As one of the first paintings that van Gogh executed following his move to Arles in February 1888, the present still-life occupies a pivotal place in the artist's oeuvre. An exquisite and jewel-like rendering of a flowering almond branch in a glass, the painting embodies the excitement that van Gogh felt upon arriving in Provence. "Nature here is so extraordinarily beautiful", he wrote to his brother Theo. "It is as soft and lovely as the combination of celestial blues and yellows in Vermeer's paintings. I cannot paint it as beautifully as that, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go..." (quoted in J. Rewald, Post-Impressionism from van Gogh to Gauguin, New York, 1956, p. 217). The fifteen months that van Gogh spent at Arles, freed from the pressures of city life and inspired by the sun-drenched landscape, was a period of unmatched creativity in his career. As Richard Kendall has written:
The act of metamorphosis by which van Gogh reinvented himself in Arles is one of the most startling phenomena of his career. If the years in Paris had been profoundly formative, the pictures he made there were arguably as remarkable for their breadth of experimentation and diversity of scale, subject, and finish as for their individual distinction. After a matter of weeks in Provence, however, van Gogh had established a consistency of execution and a clarity of formal means that have defined his creative personality ever since. Classic images followed each other in breathtaking succession... (R. Kendall, exh. cat., Van Gogh's van Goghs: Masterpieces from the van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 90).
Van Gogh had already begun to contemplate a sojourn in Provence by autumn of 1886, when he wrote to the English painter Horace Mann Livens, "In spring--say February or even sooner--I may be going to the South of France, the land of the blue tones and gay colors" (quoted in R. Pickvance, op. cit., p. 11). The intense cold in Paris during the winter of 1887-1888 heightened the artist's resolve to travel south. As he recalled in a letter to Theo the following year, "My dear brother, you know that I came to the South and threw myself into my work for a thousand reasons. Wishing to see a different light...this stronger sun...because one feels that the colors of the prism are veiled in the mist of the North" (quoted in ibid., p. 12).
Ironically, when van Gogh reached Arles on 21 February 1888, he found it blanketed in more than a foot of snow. It was the coldest winter on record in Provence in nearly three decades, with frost and freezing temperatures persisting until the second week of March. Van Gogh, however, lost no time in beginning work, painting two charming and evocative snowscapes within days of his arrival (F290, 391). The present picture and a closely related still-life (fig. 1) were executed shortly thereafter. As van Gogh reported to Theo around 3 March, "Down here it is freezing hard and there is still some snow left in the country. I have a study of a landscape in white with the town in the background. Then two little studies of an almond branch already in flower in spite of it" (quoted in J.-B. de la Faille, op. cit., 1970, p. 187). Although the two paintings are identical in size, the present example is arguably the second and more definitive, with the almond branch in slightly fuller bloom and a book added in the background.
The delicate blossoms in the two still-lifes represent a joyful herald of warmer weather and new life. Indeed, van Gogh reprised the theme of the early-flowering almond branch in February 1890 to celebrate the birth of his nephew, Vincent Willem (de la Faille F671). As Kendall has written about the Amsterdam variant of the present picture:
Small though it is, Sprig of Flowering Almond Blossom in a Glass is like an eloquent proclamation of things to come--not just the arrival of spring, but of the imminent blossoming of van Gogh's art. Economical in technique, modest in subject, and bursting with pictorial life, this tiny canvas joins a line of minor masterpieces that punctuated his working life, here suffused for the first time with the light of southern climes... The principal image [is] an exquisitely observed almond branch whose every corrugation of twig and delicacy of petal has been rendered with the lightest of touches. If a key to the success of the Arles pictures can be found, it is surely in this fierce attachment to the natural world, now combined with an expansiveness of handling that owes much to the emancipatory experience of Paris (R. Kendall, op. cit., pp. 91-93).
