The fifteen months that Van Gogh spent at Arles in 1888-1889 represent a pivotal moment in his career, "the zenith, the climax, the greatest flowering of Van Gogh's decade of artistic activity," according to Ronald Pickvance (op. cit., p. 11). Freed from the pressures of urban life and inspired by the brilliant Provençal light, the artist integrated the results of months of experimentation and produced one modern masterpiece after another. With its bold composition and expressive palette, Le pont de Trinquetaille epitomizes his mature style. Describing Van Gogh's achievement at Arles, Richard Kendall wrote:
The act of metamorphosis by which Van Gogh reinvented himself in Arles is one of the most startling phenomena of his career. If the years in Paris had been profoundly formative, the pictures he made there were arguably as remarkable for their breadth of experimentation and diversity of scale, subject, and finish as for their individual distinction. After a matter of weeks in Provence, however, Van Gogh had established a consistency of execution and a clarity of formal means that have defined his creative personality ever since. Classic images followed each other in breathtaking succession (in Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 90).
The present work was painted on 17 June 1888, approximately four months after Van Gogh's arrival at Arles. It depicts the Trinquetaille bridge, which connects Arles with its suburb Trinquetaille on the opposite bank of the Rhône River. Van Gogh's composition shows the Rhône from the Arles side, with the river's curving embankment in the left foreground. Walking toward the viewer is the figure of a girl with her head lowered, holding her hat on her head with her right hand against a sudden gust of wind. Several other figures stroll along the quay or peer over the parapet into the Rhône. Van Gogh had depicted the Trinquetaille bridge from a distance in an ink drawing executed in April 1888 (de la Faille no. F1472; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich). He made a second painting of the motif on 13 October, selecting a viewpoint much closer to the bridge and on the opposite side of the embankment, near the flight of stone steps that provided pedestrian access to the iron span (fig. 1).
Van Gogh referred to the present painting in correspondences on three occasions. The first was a letter to his friend John Russell, written the evening of 17 June: "For ever so long I have been wanting to write you--but then the work has so taken me up. And when I sit down to write, I am so abstracted by recollections of what I have seen that I leave the letter. For instance at the present occasion I was writing to you, and going to say something about Arles as it is--and as it was in the old days of Boccaccio. Well, instead of continuing the letter, I began to draw on this very paper the head of a dirty little girl I saw this afternoon whilst I was painting a view of the river with a greenish yellow sky. This dirty mudlark I thought yet had a vague Florentine sort of figure like the heads in the Monticelli pictures. I enclose the slip of scribbling that you may judge of my abstractions, and forgive my not writing before as such" (letter 501a). The present work is the "view of a river with a greenish yellow sky" that Van Gogh mentioned in the letter. The drawing of the girl also survives (F. F1507a; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Van Gogh made an oil painting of her as well, although it is not known whether he painted the canvas from memory or asked her to pose for him (fig. 2).
A few days after he wrote to Russell, Van Gogh described Le pont de Trinquetaille again in a letter to his brother Theo: "I have a view of the Rhône--the iron bridge at Trinquetaille--in which the sky and the river are the color of absinthe; the quays a shade of lilac, the figures leaning on their elbows on the parapet blackish, the iron bridge an intense blue, with a note of vivid orange in the blue background, and a note of intense malachite green. Another very crude effort, and yet I am trying to get at something utterly heartbroken and therefore utterly heartbreaking" (letter 504). Finally, in mid-August, Van Gogh sent a group of thirty-six paintings to Theo in Paris, including the present canvas. In a letter that accompanied the shipment, he wrote, "There is a view of the Rhône in which the sky and water are the color of absinthe, with a blue bridge and the figures of little black urchins" (letter 524).
As the three letters make clear, Van Gogh conceived Le pont de Trinquetaille principally in terms of color, which he used to generate intense emotional power. Particularly striking is the vivid yellow-green that the artist selected for the river and the sky, which imbues the painting with an eerie and unearthly beauty. The figures in the composition are rendered largely in silhouette, enhancing the uncanny quality of the scene. Describing the present picture, Pickvance has commented, "Van Gogh's color descriptions and the emotive images he evokes place the painting well beyond his Impressionist and Pointillist-inspired landscapes of the Seine at Asnières. This is a proto-Expressionist painting where, as in Munch's The Cry, arbitrary color and a rapidly receding space combine to create a wholly disconcerting image" (exh. cat., op. cit., Martigny, 2000, p. 302).
