Related work: The Blossom Tree, 1971 - 82, oil, silk flowers, branch, wood, canvas, nails and electricity on board, 186 x 194.5 x 26.6 cm, Private collection, Sydney
Throughout Whiteley's career, the art and persona of Vincent van Gogh was a recurring influence and theme in his work. It has become part of the Whiteley legend how at the age of thirteen, while at school in Bathurst in New South Wales, he first discovered the work of the Dutch master. Whiteley retold the story in the following way: "Every Sunday we were herded into buses and sent to St Stephen's Presbytery Church to sit for a few hours, then back again in time for lunch. But one Sunday I was looking down on the floor and saw this book just lying there. I picked it up and started flicking through it. It was a book on van Gogh. It was wonder. Every page was just amazing. It was the first time I had heard of, much less seen anything of van Gogh. I had never believed anything like that could exist. I almost felt that I had done it, or a part of me had. There was some connectiveness of soul. I understood it. It was right. Every decision in the painting was right." (B Whiteley cited in S McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Sydney, 1979, p.19)
Portraits of van Gogh appear in Whiteley's work from the late 1960s, as does the motif of the artist's easel with a picture in the midst of execution. A work from 1967 titled day shows the artist's hand and an unfinished picture on the easel, with the landscape that is being drawn visible through an open window. This depiction of the easel and the artist's hand is an enigmatic representation of a picture within a picture, placing the artist as an unseen force at the centre of nature and creativity.
In 1982 Whiteley made a journey to Spain, Germany and France, during the course of which he paid a pilgrimage to the town of St Remy, which lies close to Arles. It was at the asylum at St Remy that van Gogh painted some of his most revered paintings, depicting the mountains, the asylum garden and the fields of the Provengal countryside. Approximately a century later, the Australian artist would pay homage to van Gogh, in a series of works that would be exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1983. Titled Another Way of Looking at Vincent Van Gogh, some works in the exhibition had van Gogh as their subject matter while others, such as St Remy de Provence, were re-interpretations of paintings by van Gogh.
Whiteley said of the inspiration behind this exhibition: "Vincent van Gogh is one of the few to be a painter's painter. He makes you want to have a go This series of pictures, this exhibition, this little book is my reply, my effort to keep the flame alight. For it is almost a hundred years since Vincent arrived in Arles; three years and a thousand pictures later, he self destructed. He finished the nineteenth century and influenced the twentieth more than any other painter." (B Whiteley, op.cit, unpaginated)
A contemporary review of the exhibition commented that: "One of the best pictures in the exhibition shows an easel on which there is a drawing of the mountains as Van Gogh saw them - convoluted and jagged. In the same picture are the same mountains as Whiteley saw them - drippingly quiet Chinese mountains with pale olive green spots." (S McGrath, "The Van Gogh that is inside Whiteley", The Weekend Australian, July 1983, p.10)
Whiteley's exquisite draughtsmanship is evident in the elegance and ease of line apparent in St Remy de Provence, which has an Asian influence borrowed both from van Gogh and Whiteley's own interest in Asian art and calligraphy. However it is that most characteristic and powerful element of van Gogh's art that Whiteley succeeds in capturing; the extraordinary swirling energy of vision and line and the capacity to see and create an interconnectedness between sun, mountains, trees and the artist's hand,
suggesting an unseen and universal force of nature that lies beneath the ordinary appearance of things.
As Capon suggested: "The essential point is that Whiteley sees in van Gogh qualities of strength, hope, pathos and pictorial imagery that are as enduring as the art itself. What is perhaps more important though, is that in doing so, expressing and re-expressing the qualities and experiences which he sees in the work of van Gogh, he is exploiting and expanding his own vision and capacity." (E Capon, op.cit, unpaginated)