The Arles Period


“The emotions are sometimes so strong that I work without knowing it. The strokes come like speech.” —Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh was quite busy during his time in Arles’ it was perhaps his most busy time’ and many of his best works came out of his time here. It’s almost as if Van Gogh’s talents came to a head here’ and all of his previous works led to this intensely creative time. In Nuenen Vincent was definitely a painter with skill and he had a deep passion for painting outdoors whether it is people or landscapes.

Then’ when Vincent Van Gogh was in Paris he evolved into an even more skilled painter willing to take risks and be influenced by the Impressionists. It’s as if these two periods of artist time and talents came together in Arles and inspired Vincent to create some of his most well known pieces. If Vincent Van Gogh had only known how some of these paintings would be received in the years to come’ it might have changed the course of his life.

The time in Arles was a busy one’ in August 1888 alone Vincent Van Gogh painted more than twenty pieces’ and they were all beautiful in their own way. Van Gogh was very inspired by flowers and other still life at the time’ but sunflowers took on an especially beautiful role of inspiration for him.

Many people know Sunflowers as one of Vincent’s most beautiful and popular paintings’ though there was actually more than one Vincent Van Gogh painting with Sunflowers in it. Sunflowers were actually meant to be a lengthy series of paintings’ though he never completed as many as he had hoped. Sunflowers has inspired many artists’ new and old’ to attempt similar paintings’ although none have been able to achieve what Vincent Van Gogh did.

Vincent Van Gogh had actually used sunflowers as the subject of his works since early in 1886′ but when he began painting in Arles in 1888 his use of color got brighter and bolder’ so the sunflowers were more beautiful. Vincent Van Gogh loved the Sunflowers series and had painted the majority of them in hopes that it would make his beloved Yellow House more welcoming to Gaugin when he arrived in Arles to stay with Vincent. Yellow was one of Vincent’s favorite colors during this time’ so sunflowers were the perfect subjects of his painting.

Of the series’ Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers is probably a favorite among a lot of people’ as well as the most well known. The Sunflowers is beautiful because the colors are so bold’ and there is a feeling of hope and optimism that emits from these pieces. Perhaps it was Vincent’s love of the flowers’ or his excitement that Gaugin was coming to stay with him that helps to evoke these feelings from the observer’ but the Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers is able to evoke these things’ as are all the other pieces of the series.

Vincent worked with other flowers during this time as well’ with wonderful results. Vase with Oleanders is another beautiful piece’ though not as well known as the Sunflowers series. This piece was done around the same time as the others’ and perhaps that is why it is just as moving and as beautiful as the others. The great thing about Vincent Van Gogh was that he could use a variety of flowers’ or different types of flowers for many paintings’ yet they are all very different and evoke different feelings in the observer. Vincent was great at capturing the beauty of still life such as flowers’ yet he captured something different in each’ possibly because of what he was thinking or feeling at the time.

A painting known simply as The Chair was also painted during Vincent’s time in Arles and it has gotten much attention. The Chair is often known as Vincent’s Chair with His Pipe and this is one of his most well-known and scrutini2ed works. Many people wondered exactly what the underlying interpretation of the painting is’ as it’s so simple’ others simply remark at it’s simply beauty.

Many believe as though this simple chair on plain red tiles simply is a portrait of the man Vincent believed himself to be: simple. Of course’ looking back over his life it’s plain to see that he felt as though he didn’t measure up to expectation’ though he is anything but a simple man. Whatever it’s meaning The Chair has gotten a good deal of attention’ and so it should’ as one of Vincent’s most beautifully simple pieces.

The Chair has also gotten quite a bit of attention because there is a piece that seems to go well with it. Paul Gaugin’s Armchair is said to sort of be another piece of the story to the previous painting.

