Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy is an historic painting by Vincent van Gogh, encapsulating his original and unique vision. This luminous picture was included, under titles referring to it as an autumn landscape, in several of the most important early exhibitions of Van Gogh's work, groundbreaking shows which were instrumental in the formation of his posthumous reputation. This includes the 1905 retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam largely comprising the pictures that Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the widow of Vincent's brother Theo, had inherited. This picture also featured in several of the exhibitions organised by Paul Cassirer in Germany which themselves had a profound influence on the esteem in which Van Gogh's work would come to be held. With its bright colours, with the field bathed in turquoise and ochre which contrasts with the warm yellows and browns of the hay and autumnal foliage, this picture breathes with the atmosphere of the season. At the same time, the long, streaking brushstrokes that make up the field, the darting, shorter marks that comprise the sky and the effervescent, near-Pointillist depiction of the leaves of the main tree contrast with the solidity of the buildings to create an image that buzzes with a discreet energy, pulling the viewer's eyes hither and thither, harnessing that pulsing sense of life that underlies the greatest of Vincent's paintings from the highpoint that came only shortly before the tragically premature end of his life.
In his first edition of the catalogue raisonné of Van Gogh's paintings, printed in 1928, Jacob Baart de la Faille ascribed this picture a later date, placing it in the period that the artist spent at Auvers; however, in his own manuscripts for the revised 1970 edition that was published eleven years after his death having been completed by a committee headed by A.M. Hammacher, it is noted that he had now ascribed a date of October-November 1889. While the committee insisted that the picture showed the church at Labbeville, a small hamlet outside Auvers, John Rewald demonstrated, with photographic evidence, that it in fact shows the chapel of Saint Paul-de-Mausole, as De la Faille's own manuscript stated (see J. Rewald, Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin, New York, 1978, p. 339). This picture therefore dates from one of the absolute highpoints of Vincent's legendary career, when he painted a string of masterpieces, many of which now hang on the walls of some of the most celebrated museum collections in the world.
Rewald and De la Faille's dating has now been adopted by a wide range of people, having been emphatically argued for by Ronald Pickvance in the catalogue to the exhibition he curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1986-87, Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers. There, pointing out that this is clearly, as the early exhibition titles agree, an autumn view, he explains that this picture shows the view of the asylum in which Vincent spent his voluntary confinement by Saint-Rémy from the enclosed wheatfield which would feature in some of his most celebrated pictures from the period (see R. Pickvance, Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, exh. cat., New York, 1986, pp. 152-53). This dating has been adopted in the recent edition of the artist's complete letters, where it is speculated that Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy may have been one of the 'autumn studies' among the dozen paintings that he sent to his brother Theo, writing, 'Yesterday I sent three packets by parcel post containing studies which I hope you'll receive in good order' (Van Gogh, letter 824 to Theo, 7 December 1889, L. Jansen, H. Luijten & N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. V, London, 2009, p. 156).
Vincent had moved to the asylum on 8 May 1889 at Saint Paul-de-Mausole, following a now-famous psychological episode that had led to his being placed under guard in the hospital at Arles. It was in Arles, where Vincent had famously intended to create a School of the South alongside his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, that during a moment of crisis he had appeared insane, mutilating his own ear and terrifying some of the population, who petitioned for his removal. The asylum at Saint Paul - still a centre for mental health to this day, having been founded by three laymen over two centuries ago in an ancient religious compound nationalised under Napoleon - provided a perfect means of allowing Vincent to stay in the South while under observation. During his confinement, the enclosed wheatfield from which Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy would have been painted had provided great solace to Van Gogh, as it was visible from his own room in the asylum, as he told his brother shortly after his arrival there: 'Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, a perspective in the manner of Van Goyen, above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory' (Van Gogh, letter 776 to Theo, 23 May 1889, ibid., p. 22).
The several images he produced of a reaper in the wheat field were painted from memory from the perspective of his window, as he was not allowed to paint in his room but instead in a studio in another part of the building. By contrast, Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy is one of the few pictures painted out of doors from within his beloved field, alongside another work now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art which was created during the same period and in a similar position, but facing in a different direction, towards the Alpilles, the mountains that featured in several of his pictures of the time. With its orientation, Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy provides a unique view of the asylum and its buildings that includes the Romanesque tower; in his other pictures from Saint Paul-de-Mausole, for instance Parc de l'hôpital de Saint Paul, he showed other views from within the tree-filled garden, or park, which lay on the other side of the buildings. Nowhere else did he depict the complex in its entirety, making this landscape all the more unique a testimony of this crucial period of his life.
Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy dates from the autumn after Vincent's recovery from an attack he had suffered in the summer while in confinement there, an episode that had shattered some of his hopes of a cure. On his first arrival, he had been confined to his quarters, but had gradually been allowed more and more freedom to wander around the area painting, usually under guard. After his attack during his time at Saint Paul, though, he had once more been confined and unable to paint. Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy dates from the period after his recuperation, and clearly captures a sense of the release and joy that he felt, once more able to work out of doors and immersed within nature, and perhaps also increasingly coming to terms with his own condition. Now, in the autumn of that year, surrounded by the warm glow of the seasonal change, Vincent plunged himself back into his work with vigour after the relative inactivity which had lasted for over a month. He wrote to Theo around the time that this picture was painted: 'I'll tell you that we're having some superb autumn days, and that I'm taking advantage of them' (Van Gogh, letter 808 to Theo, 5 October 1889, ibid., p. 113).
In Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy, the incandescent palette of some of his Arles works has given way to a more complex, sophisticated use of colour, revealing a development that Vincent himself would discuss in his letters to Theo around this time. 'What I dream of in my best moments aren't so much dazzling colour effects as the half-tones once again,' he explained in September that year. 'But in these half-tones what choice and what quality!' (Van Gogh, letter 800 to Theo, 5 & 6 September 1889, ibid., p. 88). In part, this was a reaction to the pictures by Delacroix that Vincent had seen in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier. Following the example of his artistic hero, he cooled his palette somewhat, yet it remained electric compared to the works of his contemporaries. This is evidenced by the similarity in the tones of this landscape and his self-portrait from the period, itself breathing with autumnal feeling, now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Vincent captured the clarity of light of the South, which had been one of the key reasons he had moved to Arles and which lent such a brilliance to the landscape there, making his pictures all the more transcendent as he conveyed the mystery and wonder of existence on an almost religious level through the depiction of the world and people around him. It was in part contemplating a move towards the North, towards his brother in Paris and his wider family in his native Netherlands, that he wrote to Theo discussing the importance of the light quality there: 'perhaps my journey into the south will bear fruit however, because the difference of the stronger light, the blue sky, that teaches one to see, and then above all and even only when one sees that for a long time' (Van Gogh, letter 800 to Theo, 5 & 6 September 1889, ibid., p. 82). In his following letter, he expanded upon this:
'My dear brother, you know that I came to the south and threw myself into work for a thousand reasons. To want to see another light, to believe that looking at nature under a brighter sky can give us a more accurate idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wanting, finally, to see the stronger sun, because one feels that without knowing it one couldn't understand the paintings of Delacroix from the point of view of execution, technique, and because one feels that the colours of the prism are veiled in mist in the north' (Van Gogh, letter 801 to Theo, 10 September 1889, ibid., p. 89).
Looking at Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy, that strong sun remains clear in the crisp light that emanates from this canvas. At the same time, the landscape itself appears to thrum with energy, the patterns of the field creating a heaving pattern, a rhythmic rise and fall of diagonal brushstrokes that give a sense of swelling forms. It was during his time at Saint Paul that many of the so-called distortions that characterised Vincent's works came to the fore. While in Arles he had harnessed the power of colour, it was now, in the asylum, that he gained his mastery over form. The subjective manner in which Vincent did this may in part have been from his growing acceptance of his own condition. During his attacks of mental illness, Vincent would suffer hallucinations and other imaginary phenomena and frequently harmed himself and his surroundings. Now, embedded within an asylum and surrounded by other people with psychoses who all looked out for each other, Vincent increasingly came to terms with the nature of his own illness, seeing that others suffered similar, or indeed worse, conditions. The idea that the visible world could melt and alter before his eyes, that his own sight could be altered by his illness, appears to have influenced views such as Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy, which became ever more subjective.
