This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of van Gogh's work, being prepared by the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam.
Van Gogh moved from Antwerp to Paris in March 1886, determined to reformulate his style in the manner of the Impressionist masters. He approached this task with optimism and passion, writing to a friend in English,
What is to be gained is progress and what the deuce that is, it is to be found here. I dare say as certain anyone who has a solid position elsewhere let him stay where he is. But for adventurers as myself, I think they lose nothing in risking more. Especially as in my case I am not an adventurer by choice but by fate. (ed. Thames and Hudson, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, LT459a)
As part of this program of self-education, in the spring and summer of 1887 van Gogh painted a series of a dozen or so images of sunlit gardens and parks. Femme dans un jardin is an outstanding work from this series. It represents a woman walking through tall grass with flowers under her right arm; at the right is a scattering of flowers, at the left is a tree with flowers growing at the base, and in the background is a stand of trees; at the upper right is a house, barely visible through the trees. The picture may represent the park Voyer d'Argenson in Paris, near the Quai d'Asnières and the Pont de Clichy. The artist made a number of paintings of this part of Paris in 1887; another view of the park by the painter is now in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam (fig. 1). This park was near the residence of La Comtesse de la Boissière and her daughter, friends of van Gogh who lived at the corner of Boulevard Voltaire and the Pont de Clichy (LT489).
The palette of the present painting, with its bright yellows, greens and reds, demonstrates the artist's experimentation in the Impressionist mode. As he wrote in English to his friend Levens in the summer of 1886 or 1887,
In one word, with much energy, with a sincere personal feeling of colour in nature, I would say an artist can get on here notwithstanding the many obstructions.... I have made a series of color studies in painting...seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet, seeking les tons rompus et neutres to harmonise brutal extremes. Trying to render intense color and a grey harmony. (LT459a)
Van Gogh later wrote to his brother Theo,
What Pissarro says is true, you must boldly exaggerate the effects of either harmony or discord which colors produce. It is the same as in drawing--accurate drawing, accurate color is perhaps not the essential thing to aim at, because the reflection of reality in a mirror, if it could be caught, color and all, would not be a picture at all, nor more than a photograph. (LT500)
The influence of Pissarro and Monet is especially clear in the palette of Femme dans un jardin. The brushwork on the other hand reveals the example of Seurat. In his correspondence with Theo, van Gogh frequently wrote of his great admiration for Seurat, stating in one letter, "As for stippling and making halos and other things, I think they are real discoveries.... That is another reason why Seurat's Grande Jatte...will become in time even more personal and even more original" (LT528). Van Gogh sought to acquire paintings by Seurat, writing to Theo, "It would be a good thing to have a painted study of his. Well I am working hard hoping that we can do something with things of this kind" (LT541); and he seems to have exchanged pictures with the artist. Van Gogh even dreamed of painting a work with Seurat. In the present picture, van Gogh has added a painted border of the kind first invented by Seurat, certainly intending it as an homage to the artist (fig. 2). Van Gogh included such painted borders in his works only during the spring and summer of 1887; another example of this device is La pêche au printemps, pont de Clichy (fig. 3).
Also noteworthy is the contrast which van Gogh creates in Femme dans un jardin between the light effects in the foreground and the background. In the foreground, the light is bright and warm, falling directly on the flowers and the tall grass, which scintillate under its impact. In the background, the light is cooler and more indirect as it flickers through the filtering trees. This combination of effects masterfully captures the ambient glow of a refreshing spring or summer day, giving the painting a deeply luminous feel. In its exploration of lighting effects, the present painting is similar to van Gogh's Sous-bois, now in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam (fig. 4).
The subject matter of Femme dans un jardin is taken from the Impressionist canon with its emphasis on images of leisure and contemporary life. Quite likely, the example of Claude Monet provided the immediate inspiration for the painting. In his letter to Levens, van Gogh specified, "In Antwerp I did not even know what the impressionists were, now I have seen them and though not being one of the club yet I have much admired certain impressionists' pictures-- Degas nude figure--Claude Monet landscape" (LT459a). In particular, the red flowers in the right foreground of Femme dans un jardin seem to be an allusion to Monet.
In 1887 van Gogh was too poor to afford models on a regular basis, and in most of his paintings of parks and gardens from that period figures are absent or insignificant. The woman in the present work plays an unusually large role. The painting of the figure is fresh, lively and highly accomplished. The sophistication of the technique which van Gogh used to render the figure is worth noting. To depict her torso, for example, the artist first applied the blues of the shadows, on top of which he added the whites of the blouse in a thick, scumbled layer. The figure's skirt is comprised of a mixture of warm hues which are repeated elsewhere in the picture, and thus appears to reflect the sunlight tinted by the surrounding foliage.
The image of a woman walking amidst greenery and holding flowers in her arms is a standard symbol of spring which dates back to early Renaissance poetry in Italy and France. On occasion, van Gogh himself thought of his garden pictures in these terms, writing to his brother about one of them, "Isn't it true that this garden has a fantastic character which makes you quite able to imagine the poets of the Renaissance?" (LT541).
(fig. 1) Vincent van Gogh, Le parc Voyer d'Argenson à Asnières, les amoureux, 1887
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
(fig. 2) Georges Seurat, Un dimanche à la Grande Jatte, 1884-1886
The Art Institute, Chicago
(fig. 3) Vincent van Gogh, La pêche au printemps, Pont de Clichy, 1887
The Art Institute, Chicago
(fig. 4) Vincent van Gogh, Sous-bois, 1887
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam