“I’ll tell you that we’re having some superb autumn days, and that I’m taking advantage of them,” Vincent van Gogh wrote from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on 5 October 1889 to his brother Theo, a gallerist in Paris. “I have a few studies…” (Letters, no. 808). The artist painted Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile a week or two later, as the fiery colors of fall foliage approached peak brilliance.
The garden in which Vincent was working had been familiar, cherished ground—if nothing like paradise, then a welcome sanctuary nonetheless—for the past five-and-a-half months. This painting displays a vital sense of immediacy and the artist’s total, intimate immersion within the landscape—one that we find as well in Henri Matisse's Paysage de Colliourse, étude pour Le Bonheur de vivre. Vincent appears to have painted the canvas au premier coup, in a single session at white heat. The developing synthesis of pictorial ideas that he had been incorporating into his work—since he first encountered “new painting” in Paris during 1886-1887—had become engrained and instinctual, entirely personal, and would become a potent method for future generations of artists to study, emulate, and apply in their own ways.
Heeding the sympathetic advice of Dr. Félix Rey, and with the kind Reverend Frédéric Salles at his side, Vincent departed Arles and arrived in Saint-Rémy, some fifteen miles distant, on 8 May 1889. With Theo’s agreement and support, the artist voluntarily signed the admissions register of the privately-run Hôpital de Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, placing himself in the care of Dr. Théophile Peyron and his staff. The artist remained there for just over a year, until his release on 20 May 1890.
Advertised as a maison de santé—“a house of health”—the converted Augustinian monastery was in reality an asylum for the mentally ill. While tourists may today visit a recreation of the artist’s room and walk the grounds, the wing containing a modern, working psychiatric facility is strictly off-limits. Vincent feared the recurrence of the sudden, devastating mental trauma he had experienced on 23 December 1888 in Arles—following a bitter dispute with Paul Gauguin, his guest at the Yellow House, he suffered severe paroxysms of hallucinations, loud noises, and voices that drove him to mutilate his left ear, shearing off all but the lobe. A relapse, although less violent, on 7 February 1889 led Dr. Rey and Reverend Salles to urge Vincent to seek extended care in Saint-Rémy.
“I’ve been here almost a whole month,” Vincent wrote Theo on 31 May 1889. “Not one single time have I had the slightest desire to be elsewhere; just the will to work is becoming a tiny bit firmer… What a beautiful land and what beautiful blue and what a sun! And yet I’ve only seen the garden and what I can make out through the window” (Letters, no. 777).
Dr. Peyron supervised the treatment of only around 40 patients, to whom his staff could be more attentive than in larger, state-managed institutions. Vincent had a bedroom to himself, the window opening each morning on the rising sun. Theo had stipulated that his brother be allowed to paint; the doctor granted the artist use of a second room, the gardens outside visible through its ground-floor window, as his studio. For the remainder of May Vincent painted within the hospital grounds, as Dr. Peyron assessed his condition. By 6 June he was allowed to paint outside the asylum walls, escorted by an attendant.
Vincent’s willing confinement at Saint-Rémy was the penultimate phase in his singularly intense, compressed career as a painter, linking the Arles and Auvers periods. There he struggled to understand and to adapt to the fits of temporal lobe epilepsy, an inherited condition to which, at age 36, he had become increasingly prone, while relentlessly striving—on his own, inner-directed terms—for mastery in his chosen profession.
The canvases Vincent had painted during the previous fifteen months in Arles had been the groundbreaking, true beginning of his maturity as a painter. The pictures he created in Saint-Rémy represent a further step—as dangerous as Vincent’s condition might have been, the storm and stress in his addled, manic mind connected more tellingly with the creative daemon of inner necessity to ratchet even higher the expressive tensions in his work, with magnificent results. On 18 June 1889 Vincent painted La nuit étoilée, the iconic “Starry Night” (Faille, no. 612). The firestorms that he experienced in his brain were splayed on the canvas as swirling, pulsating galaxies animating the night sky. From feeling and intuition, faculties pushed to their breaking point, Vincent conjured symbols of the infinite and eternal cosmos—he had attained a visionary dimension in his art.