It is no coincidence, then, that it was during this time that Vincent began to garner greater acclaim for his work. Despite being in relative isolation, especially from the hubbub of the Parisian art scene, his pictures were becoming increasingly well known. Those that were stored by Theo at Père Tanguy's were examined by an increasing stream of visitors; one of his pictures was even purchased, often considered to be the only lifetime sale he made. However, his pictures were increasingly dispersed, as he gave them away and also made many exchanges, a factor that allows one to see the esteem in which his fellow artists held his work and which has in part resulted in the strong collection of pictures by those contemporaries held by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. During the period that Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy was painted, Van Gogh also featured in an article published by the Dutch painter Joseph Jacob Isaäcson discussing the Dutch artistic contributions to the Paris World Fair that year: 'Who interprets for us in form and colour the mighty life, the great life once more becoming aware of itself in this nineteenth century? I know of one, a solitary pioneer, he stands alone struggling in the deep night, his name, Vincent, is for posterity' (J.J. Isaäcson, quoted in J. Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 418). It was also during this time that he was invited to exhibit alongside the avant- garde artists of Les XX in Brussels. When this exhibition took place the following year, Vincent's pictures would cause enough controversy that his friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would challenge one of his denigrators to a duel.
Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy was an important witness to the increase in Vincent's fame following his death, as it was one of the pictures that was inherited by Theo's wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, after her own husband had died less than a year after his brother. Once those pictures had been shipped to her in Holland, her house became a focal point for those interested in Vincent's trailblazing work, and she became an active custodian and promoter of her brother-in-law's pictures, allowing them to be exhibited and indeed sold, increasing their exposure. This reached a new level in 1905 with the vast retrospective of over 400 pictures that was held at the Stedelijk Museum, an impressive tribute to the Dutch painter. This marked a significant turning point, as it was now that Vincent's work became truly commercial, especially within the pioneering sphere of collectors active then in Germany. Johanna herself, writing to Dr Gachet, whose guest and patient Vincent had been in his final year, wrote to encourage him to visit the retrospective, naming some of the other figures who had travelled internationally to see it:
'Monsieur Meier-Graefe came last Sunday. He was really astonished to see such a large and beautiful exhibition. M. Liebermann and von Schudi [sic] and Cassirer all came from Berlin. It would be such a shame if you were not to see the entire oeuvre' (J. van Gogh-Bonger, quoted in W. Feilchenfeldt, 'Vincent van Gogh - His Collectors and Dealers', pp. 39-46, in Dr R. Dorn, ed., Van Gogh and the Modern Movement 1890-1914, exh. cat., Essen, 1990, p. 43).
Thus those that made the journey from Berlin included Julius Meier-Graefe, Vincent's biographer who was instrumental in establishing his mythic status especially in Germany, Max Liebermann, the famous German artist, and Hugo von Tschudi, the controversial director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin whose modern tastes led to his dismissal from that role and his removal to Munich, where he helped to bolster Bavaria's incredible collection of art from that period. Crucially, alongside them was Paul Cassirer, who had already become involved in promoting Vincent's works in Germany and now moved into a different tempo.
While Vincent's works had been shown in Germany as early as 1901, and one of his pictures of a reaper in a wheatfield shown from his window at Saint Paul had become the first to enter a museum collection when it went to the Museum Folkwang in Essen, it was only in 1905 that a significant retrospective was organised. Cassirer, in collaboration with Johanna, organised this show, holding it later in 1905 and touring over 50 works including Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy in his galleries in Hamburg and Berlin, going via the Kunstsalon Ernst Arnold in Dresden. It was there that works such as Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy would find some of their most enthusiastic followers, for the group of four painters who had founded Die Brücke earlier that year, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl, all visited the exhibition. It therefore changed the entire direction of German Expressionism. Die Brücke themselves had an exhibtion at Ernst Arnold's gallery in January the following year. As Max Pechstein, who joined the group the following year, would exclaim, 'Van Gogh was Father to us all!' (Max Pechstein, quoted in J. Lloyd, Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism, exh. cat., Amsterdam, 2007, p. 11).
Cassirer purchased Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy from Johanna in February 1907; in May, he sold it to Margarete Mauthner, an important figure in the art world who had translated a selection of Vincent's letters into German for an edition produced under Cassirer's own guidance. Mauthner was a friend of many of the leading artistic figures in Germany at that time, and also assembled, despite having modest means, an impressive collection of oils and drawings by Vincent van Gogh, an artist whose repute in her country had relied in part on her own work in translating the letters, which stayed in print for a number of years.