With its vivid and vivacious swirls of paint, L'arbre de Vence is in many ways the epitome of the Soutine landscape. Painted circa 1929, this picture is one of a small series that Soutine created in Vence that year, the same tree and place featuring again and again. Soutine's friend and dealer, Zborowski, put his own chauffeur, André Daneyrolles, at the artist's disposal during this period, and this driver's recollections are central to an understanding of the artist and these works. Daneyrolles recalled that the tree was painted from the same spot partly because Soutine did not like to be seen painting. Instead, he would sit in a discreet spot where he was all but invisible. When this spot was once invaded by a passer-by, Soutine destroyed the canvas he was painting, and from then on had Daneyrolles guard the spot and even block access with the car.
It is a tribute to the energy and passion of the painter that the various pictures in this small group are all different from each other, usually focussing on one explicit characteristic of the scene. Here, the tree is a large and looming presence, forming a dark canopy at the top of the work, and this fits well with Daneyrolles' recollection of the artist saying once, 'This tree, it is like a cathedral' (quoted in Soutine, exh.cat., Chartres, 1989, p. 250). The nearby buildings take on a varying degree of importance in the various paintings, and so here we find Soutine deliberately avoiding too much focus on the building to the right. By contrast, he has created a wonderfully intricate landscape painting in the lower left, where the street appears to stretch into the distance. This deft touch adds an incredible sense of depth and drama to L'arbre de Vence, giving it a sense of movement and perspective.
This small section of streetscape is reminiscent of some of Soutine's lightest and most open landscapes, for instance the views of Cagnes he painted in 1924 when the shadow of poverty was finally receding and he was enjoying both public and financial success for the first time. This success was to last, one way or another, for the rest of his life as he found himself a string of sponsors and patrons. Interestingly, it was in 1929 that this success truly reached its apogee. In the previous years his pictures had hung here and there intermittently in exhibitions, even after the involvement of the prominent collector Albert C. Barnes. However, in 1929 he was exhibited in many exhibitions both in France and abroad. While his first brush with success had brought about the lighter paintings of the mid-1920s, this later success, or some other event, appeared to push Soutine to rediscovering and exploring the darker palette he had formerly favoured. Thus, while the street bubbles with life and light, the tree itself is a stern and stolid presence, something more earthed and robust than had appeared in some other paintings.
It was the distinctive sense of perspective and distortion that is especially visible in the street section that prompted Soutine's great friend Modigliani to exclaim when drunk that, 'Everything is dancing before my eyes as in a landscape by Soutine' (A. Werner, Chaïm Soutine, London, 1991, p.38). The street area condenses Soutine's idiosyncratic style, wobbling its way into the distance. There is an intense, almost violent subjectivity to this view. We know that streets do not bounce in such a way in reality. At the same time, Soutine's vision of the street is intoxicating. It dances with life and character, and in this way fills the viewer with thoughts and emotion. Soutine has given us something more than a mere representation of the street, but has instead provided a concentrated vision, an emotional reaction which itself translates to the viewer. At the same time, it is always interesting to see photographs of the locations Soutine painted as, despite it seeming unlikely with the jauntiness of the streets, roads and houses in his unique vision, the scenes and views are very easily recognisable. Soutine has distorted them through his mind, but not enough that we do not know what we are seeing, not enough that he impeded our understanding of the scene.
This view, with a wild and unharnessed tree in the middle of the streets of Vence, appears to speak of the conflict between Man and Nature. The tree is almost out of place as a wild entity in the middle of a town. This view of wildness contained, which may have reflected some aspect of Soutine's own unpredictable psychology at the time, certainly had some resonance for him, as reflected by the fact that he returned to the same subject, the same tree, several times over a short period. While each exploration is different, the sense of an alien and isolated power amongst the man-made streets remains central to them all.