VAN GOGH AND GAUGUIN IN ARLES
Vincent van Gogh journeyed to Arles in February 1888 with the expressed desire to create a new colony of artists in the temperate climate of southern France. In the summer of 1888, he secured a small house on the outskirts of the city and just across from the public garden. His letters are filled with descriptions of domestic activity, as he bought furniture and utensils and made decorations for what he called "The Studio of the South." Always his aim was to share his life with others, and he constantly exhorted his brother, Theo, as well as his friends Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard to join him in Arles.
Bedroom at Arles, made in the months immediately prior to the arrival of Gauguin in Arles, was part of van Gogh’s scheme to decorate the walls of his home and studio. He painted great bunches of sunflowers, portraits of his friends, views of the public garden, and other Arlesian scenes to please the ever critical Gauguin. Yet, it was van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles that most moved Gauguin when he saw it shortly after its completion in October 1888. Van Gogh had painted it after a period of nervous collapse and exhaustion from overwork, and to him it represented "inviolable rest" and harmony.
The painting occupies a complex and significant place in the psychological history of the artist, since we know that his dreams of creating an enduring art colony in this house were quickly to be dashed. It is, thus, easy to read the "quiet" (a word the artist used to describe his bedroom) here as the calm before the storm. Indeed, the uneasy harmony of the intense palette of colors, the dramatic perspective of the floor and bed, and the very emptiness of the room create a tension at odds with the artist’s stated purpose in executing the picture. And yet, what one must remember in considering the Bedroom is that, for its maker, art integrated dream and reality. Van Gogh’s actual bedroom at Arles was never so clean, or so restful. The painting resembles a miniature room, so real does the furniture seem, so palpable the space. The tactility of the paint allows us to feel in our minds the surface of each object. We revel in the emptiness and warmth of the room, and, like van Gogh, each of us fills it with ourselves and our dreams.
Shortly after the arrival of Gauguin on October 20, van Gogh’s work entered a confused, inchoate stage, certainly brought on by Gauguin’s response to his art. He was critical of the rapidity with which van Gogh worked and with what he considered to be the younger artist’s sloppiness and his overdependence on nature. Gauguin himself painted slowly and deliberately, thinking through each portion of his compositions and reworking them until he achieved a total pictorial harmony. Gauguin’s considered methods and desire for pictorial unity and symbolic content are everywhere apparent in Old Women of Arles. Here, Gauguin created a world in which everything is flat and ambiguous. Did he intend us to know that the yellow pyramids to the right of the old women are straw coverings to protect delicate plants in the chilly autumn weather? Why do the women cover their mouths and look away from the viewer? Is the face hidden in the large bush to the lower left some-thing Gauguin intended to include, and, if so, why? What is the ultimate purpose of the two pictorial barriers — the shrub and the gate — that separate the inside of the garden from the world of the viewer? These and many other questions tumble forth as one absorbs this masterpiece from Arles. It has been suggested that Gauguin did this painting in reaction to van Gogh’s many representations of the public garden of Arles to demonstrate the evocative power and complex associations with which he could infuse a theme by working from the depths of his imagination. As he stated, "The women here, with their elegant headdresses, have a Greek beauty; their shawls create folds like primitive paintings and make them look like a Greek procession." For all its deliberateness and care of composition, Old Women of Arles is much more mysterious and ultimately disturbing than any picture painted in Arles by van Gogh.
After van Gogh’s tragic self-mutilation on December 24, he was placed under the care of a physician in the large public hospital in Arles, where he painted several versions of his famous canvas The Cradler (La Berceuse). It represents Madame Roulin, the wife of the artist’s friend the postman, but the painting was never intended to function strictly as a portrait. Van Gogh himself called the picture La Berceuse shortly after it was finished and during the period in which he made the four surviving replicas of it. The Chicago canvas is undoubtedly one of those replicas. Van Gogh wished to hang all the versions together and in combination with his Sunflower canvases to create a composite decoration whose subject was consolation and joy. The many passages in his letters referring to La Berceuse suggest that he conceived of the pictures as allegories of motherhood. In one, he spoke of the fact that he intended the painting for sailors at sea — "sailors, who are at once children and martyrs, seeing it in the cabin of their boat should feel the old sense of cradling come over them and remember their own lullabies." When considered in this way, the boat in which the sailors toss and turn becomes a cradle moved not by the sea, but by their mothers. When one remembers that van Gogh himself was alone in what was for him a foreign hospital, far from his family, the fact that he replicated this soothing image four times is scarcely surprising.
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