Vincent van Gogh - Les Alyscamps 1888

Les Alyscamps 1888
Les Alyscamps
Oil on canvas 92.0 x 73.5 cm. Arles: November, 1888
Private collection

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Catalogue Note from Sotheby's
A majestic allée at the peak of its autumnal splendor is the subject of Van Gogh's magnificent L'Allée des Alyscamps, his Arles-period painting from November 1, 1888. This was the very moment in Van Gogh's career when his most legendary expressions of great beauty and exuberance were captured on canvas. Works such as Sunflowers, Self-Portrait, L'Arlesienne, the Night Café, The Sower and the postman Monsieur Roulin were all brilliantly realized with unparalleled creative force during this period, and the unrestrained passion of this artistic genius was at its apotheosis. For two months during the fall of 1888 Van Gogh painted in the company of his close friend Paul Gauguin, who had come to the south of France for a shared artistic experiment known as the Studio of the South. The artists would set up their easels side-by-side or back-to-back, tackling what are now some of the most famous subjects of their careers. Their first shared experience to this end was a series of views of lovers strolling through Alyscamps, the ancient "Elysian Fields" just outside the walls of the city. With its lush scenery, historic importance and romantic undertones the location was an irresistible starting point, resulting in four major oils by Van Gogh and two by Gauguin. Over the passing weeks conflicts increasingly arose between the two artists, with the simmering tension ultimately resulting in Van Gogh's violent breakdown at the end of the year. But the present work, created during those exciting first days of their time together, presents the glorious product of Van Gogh's ambitious undertaking.
The scene depicted here is the central thoroughfare of the Alyscamps, one of the most famous Roman burial grounds in all of Europe. During the prime of Caesar's reign Arles was an important imperial outpost, boasting a stately amphitheater modeled after the Colosseum. Alyscamps was central to city life, as it served as the great necropolis for the nobility of the empire and would later be a coveted Christian burial ground throughout Middle Ages. Over the centuries Alyscamps was pillaged by the locals for building materials, souvenirs and museum displays, and the shaded ruins became an ideal setting for lovers' rendez-vous. Much romanticized by 19th century Romantic writers, Alyscamps was well-known to artists during Van Gogh's time, and his choice to paint here would have been a foregone conclusion for any artist spending time in Arles.
In Van Gogh's depiction here, the ruins of Romanesque sarcophagi are visible down the tree-lined promenade known as the Allée des Tombeaux, now a popular lovers' lane and parade ground for fashionable and single Arlesiennes of questionable virtue. ""The street girl is as much a lady as any other and looks as virginal as a Juno," Gauguin marveled after his first day on site. Aside from its historic importance and illicit allure, Alyscamps offered an accessible place for tourists and locals to experience the tranquility and beauty of the Provençale countryside. On October 29th, both artists completed views of the grounds, with Gauguin focusing on three women walking alongside the canal with the bell tower of the 12th century church of St. Honorat in the background. Van Gogh, however, situated himself in the middle of the allée, painting the smokestacks of the railway workshop across the canal on the left and the archway of the church in the distance, while the ruins of ancient crypts flank a solitary couple taking a romantic stroll. Two days later, on the Feast of All Saints', the artists returned to the allée, depicting the colorful foliage in all of its splendor. Gauguin positioned his easel at the end of the promenade at the portico of the church, and Van Gogh looked down the dramatic allée towards the direction of Saint-Accurse chapel to paint the present picture.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Monday, 28 or Tuesday, 29 May 1888.
My dear Theo,
I thought of Gauguin and here we are — if Gauguin wants to come here there’s Gauguin’s fare, and then there are the two beds or the two mattresses we absolutely have to buy.
But later on, as Gauguin’s a sailor, there’s a likelihood we’ll manage to make our grub at home.
And the two of us will live on the same money as I spend on myself alone.
You know I’ve always thought it ridiculous for painters to live alone &c. You always lose when you’re isolated.
Well, it’s in response to your wish to help him out.
You can’t send him what he needs to live on in Brittany, and me what I need to live on in Provence. But you may agree that we should share, and set a sum of, let’s say, 250 a month if every month, in addition to and apart from my work, you were to have a Gauguin.
As long as we didn’t exceed that amount, wouldn’t there even be a benefit? Besides, I’m speculating about joining forces with others.
So herewith rough draft of a letter to Gauguin, which I’ll write if you approve, with the changes that will doubtless have to be made to turns of phrase. But I wrote that way first. Think of it as a simple business arrangement, that’s best for everyone, and let’s treat it straightforwardly that way. Only, given that you’re not in business on your own account, you may, for example, think it right that I take it upon myself, and Gauguin would join forces with me as a pal.
I thought that you had a wish to come to his aid, as I suffer myself at the thought that he’s in a tight corner — something that won’t change overnight.
We can’t offer better than that, and others wouldn’t do as much.
For my part, it worries me to spend so much on myself alone, but to find a remedy for that there’s none other than that of finding a wife with money or pals who associate with one another for paintings. Now I don’t see the wife, but I do see the pals.
If that suited him, wouldn’t do to keep him waiting.
This would be the beginnings of an association, then. Bernard, who’s coming to the south too, will join us, and be sure of this, I still see you in France, at the head of an association of Impressionists. And if I could be useful in putting them together, I’d willingly see them abler than myself. You must feel how much it vexes me to spend more than they do; I have to find a partnership that’s more advantageous, both to you and to them. And that’s how it would be. However, think it over carefully, but isn’t it true that in good company you could live on little as long as you spent your money at home?
Later on there may be days when we’ll be less hard up, but I’m not counting on it. It would please me so much if you had the Gauguins first. I’m not good at cooking &c., but they’ve had different training in that, having done their service &c.
Handshake and best wishes to Koning, after all, it’s a source of satisfaction for you to deliver him in good condition, which might not have been the case if you hadn’t taken him with you. It’s also satisfactory that the Goupils have been interested in taking that room you suggested.
Ever yours,

