In August of 1888 Vincent van Gogh invited Gauguin to join him in Arles. 'If it wasn't for this wretched money, my trunks would already be packed. I don't know why, but for ten days my head's been full of the crazy paintings I'm planning to do in the Midi...After all the research I've just done here I think I will have no difficulty in making progress' (P. Gauguin, letter to Vincent van Gogh, Pont-Aven, circa 25 July 1888). In August 1888 Theo van Gogh came to an agreement with Gauguin; during Gauguin's year long stay with Van Gogh in the Yellow House (fig. 2), he would pay the artist FFr 150 a month in return for one painting a month. In October he sold FFr 300 worth of Gauguin's ceramics making the journey to Arles possible at last and on 23 November Gauguin finally left Pont-Aven and travelled to Arles to work with Vincent.
Unlike Van Gogh, who himself makes reference to Gauguin's painting of landscapes in Arles, Gauguin never mentioned these landscapes, despite their forming a large part of his output from that time. Ronald Pickvance has argued that Gauguin did not begin painting landscapes in Arles until December, possibly with one earlier exception to get the feel of the region (exh. cat. Van Gogh in Arles, New York 1984, p. 232); 'In every country, I need a period of incubation to learn each time the essence of the plants, the trees, of all of nature, in short - so varied and so capricious, never wanting to let itself be divined or revealed. So it was several weeks before I clearly sensed the sharp flavour of Arles and its environs. That did not prevent our working steadily, especially Vincent. Between the two beings, he and I, the one entirely a volcano and the other boiling as well, but inside. Some sort of struggle was bound to occur' (P. Gauguin, Avant et Après, January-February 1903). It is probable that the present work, along with Les Mas d'Arles (fig. 4), was executed in early December, before the sequence of tragic events that led to what Gauguin would later describe as the 'catastrophe'.
'Without the public having any suspicion, two men had done there a colossal work, useful to them both - perhaps to others. Certain things bear fruit. Vincent, at the moment when I arrived in Arles,...was floundering considerably...I undertook the task of enlightening him, which was easy for me, for I found a rich and fertile soil...From that day on, my Van Gogh made astonishing progress' (P. Gauguin, op. cit., January-February 1903). The radical changes apparent in Van Gogh's art from this time have indeed often been ascribed to Gauguin's influence, although there is no doubt that Vincent was at the height of his powers as an artist when Gauguin joined him. Souvenir du jardin à Etten (fig. 5) shows Van Gogh deliberately utilizing the strong lines and juxtaposed colours that Gauguin employed and was probably executed in direct response to Gauguin's dominant presence and strength of character. Van Gogh himself describes how 'Gauguin gives me the courage to imagine things, and certainly things from the imagination take on a more mysterious character' (letter to Theo, circa 16 November 1888).
After a violent altercation in the café in Arles in which Van Gogh threw a glass of absinthe at Gauguin's head, the latter decided to leave for Paris. It was to Theo that he wrote in order to apologise. 'Vincent and I find it absolutely impossible to live peacefully in each other's company; our temperaments are incompatible and we both need peace and quiet in order to work. He is a remarkable man of great intelligence for whom I have a high regard and whom I am sorry to leave, however, I repeat, it is essential. I appreciate the thoughtful way in which you have behaved towards me and I beg you to excuse my decision' (P. Gauguin, letter to Theo van Gogh, circa 12 December 1888). Gauguin did not in fact leave Arles at that time. In his autobiographical Avant et Après from January-February 1903, Gauguin states that Van Gogh threatened him with a razor on 23 December before returning to the Yellow House and cutting off part of his left ear. Gauguin left for Paris three days later and, although he kept up a regular correspondence with him, was not to see Van Gogh again before the latter's death on 29 July 1890.
The present work was exhibited at the Café Volpini in 1889 on the grounds of the Exposition Universelle (fig. 1). Gauguin exhibited ten canvases at the show and mentions the work in a letter to Emile Schuffenecker in which he asserts his leadership of the group by insisting on prime positions for all his pictures. The show included most of Gauguin's followers and marks the emergence of the movement of the School of Pont-Aven, presenting for the first time Gauguin's new stylistic ideas.
The first owner of the present work was Georges-Daniel de Montfreid, a close friend of Gauguin and an artist himself, who executed a portrait of Gauguin in 1900 (fig. 6), and who exhibited at the Café Volpini show in 1889 under the name 'Daniel' (fig. 1). De Montfreid acquired the painting at Gauguin's sale in February 1891 and it was partly this purchase that allowed Gauguin to finance his trip to Tahiti in April of the same year. De Montfreid was to remain Gauguin's most loyal and trusted correspondent throughout the artist's years in Tahiti.