VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
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Property from a Distinguished Private Collection
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)

Champs près des Alpilles

VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
Champs près des Alpilles
oil on canvas
18 1⁄8 x 21 3⁄4 in. (46.2 x 55.2 cm.)
Painted in November 1889
Joseph Roulin, Marseilles (gift from the artist, 4 January 1890).
Ambroise Vollard, Paris (probably acquired from the above, June 1900).
Paul Pompidor, Narbonne (probably acquired from the above, 1901, and by descent).
Private collection (acquired from the above, 1980).
Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, Paris.
Private collection, Europe (circa 2003).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
J.-B. de la Faille, L'oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh: Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1928, vol. I, p. 188, no. 663 (illustrated, vol. II, pl. CLXXXII).
W. Scherjon and J. de Gruyter, Vincent van Gogh's Great Period: Arles, St. Rémy and Auvers sur Oise (Complete Catalogue), Amsterdam, 1937, p. 277, no. 82bis (illustrated).
J.-B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1939, p. 462, no. 672/F 663 (illustrated).
J.G. van Gelder, A Detailed Catalogue with Full Documentation of 272 Works by Vincent van Gogh Belonging to the Collection of the State Museum Kröller-Müller, with an Essay on Van Gogh's Childhood Drawings, Otterlo, 1959, p. 104.
V.W. van Gogh, ed., The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, vol. III, pp. 244-245, letter 622.
J.-B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, pp. 261 and 637, no. F 663 (illustrated, p. 261; dated January 1890).
J. Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam, 1977, p. 429, no. 1866 (illustrated).
I.F. Walther and R. Metzger, Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, Cologne, 1993, vol. II, p. 596 (illustrated; dated December 1889).
J. Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 429, no. 1866 (illustrated; dated December 1889).
J. ten Berge, T. Meedendorp, A. Vergeest and R. Verhoogt, The Paintings of Vincent van Gogh in the Collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, 2002, p. 319.
R.A. Rabinow, ed., Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006, p. 279.
L. Jansen, H. Luijten and N. Bakker, eds., Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, London, 2009, vol. 5, pp. 178-179, letter 836 (illustrated in color, p. 178, fig. 6).
W. Feilchenfeldt, Vincent van Gogh: The Years in France, Complete Paintings 1886-1890, Dealers, Collectors, Exhibitions, Provenance, London, 2013, p. 235 (illustrated in color; dated 10 September 1889).

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Lot Essay

“Yesterday I sent 2 canvases to Marseille,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in the opening days of 1890. “I made a present of them to my friend Roulin, a white farmhouse among the olive trees [Faille, no. 664; Private collection] and a wheatfield with a background of lilac mountains and a dark tree [the present work], as in the large canvas I sent you [Faille, no. 721; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo]” (Letter 836, in L. Jansen, H. Luijten and N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., 2009, p. 179). The second painting Van Gogh described is the present Champs près des Alpilles, which he had painted a few months earlier, in November 1889. Depicting an expansive vista that spans across a vivid green wheatfield, with rows of olive trees and the soaring peaks of the Alpilles in the background, this landscape embodies both the signature subjects as well as the radical, expressive handling that Van Gogh developed in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, his home for a year in 1889-1890.
As Van Gogh’s letter records, he sent Champs près des Alpilles as a gift to his friend, Joseph Roulin. A postman whom the artist had met and befriended during his time in Arles, Roulin was one of the artist’s most important models—he and his family feature in numerous portraits, a selection of which the artist also gave them as gifts—as well as a close friend. Roulin was a crucial support to the artist not only during his time in hospital in Arles, but from afar when the artist was living in Saint-Rémy. His letters to Van Gogh tell of a deep understanding of him as a person and an artist. As he wrote to him in May 1889, “Continue your paintings, you are in a beautiful part of the world, the countryside is very beautiful... Continue to take good care of yourself.... I have great confidence that your health will be completely restored, with the good will that you have you will succeed in doing very fine paintings...” (Letter 775, ibid., p. 20). As such this work stands as a testament to the friendship of these two men, a reflection of the importance of Roulin in Van Gogh’s art, as well as his life.
It was during his stay in Saint-Rémy that Van Gogh’s mature style truly emerged. He transformed the world around him into dazzling visions of often heightened color conveyed with evermore animated brushstrokes, both of which serve to imbue these canvases with a powerful—and highly influential—expressive charge. For Van Gogh, nature and his art were inextricably linked. Never merely descriptive renderings of the Provençal landscape, these works were deeply personal reflections of the reverence and awe with which he regarded nature. Amid his turbulent, often tormented and melancholic mental state, painting became an act of survival, “one picture staked a whole day’s claim on the future, and a series represented belief in the continuation of life. Van Gogh’s indefatigable determination to paint had never been greater than in the asylum at Saint-Rémy” (I.F. Walther and R. Metzger, Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, Cologne, 2012, p. 509).
