For all of us in the northern hemisphere we are in the midst of winter. The days are short, the skies are grey and the rain is plentiful. It is truly a depressing time of the year and one knows only too well that there is nothing more likely to lift one’s spirits than the presence of blue skies, coupled with long hours of sunshine and feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s back. So what has all this to do with My Daily Art Display’s featured painting and the famous artist who painted it? Well, just maybe Vincent felt the same as he looked out the window of his Parisian apartment in February 1888. Today my featured artist is Vincent Willem van Gogh and my featured painting is entitled Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background which he completed this work in 1888 and can now be found in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Van Gogh had come to Paris from Antwerp in March 1886 to live with his brother Théo, who was the manager at the Goupil Gallery in the Boulevard Montmartre. He studied for a time at the Atelier Cormon under the tutelage of Femand Cormon, the French painter and art teacher. Whilst in Paris, Van Gogh met up with many of the Impressionists, such as Camille Pissarro, Emile Bernard and Claude Monet and became firm friends with Paul Gaugin who only arrived in the French capital in late 1887. Van Gogh also witnessed the infancy of Neo-Impressionism and the works of the Neo-Impressionists Signac and Seurat. Van Gogh quickly abandoned the dark colors he had used to create his earlier paintings and began to he embrace the brighter more vibrant colors and the techniques of the Impressionists. Life in the French capital for van Gogh with his painting during the day and his socialising with his fellow artists at night soon began to affect his health and after almost two years he began to tire of the cliquish Parisian art scene. Whether it was for this reason or for health reasons or even the simple desire to leave the drab and cold capital city we will probably never be sure but there was no doubt that he hankered for the warmer sunny climate and the vibrant colours of the southern countryside., Van Gogh decided to move south to Arles and take advantage of the special Provencal climate with its many uninterrupted hours of sunlight and by doing so also absorb the beauty of the French countryside. It was his fervent hope that he could persuade some of his newly found artist friends to join him there and together they could set up a school of art, maybe even an artists’ colony and together he believed they could resurrect the purity of the arts. This was to be van Gogh’s Studio of the South. He left Paris in February 1888, a month before his thirty-fifth birthday, and headed south for Provence.
It was during his sojourn in Provence that he painted today’s featured painting Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background. Van Gogh loved this region of Provence with the rocky outcrop of Montmajour and the Montmajour abbey. This was thought to be one of the happiest times of his troubled life. For a short period he seemed very content with his way of life. He made many pen and ink sketches of the Benedictine abbey at Montmajour and the spectacular views from it of the surrounding area. Van Gogh spent much time producing sketches with his reed pen and rather less time painting. The reasons for this were probably two-fold. Painting and the acquiring of paints was quite costly and it was almost impossible to paint when the Mistral wind was at full strength. In a letter which he wrote to his brother Théo in July 1888, he described the pleasure he derived from this area, despite the problem with mosquitos and the strong cold northerly Mistral wind which made his canvases shake on the easel andmade en plein air painting almost impossible. He wrote:
“….But now I’ve been to Montmajour 50 times to see that view over the plain, if a view can make one forget such small displeasures, then it must have something…”
In this painting, the pride of place does not go to the abbey which can be seen in the background. The painting is all about the yellow and green patchwork quilt fields of La Crau which lay between Montmajour and Arles. The fields are interspersed with small farm buildings with their red-topped roofs, the colour of which not only acts as a contrast to but seems to enhance the colour of the surrounding fields. In the middle ground we can see a blue cart which is often cited as a secondary title to the painting. He painted the scene in June 1888 and he believed it to be his best work to date. It was at a time when the summer heat was beginning to intensify and the life-restoring radiance of the Mediterranean sun was his constant companion. He once described this light in a letter to his brother:
“….a light that for want of a better word I shall call yellow, pale sulphur yellow, pale golden citron! How lovely yellow is! And how much better I shall see the North!….”
Van Gogh made two preliminary drawings of the work and the provenance of one shows that on the death of her brothers Vincent and Théo in 1890, it came into the possession of Willemina van Gogh, their younger sister. It is now at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, a bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop. If one compares this preliminary sketch with the finished painting one can see that the space in the finished painting has been expanded and the viewpoint is much higher. There is a much more gradual retreating of the plain as it runs off towards the towers of the Montmajour Abbey, which can be seen in the left background, and further back to the distant hills.
After he completed the painting he made two further drawings of the scene. One of which is entitled Harvest – The Plain of La Crau, which he gave to his friend, John Peter Russell, an Australian artist and which can now be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington where it is part of the Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon collection.
I love this painting. It is a truly inspiring painting. Inspiring? As I look out of my window at the falling rain and the dark grey rain-laden clouds, it inspires me to return to Provence and bask once again in the warm sunlight, take in the golden colours of the plains, interspersed occasionally with the blue and violet colours of the fields of lavender and of course be in awe of the azure colour of the nearby Mediterranean.
Oh, for the winter to end so that I can travel again!