Has Tersteeg come to Paris yet?
In order to prepare things, and to expand on this letter, I’m writing to Gauguin, but without saying anything about all this, just to talk about work.
You have to think it over very, very, very carefully before starting to travel. It seems so likely to me that your job is to stay in France.

[Appendix: draft letter to Paul Gauguin]

My dear old Gauguin,
I’ve thought of you very often and if I’m only writing now it’s because I didn’t want to write empty phrases.
The deal with Russell hasn’t come off yet, but Russell has bought some Impressionists all the same, Guillaumin and Bernard and — wait for your moment — he’ll come of his own accord, but I couldn’t press the point further, having had two refusals, but always with a promise for the future.
Wanted to write now to tell you I’ve just rented a four-room house here in Arles.
And that it seems to me that if I find another painter who feels like getting the most out of the south, and who like me was sufficiently absorbed in his work to be able to resign himself to living like a monk who’d go to the brothel once a fortnight — apart from that, bound up in his work and not inclined to waste his time — then the thing would be good. On my own, I suffer a bit from this isolation.
So I’ve very often thought about talking to you about it straight out.
You know that my brother and I have a high regard for your painting and that we’d very much wish to know you were a little at your ease. But all the same, my brother can’t send money to you in Brittany and at the same time money to me in Provence. But would you like to share with me here? Then by joining forces, there would perhaps be enough for two; I’m sure of it, even.
Having once attacked the south, I see no reason to give it up.
I was ill when I came, I’m better now and in fact, I feel rather attracted to the south, where outdoor work is possible almost all the year round.
Living here seems more expensive, though, but isn’t it also the case that the opportunities for gaining paintings are greater? In any event, if my brother were to send us 250 francs a month for both of us, would you like to come, and we would share. But in that case we’d have to make up our minds to eat at home as much as possible; we’d take on some kind of charwoman for a few hours a day, avoiding all the costs of a hotel that way.
And you would give my brother one painting a month, while you’d be free to do whatever you liked with the rest.
Now the two of us would start exhibiting in Marseille straightaway, thus opening the way for other Impressionists as well as for ourselves.
We mustn’t forget that there would now be the cost of travel and of buying a bed, which would also have to be paid for with paintings.
You are, of course, free to correspond with my brother about this matter, but I warn you that he’ll most probably refuse to take responsibility for it.
He’ll just assure you that the only means we’ve found up to now of helping you in a more practical way would be this arrangement, if it suits you. We’ve thought about it a good deal. It seems to me that what you need for your health’s sake is peace and quiet above all. If I’m wrong, and if the heat in the south turned out to be too much — well — we’d have to see. For myself, so far I feel very well in this climate. There’s plenty more I could tell you — but here we are, business first. Reply to both of us soon.