Van Gogh arrived at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, the asylum set on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in May 1889. Having suffered a succession of breakdowns in Arles, the first of which drove him to cut off his ear, Van Gogh had voluntarily admitted himself into this maison de santé, “a house of health,” placing himself under the care of Dr. Théophile Peyron. Gradually the artist rebuilt his strength, and in early June had been allowed to venture beyond the grounds of the asylum to paint the surrounding countryside. “In the face of nature it’s the feeling for the work that keeps me going,” he wrote to Theo in June (Letter 594, op. cit., 2009, p. 32).
In mid-July, however, Van Gogh suffered another major mental crisis while out painting. Having attempted to consume his own paints and brushes during this episode, Van Gogh was not permitted to work in his studio. Devastated by this relapse, he remained in the confines of his bedroom for the weeks that followed.
In early September, Van Gogh cautiously began working again. He painted self-portraits, copies after prints of works by Eugène Delacroix and Jean-François Millet, as well as views from his bedroom window. “Work distracts me infinitely better than anything else, and if I could once really throw myself into it with all my energy that might possibly be the best remedy,” he wrote to Theo on 2 September (Letter 798, ibid., p. 72). It was not long, however, before his creative powers returned in full force. By mid-September, he had completed at least eighteen paintings, a truly remarkable feat in such a short space of time. As Jan Hulsker has written of this astonishing recuperation: “When we delve into the chronology and background of the work produced in these weeks [of return to work], we encounter another of those enigmas that periodically marked the career of this highly gifted and inspired artist. The number and the quality of the works he produced almost immediately after his recovery are almost incredible” (op. cit., 1996, p. 404).
Van Gogh was permitted to venture outside the walls of asylum at the end of September, just in time to witness the start of the spectacular seasonal change from summer to autumn. Set on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy, the asylum stood in a fertile plain amid wheatfields, lines of cypresses, and olive groves, with huts and stone farmhouses nestled into the landscape, all overlooked by the majestic mountains of the Alpilles, the lower, final chain of the Alps. This natural setting offered the artist a wealth of motifs, all of which he reveled in as he sought to distill the essence of the region, aiming to capture, “at best a sort of whole, ‘Impressions of Provence,’” as he told Theo on 5 October (Letter 808, op. cit., 2009, p. 113).
In many ways the cooler months calmed and renewed the artist. Working when he could around the mistral—the renowned winds that periodically swept through southern France—he became captivated by the olive groves, a motif that he had explored earlier in the summer. At the start of October, he returned to other subjects—the towering pines of the asylum garden, as well as the Alpilles, and the enclosed wheatfield that lay beyond his bedroom window. “I’ve been taking long walks in all directions across the country,” he told Theo, “I’m beginning to feel more the wholeness of the countryside in which I live. Later I may also return time and again to the same Provençal subjects” (Letter 815, ibid., p. 128).
In early November, Van Gogh heard word of Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard’s latest, religious-inspired work, in particular abstracted scenes of Christ in the Garden of Olives. Van Gogh was incensed. Not only did he feel a sense of ownership over the motif of the olive tree, but, more importantly, he also denounced the artists’ departure from reality, feeling that they had ventured too far into the realm of imagination. “I believed that thinking and not dreaming was our duty,” he later wrote to Theo (Letter 823, ibid., p. 154).
His letter to Bernard explains his dismay, while at the same time offers a fascinating insight into the way in which Van Gogh regarded the purpose his own art—realism as the primary means to convey emotion and above all, personal expression. “ order to give an impression of anxiety,” he wrote, “you can try to do it without heading straight for the historical garden of Gethsemane; in order to offer a consoling and gentle subject it isn’t necessary to depict figures from the Sermon on the Mount… modern reality has such a hold over us that even when trying abstractly to reconstruct ancient times in our thoughts—just at that very moment the petty events of our lives tear us away from these meditations and our own adventures throw us forcibly into personal sensations: joy, boredom, suffering, anger or smiling… Look, avenge yourself by painting your garden as it is, or anything you like” (Letter 822, ibid., p. 153).