The almond-branch still-lifes are also the immediate precursor to the first major series that van Gogh undertook at Arles: a group of fourteen paintings depicting orchards in bloom, executed between 24 March and the end of April (fig. 2). Intended as the inaugural campaign in a projected sequence chronicling the seasons, this extraordinary set of canvases struck van Gogh as one of his finest accomplishments to date: "a Provençal orchard of astounding gaiety", as he wrote to Theo in mid-April (quoted in ibid., p. 93). With their limpid coloration and miniaturist detail, the orchard paintings are imbued with the same joyful spirit as the present work. Compositionally, moreover, they share with the almond-branch still-lifes a strong sense of enclosure and intimacy, in contrast to the expansive orchard vistas that van Gogh painted the following spring. As Ronald Pickvance has remarked, "Silent and unpeopled...[the 1888 orchards] become immense still-lifes of blossoms en plein air, vivid contrasts to two small still-lifes painted in early March of a sprig of almond blossom in a glass" (R. Pickvance, op. cit., p. 45).
The motif of the flowering tree was strongly associated for van Gogh with Japan and japonism. Several months before leaving Paris, he had painted a copy of a print by Hiroshige depicting a plum tree in bloom (fig. 3), whose delicate forms and brittle rhythms are emulated in the present still-life. In certain of his orchard paintings, moreover, van Gogh deliberately adopted the high vantage point and emphatically vertical format of Hiroshige's image (fig. 2). Notably, van Gogh's impressions of Provence were powerfully conditioned by his experience of Japanese prints. Describing his train journey to Arles in a letter to Gauguin, van Gogh recalled how he "peered out to see whether it was like Japan yet" (quoted in D. Druick and P. Zegers, exh. cat., Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2001, p. 101). And shortly after arriving in the South, he wrote to Emile Bernard, "This country seems to me as beautiful as Japan as far as the limpidity of the atmosphere and the gay color effects are concerned. Water forms patches of a beautiful emerald or a rich blue in the landscape, just as we see it in the cripons [a type of Japanese woodblock print]... And all this though I have not seen the country yet in its usual summer splendor" (quoted R. Pickvance, op. cit., pp. 21-22).
The inclusion of a book in the background of the present picture is especially significant. Van Gogh was a passionate reader, and his letters contain numerous references to his favorite novels and lengthy citations of memorable passages. He used books as a motif in his painting as early as 1885, portraying the family Bible open alongside Zola's novel La joie de vivre (de la Faille F117). The culmination of this theme is the 1887-1888 canvas Romans parisiens, which depicts nearly two dozen books scattered on a table (fig. 4; de la Faille F358). The title of the painting comes from an 1886 novel by the Naturalist writer Jean Richepin that explores the ordeals of a musician and a mime devoted to their art in the face of an uncaring public. At the right side of Romans parisiens is a glass containing two fragile pink roses, just beginning to open like the almond blossoms in the present still-life. In both cases, it is tempting to view the flowers as a symbol of hope and promise, in stark contrast to the struggle and hardship detailed in the Naturalist novel.
Shortly after its completion, van Gogh gave the present picture to his youngest sister Wilhelmina, with whom he had corresponded at length about contemporary literature. As he wrote to her on 3 March 1888, "...as I should very much like to give you something of my work that will please you, I will set aside for you a little study of a book and a flower" (quoted in J.-B. de la Faille, op. cit., p. 188).
The picture was first shown publicly in 1912 at the Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne, along with a series of exhibitions organized by Paul Cassirer in Berlin in 1909-1910. The Sonderbund was instrumental in introducing van Gogh's work to Germany, providing inspiration for many of the young German expressionist painters.
(fig. 1) Vincent van Gogh, Nature morte, branche d'amandier, 1888.
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam.
(fig. 2) Vincent van Gogh, Poirier en fleurs, 1888.
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam.
(fig. 3) Vincent van Gogh, Japonaiserie (after Hiroshige), 1887.
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam.
(fig. 4) Vincent van Gogh, Nature morte aux livres (Romans parisiens), 1887-1888.