Van Gogh. I colori della vita

Padua, Centro San Gaetano
10 October 2020 - 11 April 2021

A crucial year. 1888, Van Gogh in Arles
Sixth section

1888 was a key year in Van Gogh’s brief life. Much of the thinking that had preoccupied him during the two years in Paris was channeled into the practical realization of beauty in his paintings: from his exploration of the ideal relationship with Millet, reconsidered, however, in the southern light, to his predilection for Japanese art, corroborated by a new intensity of color.

Vincent arrived in Arles on February 20, 1888, and stayed at the Hôtel-Restaurant Carrel, 30 Rue de la Cavalerie. After settling down and spending his first night in Provence, on the morning of February 21, he wrote Theo to tell him about a highly unusual occurrence. He had left for the south in search of the sun and absolute light, but had found snow falling: "Now I’ll tell you that for a start, there’s been a snowfall of at least 60 centimeters all over, and it’s still snowing. Arles doesn’t seem any bigger than Breda or Mons."

In the almost fifteen months of his stay in Arles, Van Gogh produced about two hundred paintings and one hundred drawings or watercolors. He also had time to write two hundred letters, almost all of them to Theo. When he arrived in Arles, the city had more or less 30,000 inhabitants and was quintessential Provence. But why di Vincent chose Arles, and not Aix or Martigues or Avignon, for example, when he decided to go south? There is surely no single reason, but a series of possible answers.

He greatly admired, for example, the Marseilles painter Adolphe Monticelli and Arles might have been a sort of bridgehead on the road to Marseilles. Theo himself was building up a collection of Monticelli's works. Vincent believed his dense dark paint was derived from Delacroix, another artist he held in great esteem. Many of Van Gogh’s still lifes of flowers, especially those painted in Paris in the second half of 1886, were influenced by Monticelli. In a very significant letter, he was probably thinking of Monticelli as an example of “the artist’s liberty to exaggerate, to create … a world more beautiful, more simple, more consoling than ours … ‘talent is long patience, and originality, an effort of will and of intense observation.’”

Likewise, his love for Japanese prints may have influenced his vision of the South. He wrote to Bernard a few weeks after his arrival: "the country struck me as being as beautiful as Japan for the limpidity of the atmosphere and the gay color effects.” Reading the work of the Provençal writer Alphonse Daudet also offered a new color for Van Gogh's vision. Tartarin de Tarascon, published in 1872, impressed him so much that he often quoted it in his letters, referring to the Provençal "gaiety," which he also not infrequently associates with his painting.

In any case, no painter before Van Gogh had chosen Arles as his base. He dreamed of establishing there his long-desired "Atelier of the South," a community of painters to be formed around Gauguin and Bernard. When Vincent arrived in Arles, he could begin the season of plein air painting. And it was to be an exciting although sometimes painful season.

The crucial year of 1888 also saw the beginning of his relationship with Paul Gauguin: they initially corresponded and then shared lodgings for two months in the Yellow House on Place Lamartine. In Arles, and even more so in its immediate surroundings, Van Gogh was continuously immersed in absolute nature, and all those features that would make him the painter we know and that would lead him to live the last two years or so of his life incredibly intensely. From flowers to wheat fields in the plains of La Crau, from sunflowers to celebrated portraits, starry nights, and café interiors, Van Gogh created a remarkable number of masterpieces at Arles.

exhibition curated by
Marco Goldin

Padua, Centro San Gaetano
10 October 2020 – 11 April 2021