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

L'allée des Alyscamps

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
L'allée des Alyscamps
oil on canvas
36 1/8 x 28 7/8 in. (91.7 x 73.5 cm.)
Painted in Arles, October-November 1888
M. Aghion, Paris; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 29 March 1918, lot 13.
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris.
Paul Vallotton, Lausanne.
Hans Mettler, St. Gallen, Switzerland (acquired from the above).
Mrs. A. Mettler-Weber, Zollikon, Switzerland (by descent from the above).
Private collection (by descent from the above).
Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 15 May 1985, lot 25.
Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York (acquired at the above sale).
Private collection, Japan.
J. Meier-Graefe, Modern Art: Being a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics, New York, 1904, vol. I, p. 120 (titled Chemin des tombeaux à Arles).
T. Duret, Vincent Van Gogh, Paris, 1924, pl. XXXI (illustrated).
H. Kiel, "La collection Hans Mettler à Saint-Gall," L'Amour de l'Art, vol. VIII, July 1927, p. 231 (illustrated, p. 230).
J.-B. de la Faille, L'oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1928, vol. I, p. 161, no. 569 (illustrated, vol. II, pl. CLV).
J. Rewald, "Van Gogh en Provence", L'Amour de l'Art, vol. XVII, October 1936, p. 294 (illustrated).
W. Scherjon and J. de Gruyter, Vincent van Gogh's Great Period: Arles, St. Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise, Amsterdam, 1937, p. 152, no. 123 (illustrated).
J.-B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1939, p. 387, no. 552 (illustrated).
J. Leymarie, Van Gogh, Paris, 1951, p. 108.
H. Perruchot, "L'amitié de Gauguin et de Van Gogh," Le Jardin des Arts, no. 31, May 1957 (illustrated, p. 415).
V.W. van Gogh, ed., The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, vol. III, London, 1958, p. 519, letter no. B19a.
A.M. Hammacher, A Detailed Catalogue with Full Documentation of 272 Works by Vincent Van Gogh Belonging to the Collection of the State Museum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, 1959, p. 81.
J.-B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh, His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, p. 238, no. F569 (illustrated).
M. Roskill, Van Gogh, Gauguin and the Impressionist Circle, London, 1970, pp. 135-137 (illustrated, p. 161, pl. 109).
P. Lecaldano, L'opera pittora completa di Van Gogh e i suoi nessi grafici, Milan, 1971, p. 215, no. 601 (illustrated, p. 214).
J. Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, New York, 1980, pp. 370-373, no. 1623 (illustrated, p. 373).
B. Welsh-Ovcharov, Vincent Van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism, exh. cat., Toronto, 1981, pp. 140-141.
R. Pickvance, Van Gogh in Arles, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984, p. 199.
H. Anikawa, Vincent van Gogh Exhibition, exh. cat., Tokyo, 1985, p. 186.
C. Fiéches-Thory, The Art of Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 112.
J. van der Wolk, R. Pickvance and E.B.F. Pey, Vincent van Gogh, Drawings, exh. cat., New York, 1990, p. 20.
R. Dorn, &IDécoration. Vincent van Goghs Werkreihe für das Gelbe Haus in Arles, Hildesheim, 1990, pp. 439-442.
G. Testori and L. Arrigoni, Van Gogh: Catalogo completo dei dipinti, Florence, 1990, p. 263, no. 589 (illustrated in color, p. 265).
I.F. Walther and R. Metzger, Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, Cologne, 1993, vol. II, p. 443 (illustrated in color, p. 447).
J. Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Philadelphia, 1996, pp. 368, 370 and 373, no. 1623 (illustrated).
B. Welsh-Ovcharov, Van Gogh in Provence and Auvers, New York, 1999, p. 98 (illustrated in color).
D. Silverman, Van Gogh and Gauguin, The Search for Sacred Art, New York, 2000, pp. 200-201, 401 and 413 (illustrated in color, p. 202).
York, 2000, pp. 200-201, 401 and 413 (illustrated in color, p. 202).
York, 2000, pp. 200-201, 401 and 413 (illustrated in color, p. 202).
York, 2000, pp. 200-201, 401 and 413 (illustrated in color, p. 202).
York, 2000, pp. 200-201, 401 and 413 (illustrated in color, p. 202).
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Exposition d'oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh, March 1901, p. 13, no. 24.
Zürich, Kunsthaus, Vincent van Gogh, July-August 1924, no. 40 (titled Graberstrasse in Arles).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Stedelijke Tentoonstelling Vincent van Gogh en zijn Tijdgenoonten, September-November 1930, p. 15, no. 71.
Basel, Kunsthalle, Vincent van Gogh, October-November 1947, p. 26, no. 70.
Winterthur, Kunstmuseum, Europäische Meister, 1790-1910, June-July 1955, p. 31, no. 102.
Schaffhausen, Museum zu Allerheiligen, Die Welt des Impressionismus, June-September 1963, no. 52 (illustrated).
Tokyo, Wildenstein Tokyo Ltd., Masterpieces of European Painting, May-June 1992, no. 13 (illustrated).
The Art Institute and Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, September 2001-January 2002, p. 176 (illustrated in color; illustrated again in color p. 173).