The enclosed gardens on the grounds of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole were unkempt and poorly maintained, more like—in their profuse vegetation—a vigorous, unruly state of nature. Here the artist observed the passage of the seasons over the course of a single year, from one spring to the next, bearing witness to the fundamental cycle of renewal, plentitude, and decay, leading to a rebirth once more, just as resident monks had contemplated in the distant past. The gardens were an ever-present haven that afforded Vincent comfort and reassurance, lying beneath his studio window or just a few steps from the main entrance to the men’s wing in which he lived.
“I’m quite absorbed in reading the Shakespeare that Theo sent me here,” Vincent wrote his sister Willemien on 2 July 1889. “At last I’ll have the calm necessary to do a little more difficult reading… Have you ever read King Lear? I think I shan’t urge you too much to read such dramatic books when I myself, returning from this reading, am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself” (Letters, no. 785). Willemien, too, eventually fell victim to mental illness, and entered an asylum in 1902.
The network of winding walks and paths offered seemingly limitless perspectives on the variety of motifs at the painter’s disposal. Trees were both evergreen and deciduous; among the thicker trunks of elms and oaks were poplars, maples, and smaller trees bearing fruit, almonds, mulberries, and olives. Tall, twisting parasol pines and the sword-like tips of dark, flame-shaped cypresses dominated the arboreal skyline. Le sous-bois, the sprawling plant undergrowth at the feet of these trees—teeming natural worlds in microcosm—held special fascination for Vincent.
On 15 July 1889 Vincent dispatched to Theo his first batch of Saint-Rémy canvases, from among the some thirty works he had already completed, including the well-known Irises (Faille, no. 608; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), together with the final eight pictures he had painted in Arles. The following day, on 16 July, disaster struck—Vincent experienced an “attack”, as he called such dreaded events. The artist was painting the entrance to one of the cavernous quarries near the asylum when he was struck down. In his frenzy, Vincent ingested dirt and swallowed contents from one of his paint tubes before the accompanying orderly could stop him.
The quarry entrance, an opening into the underworld, might serve as an apt site and symbol for this event—for the next six weeks Vincent harrowed the hell of his innermost mind, his very being.
No apparent warning signs preceded “this new crisis,” as Vincent later described the event to Theo in a letter dated 22 August 1889 (Letters, no. 797). Dr. Peyron surmised that Vincent’s escorted day-trip to Arles on 7 July, to collect the paintings that remained there, had awakened painful and confusing memories of the events that had taken place nearly eight months previously. The doctor had been concerned from the beginning of Vincent’s stay that the activity of painting alone might instigate an epileptic seizure. Now he had the artist confined to his room and denied him access to the studio. While recovering, Vincent hoped—through Theo—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… I no longer see a possibility for courage or good hope, but anyway it wasn’t yesterday that we found out that this profession isn’t a happy one” (ibid.).
In a letter written on or about 2 September, Vincent announced to Theo that he had “started working again a little—a thing I see from my window, a field of yellow stubble that is being ploughed” (Faille, no. 625; sold, Christie’s New York, 13 November 2017, lot 28A). In his next letter, written during the 5th and 6th, he took up the image of the ploughman to represent himself: “I’m ploughing on like a man possessed, more than ever I have a pent-up fury for work, and I think that this will contribute to curing me” (Letters, nos. 798 and 800).
Vincent's production during the fall of 1889 constitutes an astonishing run. Having finished the ploughman in the field, he put the final touches on two of the most impressive self-portraits of his entire career (Faille, nos. 626 and 627), as well as pictures of the attendant Trabuc and his wife (nos. 629 and 631). He soon began to work outdoors; in early October he painted his only view of the chapel of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, from a field near the perimeter of the garden grounds (Faille, no. 803; sold, Christie’s New York, 13 May 2018, lot 24A). On 3 October Vincent wrote to Émile Bernard in Paris that he been painting “a large canvas of a ravine,” a motif possessing “a beautiful melancholy; it’s enjoyable to work in really wild sites” (Faille, no. 662; Letters, no. 809).
