered as she holds her hat on her head, as if a gust of wind has threatened to blow it away. Indeed, it was these figures that seem to have lodged themselves in Van Gogh’s memory of the present composition. Some days after he had referenced the painting to Russell, Van Gogh vividly described Le pont de Trinquetaille to his brother Theo. After detailing the color (see quotation at the beginning of this essay), he poignantly added that this work was, “One more effort...where I’m attempting something more heartbroken and therefore more heartbreaking” (Letter 634, ibid., p. 158).
Everything’s hard to do here, to disentangle its intimate character, and so that it’s not something vaguely true, but the true soil of Provence. So to achieve that, you have to toil hard. And so it naturally becomes a little abstract. Because it will be a question of giving strength and brilliance to the sun and the blue sky…”
In mid-August, Van Gogh sent Theo the second major consignment from Arles, which included the present canvas. In a letter that accompanied the shipment, he once again mentioned this work, “There is a view of the Rhône, in which the sky and water are the color of absinthe, with a blue bridge and black figures of ruffians” (Letter 660, ibid., p. 231). He later used the same word, “ruffians,” to describe the hunched-over figures, whose “terrible passions” he expressed through the vivid red and green composition of Le café de nuit, painted in September 1888 (De la Faille, no. 463; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) (Letter 676, ibid., p. 258). Perhaps the “heartbreaking” aspect of Le pont de Trinquetaille was the inclusion of these destitute figures, “these kids and these ruffians from the banks of the Rhône and rue du Bout d’Arles,” as he described his fellow Arles inhabitants (Letter 683, ibid., p. 276). As such, as Louis van Tilborgh has suggested, Le pont de Trinquetaille is more than solely a depiction of everyday life in the south in the vein of the Impressionist scenes of this type. Charged with a deeper, more poignant meaning, it shows the underside, or perhaps the less than idyllic realities of the paradisiacal Japanese dream that Van Gogh had initially imagined he would find in the south.
As Van Gogh’s descriptions of Le pont de Trinquetaille demonstrate, the artist constructed this composition principally in terms of color, which he used to generate the intense emotional power of this compelling work. The dramatic palette infuses the composition with a palpable energy and emotion that is heightened by the artist’s signature impastoed brushstrokes. Describing the present painting, Pickvance has written, “Van Gogh's color descriptions and the emotive images he evokes place the painting well beyond his Impressionist and Pointillist-inspired landscapes of the Seine at Asnières. This is a proto-Expressionist painting where, as in Munch’s The Scream, arbitrary color and a rapidly receding space combine to create a wholly disconcerting image” (Van Gogh, exh. cat., Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, 2000, p. 272).
The composition of Le pont de Trinquetaille is also innovative. With its plunging perspective, high horizon line, and sharp contrast between foreground and background, it reflects Van Gogh’s great interest in Japanese prints, a major influence on the artist during this period. Constructed from planes of distinct color, with the bridge and embankment both forcefully slicing through the image, the present work reflects the compositional construction of Utagawa Hiroshige’s landscapes, in particular, Nagakubo No. 28, a print that Van Gogh could possibly have seen. In both works, the bank of the river fills one corner of the foreground, with figures moving in both directions along it, while the bridge appears in the same orientation, the river winding away into the distance. The two zones are linked in each image by a prominent vertical: the lamppost in the present work and the tree in Hiroshige’s print.
In July 1888, Van Gogh reflected on his recent paintings in his studio and made a number of series of drawings after them. He sent a group of fifteen of these drawings to Emile Bernard, including a sheet made after the present picture (De la Faille, no. 1507; Private collection). As with many of these works on paper completed after the oil of the subject, the composition of this work differs slightly from the prior version. The bridge is positioned at a more diagonal angle and its three visible supports are placed differently. Moreover, the stance of the striding man at the left has been altered and the hat of the girl in the foreground eliminated. The group of drawings that Van Gogh sent to Bernard also included one made after La Roubine de Roi (De la Faille, no. 427; Private collection), a view of a canal at Arles painted at around the same time as the present work. The selection of these two drawings may have been intended to remind Bernard of the quays and bridges of the Seine at Asnières and Clichy, where he and Van Gogh had painted together the previous year.
One has to risk all in one’s Art.”
Le pont de Trinquetaille was widely exhibited in the opening years of the twentieth century. Following Theo Van Gogh’s death in 1891, the painting passed to the dealer’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. The work was included in the major retrospective of the artist at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in July-August of 1905, and by February 1906, it has been acquired by the German art dealer Paul Cassirer. One of the key figures in the dissemination of Van Gogh’s art, Cassirer included the present work in a host of important exhibitions across Germany in the early 1900s. One show in particular, the 1905 exhibition, Vincent van Gogh, held at the Kunstsalon Ernst Arnold in Dresden, exerted a powerful influence on the then nascent Die Brücke group, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The artists were so taken by Van Gogh’s work over the course of the following years that Emil Nolde mockingly suggested a better name for their group should be “Van Goghiana” (Making Van Gogh: A German Love Story, exh. cat., Städel Museum, Frankfurt, 2019, p. 262). By 1910, interest in the artist still continued unabated; as the poet Ferdinand Avenarius wrote in 1910, “Van Gogh is dead, but the Van Gogh people are alive. And how alive they are!... It’s Van Gogheling everywhere” (ibid., p. 37).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).