As was established in the first section of this book’ Gaugin was a friend of Vincent’s that came to live with him during his time in Arles. Unfortunately’ the two men were both passionate men who had a friendship end tragically. If The Chair was a portrait of Vincent’ than it’s thought that Paul Gaugin’s Armchair is a representation of Gaugin. The two paintings really are like night and day’ as Vincent’s chair is painted with light colors and the chair is quite simple. The painting of Gaugin’s chair is actually quite dark in color’ and the chair is far more ornate than Vincent’s. Was Vincent making the statement that he was more like the men and women he had painted in the early years and Gaugin was worldlier than he? Or’ was this a depiction of what had gone wrong between the two’ that they were two totally different people? When the two paintings are placed beside one another it’s hard not to speculate that there is some symbolic meaning here. While the chairs may simply be paintings of the chairs they used’ there has been much
interpretation of them because they are so opposite. Whatever their meaning or symbolic reasoning’ it’s safe to say that these are two of Van Gogh’s most wonderfully executed works.

Though Vincent tended to be more creative and bold during this time’ he didn’t lose sight of his passion for people who worked hard for a living. In works such as The Sower it’s easy to see that Vincent still had a love for this type of painting’ though his style had changed substantially. His technique had changed to short brushing strokes to give the painting depth and he was even more practiced at using colors to produce the effect of light. The Sower is a great example of how his interests stayed the same’ but Vincent’s techniques and use of color really were refined by this time.

The Sower Also painted during this time was the first in what would become a famous trilogy of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh’ Café en la Place du Forum. This painting really captures Van Gogh’s talent for taking an every day scene and making it look magical. His use of color to depict light coming from the café despite it being dark is remarkable’ and so uniquely Van Gogh. The use of color is outstanding because Van Gogh achieves a very dark look’ without using black’ and though the painting is dark’ it gives off a very tranquil feeling. Though this painting was done in 1888′ the café depicted in Café en la Place du Forum is still there today’ though it’s been remodeled a bit. The café has also been renamed’ Café Van Gogh’ which seems appropriate enough.

Café in el Place du Forum was inspired not only by the café’ but also by the works of another artists. Van Gogh was famous for using other artist’s work for inspiration’ and this painting is along the same vein as Avenue de Clichy in the Evening by Anquetin. In a letter to his sister Van Gogh conveyed his pleasure and satisfaction in completing this painting.

On September ninth and sixteenth Van Gogh wrote the following to his sister about his piece entitled Café in el Place du Forum also known as The Terrace:

“In point of fact I was interrupted these days by my toiling on a new picture representing the outside of a night cafe. On the terrace there are tiny figures of people drinking. An enormous yellow lantern sheds its light on the terrace, the house, and the sidewalk, and even causes a certain brightness on the pavement of the street, which takes a pinkish violet tone. The gable-topped fronts of the houses in a street stretching away under a blue sky spangled with stars are dark blue or violet and there is a green tree. Here you have a night picture without any black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square acquires a pale sulphur and greenish citron-yellow colour. It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot. They used to draw and paint the picture in the daytime after the rough sketch. But I find satisfaction in painting things immediately”.

Letters such as these really give insight to the way Vincent was feeling about his painting. When you are able to read these portions of his letters’ it really allows the observer to connect with the painting in a new way.

Starry Night Over Rhone is the second in the twilight trilogy. While the three paintings are often referred to as a trilogy’ it’s important to point out that Vincent Van Gogh himself never intended for the three pieces to be considered a trilogy. Instead’ the trilogy was something that was done later when looking at the three pieces that fit beautifully together and sort of encapsulate some of his best work.

Starry Night Over Rhone is nothing like Café in el Place du Forum though the basic style and use of color is the same. Starry Night Over Rhone once again shows Van Gogh’s ability to work with colors to achieve something not done by many during that time. Van Gogh is able to achieve a peaceful night scene with bursts of light in the sky’ though it’s simple’ it’s also quite deep when you stand to observe it. The reflections on the water are also quite breathtaking as this whole painting comes together with a very tranquil feel. Are these peaceful paintings due to a content time in Vincent’s life? It’s possible’ as it seems more of his work was influenced by his emotional state than not.

In October of 1888 Vincent Van Gogh painted another of his most well known paintings’ Bedroom In Arles’ which is another great example of taking something so ordinary and making it quite extraordinary. The striking colors really draw you into the painting’ as well as the unusual perspective of the room. Bedroom in Arles is well known among art fanatics’ and was a favorite of Vincent’s as well. Vincent was quite proud of this painting and many believe it may be his favorite piece. In going over the hundreds of letters’ Vincent mentions it no less than 13 times in different letters’ so this had quite an impact on him. There are actually three different versions of this painting’ and each of them is as beautiful as the last.

