Please note that this painting has been requested by the Detroit Institute of Arts for its forthcoming exhibition Van Gogh in America to be held from June-August 2020.
On an afternoon in mid-October 1889, Vincent van Gogh set up his easel in a recently tilled field and painted the Twelfth-Century Romanesque tower and chapel at the entrance to the former Augustinian monastery of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The wings of the sprawling edifice had been converted into a private maison de santé for the mentally ill, directed by Dr. Théophile Peyron. Vincent had been a patient in the asylum since early May, and would remain there for just over a year, until 20 May 1890. “I’m ploughing on like a man possessed, more than ever I have a pent-up fury for work,” Vincent declared to his brother Theo in a letter written on 5 and 6 September 1889. “I think that this will contribute to curing me” (Letters, no. 800).
Vincent may well have thought of himself as the laborer plowing a field whom he depicted on 2 September, the first new picture he had completed since mid-July (Faille, no. 625; sold, Christie’s New York, 13 November 2017, lot 28A). The setting was one he treated numerous times: he viewed through the barred window in his room an enclosed field, aglow each morning in the light of the rising sun. Approximately a month later, Vincent painted this Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle Saint-Paul de Mausole (Saint-Rémy). Unlike the canvas of the ploughman, however, which had been rendered indoors and from memory, he painted the chapel en plein air, his motif directly before him. An asylum attendant kept an eye on the artist while he worked.
This was a momentous development. Reeling from a fierce epileptic seizure that had befallen him on 16 July, Vincent had suffered for the ensuing three months to reach this point. He had been restricted to the asylum rooms; even when allowed, he was too perturbed to spend time in the enclosed hospital gardens. Vue de l’asile is unique in the artist’s oeuvre—among the four-score landscapes that Vincent painted in Saint-Rémy, it is the only canvas that shows the buildings of Saint-Paul not from within or along its walls, but from the outside looking in.
Vincent’s voluntary confinement at Saint-Rémy was the critical penultimate phase that linked the Arles and Auvers periods, during which the artist struggled to accept and adapt to the fits of temporal lobe epilepsy—a familial condition to which, then at age 36, he was increasingly prone—while desperately aspiring to success as a painter. Although unable to recollect on his own, he knew well the account of dire events that occurred in Arles on the night of 23 December 1888. Following a violent argument with his Yellow House-mate Paul Gauguin, Vincent fell victim to a catastrophic seizure that led him to shear off the upper part of his own right ear, which he presented to the chambermaid at a local brothel.
A second “attack”—as Vincent called such episodes—struck him a month later; it became clear the artist could not live on his own. At the urging of the Reverend Frédéric Salles, the Protestant pastor in Arles, and with the approval of and financial assistance from Theo, Vincent consented to being placed in Dr. Peyron’s care. Although the artist could continue painting, and was accorded use of a second room for a studio, his personal freedom would be subject to a daily regimen and other constraints, the ever-present reminder of which were the bars on his window.
Vincent had been doing well during the first two months since his arrival at the Saint-Paul hospital. He had recently returned from an escorted visit to Arles, where he collected some of the paintings he had left behind. Memories of the town and events there may have confused and unsettled Vincent, but there was no apparent warning when on 16 July, while painting the entrance to one of the cavernous quarries near the asylum, with an attendant present, he suffered a relapse. “This new crisis, my dear brother, came upon me in the fields, and when I was in the middle of painting on a windy day,” Vincent was finally able to write Theo on 22 August. “I’ll send you the canvas, which I nevertheless finished” (Letters, no. 797; Faille, no. 744; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).
Vincent ingested dirt and swallowed contents from one of his paint tubes before the orderly could stop him. Dr. Peyron had the artist confined to his room, denying him access to the studio, convinced that the very act of painting had instigated the seizure. Vincent, through Theo, hoped to persuade the doctor to relent. “For many days I’ve been absolutely distraught,” Vincent wrote his brother, “as in Arles, just as much if not worse, and it’s to be presumed that these crises will recur in the future, it is ABOMINABLE…You can imagine that I’m very deeply distressed that the attacks have recurred when I was already beginning to hope that it wouldn’t recur. You’ll perhaps do well to write a line to Dr. Peyron to say that working on my paintings is quite necessary to me for my recovery. For these days, without anything to do and without being able to go into the room he had allocated me for doing my painting, are almost intolerable to me” (ibid.).
At the end of August, Dr. Peyron allowed Vincent to take up again his paints and brushes. The artist began by touching up some canvases he had done earlier in the summer, then turned to paint the ploughman in the field. He completed two magnificent self-portraits to demonstrate his fitness for work (Faille, nos. 626 and 627), while offering his heartfelt gratitude in pictures of the attendant Trabuc and his wife (nos. 629 and 631).
In late September, feeling increasingly confident about his improving condition, Vincent began to work outdoors—for the first time since the 16 July seizure—painting the trees within the hospital park and gardens, just as the leaves had begun turning color. By 8 October he had completed a half-dozen canvases of this kind. It was likely soon afterwards that he painted the present Vue de l’asile. Vincent—a pastor’s son and at one time an impassioned evangelist himself—may have considered the hopeful, inspirational words in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “the light of the world, a city on a hill” (Matthew 5:4). From the field, Vincent faced south-west; the declining rays of the autumnal, late afternoon sun reddened the undersides of the feathery cirrus clouds that soared high overhead. Vincent worked quickly to capture the transitional half-light and subdued ground hues late in the day, knowing that he must soon pack up and with the attendant head back inside.
“I had more control over myself in these latest studies, because my state of health had firmed up,” Vincent declared to the painter Émile Bernard on 8 October 1889 (Letters, no. 809). The autumnal canvases reveal an increasing subtlety in Vincent’s use of color. He explored the tonal possibilities in complementary half-tones—purplish, violet hues—which he admired in the paintings of Delacroix (Letters, no. 800). “There are moments when nature is superb, autumnal effects glorious in color, green skies contrasting with yellow, orange, green vegetation, earth in all shades of violet,” he wrote to Theo, also on 8 October. “Things that make you quite melancholy not to be able to render them” (Letters, no. 810).
Vincent moreover practiced greater control over his brushwork—“What a funny thing the touch is, the brushstroke,” he explained to Theo on 10 September 1889. “Out of doors, exposed to the wind, the sun, people’s curiosity, one works as one can, one fills one’s canvas regardless. Yet then one catches the true and the essential—that’s the most difficult thing. But when one returns to this study again after a time, and orders one’s brushstrokes in the direction of the objects—certainly it’s more harmonious and agreeable to see, and one adds to it whatever one has of serenity and smiles” (Letters, no. 801).
Vincent is believed to have included Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle Saint-Paul de Mausole (Saint-Rémy) in the group of fall studies he dispatched to Theo on 6 December 1889 (Letters, no. 824). Having seen this painting in the landmark 1905 Van Gogh retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Paul Cassirer, the leading German gallerist of his day, placed it immediately afterwards in his own traveling exhibition, seen in Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin, which alerted the German public, art critics, historians, and contemporary painters alike to the achievement of an artist who was rapidly achieving legendary status. Cassirer acquired the painting in 1907 from Theo’s widow Johanna.
The London art dealer Francis Taylor purchased Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle Saint-Paul de Mausole (Saint-Rémy) in a 1963 Sotheby’s London auction on behalf of his daughter Elizabeth, the Hollywood actress whose most famous film, the epic Cleopatra, co-starring Richard Burton, premiered two months later. The painting remained in the living room of her Bel Air home until her death in March 2011.