The composition of Le pont de Trinquetaille is also distinctively innovative. With its plunging perspective and sharp caesura between foreground and background, it seems to have been inspired by Japanese prints, a major influence on Van Gogh during this period. For instance, Hiroshige's Nagakubo No. 28 (fig. 3), a print that Van Gogh may well have seen, shares many compositional elements with the picture. In both, the bank of the river fills one corner of the foreground, while the bridge slices through the background at a slight diagonal. The two zones are linked in each image by a prominent vertical: the lamppost in the Van Gogh and the tree in the Hiroshige. The same disjunction between foreground and background appears in a print by Hiroshige that Van Gogh had copied shortly before his departure for Arles (fig. 4). Van Gogh's letters indicate that he also viewed the new boldness and flatness of color in his work from Arles as a Japanese effect. In June, the month that he painted Le pont de Trinquetaille, he told 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" (letter B6).
Van Gogh's fascination with Japanese art is well documented. In the months before he left Paris for Provence, he spent countless hours at Samuel Bing's gallery studying Japanese woodcuts and drawings. He purchased as many examples as he could afford and even organized an exhibit of his acquisitions at Le Tambourin, a café on the Boulevard de Clichy. He also included depictions of Japanese prints in some of his final Paris paintings, including the portraits of Père Tanguy and Agostina Segatori. His interest in Japanese prints persisted at Arles. Shortly after his arrival, he asked his brother to send him examples to decorate his new studio. And just a day or two after painting the present canvas, he again wrote to Theo, "I find it dreadful sometimes not to be able to get ahold of another batch of Japanese prints. Then better try to make some oneself" (letter 505). Around the same time, Van Gogh also started reading a novel set in Japan, Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème, which he recommended enthusiastically to several friends.
Indeed, Van Gogh's move to Provence seems to have been motivated by his desire to find the "Japan of the South." Describing his train journey to Arles in a letter to Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh recalled how he "peered out to see whether it was like Japan yet" (letter B22). Shortly after arriving in the South, he wrote to Bernard, "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 landscape, just as we see it in the crépons [a type of Japanese woodblock print]" (letter B2). A few weeks later, he commented to Theo, "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?" (letter 500).
In July 1888, Van Gogh pinned all his recent paintings to the wall of his studio at Arles and made a series of drawings after them. He eventually sent fifteen of these drawings to Bernard, including a sheet made after the present picture (fig. 5). The drawing deviates considerably from the oil version. The bridge is positioned at a sharper diagonal and its three visible supports are placed differently. Moreover, the stance of the striding man at the left has been altered and the hat of the girl in the foreground eliminated. The group of drawings that Van Gogh sent to Bernard also included one made after La Roubine de Roi, a view of a canal at Arles executed the day before he painted the present picture (fig. 6). The selection of these two drawings may have been intended to remind Bernard of the quays and bridges of the Seine at Asnière and Clichy, where he and Van Gogh had painted together the previous year.
Following Theo Van Gogh's death in 1891, Bernard and Theo's brother-in-law, Andries Bonger, arranged for the majority of Van Gogh's paintings that remained in Paris to be sent to Amsterdam, where Theo's widow Johanna had settled. The present painting was part of this shipment. Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger included the picture in a seminal exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1905. Shortly thereafter, it was acquired by the Berlin dealer Paul Cassirer, along with the scene of the Trinquetaille bridge that Van Gogh had made in October 1888 (see fig. 1).
(fig. 1) Vincent Van Gogh, Le pont de Trinquetaille, 1888 (sale, Christie's, London, 29 June 1987, lot 78).
(fig. 2) Vincent Van Gogh, Girl with Ruffled Hair, 1888. Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Chaux-de-Fonds.
(fig. 3) Hiroshige, Nagakubo No. 28, circa 1834-1842.
(fig. 4) Vincent Van Gogh, Japonaiserie (after Hiroshige), 1887. Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam.
(fig. 5) Vincent Van Gogh, Le pont de Trinquetaille, 1888. Private collection.
(fig. 6) Vincent Van Gogh, La Roubine de Roi, 1888 (sale, Christies, New York, 12 May 1999, lot 15).
