Painted sometime between 16 June and 7 July 1888, La Roubine du Roi is an important masterpiece from van Gogh's Arles period. In its vivid palette, energetic brushwork and japoniste composition, it exemplifies some of van Gogh's most deeply felt artistic ambitions; and the bold execution of work was part of Van Gogh's attempt to create more spontaneous, direct and sincere representations of nature.
The painting represents a canal at Arles called La Roubine du Roi, where the local women went to wash their clothes. In the picture, they are seen standing and kneeling on the temporary wooden platforms that extend from the right bank of the canal. It was only in Paris, the year before, that van Gogh had become interested in painting images of rivers and waterways. After his arrival in Arles early in 1888, this theme became more important in his work. Between March and May he made about a dozen paintings and drawings of this subject; he was particularly attracted to the Langlois bridge near Arles, which he drew or painted on at least seven different occasions. In several of these works, as in the present painting, van Gogh represented peasant women washing their clothes in the water (fig. 1). In May, however, he stopped making images of the bridge; and around the middle of the month he made a drawing of La Roubine du Roi (fig. 2). In this sketch, the viewpoint is low to the ground and the general feeling is reminiscent of Rembrandt's landscape drawings. More than once in his letters, Vincent remarked on the similarity of the countryside of Arles to that of Holland; this point comes across strongly in the drawing.
He returned to La Roubine du Roi and made the present painting sometime between 16 June and 7 July. How one dates the picture depends on how one dates Vincent's letter to Theo (LT 504), which mentions it. Jan Hulsker and the editors of the second edition of de la Faille have dated the letter "about 7 July." Roland Pickvance, however, has dated it "c. June 16". The difference is only three weeks, and it does not significantly affect our understanding and interpretation of the painting. The passage about the painting in Vincent's letter reads as follows:
"Do you remember among the little drawings a wooden bridge with a washing place, and a view of the town in the distance? I have just painted that subject in a large size.
I must warn you that everyone will think I work too fast. Don't you believe a word of it.
It is not emotion, the sincerity of one's feeling for nature, that draws us, and if the emotions are sometimes so strong that one works without knowing one works--when sometimes the strokes come with a continuity and a coherence like words in a speech or a letter - then one must remember that it has not always been so, and that in time to come there will again be hard days, empty of inspiration. So one must strike while the iron is hot, and put the forged bars on one side" (LT504).
In comparison with van Gogh's earlier landscapes, four features of La Roubine du Roi are especially noteworthy. The first is its high viewpoint and steep perspective; this is especially striking in relation to his drawing of the canal (fig. 2). The second feature is its composition, dominated by the dramatic sweeping curve made by the bend in the canal. In its dynamic tension, the composition has little precedent in van Gogh's work, and it is a radical departure from both typical Impressionist practice and Dutch tradition. The third remarkable feature is the application of the paint in large fields of color, without the degree of detail, elaboration, and modulation typical of his earlier pictures. Finally, the execution of the painting is quite bold and forceful; as Vincent said in his letter to Theo, the picture might cause some to think initially that "I work too fast."
These four distinctive features are all related to van Gogh's understanding of Japanese art. The viewpoint, steep perspective, composition and palette reflect van Gogh's profound love for Japanese prints, and especially the work of Hiroshige. Van Gogh appears to have modeled his composition after some of the images in Hiroshige's One Hundred Views of the Famous Places of Edo; in particular, Five Pine Trees at Onagigawa (fig. 3) and Great Waterfall (fig. 4). There can be no doubt that van Gogh adored Hiroshige's views of Edo. In 1887 he made two paintings after prints in the series, Japonaiserie: The Flowering Plum Tree (F371) and Japonaiserie: Bridge in the Rain (fig. 5). He also placed another print from the series in the upper right corner of one version of the portrait of Pre Tanguy (fig. 6) and it is worth noting that, like La Roubine du Roi, the print represents a sharp bend in a river.
Van Gogh's letters confirm his fascination with Japanese prints at that time. Shortly after painting the picture (only a day or two later according to Hulsker's chronology of the letters), Vincent wrote to Theo, "I find it dreadful sometimes not to be able to get hold of another batch of Japanese prints. Then better try to make some oneself" (LT505). Moreover, his letters show that he thought of the new boldness and flatness of color in his works as a Japanese effect. In June Vincent wrote to Emile Bernard that he was attempting to achieve "simplification of color in the Japanese manner.... For the Japanese artist ignores reflected colors, puts flat tones side by side, with characteristic lines marking off the movements and the forms" (B6). And later that year, he told Theo, "Here color is to do everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things .... The shadows and the cast shadows are suppressed; it is painted in free flat tints like the Japanese prints "(LT554).