In early November Vincent began to work in the olive groves outside the asylum—accompanied, of course—and in early December he ventured down the road and into the town of Saint-Rémy, where he painted road-menders beneath the huge, gnarled platane trees that lined the main street (Faille, nos. 657 and 658). Throughout autumn, the gardens of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole continued to be an inspirational and consistently productive source of varied landscape subjects. The closer at hand Vincent chose his motifs—those which were familiar to him—the more presciently modernist were the results, and, indeed, the more assured and precisely articulated were his means of achieving them. “Ah, I could almost believe that I have a new period of clarity ahead of me” (to Theo, 5 and 6 September 1889; Letters, no. 800).
The fundamental idea underlying Vincent’s pictorial approach in the present painting is the conception of flatness inherent in japonisme, most tellingly prefigured in the Hiroshige landscape woodblock print that he copied as a painting in 1887 (Faille, no. 371). The three fir tree trunks that run from top to bottom in Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile likewise frame the composition, obviate the need for a foreground, and telescope receding distance into flat, rising, verticalized space. All this Vincent accomplished without the least hint of hesitation—eye, mind, and hand were one—in the speed of the artist’s brush, the urgent, rushing wave of his painterly effects, the absolute clarity and certainty in his structural choices.
Vincent’s palette in this garden landscape consists of primary and secondary colors squeezed straight from the tube, some tinted with white to heighten their hues. Unlike in the ploughman painting of 2 September or the view of the Chapelle de Saint-Paul completed in early October, Vincent avoided here the use of mixed half-tones, the mauve and purplish, violet shades that he liked to employ when rendering soil or other earthen textures. Most noticeable here are the striations of pigment applied in emphatic, rhythmically repeated, directional brushstrokes, that describe the shape of the garden walk—in bright yellow sunlight and reddish ochre shadow—and like guidepost arrows actively lead the eye into the composition, sighting on the dark, slender cypress. The still leafy trees and firs appear to undulate in a trans-seasonal mistral wind.
Vincent shipped his recent Saint-Rémy paintings to Theo in batches, seven in all, the first on 15 July, the day before his summer “attack”. Two shipments followed in September, two more in December, the sixth in early January, and the seventh, largest, and final group at the end of April 1890. The artist included Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile in the fourth batch, the most numerous he assembled during 1889, as one of the “autumn studies” he mentioned in Letter no. 824. Vincent dispatched this large package to Paris on 6 December 1889.
The impact of Vincent’s work on subsequent painters first reached momentous proportions in the early years of the 20th century, breaking ground and seeding the furrows for the subjective, expressionist instinct that lay at the heart of much art to come. André Derain introduced Henri Matisse to Maurice de Vlaminck at the first major Van Gogh exhibition in Paris, at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1901; together they ignited their explosive charges of Fauve color at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. “One can’t live in a household that is too well kept.” Matisse remarked to Tériade in 1929. “One has to go off into the jungle to find simpler ways which won’t stifle the spirit. The influence of Gauguin and Van Gogh were felt then” (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 84).
The German art world took to Van Gogh with even greater interest and enthusiasm—as if with the passion of having recognized a kindred spirit. Paul Cassirer, the leading dealer of modern art in Berlin, developed a close, working relationship with Theo’s widow Johanna, née Bonger; from her holdings and in conjunction with Bernheim-Jeune he organized pioneering exhibitions of Vincent’s paintings in Germany during 1905 and 1908. The dealer included Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile in the show, comprising 27 pictures, seen in Berlin during March 1908, and among a total of 41 when—as re-organized by Cornelius M. van Gogh, the artist’s uncle—the exhibition traveled to Zürich in July. Other selections of pictures from Johanna’s collection were shown that summer in Munich and Dresden. The effect on young German painters was transformative, producing the “greatest impact an exhibition could have ever exerted,” Walter Feilchenfeldt has written, “on the development of modern art in Germany” (op. cit., 2013, p. 26).