Le pont de Trinquetaille
Oil on canvas
Please note that the following work has been requested for the exhibition Van Gogh in Britain: Pioneer Collectors to be held at The Compton Verney Gallery in Warwickshire, England from March-June 2006 and then travel to The National Gallery of Scotland from July-September 2006.
PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Vincent van Gogh
Paris, Pavilon de la Ville, Salon des Artistes Indépendants, March-April 1891, no. 248 (titled Soleil couchant sur le Rhône).
Munich, Kunstaustellungsgebäude, Secession, Spring 1903, no. 236 (titled Die Rhônebrücke).
Groningen, Vincent van Gogh, 1904.
Berlin, Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer, Vincent van Gogh, Spring 1905, no. 30 (titled Sonnenuntergang an der Rhône).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Musuem, Vincent van Gogh, July-August 1905, no. 109.
Hamburg, Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer; Dresden, Kunstsalon Ernst Arnold; and Berlin, Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer, Vincent van Gogh, September-December 1905, no. 16 (titled Sonnenuntergang an der Rhône).
Vienna, Kunstsalon H.O. Miethke, Vincent van Gogh, January 1906, no. 37 (titled Sonnenuntergang üb.d.Rhône).
Vienna, Internationale Kunstschau, Secession, May-October 1909, no. 5 (titled Sonnenuntergang über der Rhône).
Paris, Exposition des peintres de l'école post-impressionniste, 1910.
London, The Lefevre Gallery (Alex. Reid & Lefevre, Ltd.), Exhibition of the Post-Impressionist Masters: Gauguin, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and representative pictures by Renoir, October-November 1923, no. 19 (titled Bords du Rhône à Arles).
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., A Century of French Paintings: An Exhibition Organized for the Benefit of the French Hospital of New York, November-December 1928, no. 30 (illustrated).
San Francisco, The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Exhibition of French Paintings from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day, June-July 1934, p. 62, no. 156 (titled Arles: The Bridge of Trinquetaille; dated 1888-1889).
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Van Gogh: Fourteen Masterpieces, Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of the Home for the Destitute Blind, March-April 1948, no. 2 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Exhibition of the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. André Meyer, June-July 1962, p. 26 (illustrated).
Martigny, Switzerland, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Van Gogh, June-November 2000, p. 219, no. 59 (illustrated in color).
25½ x 31¾ in. (65 x 81 cm.)
R. Jacobsen, Onze Kunst, 1904, p. 4, pl. 7 (illustrated).
G. Coquiot, Van Gogh, Paris, 1923, p. 312 (illustrated).
J. Meier-Graefe, Vincent van Gogh, Munich, 1926, p. 76 (illustrated).
J.-B. de la Faille, L'Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1928, vol. I, p. 120, no. 426; vol. II, pl. CXX (illustrated).
W. Scherjon and J. de Gruyter, Vincent van Gogh's Great Period: Arles, St. Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise, Amsterdam, 1937, p. 78, no. 49 (illustrated).
J.-B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1939, p. 324, no. 452 (illustrated).
V.W. van Gogh, ed., The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, vol. II, pp. 592-594 (letter 501a), and pp. 597-598 (letter 503).
J.-B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, pp. 197 and 628, no. F426 (illustrated, p. 197).
P. Lecaldano, L'opera pittorica completa di Van Gogh, Paris, 1971, vol. II, p. 209, no. 516 (illustrated).
J. Hulsker, The Complete van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam, 1977, p. 335, no. 1468 (illustrated; titled View of a River, Quay, and Bridge).
R. Pickvance, Van Gogh in Arles, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984, pp. 136-137 (illustrated, p. 137, fig. 38).
Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam.
Paul Cassirer, Berlin (1906).
Galerie Ambroise Vollard, Paris.
Mr. and Mrs. Josef Redlich, Vienna.
Galerie Hodebert, Paris.
Galerie Etienne Bignou, Paris.
Mrs. R.A. Workman, London.
The Lefevre Gallery (Alex. Reid & Lefevre, Ltd.), London.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York.
Mrs. William A. Clark, New York (1934).
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York.
Mr. and Mrs. André Meyer, New York (1962); sale, Sotheby's, New York, 22 October 1980, lot 27.
Akram Ojjeh, Paris (acquired at the above sale); sale, Christie's, New York, 8 November 1999, lot 112.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.