Van Gogh also viewed the new certainty and spontaneity of execution in his work as something Japanese. He wrote to Theo, "The Japanese draw quickly, very quickly, like a lightning flash, because their nerves are finer, their feeling simpler" (LT500; about 5 July, according to Hulsker's chronology of the letters).
At the time he made La Roubine du Roi, Van Gogh was reading Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthme, a novel set in Japan; indeed, according to Pickvance, the artist painted the picture and started reading the novel on the same evening, June 16th. Vincent was fascinated by the novel, and recommended it to all his correspondents; for instance, writing to Theo , "Have you read Loti's book, Madame Chrysanthme? Very interesting" (LT505).
Indeed, van Gogh imagined that Arles resembled Japan. He told Gauguin "There is still present to my mind the emotion produced by my own journey from Paris to Arles. How I peered out to see whether it was like Japan yet! Childish, wasn't it" (B22). In March of 1888, he wrote Bernard,
"Having promised to write you, I will begin by telling you that this country seems to me as beautiful as Japan as far as the limpidity of the atmosphere and the gay color effects are concerned. Water forms patches of a beautiful emerald or a rich blue in the landscapes, just as we see it in the crpons. The sunsets have a pale orange color which makes the fields appear blue. The sun a splendid yellow" (B2).
And in June, he told his brother,
"We like Japanese painting, we have felt its influence, all the impressionists have that in common; then why not go to Japan, that is to say to the equivalent of Japan, the South? I think then after all, the future of the New Art is in the South" (LT500).
Van Gogh sent sketches of nine recent paintings to Emile Bernard sometime around 17 July; he included a drawing of the present work in this packet (fig. 7).
The bold execution of La Roubine du Roi had an impact on German Expressionists in the early twentieth century. As explained in the catalogue of the recent exhibition, Van Gogh and the Modern Movement,
"The short, broken brush strokes, one thrust close upon the next, intensify the.... impression made by the colouring. The work is anything but harmonious, rather deliberately dissonant. It may possibly have been these qualities that induced Gustav Schiefler to buy this, of all Van Gogh's works, at the Amsterdam retrospective in 1905 ...This brought The Canal La Roubine du Roi with Washer Women to the notice of contemporary artists who were taking an interest in Van Gogh, for Schiefler, Director of the Hamburg regional court, was a passionate collector.... His friends included Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff and Pechstein as well as Emil Nolde and Edvard Munch. Munch had been a friend of Schiefler since 1902 and the Director was for a time authorized to settle his business affairs" (Van Gogh and the Modern Movement, exh. cat., op.cit., p. 104).
La Roubine du Roi is perhaps the most powerfully japoniste work that van Gogh had made up to that point in his career, and as such it is an important masterpiece from his Arles period. It is, moreover, an important historical link between Neo-Impressionism and Expressionism.
(fig. 1) Vincent van Gogh, The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing, 1888.
Rijksmuseum Krller-Mller, Otterlo.
(fig. 2) Vincent van Gogh, View of La Roubine du Roi with Washerwomen, 1888.
Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich.
(fig. 3) Utagawa Hiroshige, Five Pine Trees at Onagigawai from One Hundred Views of the Famous Places of Edo.
(fig. 4) Utagawa Hiroshige, Great Waterfall from One Hundred Views of the Famous Places of Edo.
(fig. 5) Vincent van Gogh, Japonaiserie: Bridge in the Rain, 1887.
Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam.
(fig. 6) Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Pre Tanguy, 1887.
Muse Rodin, Paris.
(fig. 7) Vincent van Gogh, La Roubine du Roi with Washerwomen, 1888.
Rijksmuseum Krller-Mller, Otterlo.
(no #) Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.
Cortauld Institute Galleries, London.
La Roubine du Roi
Oil on canvas
The correct PROVENANCE of this lot is as follows:
Mrs. J. van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam.
Dr. Gustav Schiefler, Mellingstadt (1905).
Martin Gerson, Berlin (circa 1922).
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (November 1935).
French Art Galleries (Morris Gutmann), New York (1941).
Mrs. Erna Wolf Dreyfus; estate sale, Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 1984, lot 12.