Another piece that is well known and was also painted while in Arles is The Night Café or Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine. This is another of Vincent’s paintings that really captures the ambiance of an obscure place. Vincent used the rich reds and yellows that he had been using since his time in Paris. It’s almost as if Vincent was once again watching the common person’ and finding inspiration by it. Vincent employed a style in The Night Café not unlike Bedroom in Arles where the furniture and landscape almost slopes toward the observer. This perspective shows that Vincent truly broke free of any teachings’ and was painting from his heart and soul’ not to be held back by standards. This piece stands out’ even among the best Van Gogh pieces.

Many of the portraits painted during this time were of the Roulin family’ most notably Joseph Roulin’ known as Postman Roulin. Roulin and Vincent struck up a friendship almost immediately upon his Vincent’s arrival in Arles. How the two actually met is unknown’ although they lived on the same street. It’s likely that they met at a nearby café or just passing on the street’ and Van Gogh was always drawn to people who seemed so ordinary and really worked for a living. Perhaps his postal uniform drew Vincent to Roulin’ and they struck up a friendship as a result. Whatever their meeting’ Roulin and Vincent Van Gogh celebrated an enduring and heartwarming friendship’ something Van Gogh didn’t get from many of his relationships throughout life. It seems his friendship with Roulin made him the perfect model’ as well as Roulin’s family as Vincent did numerous portraits’ some of which he gave to the family’ and many of which became quite well known’ though these were ordinary folk. Each painting entitled Postman Roulin is different from the last’ but each shows a man who worked hard’ and at times’ a tense man. The history of the Roulin family shows that Joseph Roulin was a hard workingman’ so the stress and tension in his face and eyes was a great depiction of the man he was.

The Roulin family as a whole inspired Vincent completing six portraits of Postman Roulin’ one portrait of his mother’ one of Joseph Roulin’s wife and baby’ two portraits of Joseph’s son Camille Roulin’ and three portraits of the baby of the postman. While Vincent appreciated his friendship with the postman’ he also loved the fact that they all made great models. Modeling for Vincent didn’t go unpaid’ as the Roulin house held many of Vincent’s works’ so many in fact that the Roulin children grew up not reali2ing the significance of these pieces’ even after Van Gogh’s death.

Late into the Arles period’ in January 1889 Vincent Van Gogh painted Self Portrait With Ear Bandage and Pipe’ which was a depiction of himself after his stay with Gaugin came to a tragic end with the mutilation of his right ear. Vincent painted himself in this piece with the ear bandage and a hat on’ with quite vivid colors. The pipe is hanging from his mouth and puffs of smoke are depicted with wisps of white paint coming from it.

There is an almost weary look in his eyes in the portrait’ and the puffs of smoke are almost like parts of his self’ possibly a depiction of his loss of friendship with Gaugin. Many of Vincent’s paintings offer hope’ even the pieces that depict hard lives’ but this one feels sad and you can almost feel his desperation when you look at his face. The difference between this piece and the pieces before are striking’ through paintings like this can see the decline of Van Gogh’s mental health through his paintings’ as the pain is quite palpable.

A painting done around the same time entitled Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear is a bit different’ the use of color isn’t quite so vivid’ and it’s not such a stark piece. There is a wall hanging in the background’ though the observer seems to be drawn to Van Gogh’s eyes’ which seem vacant and quite sad in this painting as well. It’s evident through both Self Portrait With Ear Bandage and Pipe and Self Portrait with Ear Bandage that this was truly a deep’ dark time in Vincent’s life. Though these paintings could be interpreted a million different ways by a million different people’ there is no doubt this was a time of profound pain and disappointment for Van Gogh.

The time that Vincent Van Gogh spent it Arles was definitely one of his most active’ so many of his successful pieces came from this time. The variation in his work during this time is obvious’ and because he made each brush stroke to express himself’ it’s obvious that he had some of his best times’ perhaps when Gaugin first came to the Yellow House’ and then some of his worst’ and the end of his time with Gaugin and when he mangled his right ear. Despite the true highs and lows in his life during this period’ Vincent Van Gogh executed many pieces that will forever be known as some of the most outstanding pieces of art in the world.
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