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La Vigne rouge à Montmajour, Van Gogh, 1888 - Musée Pouchkine, Moscou


Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)  


Oil on canvas, 75 x 93 cm

Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia


Van Gogh painted two landscapes featuring vines in oils – The Green Vine and The Red Vine – during his period in Arles, where he lived from 20th February 1888, followed by Vines with View of Auvers when he was receiving treatment from Doctor Gachet from late May 1890. Van Gogh also painted a watercolour landscape entitled Old Vineyard and Peasant WomanThe Red Vine is one of the artist’s best-known paintings, and often said to be the only one sold in his lifetime – in February 1890, five months before his suicide. But let’s be more precise: it was “one of few paintings to be sold in his lifetime.” (Ingo F. Walther).


The call of the South: Van Gogh went to the region in search of light and colour. He produced a harvest scene in late October, near Arles, depicting red vines. This is decidedly odd: although Arles is in a Mediterranean region, a late-October harvest is still terribly late. Usually, the grape harvest takes place before the vines turn red. There is a plethora of grape-pickers – twenty-one! Night has almost fallen. What to make of this harvest scene? Could it have really taken place as Van Gogh depicts it, so late in the year?


Let’s examine the evidence in Van Gogh’s Letters*. In a letter sent to his brother Théo, dated 3rd October, the artist reports having just finished The Green Vine.


Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)  


HOil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.5 cm

Musée Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

“Ah! My vine study, I sweated water and blood over it, but it’s done… The vines I’ve painted are green, purple and yellow with violet grapes and black and orange shoots. On the horizon, some blue-grey willows and the press much further away, its red roof and the lilac silhouette of the town in the distance. Amidst the vines, the figures of women with red parasols and other harvest workers with their cart.” The scene is described in great detail. The harvest seems to have got off to a good start, although the pace is slow. All is going to plan. 10th (or 11th) October: “If only you could see the vines! Bunches weighing a whole kilo – the grapes are magnificent this year.” If the start of the summer had been particularly rainy, from September the weather was glorious. The grapes were abundant, and ripe for the picking by early October.

Gauguin joined Van Gogh in the South at the end of October. In another letter to Theo, dated 3rd November, Van Gogh recounts a walk to Montmajour and Trébon, several kilometers from Arles and not far from the Fontevielle windmill, which he had taken with Gauguin the weekend before, the 28th October, at sunset: “We saw a red vineyard, completely red like red wine. In the distance it became yellow, and then a green sky with a sun, fields violet and sparkling yellow here and there after the rain in which the setting sun was reflected." The result of this colorful walk? In his letters, Van Gogh is Gauguin’s record-keeper. On the 3rd November, he relates: “At the moment he’s working on some women in a vineyard, entirely from memory, but if he doesn’t spoil it or leave it there unfinished it will be very fine and very strange”. On the 10th November, he announces that “Gauguin has finished his canvas of the women picking grapes”. If Gauguin’s memory of the vineyard’s colours was spot-on, other details are less exact: the women in his painting are wearing headdresses from Brittany! Sardonically, Van Gogh adds: “I haven’t seen the Breton things...”

VENDANGES A ARLES (MISÈRES HUMAINES), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), 1888 - Ordrupgaard, Copenhague


Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)


Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92 cm

Ordrupgaard, Copenhaguen, Denmark


On 3rd November, just after describing Gaugin’s “some women in a vineyard”: Van Gogh wrote "I am now working on a vineyard, all purple and yellow". On 10th November, after having indicated that "Gauguin has finished his canvas of the women picking grapes", he continues: “I myself have also finished a canvas of a vineyard, all purple and yellow with little blue and violet figures and a yellow sun.” That’s all: there’s no question of it being harvest time and we’re far from the luxuriant details describing the completion of his The Green Vineyard. The landscape is infested with harvest workers heretofore unmentioned. In the same letter, he adds shortly after: “I’m going to set myself to work often from memory, and the canvases done from memory are always less awkward and have a more artistic look than the studies from nature, especially when I’m working in mistral conditions”. A few paragraphs earlier, he tells his brother “I don’t find it disagreeable to try to work from the imagination, since that permits me not to go out… the cold isn’t for me, as you know.” But it’s under Gauguin’s influence that Van Gogh decides to make space in his art for both memory and imagination (he confirms this in a letter to Théo dated 11th or 12th November: “Gauguin gives me courage to imagine, and the things of the imagination do indeed take on a more mysterious character”; and to his sister Willemien in a letter of 12th November, when he’d just completed his Red Vineyard: “he encourages me a lot often to work purely from the imagination”).


In reality, the harvest in Provence had taken place long before the execution of the painting, on the 20th September. There would have been no one in the bare vineyard at the time of painting. The two artists worked from memory and if they were accurate in their representation of the bright reds and yellows of the autumnal vine leaves (typical of the vineyards in late October, after the harvest) they let their imaginations run wild for the rest. Van Gogh liked contrasts of audacious colours. In a letter to Théo dated 3rd October (already mentionned): “when all the foliage of the trees is yellow, it will be something marvelous, against the blue. Ziem has shown us these glories many times already.” The subject of the painting is depicted here with a mise en scene rich in colours chosen by Van Gogh purely for effect. With its new approach to colour, this splendid composition marked the beginning of fauvism. 

These compositions clearly demonstrate that the painters wished to show their experience of the vineyard, rather than the vineyard itself. 



* Van Gogh kept close epistolary ties with his family, especially his brother Théo (652 of over 900 letters total). These letters give a very precise and detailed account of the conditions in which the artist produced his work.

** In one of his letters to his mother, in July 1889, Van Gogh told her that he remembered a painting that he’d sent to Théo, “where a vineyard is all purple, crimson and yellow and green and violet like the Virginia creeper in Holland.”


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