Painted in Paris in the spring of 1887, Vue de la chambre de l'artiste depicts the view from the apartment on the Rue Lepic that Van Gogh shared with his brother Theo. The two years that Van Gogh spent in Paris, from March 1886 until February 1888, represent a pivotal period in his career, during which he assimilated a host of diverse artistic currents and forged a strongly personal style. With its range of creative influences, from pointilism to Japanese prints, the present picture exemplifies the experimental zeal of this era. Richard Kendall has written:
"Between the winter of 1886 and the spring of 1887, Van Gogh effectively crossed the divide into contemporary art; the inky tones and rustic themes of Nuenen were set aside and his belief in the salutary teaching of the academic regime abandoned. In their place, a fresh and dazzling gamut of painterly possibilities opened up, from the still half-absorbed lessons of the senior Impressionists to the even more radical practices of the next generation. By the early summer of 1887, he had mastered in his own distinctive way many of the idioms of his avant-garde friends, alternating between them in a sometimes disconcerting manner and expressing a pictorial curiosity--even a kind of playfulness--that contrasts sharply with his former gravity" (Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 57, 67).
The apartment on the Rue Lepic looked out over an impressive view of Paris, which Theo described in a letter dated July 1887: "The remarkable thing about our dwelling is that one has a magnificent view of the whole town, with the hills of Meudon and St. Cloud on the horizon, and over it an expanse of sky nearly as large as when one is standing on the top of a dune. With the different effects produced by the various changes in the sky, it is a subject for I don't know how many pictures" (Letter T1a). Van Gogh first painted the view from the apartment in mid-1886, producing four panoramic vistas in a muted palette of browns and grays (de la Faille nos. 231, 261, 262, and 265). The twin spires of the Church of Notre-Dame, visible on the horizon in the present painting, are discernible in one of the 1886 oils as well. Van Gogh returned to the theme in the early spring of the following year, when the tree branches were still bare. Working now with a lightened palette, he painted the present picture and a closely related canvas, housed today in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh (fig. 1). He also made a series of five large, detailed drawings, one of which is particularly close in composition to Vue de la chambre de l'artiste (cf. F1387-1390).
The present painting bears clear witness to the varied artistic currents that Van Gogh had encountered since his arrival in Paris. The pastel tonalities and airy, expansive sky, for example, evoke the work of the Impressionists, which Van Gogh had seen and admired at the Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie. In the summer of 1886, he wrote to his friend Levens, "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" (Letter 459a). In contrast, the short, hatched brushstrokes used to render the houses and rooftops are indebted to the novel pointillist technique of the Neo-Impressionists, especially Seurat and Signac. The inclusion of touches of orange in a nearly monochromatic blue field also reveals Van Gogh's interest in the color theories of the Neo-Impressionists, with their emphasis on complementary tones. During the summer of 1887, Van Gogh frequently painted at Asnières alongside Signac, the most active apostle of Neo-Impressionism. The following year, he wrote to Theo about his enduring esteem for Seurat and Signac's work: "As regards pointillé, aureoling [circling or haloing objects with a line in a complementary color], and the like, I consider them to be real discoveries. One more reason why in the course of time Seurat's Grande Jatte, the landscapes by Signac done in thick dots, and Anquetin's boat will become even more personal, even more original" (Letter 528).
Another influence that is evident in the present painting is the graphic art of Japan. In particular, the juxtaposition of unequally scaled and radically truncated buildings in the foreground and middle distance recalls the innovative compositional experiments of Hiroshige and other Japanese print-makers, as does the contrast between the looming structures in the foreground and the telescoped view into the far distance. Discussing Van Gogh's views from the Rue Lepic studio, Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov has written, "Like certain examples in the work of Hiroshige, which he either then or shortly thereafter would own, Vincent's combination of a monumentally scaled foreground view involving a raking-angle depiction from above allows no simultaneous viewing into distance without loss of focus on the foreground buildings details; the result is a sense of spatial discontinuity common to much Japanese art" (Vincent Van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1981, p. 102). Van Gogh's fascination with Japanese art is well documented. He spent countless hours in 1887 at Samuel Bing's gallery in Paris studying Asian woodcuts and drawings and purchased as many examples as he could afford. Additionally, he included depictions of Japanese prints in the background of several paintings from 1887, including the portraits of Père Tanguy (F363-364) and Agostina Segatori (F370), and even organized an exhibit of his acquisitions at Le Tambourin, a café on the Boulevard de Clichy.
Van Gogh's interest in depicting the urban fabric of Paris may also be related to his admiration for Naturalist literature. In a letter from July 1887, Theo compared the view from the apartment on the Rue Lepic to one described by Zola in Une page d'amour, an idea that may well have originated with Vincent himself (Letter T1a). Van Gogh was a passionate reader, and his letters contain numerous references to his favorite novels and lengthy citations of memorable passages. Around the same time that he painted Vue de la chambre de l'artiste, he made a small still-life depicting three dog-eared novels by the Naturalist writers Zola, the Goncourt brothers, and Richepin (F335). He also recommended their work to his younger sister Wil, explaining that "they paint life as they feel it themselves, and thus they satisfy the need we all feel of being told the truth" (Letter W1). The unflinching metropolitan realism of these authors may have inspired the numerous views of Montmartre that Van Gogh made in 1886 and 1887. Richard Kendall has commented, "Even before he moved to the city, the novels he read and exchanged with Theo--such as those by Zola, Maupassant, and the Goncourt brothers--had helped to define his taste for Paris, while their accounts of certain locations may have led him to some of his first urban subjects" (exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 50).
The first owner of Vue de la chambre de l'artiste was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whom Van Gogh met in a drawing class at Fernand Cormon's studio shortly after his arrival in Paris. Although the two painters never became close companions, Van Gogh is known to have attended weekly gatherings at Lautrec's studio on the Rue Tourlaque. He continued to ask about Lautrec in his letters from Arles, and the pair seems to have lunched together as late as July 1890, when Van Gogh visited Paris from Auvers. During the first half of 1887, Lautrec made a pastel portrait of Van Gogh, seated in profile at a table at the café Le Tambourin (fig. 2). The painter Suzanne Valadon later recalled that Van Gogh brought a pointilist painting to a reception at Lautrec's studio around the same time; it has been suggested that the painting in question may have been the present one, and that Van Gogh may have given it to Lautrec in exchange for his portrait (exh. cat., op. cit., Paris, 1988, p. 94).
(fig. 1) Vincent van Gogh, Vue de la chambre de l'artiste, rue Lepic, 1887. Barcode 23670594
(fig. 2) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait de Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam. Barcode 23670617