Lot Essay

Executed in Arles in October of 1888, the present picture represents a key document in the evolution of van Gogh's art. With its expressive palette and vigorous brushwork, the painting is characteristic of the mature style that van Gogh established during his fifteen months at Arles--a period that Ronald Pickvance calls "the zenith, the climax, the greatest flowering of van Gogh's decade of artistic activity" (R. Pickvance, op. cit., p. 11). Moreover, it is one of the first works that van Gogh made following Gauguin's arrival at Arles for a nine-week sojourn, during which the two artists lived and worked side-by-side in van Gogh's "Yellow House". Their partnership gave rise to a period of intense aesthetic exploration and unprecedented productivity for both painters. As Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers wrote on the occasion of a recent exhibition devoted to this seminal episode:

The collaboration proved pivotal for each, in different ways. For van Gogh the 'Studio of the South' was a destination, the personal and professional haven he had sought for years; for Gauguin it was a point of departure, instrumental in helping him chart his future course... Their time together--unrelieved by distractions and experienced far more intensely than its measure in days might indicate--resulted in a productivity all the more remarkable since each was consciously attempting to move his art in new directions while processing the influential presence of the other. Finally, the legacy of their time together served as a mutual reference that continued to motivate both artists after the Arles experiment had ended (D. Druick and P. Zegers, op. cit., p. 1).

The present canvas was executed during the first major painting campaign that van Gogh and Gauguin undertook together at Arles. It depicts Les Alyscamps (The Elysian Fields), an ancient Roman cemetery southeast of the old city walls (fig. 1). According to the detailed chronology that Druick and Zegers have established, van Gogh and Gauguin worked at Les Alyscamps for four days (28-31 October) before heavy rains forced them indoors. During this period, van Gogh painted four views of the necropolis (de la Faille F486-487, 568-569), including the present one, and Gauguin produced two (Wildenstein 306-307).

Les Alyscamps was part of a dense fabric of Roman remains that the two artists would have seen at Arles. Although literary references and archaeological evidence attest to the town's Greek origins, it rose to prominence only in 49 BC when Caesar used it as a naval base against Marseille. Three years later, a Roman colony was founded at Arles with veterans from Caesar's sixth legion. During the first century AD, the town received a lengthy circuit of fortification walls as well as several impressive public buildings. These included a forum or town square enclosed by a monumental double portico, a lavishly decorated theater, and a large amphitheater modeled on the Colosseum at Rome. In the later empire, Arles gained in status as an occasional imperial residence and the site of the first Christian council in 314. At the end of the fourth century, it replaced Trier as the headquarters of the Roman military prefecture and the chief city of the Roman West. After various vicissitudes, it was annexed by the Visigoths in 476.

By the nineteenth century, Arles' ancient heritage had become central to the town's view of itself. A widely circulated guidebook from 1889 promised that to observe the local women in the amphitheater was to be transported through time and space to witness "Roman virgins" in the Colosseum (F. Beissier, Les étapes d'un touriste en France: Le pays d'Arles, Paris, 1889, p. 114; quoted in D. Druick and P. Zegers, op. cit., p. 172). Likewise, Gustave Flaubert extolled "the women of Arles! With their skirts...their comportment...their robust and svelte stature, they resemble the antique Muse" (quoted in ibid., p. 385, no. 35). Van Gogh too was deeply impressed by Arles' classical legacy, which he associated with its present-day creative potential. As he wrote to Gauguin in early October, "This part of the country has already seen the cult of Venus--primarily artistic, in Greece--followed by the poets and artists of the Renaissance. Where these things could flourish, impressionism can as well" (quoted in ibid., p. 171). Gauguin apparently agreed. Shortly after his arrival at Arles, he wrote to Emile Bernard that the local women, with their Grecian beauty, elegant hairstyles, and ample shawls, reminded him of figures seen in procession on ancient sculpture and vases. This seemed to him proof that his new surroundings would enable him to pioneer what he described to Bernard as a "beautiful modern style" (quoted in ibid., p. 171).

As one of Arles' most vaunted tourist attractions, Les Alyscamps was a logical place for van Gogh and Gauguin to begin their work. The cemetery consisted of a long promenade lined with poplars and stone sarcophagi, terminating at the twelfth-century church of Saint-Honorat (fig. 2). Originally established in pagan times, Les Alyscamps remained in use well into the Middle Ages. After this time, its rich collection of Roman and Early Christian sarcophagi was pillaged for building materials, gifts, and museum display. By the nineteenth century, the site was somewhat dilapidated, "a melancholy avenue of cypresses, lined with a succession of ancient sarcophagi, all empty, mossy, and mutilated", to quote Henry James (H. James, A Little Tour in France, Boston, 1884; quoted in R. Brettell et al., exh. cat., The Art of Paul Gauguin, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 112). Nonetheless, Les Alyscamps remained a favored motif of local artists, central to Arles's nostalgic view of its distinguished heritage.

According to Druick and Zegers, van Gogh and Gauguin began work in Les Alyscamps near the northwest entrance to the site. For his first canvas, van Gogh chose a spot on the right side of the path, looking along the converging rows of poplars toward the church at the far end (fig. 2: a; fig. 3). Visible at the left were the buildings and smokestacks of the railroad workshops immediately northeast of the cemetery. Gauguin, in contrast, selected a radically different vantage point. Although he too set up his easel facing southeast, he did so on the path running along the top of the seven-foot embankment bordering the north side of Les Alyscamps (fig. 2: b; fig. 4). The row of poplars at the left in van Gogh's painting was thus to his right; to his left was the Craponne Canal and directly ahead the octagonal tower of Saint-Honorat.

The present painting is the second one that van Gogh made at Les Alyscamps. For this view, he moved to the other end of the lane, looking back toward the Saint-Accurse Chapel and the Arch of Saint-Césaire (fig. 2: d). The result was "a study of the whole avenue, entirely yellow", as he wrote to Bernard on 2 November (quoted in D. Druick and P. Zegers, op. cit., p. 180). At the same time, Gauguin set aside his first picture and joined van Gogh at the southeast end of the promenade. Standing back-to-back with his colleague, he painted the entrance portal of Saint-Honorat and the red-roofed structures abutting it to the south (fig. 2: e; Wildenstein 306; Seiji Togo Memorial Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art, Tokyo). Finally, Gauguin returned to the raised embankment by the Craponne Canal to continue work on his first picture. Van Gogh accompanied him to this spot and painted two new canvases, both looking down through the poplar trees to the tomb-lined promenade below (fig. 2: c; de la Faille F486-487; Kröller-Möller Museum, Otterlo and Private Collection).

Among van Gogh's views of Les Alyscamps, the present picture stands out both for its powerful composition and its vivid palette. The painting is organized as a dramatic V-shape, its centrally converging rows of poplar trees forming a bold linear corridor of space. The vertical tree trunks are paired with angled tombs in a step-like pattern, creating a recessional network of L-shaped runners that directs the eye swiftly along the path. The vigorous verticality of the canvas is enhanced by the use of blazing orange-yellow for the poplar foliage, the wide avenue below receding in swabs of peach, rust, and brown pigment that suggest falling leaves. The painting, moreover, is the very first that van Gogh made on a piece of heavy jute that Gauguin had purchased shortly after his arrival at Arles, "very coarse but very good burlap", as Gauguin recounted to Bernard (quoted in R. Brettell et al., op. cit., p. 112). Only minimally muted by a thin ground layer, the rough texture of the support imparts to the present picture something of the rustic feel that Gauguin sought in his ceramics around this time.

Comparison of the pictures that van Gogh and Gauguin executed at Les Alyscamps also attests to the fruitful artistic dialogue that the duo enjoyed at Arles. The final two paintings that van Gogh made of the cemetery (de la Faille F486-487) clearly reveal his efforts to engage with his companion's distinctive aesthetic. The simplified zones of uninflected color outlined in black reflect the cloisonniste style that Gauguin and Bernard had pioneered at Pont-Aven, while the smooth, matte surface is probably indebted to Gauguin's systematic handling and sparse touch. The present picture, in contrast, is quintessential van Gogh, the paint laid on in quantity with brusque and sweeping strokes. In a letter to Bernard dated mid-November, Gauguin commented on the two artists' divergent surface effects, "In general, Vincent and I agree on very few topics, and especially not on painting... He appreciates the hazards of thick paint as Monticelli uses it, whereas I detest any form of tampering by brushwork" (quoted in ibid., p. 113). Van Gogh, in turn, explained his rich, kinetic facture as follows: "Aren't we seeking intensity of thought rather than tranquility of touch? Under the conditions of working spontaneously, on the spot, and given the character of it, is a calm, well-regulated touch always possible? Goodness gracious -- as little, it seems to me, as during an assault in a fencing match" (quoted in D. Silverman, op. cit., p. 206).

(fig. 1) Postcard of Les Alyscamps, Arles, circa 1910.

(fig. 2) Map of Les Alyscamps, Arles. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

(fig. 3) Vincent van Gogh, Allée des Alyscamps, 1888.
Private Collection.

(fig. 4) Paul Gauguin, Les Alyscamps, 1888.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

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