On February 20, 1888, van Gogh arrived in the southern Provençal town of Arles, France. With the financial help of his brother Theo, he was able to rent, furnish, and ultimately move into the Yellow House in September. Van Gogh’s second-floor bedroom looked directly over Place Lamartine, a small public park that served as a lush oasis amidst the active town of Arles. This painting depicts the garden’s southeast section as confirmed by the appearance of the pale blue-purple belfry of the medieval church of Sainte Trophîme just visible past the foliage in the background.
In a letter written around mid–September, van Gogh states that he has just created a painting of "a corner of a garden with a weeping tree, grass, round clipped cedar shrubs and an oleander bush…there is a citron sky over everything, and also the colors have the richness and intensity of autumn." This serene, sunny landscape was the first of a four-painting series destined as a décoration—a series of linked pictures—for the bedroom Gauguin would occupy in the Yellow House. With Gauguin’s bedroom as its destination, this series enabled van Gogh to engage in an ongoing dialogue with his potential collaborator. In their letters the two artists exchanged ideas, questions, and artistic philosophies; the Poet’s Garden paintings became visual manifestations of the letters’ words.
The garden’s vitality, from its unkempt grass to its thriving trees, is conveyed by van Gogh’s repetitive brushstrokes and his use of thick impasto. Seasons appear to change before our eyes from the lush greens of summer to the crisp deep golds of fall. The "citron" sky consists of layered horizontal strokes of yellow and lime, giving the sky both solidity and vibrancy. Rather than focusing on the optical effect of juxtaposed complementary colors, here van Gogh seems to be more interested in the total effect of a more limited range of colors.
By calling the painting The Poet’s Garden, van Gogh intentionally linked the image to the 14th-century poets Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), about whom he had been reading in a recently published article on Italian Renaissance literature. Van Gogh’s thoughts dwelt on Petrarch because he recalled that the poet had lived in nearby Avignon. As the artist wrote, "What I wanted was to paint the garden in such a way that one would think of the old poet from here (or rather from Avignon), Petrarch, and at the same time of the new poet living here—Paul Gauguin…" In other words, van Gogh hoped that his artistic partnership with Gauguin would parallel the passionate, spiritual, and intellectual mentor-student relationship shared by the earlier poets. Van Gogh envisioned himself as Boccaccio, tutored by the older poet-artist, Gauguin.
Further symbolic associations may be found in van Gogh’s inclusion of the oleander bush, the scraggly limbs of the weeping tree, and the upright cypress tree. Van Gogh attached meaning to the painting based on personal and conventional symbols: for him, the oleander bush was symbolic of Boccaccio and of hope that the new collaboration of the two painters would be fruitful; the "weeping" tree expressed mourning and loss; while the cypress was a symbol of death and immortality. Such symbolic imagery conveys van Gogh’s doubts and fears that Gauguin would not come to Arles, and that they would never realize the dream of a Studio of the South. His fears, however, were allayed as the new poet (Gauguin) arrived in Arles to stay in his own bedroom overlooking Place Lamartine’s Poet’s Garden approximately one month later.
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