DEBORA SILVERMAN’s insightful article traces three aspects of Van Gogh’s early months in Arles and identifies the development of his sacred realism, characterising it as a response to the dual challenge posed by avant-garde art and populist French Catholicism in 1888.
In late February of 1888, Vincent van Gogh journeyed from Paris to the Provençal town of Arles. We do not know precisely why he chose Arles; he registers only a vague awareness of the region. He had read novels and stories by Alphonse Daudet, whose works evoked local sites and figures - such as the windmill on the road from Arles to Fontvieille in Letters from my windmill. He may have seen a festival staged in an 1887 Paris exhibition featuring Arlesian costume and the special Provençal dance, the farandole. Van Gogh seems to have set off with a composite picture of his destination in mind, stimulated mainly by a quest for the warm sun of the south. This composite drew on disparate sources of literary prototypes, interest in the Marseilles-born painter Alphonse Montecelli and in Eugène Delacroix’s Mediterranean journey, and in the brightly coloured world depicted in the profusion of Japanese prints Van Gogh had collected in Paris.
Prepared then by these diverse sources, Van Gogh went to Provence in search of what he called light, warmth and ‘tranquillity.’ Stepping off the train at Arles, however, he was greeted not by the restorative sun of the south, but by similar weather conditions he had hoped to leave behind in frosty Paris: snow was falling, with freezing temperatures. Nonetheless, the clarity of the air, the ramparts of the town centre edged by the Rhône, and the vistas of broad, flat stretches of planted fields still offered him a striking contrast to the Parisian metropolis. His first reactions, recorded in a letter to Theo, linked Arles with Holland and Japan. At first glance he had thought of a Dutch town and noted: ‘Arles doesn’t seem to me any bigger than Breda […].’ Breda, the Brabant home of Van Gogh’s grandparents, was, like Arles, a town with intact ramparts, bordered by water and flat panoramic landscapes. At the same time, Van Gogh noticed the mountains marking the distant horizon, and described the spectacle of the countryside terminating in snow-covered summits as ‘just like the winter landscapes that the Japanese have painted’ [579/463]. A Japanese ukiyoe print come alive, a Dutch panoramic topography - these first recorded associations set the tone and the limits of Van Gogh’s early assimilation of his new French environment.
Image: Vincent van Gogh, Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour in the Background, Arles, 1888. (Credit)