As a result of this inciting artistic exchange, Van Gogh threw himself back into the heart of the rural landscape, immersing himself in the real world, as he painted wheatfields, the garden of the asylum, as well as a series of five olive grove paintings (Faille, nos. 586, 587, 707, 708 and 710). His dialogue with Gauguin and Bernard made him evermore certain of his own abiding artistic goal: art, he fervently believed, should “smell of the soil” (Letter, ibid., p. 823).
Champs près des Alpilles was painted at this moment of intense, impassioned artistic production. This expansive vista, as Van Gogh himself described, depicts a wheatfield just outside the asylum, with the peaks of the Alpilles looming above the flat, verdant plain. In the center of the composition stands a majestic, leafless tree. While exhibiting the same gnarled, twisted branches characteristic of olive trees, they did not lose their leaves in winter. Instead, it is likely this tree was an almond, denuded of its foliage as winter took hold. The motif of the single, isolated tree tempts biographical comparison to Van Gogh himself, so often regarded as the figure of the lonely artist, misunderstood and solitary, doggedly following his own artistic path in the face of misunderstanding. Perhaps he did feel a particular kinship with this motif; perhaps it was simply a part of the scene he had chosen to paint that cold, bright November day.
The exact location that Van Gogh painted from is known today as the Parc d’Amour, according to Teio Meedendorp, senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. This field was just outside the asylum. This, as well as the small “mas” seen between the boughs of the tree, can be seen in a postcard dating from around 1950. The rows of olive trees in the distance of the painting lined the main road that led from Saint-Rémy through the mountains. As Meedendorp also noted, a stone quarry lay beneath this field. Well before Van Gogh’s day, this area was subject to extensive mining, resulting in lots of stones still lying around. This explains the large, pale rock that juts into the composition in the immediate foreground.
Van Gogh painted a second, slightly larger composition—likely after he had completed the present work—from this same spot: the Kröller-Müller’s Champs de blé dans un paysage montagneux (Faille, no. 721), which he sent to Theo on 3 January 1890. In this closer, less expansive composition, Van Gogh looked more to the left, or more southwards, bringing the large Mont Gaussier into sight (as opposed to the more south westerly view in the present work), featuring a different farmhouse, known today as the “mas de George,” which still stands today. The tree trunk visible on the left hand side of the present work appears again, more prominently, in the Kröller-Müller painting.
A similar handling and palette is evident in both paintings. The sky is a shade of luminous citron, which acts in perfect complementary accord with the cool blue and lilac tones of the mountains. Van Gogh clearly relished the changing colors of the landscape around him at this time. As he wrote to Theo a few weeks after he completed the present work, “I’m going to work some more outside, the mistral’s blowing. It usually dies down by the time the sun’s about to set, then there are some superb effects of pale citron skies, and desolate pines cast their silhouettes in relief against it with effects of exquisite black lace. At other times the sky is red, at other times a tone that’s extremely delicate, neutral, still pale lemon but neutralized by delicate lilac” (Letter 829, ibid., p. 168).
The green fields of Champs près des Alpilles are radiant, planted with newly sprouting wheat, imparting perhaps a sense of optimism for the new year that was fast approaching. With undulating lines, painted as if ripples of water, this field is filled with a sense of movement which is echoed in the bold strokes that depict the sky. This is a frequent characteristic of Van Gogh’s Saint-Rémy landscapes, as he harnessed the natural rhythms and innate dynamism of nature.
The statuesque form of the tree silhouetted against the background is reminiscent of one of the great influences of Van Gogh’s art in the south: Japanese woodcuts. With its relatively high horizon line and pictorial structure composed of horizontal bands of color, overlaid with the dramatic outline of the tree, this composition reflects Van Gogh’s long term interest in this artform and finds parallels particularly in the work of Katsushika Hokusai. While in comparison to his time in Arles, this interest did not predominate as much while he was in Saint-Rémy, the essential tenets of this style still played into the artist’s portrayals of the landscape, as the present work demonstrates.
At the beginning of the new year, Van Gogh sent Champs près des Alpilles, as well as a second landscape, Ferme aux oliviers (Faille, no. 664; Private collection) to his friend, Joseph Roulin (see letter quoted at the beginning of this essay). This gift, made at the beginning of the year, was one of a series of reciprocal gestures of friendship that the pair had shared from the time they first met, in the summer of 1888.