W. Uhde, Vincent van Gogh, Vienna, 1936, pl. 55 (illustrated). L. Goldscheider and W. Uhde, Vincent van Gogh, Oxford and London, 1947, pl. 56 (illustrated; as Washerwomen).
Please note this painting has been requested for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition entitled Meisterwerke der fruehen Moderne aus Hamburger Privatsammlungen between 1886-1933, to be held at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, February-May 2001.
Vincent van Gogh
The Hague, Akademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Haagsche Kunstkring (Buitenhof), Werken van Vincent van Gogh, May-June 1892, no. 6.
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Vincent van Gogh, July-August 1905, no. 147.
Berlin, Paul Cassirer, 10 Ausstellung, May-June 1914, no. 105.
Hamburg, Kunsthalle, (on loan circa 1922).
Berlin, Paul Cassirer, Vincent van Gogh, January-March 1928, no. 44 (illustrated).
New York, The World's Fair, Masterpieces of Art, May-October 1940, (added in October to the exhibition; as La Roubine du Roi).
Montreal, Art Association of Montreal, Loan Exhibition of Great Paintings, Five Centuries of Dutch Art, March-April 1944, p. 57, no. 125 (as La Roubine du Roi; dated June 1888).
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Loan Exhibition van Gogh, March-April 1955, p. 21, no. 28 (illustrated, p. 43; as La Roubine du Roi; dated June 1888).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Van Gogh in Arles, October-December 1984, pp. 104-105, no. 50 (illustrated in color, p. 104; as La Roubine du Roi with Washerwomen; dated June 1888).
Essen, Museum Folkwang, and Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Vincent van Gogh and the Modern Movement, August 1990-February 1991, p. 104, no. 23 (illusrtated in color, p. 105).
29 x 24 in. (73.7 x 61 cm.)
J. Meier-Graefe, Vincent van Gogh, Munich, 1921, vol. II, pl. XXII (illustrated).
J.-B. de la Faille, L'Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, Catalogue raisonn, Paris, 1928, vol. I, pp. 120-121, no. 427; vol. II, pl. CXVI (illustrated; as La Roubine du Roi; dated June 1888).
W. Scherjon and J. de Gruyter, Vincent van Gogh's Great Period: Arles, St. Rmy and Auvers-sur-Oise (Complete Catalogue), Amsterdam, 1937, p. 79, no. 50 (illustrated; as Wooden Bridge with a Washing Place).
J.-B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1939, p. 325, no. 453 (illustrated; as La Roubine du Roi; dated June 1888).
"New York: Additions to the Fair," Art News, 5 October 1940, pp. 14-15 (illustrated on cover).
C.L. Ragghianti, Impressionismo, Torino, 1944, p. 49, no. 72 (illustrated, pl. 72; as La Roubine du Roi).
V. van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, vol. II, p. 598 (letter 504).
J.-B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, p. 198, no. F427 (illustrated, p. 201; as The Canal La Roubine du Roi with Washer Women; dated July 1888).
P. Lecaldano, L'Opera pittorica completa di Van Gogh, Paris, 1971, vol. II, p. 209, no. 517 (illustrated).
H. Kramer, "The Magic Moment," The New York Times, 3 June 1973.
J. Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam, 1977, p. 340, no. 1490 (illustrated; as Canal with Women Washing; dated July 1888).
ed., S.A. Stein, Van Gogh, A Retrospective, New York, 1986, p. 332 (illustrated; as La Roubine du Roi with Washerwomen).
W. Feilchenfeldt, Vincent van Gogh & Paul Cassirer, Berlin: The Reception of van Gogh in Germany from 1901 to 1914, Amsterdam, 1988, pp. 93-94, no. F427 (illustrated).
F. Erpel, Lebensbilder Lebenszeichen, Berlin and Munich, 1989, p. 150, pl. 313 (illustrated in color).
M. Tralbaut, Vincent van Gogh, A Pictorial Biography, New York, 1989, p. 88 (illustrated).
I.F. Walther and R. Metzger, Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, Cologne, 1993, vol. II (Arles, February 1888-Auvers-sur-Oise, July 1890), p. 379 (illustrated in color,
p. 378; as The "Roubine du Roi" Canal with Washerwomen).
Mrs. J. van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam.
Dr. Gustav Schiefler, Mellingstadt (1914).
Martin Gerson, Berlin.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York.
French Art Galleries (Morris Gutmann), New York (1943).
Mrs. Erna Wolf Dreyfus; estate sale, Sotheby's, New York,
15 May 1984, lot 12.