Joseph Roulin was a postal clerk responsible for unloading mail as it arrived at the train station in Arles. Part of Van Gogh’s motive for moving to Arles was to paint more portraits, an aim that at first he found hard to fulfil as he knew no one in the Provençal town. At the end of July 1888, the two men met. Roulin was among the first portraits he painted in the south, marking the start of an astonishing series of works as the artist depicted five more portraits of him (Faille, nos. 432-436, 439), as well as of his entire family, including his wife, Augustine, who appears as “La Berceuse,” their sons, Armand, and Camille, and baby daughter, Marcelle. In total, Van Gogh produced twenty-two paintings of the Roulin family—the most frequently portrayed figures within the artist’s oeuvre.
Van Gogh gave the Roulins a portrait of each family member. When offered a choice of his depictions of Augustine, they chose Augustine Roulin (‘La Berceuse’) (Faille, no. 505; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), while they also owned Marcelle Roulin (Faille, no. 441a; Private collection), Armand Roulin (Faille, no. 492; Museum Folkwang, Essen), and Camille Roulin (Faille, no. 537; Philadelphia Museum of Art). It is not known exactly which portraits of Roulin that they owned, but it could have been the portrait that now resides in the Kunstmuseum Winterthur (Faille, no. 434) (see note 3, Letter 774, ibid., 2009, p. 17). Roulin mentioned these portraits in a letter to Van Gogh in mid-August 1889. He had been transferred from Arles to Marseille, and was awaiting his family to join him there. “I will not have your paintings, our portraits, until I have the family. Do not fear that I will have anything done to your paintings for I respect the artist’s talent too much, and once my word is given you know it is sacred to me” (Letter 796, ibid., p. 68).
In Roulin, Van Gogh not only found a willing model but a friend. “My friend the postman, for example, lives a great deal in cafés and is certainly more or less a drinker and has been so all his life. But he’s so much more the opposite of stupefied, and his elation is so natural, so intelligent, and then he argues with such a broad sweep, à la Garibaldi” (Letter 702, ibid., p. 322).
When, in the opening months of 1889, Van Gogh was hospitalized, Roulin provided comfort to the artist. After he was discharged from hospital, Roulin wrote to Van Gogh’s sister, Willemien, “Reassure yourself about the health of my good friend Vincent; I am with him whenever my work permits me, and if anything should happen I will let you know at once. I do not believe I deserve all the thanks that you give me, but I shall always strive to deserve my friend Vincent’s respect, as well as that of all those who are dear to him” (quoted in Van Gogh’s Inner Circle: Friends, Family, Models, exh. cat., Het Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, 2019, p. 102).
“While Roulin isn’t exactly old enough to be like a father to me,” Van Gogh described to Theo in April, “all the same he has silent solemnities and tendernesses for me like an old soldier would have for a young one. Always—but without a word—a certain something that seems to mean: we don’t know what will happen to us tomorrow, but think of me in any event. And that does one good when it comes from a man who is neither embittered nor sad, nor perfect, nor happy, nor always irreproachably just, but such a good soul and so wise and so moved and so full of belief. Listen—I have no right to complain of anything to do with Arles when I think of certain people I’ve seen there and whom I’ll never be able to forget” (Letter 754, op. cit., 2009, p. 423).
When Van Gogh moved to Saint-Rémy, he and Roulin continued to correspond. Indeed, the postman mentioned visiting him, though in the end this did not take place. Roulin’s letters to the artist seem to show a genuine sense of sympathy with the artist and his chosen vocation. While Van Gogh is frequently portrayed as a lonely figure who struggled deeply to forge relationships with people, his friendship with Roulin offers a different version to this oft-used narrative. When, at the end of October, Van Gogh told Roulin of his plan to leave the asylum and move north, to Auvers, the postman replied, “Like you, I have a very heavy heart to see you go further from us; let us hope that one day again we shall have the happiness to shake hands and to tell each other in person such good things and to cement our friendship once more; I am confident and am full of hope to see you again one day, I am pleased to see you moving closer to your brother” (Letter 814, ibid., p. 126).
In 1900, the dealer Ambroise Vollard bought eight works by Van Gogh from Roulin, including most likely Champs près des Alpilles and the accompanying landscape that he sent him in January 1890 (Faille, no. 664; Private collection), as well as the family portraits, and a still life of a vase of oleanders (Faille, no. 594; present location unknown). Two other portraits of the Roulin family could also have been owned by Roulin (Faille, nos. 491 and 503). A collector in Narbonne, Paul Pompidor probably acquired Champs près des Alpilles from Vollard in 1901, and the work remained in his family’s possession until 1980. It subsequently entered the collection of the distinguished collectors, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who together amassed one of the greatest groupings of art of the twentieth century.

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